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For Nothing, For Everything

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With a groan on the tip of his tongue and the bashing of drums in his head, Seifer Almasy dangled uncomfortably on the edge of his wide four-poster bed.  Dressed in the same garments as the night before, the man of short golden blond hair and sea green eyes glared weakly at the opened window across his room, the light of the morning sun waking him moments earlier from his deaden sleep.  Eventually his muddled mind recognized his undignified position, but even though one of his hands hung off the side of the mattress and his fingertips were dangerously close to the foul mess of vomit below, he hadn't the energy nor the desire to move.  And so, he continued to lie on his bed while halfheartedly reflecting on the night previous.  He remembered something about drinking shots with the aid of a pair of large breasts, but beyond that was a mystery, just like many other blurry nights in his past.

After some time, the rapping of knuckles against wood added to the painful rhythm of phantom drums in his head, encouraging Seifer to move as he grabbed a pillow and hid beneath the large cushion.  The person beyond the door, however, chose to knock harder such that the pillow didn't protect the blond from the groan-inducing noise.

Pulling the cushion away from his face long enough to yell, "G'away!", Seifer quickly retreated back underneath the soft barrier, instantly regretting his choice to open his mouth.  And at the sound of a soft click, the blond realized that his command was worthless in the end, his supposed servant never one to obey a simple straightforward order. 

"Young Master, there is a situation which needs your attention."

While tempted to ignore the baritone voice, Seifer couldn't detect the typical hint of humor in his steward's tone.  Reluctantly, the blond man pulled aside his pillow and glared at his intruder.  The man dressed in loose black clothing appeared anything but a servant as his broad and muscular frame filled most of the open doorway.  His cropped black hair suggested that the large man was once a soldier, this assumption supported by a deep scar on his face which cut down from his hairline and curved beneath his strong chin.  But Seifer was unthreatened by the giant of a man as he continued to glower at his steward.

"What is so important that it can't wait?"

Ward Zabac smirked, the lengthy scar on his face twisting in an overly familiar fashion.  "It's not everyday you become a father, so I thought you'd want to know as soon as possible."

Staring with uncomprehending eyes, the nobleman wondered if he heard incorrectly.  "What was that about Father?"

"No, I said that you have become a father.  Congratulations."

There was a time of silence as the words seeped into the stressed mind of the blond man.  Once the meaning of the words registered, Seifer sat up sharply and yelled, "What?!", but a split second later, the green-eyed man remembered why sitting up wasn't the best plan of action.  And so, explanations were made to wait until after Seifer could rid the last of his stomach's contents onto the floor below.

~ > < ~

Sitting with a cup of cold tea in hand, Seifer stared at the basket resting on the floor only three feet away.  It was a wreck of a basket, the wood broken in all areas and dark mold growing in shadowed corners.  The blanket inside was in far better condition, most likely newly bought, but horribly cheap material.  And wrapped within the coarse fabric...

Tearing his eyes away from the basket, Seifer leaned back in his chair and rubbed his fingers against his temple to ease the ongoing pounding from within his skull.  He then sipped at his tea, and though displeased with the taste of the cold liquid, he finished off the last of the drink with faith that the herbs in the special brew would remove his headache as Edea Kramer, the head of the kitchens, had promised.  But at the sound of a soft sigh, Seifer felt his headache grow tenfold as his blue-green eyes traveled back to the sight of the basket and a tiny hand which had escaped the confines of the light brown material.

A quiet knock abruptly sounded, and without moving the direction of his gaze, Seifer spoke a muted, "Enter."

The moment after being allowed entrance, the single person walked into the study.  With a lighthearted voice, the man asked, "And what trouble are you in today, lord and master?  Do you have another crack in your skull for me to heal?  A set of bruised knuckles?  You know our deal about hangovers."

Not taking the bait with the typical taunts, the nobleman simply pointed in the direction of the basket.

Following the silent instruction, a slim young man in his late teens stepped into view.  Dressed in a traveling cloak of dark gray, the man brushed aside strands of auburn hair from his face before he focused his unusual violet eyes onto the seated blond.  Once recognizing that he would receive no vocal explanation from Seifer, the lanky man shrugged with indifference and stepped to the basket.  Adjusting his cloak to reveal a plain uniform of white and pale gray beneath the heavy fabric, he knelt to the rugged floor and reached for the corner of the blanket before noticing the small hand clutching onto the coarse material.  After a pause of disbelief, the long-haired man continued to remove the blanket and stared at the contents within.

"Seifer... this is a baby."

The green-eyed man scoffed.  "A bit obvious, isn't it, Kinneas?"

Irvine Kinneas ignored the insult while pulling down the blanket further.  "This... This boy is hardly a month or two old.  Where did he come from?"

"From the back entrance, but beyond that, no one seems to know."

"Very well," the long-haired man said slowly, his eyes still examining the tiny boy.  "But why was I summoned?  The babe seems healthy enough.  Maybe a touch on the lean side..."

"I need you to prove that he isn't mine."

Irvine straightened at the demand, his full lips curling into an impish smirk.  "And why are you so certain that your blood doesn't run through this child?"

"Because he isn't mine," Seifer stated harshly, but then breathed deeply to regain a sense of calm before continuing to say, "Even so, I want a healer's certification to corroborate that this boy has no right to the Almasy estate."

"That's not an answer to my question," Irvine pointed out while removing a small knife of white crystal from his belt.  "But it's never easy becoming a new father, so I'll support you in your state of denial."

Seifer growled at the man before holding out his hand at the healer's silent beckoning.  A clean cut was made on the offered palm, and after the opaque crystal blade was covered in fresh blood, Irvine quickly turned to the babe and drew a simple red triangle on the rounded stomach.  Eyes closed, the man held a steady hand over the mark of blood and all was silent for several long moments.  In the mean time, emerald eyes stayed focused on the sleeping child's face while Seifer's thoughts mulled over the words of the letter which had been placed within the folds of the blanket, a letter which had promptly been burned to ash.

"Seifer..."

Startled by the cautious call of his name, the nobleman straightened in an abrupt motion.  "If you are planning to play a joke on me, Kinneas, this isn't the time."

Serious violet eyes were revealed, but they remained focused on the sleeping babe.  "When you say that this child couldn't be yours... You can't mean..."

"If you have something to say, then just say it."

Shifting his gaze to the tense blond, Irvine smiled softly.  "I didn't know you preferred men."

"... what...?"

"I said that I didn't know that you enjoyed the company of men.  With the way you flirt--"

The healer wasn't allowed to finish his words as he was unexpectedly hauled from the ground by the front of his shirt.  With a strong hand clenched onto the fabric of the uniform, Seifer glared into the violet gaze of the healer, and after no words passed through sneering lips, the nobleman shoved Irvine away with a disgusted grunt.  The long-haired man stumbled several steps before finding his balance, and then casually rubbed a hand around his assaulted throat.  But despite that unspoken threat to hold his tongue, Irvine simply smiled his lazy grin while watching his childhood friend.

"As I was about to say, I always assumed you only cared for women, especially the large breasted kind.  Like that one wench from last night, whatever her name was."

"I suggest you stop playing this game, Kinneas, and tell me the truth."

His smile softening into a sympathetic curl, Irvine said, "I'm afraid that I am telling the truth.  That boy has Almasy blood, your blood to be precise, running through his veins."

"That isn't poss--"

"It's very possible, Seifer," the healer interrupted sharply before he knelt next to the babe once more and placed his finger within the grasp of a tiny hand.  "This is what happens when you have relations with a sorcerer."

The large blond was struck speechless by the simply spoken words, the several impossibilities of the statement causing the nobleman to back up until a cushioned chair impeded his retreat and he sat heavily on the piece of furniture.  And yet, sitting there while watching the healer coo at the babe, Seifer considered the words of the destroyed letter and suddenly the cryptic message made sense, but only if the blond wanted to believe the nonsense that his so-called friend was spouting.

"There are no sorcerers left," Seifer stated, his ability to speak returned, but he couldn't prevent the shaky undertone to his voice.

Irvine smiled at the words, but his violet-eyed gaze never left the young child.  "Certainly their numbers were reduced during that massacre three years ago, but if they were truly as powerful as the Emperor wants us to believe, then I imagine that many sorcerers have survived over the years while hiding their true heritage."  Once removing his finger from the miniature hand, the healer pulled the blanket over the babe, and then fixed his gaze onto the nobleman.  "However it happened, I know what my magic tells me, and it screams out that this boy has the energy of a sorcerer."

"I could have had the daughter of a sorcerer at some point," Seifer muttered unconvincingly.

"Sorry, but as determined by history, only a sorcerer can beget another sorcerer.  That being known, as well as your ordinary blood existing within this child, it leads to one conclusion - you fucked a sorcerer almost a year ago."

Staring at the healer and refusing to accept his crudely worded deduction, Seifer asked, "How in Hell's name does a man get pregnant?"

"Not just a man, but a sorcerer.  A powerful one at that, judging by his offspring here.  But unfortunately, I'm no expert in the matter.  I once read about male pregnancies in the scarce books which concern sorcerers.  It seemed rather... uncomfortable, if you ask me."

Not one to be convinced, the blond then asked, "Let's say I believe you, that this boy is the son of some rogue sorcerer.  Is it possible that he used magic to make this child appear to be mine, ensuring that the Almasy estate would fall into the hands of a sorcerer?"

Irvine frowned in thought for a moment before shaking his head.  "Blood is an amazing thing, something that cannot be changed by a human's will.  No matter how powerful this sorcerer may be, if he had attempted to do what you suggest, he would have killed this child."

After judging the truthfulness of the man's words, Seifer turned his softened gaze of blue-green to the covered babe.  "Then... this boy... he's my son?"

Irvine grinned brightly at the blond's apparent surrender.  "That's what I told you from the beginning.  You should have more faith in my superior abilities."

Ignoring the taunt of the healer, Seifer stood up stiffly from the large chair and stepped toward the basket.  For long indecisive moments, he stared down at the tiny human below him and didn't move until the babe stirred with a silent yawn and a vague stretch.  Squatting down, the blond removed both the infant and blanket from the basket, and then stood straight with his son cradled awkwardly in his arms.  The babe fussed at the handling, and with his petite nose crinkled in annoyance, he turned his face away from his father.

His face absent of emotion, Seifer adjusted his hold such that he could run the fingers of his freed hand through the soft chocolate-brown hair of the babe.  "You say he's healthy?"

Standing up from his kneeling position, Irvine nodded.  "Healthy enough, at least.  He could use some warm food, I wouldn't doubt, but somebody took excellent care of this child, I would assume the birth father.  Speaking of which, do you know who this mysterious sorcerer could be?"

Without showing that he had heard the question, Seifer slipped his hand beneath the blanket to press his fingers again the boy's chest.  "Hyne, his heartbeats seem so fast."

"It's like that with children," the healer stated with a knowing smile, but became serious with his subsequent words.  "Just so you know, Seifer, I would recommend having a second healer attest that this child bears your blood.  It's well known across the continent that we're friends and my word alone may not be enough to convince certain people."

The blond snorted.  "And my father would top that list.  But unless you happen to know of another healer who wouldn't report to the Empire about this boy's background, then I'll have to make do with your shady reputation."

"My reputation is not shady, you bastard.  I'm respected in every realm where I haven't been caught drinking with you."

A small smile broke out on the nobleman's face.  "I don't recall ever forcing you to join me, Kinneas."

Irvine huffed at the truth of the matter.

"Kiros Seagill."

Both men started at the intruding voice, Seifer recovering first as he turned to face the side entrance to his study.  Glaring at the large man standing in the doorway, the blond demanded, "How much have you heard?"

Ward bowed his head in a vague sign of apology and closed the door behind him.  "Kiros Seagill would hold the secret about this child."

"Wait, Seagill?" Irvine asked with clear disbelief.  "The Dark-Eyed Shaman?  Didn't he betray that one sorcerer clan?  Leare... Lion..."

"Loire," Ward supplied, his pale blue eyes still focused on his lord.  "But he didn't betray them."

Seifer met the cold gaze of his valet, then smirked before looking down at his burden.  "This healer is a friend of yours?"

"He was a friend, a close friend, in our past.  Before I became a traitor."

The blond snorted at the declaration.  "Don't start that again, Ward.  I saved your life and claimed what was mine - a manservant.  In the years since then, have I ever forced you to betray those you were once loyal to?"

"No, and I recognize that now, but to others..."

Seifer frowned at the words not spoken, irritated by the notion of so-called friends who judged a man solely by the people they stood beside.  "If that's the case, then what makes you certain that this man will help us?"

"Not us, but he would protect that child with his life.  That is, if he is truly a sorcerer."

"Hn, the whole lot of you are devoted to the end."  Adjusting the babe in his hold, Seifer examined the face of the sleeping boy.  "What is it about these sorcerers which demands your loyalty?"

"It wasn't a single attribute, my Lord."

Humming with interest, the nobleman came to a quick decision.  "Go and summon this healer.  If he betrays us, then I'll gut you myself."

With a bow of his head and an unthreatened smile, Ward exited the study as silently as he had entered, a mystifying ability for a man of his size.

Still gazing at his unexpected son, Seifer asked softly, "What in Hyne's name am I supposed to do with you?"

"Well, some warm milk wouldn't hurt," Irvine suggested as he adjusted his cloak.  "And while you're in the kitchens, I imagine Matron and the other numerous ladies there will tell you what to do next.  But as for me, I had better leave before my absence is noticed at the hospital."

"You mean, you had better escape before the women go insane over this addition to the household," the green-eyed man huffed.  "Not even a day here, and you're already about to cause me trouble, little one."

"Like father, like son," the healer stated cheerfully as he walked to the exit.  "Good luck, Seifer, and congratulations."

Left alone with his son, Seifer scowled at the innocent babe.  "I'm not going to lie to you, kid - I don't want a son and I hate that I'll have to raise you.  I'm too young for a little shit in my life, let alone one who I'll have to protect against the Emperor himself.  So if you ever talk back to me, I'll dump you outside with the rest of the trash.  Understood?"

The infant boy squirmed at the coolly spoken words, his face scrunching with a hint of red before he relaxed once again in his father's hold.

Gagging at the released smell and wet feel to the blankets, Seifer bit out a creative curse and promptly returned the babe to the old basket.  Taking hold of the handle, the nobleman moved in a fast stride toward the kitchens, all the while muttering to himself about the injustice of bedding a man who had the ability to bear children.  There should have some kind of warning, in his opinion.  Some sort of sign that a single night of sex could ruin his life.  But despite his annoyance over the situation, Seifer had already determined the benefit he would gain from accepting the child, his male heir, into his home.  Pleased that he had the chance to avoid a marriage with the horse of a woman his father had in mind for him, the nobleman smiled smugly to himself and began to mentally script his argument to the elder Almasy.


[Six years later]

Setting aside the stack of correspondents and placing his reading glasses on top of the papers, Seifer stretched out his tall frame in a move that nearly knocked off a small painting from the wall behind him.  Oblivious of the tilted picture, the nobleman stood and walked to one of the large windows that overlooked the expansive gardens his father had built for his wife decades past.  Flowers of white and peach were in full bloom, an inviting sight after a morning spent in the confines of his study.

"It's a lovely day out," a deep voice mentioned from behind, the man's unnoticed entrance not startling the blond in the least.

"It's about time after those weeks of rain."

"Cid mentioned that the horses seemed a touch restless today."

Smirking, Seifer glanced over his shoulder to look at his valet.  "I remember my promise to take Ander out riding once the weather had cleared, if that is what you are suggesting."

The older man smiled, his scar lifting with the curl of lips.  "You are forgetful for a man at such a young age."

Disregarding the taunt, the blond asked, "If you're here to bother me, I assume lunch is ready?"

"Yes, my Lord."

Without further acknowledgement of his steward, Seifer turned his back to the window and stepped in the direction of the hallway.  Ward promptly followed behind, his longer stride easily matching the fast pace of the blond nobleman.  During the long walk, Seifer asked about the household affairs, yet another thing which had been placed onto his lap with the death of his father three years earlier.  It hadn't been an unexpected loss with nearly a year of sickness before the elder Almasy's eventual passing, but taking on responsibility wasn't a strength of the young lord.  He still yearned for the nights of drinking until the world spun and the days of sleeping away the aftereffects of such nights, but after accepting his first major responsibility, when he allowed his son to find a place in his life, Seifer discovered that he couldn't avoid his other duties forever.  It was a depressing realization.

Lost in his thoughts and the conversation with his valet, Seifer never noticed the rushed steps approaching from an opened side entrance.  Impact was unavoidable and was shortly followed by the loud sound of plates falling on top of each other and the metallic clang of silverware.  Startled as he stepped back, Seifer stared down, but didn't see the expected sight of broken dishes scattered everywhere.  Instead, the expensive gold leaf plates were safely present in the servant's hold with stacks of three plates each being held in two steady hands while the four remaining plates were balanced at the crooks of his arms.  A tray of dull metal rested at the man's feet, and though upside-down, a pile of silverware rested on the flat surface without ever reaching the floor.

Surprised and amused by the display, Seifer raised his gaze to examine the man he had run into.  His face downcast, the servant's thick hair of wild dark brown locks efficiently covered his features without being overly long.  Glancing further down, Seifer noted the man's lean frame and immediately wondered if the kitchens were properly feeding the staff.  Discarding that notion quickly with the knowledge that Edea Kramer was kind but ruthless when it came to good eating habits, the nobleman silently watched as the servant moved the plates with distractingly graceful motions.

"Boy, you just ran into your Master.  Where is your apology?"

The young man tensed at the steward's deep baritone voice and paused in his task.  "Forgive me, m'lord."

The soft voice strained with fear instantly intrigued Seifer as he demanded, "Show your face."

The brunet hesitated, but the nobleman's tone wasn't one to be denied.  He angled his face slightly, just enough to reveal cold blue-gray eyes through the mess of his lengthy bangs, but no further.

Staring into the stormy depths darkened by shadows, emerald eyes narrowed with thought.  "Have I seen you before?"

Ward promptly cleared his throat and replied, "Squall has been working in the kitchens for a few years, my Lord.  I imagine you have come across him at some point during that time."

"'Squall'?" Seifer asked while continuing his examination of the silent man who had yet to turn away his gaze.  "Hn, I suppose you are right.  I would have recognized such an unusual name."

"If there is nothing else, my Lord, then I believe your son is waiting for you."

The nobleman grunted out a noise of agreement, but his eyes remained lock onto pale blue.  Despite his earlier detection of fear within the servant, Seifer couldn't imagine that the brunet was truly afraid.  A fearful man did not sport a defiant gaze like the one this 'Squall' held.  Perhaps it was... wariness, instead of fear.

"My Lord," Ward grumbled in his deep voice, interrupting the intense eye contact as the nobleman reflectively turned to his steward.  "Leander is waiting."

Scowling to make his irritation known, Seifer returned his attention to the servant to discover that the man had gone back to collecting the fallen dishes and was near ready to make his escape.  "Very well.  But as a warning to you, 'Squall', I suggest that you learn the proper way to apologize before we meet again."

"Yes, m'lord," the brunet muttered before he lifted the filled tray and deftly stood such that he stepped around the large blond in the same movement.

Watching the retreating form, Seifer was bothered by the fuzzy recognition he held for the young man, the brunet perhaps only a year or two younger than himself.  But someone beside his eternally bothersome valet interrupted his thoughts for a third time.

"Father!"

Turning around with a warm smile crossing his lips, Seifer quickly knelt down to receive a strong hug from his small son.  After a time, the blond pushed back the young boy and gazed into the soft green eyes of the six-year-old.  Spots of freckles caused by too much sun crossed the boy's small nose, his complexion otherwise refusing to darken further than a vague tan.  Thick chocolate brown hair was tied back at his neck, though plenty of the shoulder-length strands had escaped to curl slightly along side his face.

And while he casually examined his son, Seifer thought for the hundredth time that he could only see himself in the boy's eyes.  Everything else about the child was far more delicate in some way.  Certainly Leander had his streaks of foolhardiness which only young boys could survive and talk about later, but the child had a sharp mind as well.  An almost frightening mind considering his age, but the nobleman knew that the boy's unusual heritage had plenty to do with that.

Escaping his father's hold, Leander grabbed onto a large hand and tugged forward.  "Come on, Father.  I'm hungry."

And so, Seifer was dragged into the dining hall to share lunch with his son.  It was a comical affair with the father and child seated at the corner of a large table meant for dozens of guests, but accustomed to that setting, the twosome didn't pay attention to anything else except their conversation and the meal at hand.  Leander spoke about his lessons when prompted, but quickly changed the subject to horses, which then led to stories from Seifer concerning the few years he had spent in the cavalry of the Emperor's army.  It was a frequent topic between father and son, but the dark-haired youth never seemed to tire of the stories, his soft green eyes shining with interest as he listened to every word.

"... And, as you know, noblewomen are the worst to rescue.  Their thoughts are tainted with fairy tales and romance novels which never refer to escaping on muddy roads, sleeping on the hard ground, and eating whatever you can find.  There was this one time when my group was enlisted to save the daughter of a general--"

The main doors to the dining hall abruptly opened, interrupting the nobleman's tale as he turned to glare at the intruders.

"Raijin!  Fuujin!" Leander yelled happily as he ran to the mismatched pair.

Dressed in an opened blue vest and dark pants, the muscular man named 'Raijin' bent down to lift the boy up off the ground as if the child weighed nothing.  Leander laughed at the handling, and then squealed when tossed higher into the air.

"Careful," scolded the woman to the side of the dark-haired man.  Though petite in both height and frame, the woman called 'Fuujin' wore similar blue and black clothing which identified her as a former soldier of the Imperial Army, but in addition there was a small shield strapped to her arm which labeled her as a ranking officer.  Adjusting the band to her eye patch, her single crimson eye watched closely as Raijin gently lowered the young boy to the ground.  With a bright smile and flushed cheeks, Leander turned to give Fuujin a hug, which she accepted with a kiss to dark brown hair.

"Well, well, I wasn't expecting you two for another week," Seifer stated from his seat at the table.

"We're just that good, y'know," Raijin replied, his brown eyes shifting to the boy as he refrained from further explanations.

"Are you staying this time?" Leander asked while still holding onto the white-haired woman.

Raijin chuckled.  "Depends on what your daddy says, but we won't be here tonight.  Fu and I haven't seen our home in months, y'know."

"Ander, come here," Seifer called to his pouting son.  Smirking at the boy, he rested a heavy hand on dark hair.  "Now, I don't remember raising you to be a spoiled child."

His pout deepening, Leander declared, "But they've been gone too long.  They haven't seen me ride a horse yet."

"Spoiled brat," the nobleman teased while ruffling the boy's hair, earning himself an irritated glare as his son pulled away to fix the ruined ponytail.  "Well, for your information, these two aren't going anywhere for at least another month, so they'll have plenty of time to see you ride."

Annoyance lost to excitement, Leander smiled brightly.  "Thank you, Father."

"I'm not doing this for you, kid.  I simply have some business closer to home for them to look into.  And speaking of business..."

His frown returning, the boy asked, "You're still going to take me riding today, right?"

"Just like I promised, but after your tutoring session."

"A-aw, do I haveta have tutoring today?"

"When you talk like that, then yes, you have to endure your lessons.  But Lord Aveno hasn't arrived yet, so you are free to play until then."

"Master Dobe isn't coming again?" Leander asked softly.

"He was very sick, Ander, but I hear that he is slowly recovering.  Anyhow, his apprentice is knowledgeable enough.  You should study hard and make Master Dobe proud with how much you've improved in his absence."

"Yes, Father," the boy surrendered in a weak tone.  "May I go now?"

"Of course, but don't get too filthy before your lessons."

Leander nodded once before turning and running to the side entrance, most likely heading to the kitchens to be pampered by the women of the household.

Chuckling as he approached the table, Raijin asked, "Weren't you the one who used avoid your tutors by locking them in closets?"

"Hn, and torment them otherwise.  But that boy is far smarter than I'll ever be, and that is why I won't let him get away with his tricks or excuses."  Seifer waved his hand toward the empty chairs closest to him.  "Have a seat.  We have other things to discuss which are more important than your amusement at me being a father."

Sitting heavily on the seat once occupied by Leander, Raijin ran a finger through the desert pudding which the boy had left half-eaten.  "Everything went smoothly, boss.  The mayor of Kersy is happy to deal with ya."

Shaking her head as the man licked the pudding from his finger, Fuujin added a muttered, "Greedy fuck."

"I take it that you didn't like Sir Bachman?" Seifer asked with a broad smirk.

Her right eye narrowed, the woman asked simply, "Kill him?"

Laughing, the blond nobleman sat back in his chair.  "If he doesn't resign gracefully when I demand it of him, then I'll let you handle the pig yourself.  But until then, I prefer using less... messy methods."  After ringing the bell resting on the table, Seifer waited until the mostly finished plates of lunch had been cleared away before he focused cold emerald eyes on the woman of white hair.  "Now, tell me everything that happened.  Every action and every word."

Though wrapping an arm around her midsection in an uncomfortable pose, Fuujin spoke at length in a quiet voice which didn't resemble the brash tone she had used previously.  She was interrupted only a few times with questions from the nobleman, her narrative otherwise complete and detailed to Seifer's liking.  Raijin spoke when prompted, but was mostly left to enjoy the pudding he had rescued from the quick hands of the servants.

Once Fuujin completed her extensive report, Seifer sighed deeply.  "It's almost disappointing when these idiots are willing to sell the lives of their people for nothing more than a chunk of gold.  And the fact that he touched you... I won't forgive him for that.  You may get your blood after all, my lady."

Fuujin smiled at the words, but any further comment was interrupted by loud banging on the side doors.  Startled, three heads turned to stare at the double doors just as one opened to reveal a sight which made Seifer's heart pause in panic.  Knocking his seat over as he stood, the blond rushed to his young son who was still holding onto the door handle in support.  His clothes torn and bloodied, Leander merely stared forward with wide green eyes as tears slipped down his pale face.

Seifer knelt before his son and promptly checked the small body for the injuries which could account for the amount of blood staining expensive cloth.  "Holy Hyne, Leander.  What happened?  Are you hurt?"

"My arm..." the boy muttered and winced when a large hand prodded the deep injury hidden beneath torn cloth.

"Shit, is that a bite mark?  And there are scratches everywhere..."  Turning around sharply, Seifer ordered, "Fuujin, go get Kinneas.  Take whatever horse you want, just get him here now."

The white-haired woman didn't waste a moment as she ran out of the dining hall, leaving her sluggish partner behind for any further orders from the blond nobleman.  From the opened doorway, Ward stepped inside with a questioning expression, the previous noise and Fuujin's rushed exit most likely alerting the large man from whatever task he had been attending to.  Pale blue eyes widened at the sight of his young master, but he was silenced by a subtle signal from Seifer.

"Daddy..."

Returning his attention to the injured boy, Seifer placed a comforting hand against messed hair.  "It's alright, Ander.  Kinneas will clean you up just fine."

"No... no!" Leander cried as shock cleared from his soft green eyes.  "Squall's hurt!  You haveta help him!"

"'Squall'...?  Wait, that servant?  What does he--"

"Please, Father!" the boy begged as he took hold of his father's hand and tugged on it frantically.  "Those wuffs will kill him!"

"Wolves?"  When the child didn't answer except to pull even harder, Seifer jerked his son close and used a strong hold to form eye contact.  "Calm down, Ander, and listen to me.  I'll help Squall, but I won't risk getting you hurt again.  Can you tell me where he is?"

"Un, near the back gate.  Where we go riding."

Nodding that he understood, Seifer pushed up from the ground to stare down at his boy.  "You are to go to your room and wait for me there.  Ward will help you clean up, and don't you argue with me, young man," the blond stated as reddened lips parted to speak.  "Raijin, you'll come with me."

Ignoring the calls to hurry from Leander, the nobleman walked to the back entrance with his typical fast stride.  After a brief side trip to retrieve a battered sword from the weapon shed and allowing Raijin to his choosing of a spear, Seifer led the way for the mile long trip to the north gate of his expansive estate.

Chapter Text

Stretching several miles in all directions, the Almasy Estate was an expansive plot of land of both gardens and wild landscape which was only rivaled by the Emperor's private property.  Bordering to the north was a moderately sized lake that was fed by the cold rivers from the mountains, and from the lake, a deep river formed the west border of the estate.  The opposite corner of the property was covered in a forest thick with leafy trees and large bushes, a welcoming home for all sorts of game.  To better protect the land from intruders, a wall of lightly colored stone had been built closer to the large mansion, and in that south-east section of the fenced-in-land, the forest was far thinner, providing only spotted shading over numerous bushes which grew an assortment of berries.  Located there was a simply decorated gate, Seifer's favorite spot to take his young son riding given both the easy terrain and beautiful landscape.

But hard emerald eyes focused on nothing of those tranquil surroundings as Seifer continued to envision the sight of his son injured and bloody, something that had happened within the supposed safety of his estate.  The panicked pleads for Seifer to help the servant left behind were secondary, but yet another distraction for the blond as he considered the unlikelihood of wolves appearing on his property.  It hadn't been a particularly bad summer which would have driven a full pack of animals in search of food, and in all of his memories, the blond nobleman couldn't remember more than a single scrawny wolf which had found its way into their chicken coop years past.  It didn't make sense.

A yelping cry interrupted further thoughts on the matter, the pained noise prompting Seifer to hurry his pace into an easy run.  But once moving past a clump of raspberry bushes, the blond slowed down to a hesitant walk, his eyes widening with disbelief.  From behind, the huffing Raijin nearly ran into his boss, but stopped just short of the nobleman to bend over and pant heavily after the fast pace.  But once his eyes glanced away from the ground at his feet, the dark-haired man jerked up straight at sight before them.

"What the fuck are Ravages doing here?  And what the Hell did that to them?"

Seifer didn't answer the man's questions, and instead stepped forward while cautiously avoiding the splattering of gore on the ground.  Three unusually large dogs, each at least five feet long, laid dead with various bits and pieces missing from their bodies.  One dog in particular had a gruesome appearance as grayish material mixed with blood leaked from its empty eye sockets and opened mouth.  Before Seifer could pull his gaze from the nauseating sight, something caught his eye from between monstrous paws.  Knocking aside the limp leg with his blade, the nobleman stared at the revealed shoe and wondered dazedly why he hadn't noticed earlier that Leander was walking around with a bare foot.  But confusion and shock soon transformed into heated rage as Seifer kicked the beast in the side such that it flew a short distance to land on top of another corpse.

Paying no attention to Raijin's blatant staring, the blond nobleman ran in the direction from where the previous yelping noise had come.  But moving pass another large clump of bushes, Seifer slowed once more to gaze at the additional number of killed dogs.  Ravages weren't natural canines, each dog looking much like a wolf with their gray fur and lengthy snouts, but the large bodies had the form which oddly appeared more like that of a mountain lion than any dog.  Glaring at the beasts, Seifer knew that the Ravages couldn't have simply wandered onto his property, and as his pale lips curled into a malicious smirk, he began to toy with ideas of murder.

"Fucking Hell, is he still alive?"

Dangerous thoughts bushed aside for the meantime, Seifer frowned as he tried to understand the breathy question of his subordinate and glanced over the large bodies of dead canines.  Green eyes soon settled on the sight of a pale arm sticking out from beneath the large mass of a black Ravage.  Startled, Seifer rushed to remove the heavy corpse from the trapped person, and in the process, injured the man further as lengthy claws were reluctant to release their hold on a narrow shoulder.  Hissing loudly, the revealed man curled onto his side and clutched desperately onto the fresh wound.  Tattered clothing hung onto the lean body, every tear displaying bites and claw marks which bled freely onto the hard ground.  The injuries were too many to count, and yet the servant, the man named 'Squall' was still conscious as he stared back at the blond with a gaze of pale blue, one of his eyes squinted due to blood seeping from a deep cut across the bridge of his nose.

Seifer didn't bother to ask if the man was alright, able to tell by plain sight alone that the brunet needed the skills of a healer.  Instead, he placed a steady hand onto the thick hair matted with blood and leaves.  "I'm going to carry you inside.  A healer should be--"

"No healer." Squall demanded through clenched teeth.

"Nonsense.  If you are worried about any cost--"

The brunet groaned as he proceeded to roll onto his hands and knees, and then attempted to stand despite his injuries.  Amazingly, he lifted up onto his feet for an entire three seconds before his body failed him.  Catching Squall before he could reach the ground, Seifer took advantage of the situation and positioned his arms at the man's back and beneath his knees.  The blond stood up quickly, the abrupt motion drawing a stifled cry from his burden.

"Don't touch me..."

Staring down at the face half-covered in blood, Seifer frowned with concern.  "I'm sorry that this is painful for you, but we need to get you inside."

After vaguely shaking his head, Squall looked in Raijin's direction with a pleading expression, as if the large man would somehow understand his plight and come to his rescue.

Feeling offended, the nobleman adjusted his hold on the brunet, the movement painful judging by pale eyes snapping tightly shut.  Appeased at his petty revenge, Seifer looked up at his subordinate.  "Raijin, look around for anymore Ravages, and then enlist however many servants you need to haul these carcasses to the empty stables.  Cid will know which ones I'm talking about."

The dark-haired man nodded, and after a final curious glance at Squall, Raijin turned with his spear in hand and began muttering a quiet 'Here, puppy, puppy, puppy...' as he walked toward the back fence.

The return trip across his property seemed much longer to Seifer, his body no longer accustomed to the demand of strength which was required for carrying an injured man, especially when said man made occasional struggles to escape.  But eventually Squall wasted the last of his strength and dropped into a semi-conscious state, his eyes half-open, although not appearing to see much of the world around him.  Worried by the feel of blood slipping along his arms, Seifer attempted to hurry his steps despite the argument from his muscles.  Cursing under his breath, the nobleman swore to renew his long forgotten habit of morning exercises.  It was pathetic to be that weak at twenty-five.

Reaching the back entrance to the kitchens, Seifer kicked the door open with enough strength that the old wood slammed hard against the wall and its top hinge broke apart, thereby stopping the door from making a return swing.  The event caused several of the servant women to scream in shock and numerous dishes met their end on the hard floor, but then a murmuring quiet came over the kitchens when people saw the nobleman and his burden.

"Oh dear, Squall," an older woman gasped before rushing to the two men.  Wearing a dress and apron covered in flour, Edea Kramer focused light brown eyes on the severely injured man as she wiped her hands beneath the apron before settling an unsteady hand at the brunet's cheek.  "Sweet child, what happened to you?"

"Some animals decided that he looked like dinner," Seifer answered for the unresponsive man.  "Kinneas is already on his way, but I'll need some help to clean up this idiot beforehand."

Her lips tight with seriousness, the woman of long raven hair turned to address the closest servant.  "Go fetch some buckets of warm water and plenty of cloths.  Meet us at his bed."

"No, we're taking him to one of the guest rooms in the south wing," Seifer corrected while glaring at the servants who had already begun to whisper in gossiping tones.  "There will be fewer spying eyes, not to mention it will give Kinneas more room to work with."

"As you desire, my Lord," Edea replied with a gleam of warmth to her golden eyes.

Not waiting for the older woman, Seifer proceeded to the chambers he had in mind.  Not meant for important guests, each of the accommodations in the south wing included two rooms - one long room, which served as both a sitting room and a bedroom without a dividing wall, and attached was a small bathroom, which in its entirety was barely the size of the single bath that was located in Seifer's chambers.  The accommodations would have been pathetic to those of nobility, but to the mercenary sort who were accustomed to sleeping on the ground and bathing in a lake, the rooms were better than the suites offered at the finest inns.

By the time Seifer had reached the chambers of his choosing, Edea caught up to him and quickly opened the door for the hampered blond.  His arms aching, the nobleman was thankful to rest the injured man on top of the wide mattress, but that measure of relief vanished as he gazed down at his arms thickly coated in blood.  Wanting to be rid of that sight, Seifer pulled a bed curtain loose of its ties and promptly began to wipe the darkening fluid from his body.

Eyeing the destruction of the fine material only briefly, Edea turned her concern to the injured man on the bed.  No humiliation spared, she grabbed the collar of the ruined shirt and tore it down the middle, a simple task with the amount of tears in the cheap material.  Squall abruptly wakened at the action, his hands promptly clutching the torn shirt together as he sat up and moved backward until pressing against the headboard.

"Squall dear, we have to clean you up," Edea stated softly as she placed a hand on his arm.

Stormy eyes turbulent with emotion shifted warily before settling on the woman's face.  "Matron...?"

"Yes, dear.  You're safe now, but badly injured.  We need to tend to your wounds."

The pale eyes narrowed with icy clarity.  "I can wash myself."

Seifer scoffed.  "You can't even stand up, and you expect us to leave you alone to clean these injuries?  Do you even realize how much blood you've lost."

"I'll be fine," the brunet hissed without looking at the nobleman.

"You won't be 'fine' until the healer comes, so--"

"No healer," Squall interrupted, his body impossibly more tense than moments before.

Feeling irrational anger toward the stubborn brunet, Seifer hit the headboard with a heavy fist.  "I'm trying to help you, you ungrateful shit!  Why are you being so difficult?!"

"I don't want your help," the man declared viciously.

"Squall," Edea scolded, "Don't be so rude.  This is your lord and master--"

"He is not my master."

Seifer breathed a derisive laugh, interrupting any further words from the concerned woman.  "Have it your way, then.  Once you are able to walk, I want you off of my estate.  And Matron, I don't want any of the better foods wasted on this man.  Understood?"

Though hesitating, the woman nodded.  "As you command, my Lord."

Unable to stand the sight of the brunet any longer, Seifer stormed out of the guest chambers.  Servants rushed down the halls with rags and buckets, but noticing the mood of their lord, they gave the man wide berth while making certain not to spill any of the water in his path.  Seifer paid them little mind, his attention clouded by the rage he felt toward the dark-haired servant.  The gall of the man was inexcusable, even if the brunet had supposedly saved Leander's life.

The unexpected thought of his son made Seifer paused in mid-step before he renewed his fast pace to the family rooms.  Never noticing when he had moved into a near run, the blond nobleman was out of breath when he wrenched open the door to his son's bedroom.  The two people within the room jumped at the unexpected entrance, and neither had the chance to recover before Seifer had his arms tight around his boy, enough sense remaining in the blond to not further aggravate the child's arm injury.

"Daddy...?" Leander asked warily.

Seifer couldn't resist a smile at the call, not remembering the last time before earlier that day when his son had used the casual title.  Unable to speak, he simply held onto his child and vaguely rocked back and forth.

"Daddy, are you hurt?"

Remembering his bloodied state, Seifer shook his head and spoke in a hoarse whisper.  "No, I'm fine.  This blood isn't mine."  Strengthening his hold, he murmured, "Thank Hyne you weren't killed."

The boy promptly wrapped his arms around his father's neck and held on tightly.  "I was so scared, Daddy!  Those wuffs were so big and we didn't see them coming.  And one bit my foot and I couldn't run away!"

"Then how did you get away?"

"Squall saved me.  He kicked the wuff in the head and my shoe came off.  He then picked me up, and told me to run and never look back."  Pulling back, Leander stared into his father's eyes, the soft green depths wet with tears as he continued to speak in a frightened whisper.  "There were noises behind me.  I thought a wuff was going to attack me, but they never did.  I ran and ran, even though my foot really hurt."

Guilt flooded through Seifer, knowing that he had spoken harshly to the man who had saved his son and was severely injured for his deed.  But with the resolve to make amends, the blond was able to smile softly.  "Then I owe this Squall a great deal, don't I?"

"You do?"

"A-ah, I do.  He protected the person most important in my life," Seifer stated with a kiss to the boy's head, for the first time realizing how true those words were.  The child who was only supposed to serve the role as his heir had unexpectedly become his son.  When it could have happened, Seifer had no idea, but six years was a very long time.

"Father... Is Squall alright?"

"He is alive for now, and he will be better once Kinneas arrives."

Nodding, Leander lowered his eyes to the corner of the bed.  "Do I still have to do tutoring today?"

"Of course not.  I can't expect you to concentrate after everything that happened."

Raising his eyes, soft green flashed with renewed energy.  "Thank you, Father!"

"Don't get too spoiled.  Your lessons will be waiting for you next week."

"Un, I know.  But can I see Squall now?"

Frowning, Seifer shook his head.  "Perhaps tomorrow.  He will need plenty of time to recover."

"But... but I really want to see him.  I won't touch him since he's hurt.  And I won't say anything if he's sleeping."

The blond sighed deeply while threading his fingers through his son's unrestrained hair.  "Then perhaps I'll let you see him tonight, but only if you don't argue another word.  Understood?"

Though disappointment was still viewable in his eyes, Leander nodded.

At the sound of a quiet knock, Seifer turned to look at the man standing at the doorway to the large bedroom.  Dressed in the familiar uniform of white and pale gray, Irvine Kinneas hadn't changed much over the years.  His wavy auburn hair was longer, but still tied back in a simple loose ponytail.  His body was slim with lean muscle and his posture was relaxed into a slight hunch.  But although his pale lips were curled into a lazy smirk, the man's violet eyes revealed his true concern for being summoned with such haste.

Moving to sit on the edge of the bed, Seifer said, "Some Ravages appeared this morning.  Leander was bitten in the arm and foot, and who knows how many scratches."

Violet eyes widened, and at the same moment, the thus far silent Ward stood up straight.  In the same disbelieving tone, they asked, "Ravages?"

"If you want, you can examine the bodies later, but at this moment... my son..."

Irvine gave himself a moment to recover from the surprise before he moved to the bedside.  Looking directly into the young boy's eyes, he asked softly, "May I examine your arm?"  At the Leander's nod, the small arm was lifted in gentle hands and the reddened bandage was removed with practiced care.  Irvine tsked lightly at the sight of the deep bite mark.  "This must have really hurt, didn't it?"

"Uh-huh," the boy confirmed with a slight sniffle.

Allowing the healer to do his job, Seifer squeezed an arm around his son and kissed his forehead before standing from the bed.  Emerald eyes glanced at the large steward, and with the silent command given, the two men stepped outside of the bedroom.  After closing the door for privacy, they took their seats on the available chairs.

"What do you know about Squall?" Seifer asked, noticing how the question made the man's lengthy scar twitch.

"He has worked in the kitchens--"

"For the past few years.  Yes, I remember you mentioning that earlier today.  But that doesn't really explain why he'd go to such an extent to risk his life for Leander.  More importantly, it doesn't explain in the least why this servant was with my son in the first place."

Sighing, Ward hunched forward and scratched the back of his head with a large hand.  "This isn't something we wanted to mention to you but... After your father died, when you left for several months to handle the messes you inherited, I returned here to fetch some paperwork for you.  When I arrived alone, Leander was extremely upset that you weren't with me.  Shortly after... We never told you, but... he ran away.  To search for you, imagine."

"What?!  He was three years old!" Seifer hissed angrily, silently terrified that there was another time when he had nearly lost his son.

"You think I didn't know that?  May I remind you that it was partially your fault to hire nannies based on their looks and not their skills."

Flushed, the nobleman glanced away from pale blue eyes.  "There hasn't been a nanny in this house since the last one.  Worthless whore."

"A-ah, and we're all grateful that you realized that after only three months."

Seifer glared at large man from the corner of his eyes.  "I believe you were telling me about how you lost Leander?"

Clearing his throat, Ward paused before saying, "He was gone for over a day.  The staff was fanatic, and I had looked in every one of Leander's usual spots.  It was a sleepless night for us all.  And then, the next morning, he was sitting in the kitchen and shoveling as much food as he could into his mouth.  Squall was there with him.  According to Leander, Squall had followed him, but didn't force him to go back home.  Instead, he talked to Leander, made him want to come home.  Since then, Squall has been playing nanny for the boy, always watching over him.  And Leander lets him."

Blue-green eyes downcast in thought, Seifer commented, "Leander hates it when people hover over him."

"Squall isn't the hovering type, but he keeps that boy of yours safe.  Hyne knows that is trouble enough."

"And Leander likes him."

"Apparently.  He's been worried about Squall this entire time.  I didn't realize how close they've gotten over the past few years."

Pressing fingers to his temple, Seifer asked, "Why haven't I noticed Squall before?"

"Because he doesn't need to watch over Leander when you're with him.  And you never search for the lad, but instead have a servant hunt him down.  And when's the last time you've visited the kitchens for an extended period of time?"

"Enough, I get your point."  Looking at his steward, Seifer thought about the situation at hand, and while still suspicious that Ward was purposefully hiding something, there was another matter that bothered the nobleman more.  "How did he, a mere servant, defeat seven Ravages single-handedly?"

Before Ward had the chance to make a reply, the door to the bedroom swung open and Leander ran outside to leap onto his father's lap.

Grunting in surprise, Seifer laughingly asked, "I suppose you're going to live, then?"

"Un!  It hurt, but Irvine made me all better."

"He was a brave patient," the healer stated as he trailed behind at a slower pace.  "But I understand that I have another person waiting for my attention?"

"A-ah, I'll take you to him."  Standing up with his son in his arms, Seifer placed the boy on the ground.  "I want you stay here with Ward.  I'll be back shortly."

"But--"

"If you are good, you can see Squall later.  But you have to stop harassing me about it."

"Yes, Father," Leander replied with a vague pout.

After messing the boy's lengthy hair to Leander's annoyance, Seifer left the large suite with the violet-eyed healer following close behind.  It was silent for the length of the hallway, the blond nobleman not wanting to speak until certain of their relative privacy.

"I should warn you that this man outright told me that he didn't want a healer.  Hyne knows he'll die without your skills, but that doesn't seem to matter to him."

Humming with little surprise, Irvine said, "It's a shame, but some people are fearful of healers."

"You've got to be kidding me.  What's to fear from a person who wants to heal you?"

"More than you know.  You can pay the price to have a healer, but for those who have no money... Some people would do anything for their loved ones, and the more scrupulous healers in the world ask for everything.  There was one man who had a full harem of indebted mothers and daughters, and the hospital turned a blind eye to the whole affair."

"There 'was' a man, huh?  So what did you do to him?"

Smirking, Irvine glanced at the nobleman.  "My future bride stabbed him in the throat with the knife I gave her."

A pale eyebrow raised, Seifer asked, "This is the refined blonde you introduced me to the last time I was in town?  Keys-something or other?"

"Quistis, yes.  A lovely woman, and an excellent nurse."  After a moment of reflective thought, the healer sighed wistfully and said, "But as I was saying, it's no surprise that one of your servants could be wary about those in my field.  Give me a moment to talk to him, and I should gain his trust."

While not too certain of that, Seifer nodded and continued to lead the way to the south wing where the injured man was located.  Reaching the room, the nobleman didn't bother to knock before entering, and then stood to the side of the doorway while watching Edea tend to the brunet.  The other servants who had brought the water and cloths were absent, but Seifer could easily imagine the difficult man scaring them away.

Green-blue eyes filled with concern, Seifer frowned at the sight of too much blood - blood pooling on the sheets, blood seeping through fresh bandages, and blood staining the rags scattered on the mattress and floor.  Even so, the man of dark brown hair was unbelievably conscious, his pale blue eyes narrowed to mere slits as he glared at the entrance of the two men.

"No healer," Squall demanded in a voice no louder than a whisper.

Feeling renewed annoyance, Seifer met the brunet's glare with his own cool gaze.  "Do you really think I'd summon someone who would want to hurt you further?  You're bleeding to death, you fucking imbecile!  Let me help you!"

With a shake of his head, the lean man made an attempt to leave the bed, but his body obviously wasn't in any condition to move.  At his pained groan, Edea placed a hand at his arm and tried to coax him into relaxing.

"Seifer," the healer spoke softly.  "Take Matron and let me speak with this man."

Sighing irritably, Seifer looked to his childhood friend.  "Do you really think that you can convince this idiot to trust you?"

Focused on the brunet, amethyst eyes shined with an interested gleam.  "Probably not, but I may convince him to let me heal the worst of his wounds."

Motioning to the older woman that she should leave, the nobleman told the healer, "I'll wait directly outside.  Call for me if you need any help."

"That shouldn't be necessary."

Huffing his disbelief, Seifer allowed the woman of raven hair to exit before him.  The door closed tightly, the tall blond moved to lean against the wall in a relaxed pose with his head bowed.  And while he was perfectly aware of Edea staring at him, he didn't acknowledge her need to speak until she cleared her throat in a fashion that warned of ruined dinners if he didn't listen to what she had to say.  Glancing up at the woman, he raised a pale eyebrow to serve as his question of 'what the hell do you want?'.

"Are you truly going to force that man to leave the moment after he's been healed?"

Sighing, Seifer shook his head.  "I was angry when I said that."

Edea sighed as her body relaxed from its tense pose.  "I was worried... Squall usually isn't like that.  He is such a quiet boy, though a very hard worker.  And he's one of the few I can trust to fetch things from the city and come back with the proper change."

"A regular saint, isn't he," Seifer muttered under his breath, tired of hearing people plead the case of the man he wanted to hate.  It wasn't exactly a rational hate, but seeing the amount of loathing within the chilling eyes of blue-gray, Seifer had the reflexive desire to hate back.  Getting control of his emotions, the nobleman looked directly into golden eyes and assured the woman, "No need to worry, Matron.  After Squall gets the chance to recover, he'll be back in the kitchens under your watch.  But for now, don't you think the staff has missed your presence long enough?"

"Yes, my Lord.  And thank you," Edea replied with an elegant bow of her head.

Left to himself, Seifer waited in the hallway with his green-blue eyes staring dully at the rug covering hard stone.  From within the guest room, he could hear the murmuring of voices, one soft and soothing while the other was short with the few responses.  After a time of listening to the incoherent words, Seifer was surprised when he heard the quiet chanting that the blond easily recognized as the healer getting to work.

Though meeting in their youth and becoming fair friends as children of noblemen did, Seifer hadn't cared much for the lighthearted and flighty youth Irvine had been.  And so, when Irvine had been assigned as a healer to his unit, Seifer had been skeptical of the man's abilities.  While a decent healer, Seifer found a greater respect for the long-haired man when Irvine had overcome his great fears of fighting and dying within a messy war.  That the violet-eyed man was willing to battle with a blade in hand instead of hiding within the infirmary tents made Seifer like him even more.

They had both started at the age of fifteen, and didn't leave the Imperial army until after Seifer's eighteen birthday.  In that expanse of time, the blond nobleman had found several men he could trust with his life.  Of them all, however, Irvine was the only man Seifer could label a true friend.  After the war, they spent several nights a week trying to drink away their fathers' money, enjoying the lives they had escaped with.  But all of that came to an abrupt end with the unexpected arrival of Leander.  Irvine never complained about the lost nights, and instead placed his free time into the healing arts as he should have years previously.  While the long-haired man claimed he only studied more because he was trying to catch the eye of a luscious librarian, it turned out that Irvine had the capability to become a great healer.  Smiling softly to himself, Seifer was pleased that they had both gone their own ways, and yet their friendship remained.

As time wore on, the light in the hallway dimmed and a servant walked the length of the corridor to light several torches.  Entranced by the flickering lights, Seifer watched the man's slow and careful progress.  At one point, the nobleman realized that he must have missed dinner, but he found himself disgusted at the thought of food.  Why, he wasn't certain.  He didn't care about the man lying on the blood soaked mattress, and the brunet couldn't be in better hands, and yet, Seifer didn't want to leave.  Not until he could assure his son that Squall was alive and fine.

A soft click sounded, the unexpected noise making Seifer straighten and look to the side.  The door was slow to open, then revealing a smiling and obviously exhausted healer.  Letting the door open the rest of the way on its own, Irvine leaned against the doorframe and sighed in a way that made Seifer worried that the man was about to faint.

"Was it really that difficult to stop him from bleeding to death?"

Irvine shook his head.  "The deal was all or nothing, and it's been a while since I've healed so many wounds on one man.  Exactly how many Ravages did he fight?"

Seifer didn't answer as he stared over the man's shoulder, his green eyes wide with disbelief as he gazed at the resting brunet.  While called 'healing', the magical process of mending broken bodies was hardly a benign act.  Irvine had once explained it in general terms, stating that the art of healing involved convincing the body to speed up the processes it would have done given time.  For that reason, the pain which would have been experienced over days and weeks was compacted into mere hours.  Worse, the patient had to be awake for the healing to be most effective, something about the conscious brain knowing best how a body should fix itself.  Aware of that, Seifer couldn't even begin to imagine the amount of pain Squall had just suffered through, and in that time, the blond had heard nothing louder than a stifled cry.

"So, do you have room for a tired friend?"

Still looking at the limp form of the brunet, Seifer asked, "Why did you agree to hurt him more?  I told him that you wouldn't."

"He understood the rules of healing, and I couldn't talk him into doing something less drastic."  Chuckling weakly, Irvine continued to say, "Like I warned you earlier, I wasn't able to gain his trust.  He thought I wouldn't be up for the challenge of such extensive healing, and foolish me, I thought he'd fall unconscious after I treated the back of his neck.  An ugly wound, that one.  But he stayed awake through everything.  He just now dropped off and all that's left are scratches.  I hope he won't mind the scar that'll form between his eyes.  I'm too spent to attempt healing something so minor."

Focused on the resting brunet, Seifer never heard the patter of feet, and only became aware of another's presence when someone brushed against him before running into the dimly lit room.  Never acknowledging his father, Leander went directly to the bedside and leaned up on the bloodstained mattress to stare at the face slack in unconsciousness.  Soft green eyes were moist with tears as the child looked at his savior and white teeth bit uncertainly at his lower lip.

"Squall...?"

"Leander," Seifer hissed quietly, upset that his order had been ignored by his son.  He didn't want the young boy to see the bloody mess of the room, a clear indication of how badly injured Squall had been.  "I told you to wait for me."

The boy glanced at his father and sniffed softly before shifting his eyes back to the servant.  "Squall?  Can you wake up?"

"No, he won't wake up, son.  He's exhausted himself and deserves that rest, so come here and..."

The harsh words trailed off as Seifer watched a pale arm lift from the mattress in a slow and graceful motion.  A hand smeared in dried blood rested on the boy's dark hair and fingertips buried into the thick locks.  Seifer then noticed hardly opened eyes, pale blue peaking beneath dark eyelashes as Squall gazed at the upset child.

"Lion cub..."

The hoarse whisper caused Leander to cry freely before he grabbed the hand and held it in a desperate hold.  "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!  I didn't know about the wuffs, or I wouldn't've run away.  And I'm sorry I yelled.  I didn't mean it.  I don't hate you.  I was just mad!"

To the blond's amazement, Squall smiled warmly.  "I know."

The simple answer didn't seem to be enough for Leander as he sniffled and asked, "You don't hate me?"

"Never," the brunet replied with a forcefulness that Seifer was beginning to associate with the difficult servant.

Managing to smile despite the tears running down his cheeks, the boy squeezed the hand in his hold and then carefully placed it back onto the mattress.  "You can go back to sleep now."

Squall breathed a laugh.  "Thank you, cub."

Unbalanced by the scene before him, Seifer looked to Irvine for his opinions, but found the healer wide-eyed and his mouth partly open in plain shock.  Not understanding the reason for the display of surprise, Seifer asked, "What's wrong?"

Irvine blinked once and then twice after the question before he replied in an awed tone, "Nothing.  Nothing's wrong."

"And I don't exactly believe you."

Shifting violet eyes to the blond, Irvine smiled his lazy smile.  "You never believe me, but that's beside the point.  I think you were about to offer me a warm bed before we were interrupted."

Seifer frowned, but knew he wouldn't be able to drag anything out of the healer.  "Your room is always available and you know it.  Why do you have to ask every time?"

"With your volatile emotions, it never hurts to make certain that I'm still in your good favor."  Glancing over the blond's shoulder, Irvine smirked.  "Ah, Ward, I was wondering what was taking you so long."

Turning around, Seifer looked at the older man and noticed he was a bit worse for wear.  "Don't tell me you fell for the same window trick again."

The large man said nothing, but his lengthy scar flushed with red openly displayed the steward's restrained anger mixed with embarrassment.

"What's this?"

Seifer looked to the healer and explained, "About a year ago, Leander started a trick where he'll point out the window and make you think something is outside.  While your back is turned, he'll run out of the room and, well, 'play' with the lock," the blond said while wiggling his fingers in a sign that the boy had done magic.  "I imagine we'll have a door to fix in the morning."

Ward grumbled something like an apology as he rubbed his shoulder.

Chuckling, Irvine stepped to the large steward.  "Well, in exchange for helping me to my room, I'll treat that bruised arm of yours."

Pale blue eyes flicked to the nobleman, and after receiving a nod from his master, Ward offered his uninjured arm to the healer.  Noticing the long-haired man leaned heavily on the steward, Seifer wondered how long the healer would decide to stay and be pampered for his troubles.  For days most likely, which was fine by the blond.  It would give him more chances to coax some information out of the devious man.

At a soft tug of his pants, Seifer reflexively placed a hand onto a small head before he glanced down at his son.  Leander smiled weakly at the tall blond before shifting his eyes downward in a guilty fashion.

"Squall went back to sleep."

"Then we had better leave him to his rest, shouldn't we?"

"Un."

Pushing the boy out into the hallway, Seifer stole a final glance at the sleeping servant before remembering a question which had yet to be answered.  After closing the door tightly, the blond knelt down and asked his son, "Ander, when Squall helped you get away, how did he fight all of those Ravages?"

"Ravages?" the boy asked with his nose crinkled in thought.

"Those wolves.  We used to call them Ravages back during the war, but I can tell you more about that later.  How did Squall fight them?"

As soft green eyes stared into hard emerald, Leander stated with child-like innocence, "He had a stick."

A pale eyebrow rose in disbelief.  "A stick?"

"Un.  A really big stick."

Chapter Text

"You aren't lying to me?" Leander asked, his typically smooth brow furrowed in distrust.

From his seated position on the bed, Squall smiled fondly at the youth, amused that he couldn't convince the boy that he felt fine.  There was still some soreness from deeper wounds which had been healed too rapidly, but the dark-haired man had suffered from much worse pains in his past.  And although Squall was reluctant to admit it, the healer who was brought to him by the blond lord was more skilled than most.  But the real question remained in the trustworthiness of Lord Kinneas.

The child's expression changing to one of guilt, Leander crawled closer to the bedridden man.  "I'm sorry you got hurt because of me."

"Enough, lion cub.  You aren't at fault."

"But--"

"But nothing.  I don't want to hear another word about it."

Leander pouted, his green eyes filled with the vibrant emotions of children.

Sighing in frustration, Squall placed a hand onto dark brown hair.  "You are safe.  That is all that matters to me.  Words said in anger aren't important."

"I don't hate you," the boy murmured.

"I know," the stormy-eyed man stated firmly, thinking to himself that it was more his fault than the child's that Leander had gotten upset the afternoon previous.  Squall had been tired of hearing the boy's complaints about his tutoring session, and with a coldness he rarely showed to the child, he had told Leander to quit whining about a privilege few children were granted.  Leander had reacted poorly, and with an angry cry that he hated the servant, the boy had sprinted away from Squall and ran directly into the pack of Ravages.

Thinking of long fangs buried deep into the boy's shoulder, Squall begged in a hoarse whisper, "Forgive me."

Confused, Leander leaned even closer, but before he could question the plead, soft knocking interrupted him.

Though hesitant to cut his time short with the green-eyed boy, Squall composed himself and called for the person to enter.  Instantly, he stiffened at the appearance of the lanky healer.  Lord Kinneas smiled warmly as he stepped inside and moved to the bed, but there was a sharpness to the violet eyes that made Squall wary and alert.

"Enjoying your company?" the man asked brightly as he ruffled the dark hair of the youth.

"Irvine," Leander whined as he escaped the teasing touch and promptly began to fix his ruined ponytail.

His grin widening, Kinneas turned to the bedridden man.  "And how are you feeling this morning?"

"I'm fine," Squall replied stiffly, but then added a muttered, "Because of your healing."

His violet eyes narrowed in soft humor, the long-haired man said, "Leander, would you mind giving us some time alone?  I need to examine our patient here."

The boy nodded before turning to Squall.  "Irvine is really nice and he'll make you all better."

Unsurprised that the child could feel his apprehension, the stormy-eyed man smiled faintly, the silent reply being enough for Leander as he left the room with only a slight drag to the small feet.

"He's worried about you."

Squall saw no need in replying to the obvious as he faced the healer.  "You were thorough enough yesterday.  There's no need for you to examine me now."

Kinneas chuckled while taking a seat at the edge of the mattress.  "While I do have ulterior motives, my vows as a healer force me to make certain that my patients are as healthy as they like to think they are."

"Vows of a healer?  Don't make me laugh."

Ignoring the insult, Kinneas studied the man before him, taking his time until eventually asking, "Are you his father?"

Stunned by the question, Squall could only whisper a startled, "What...?"

"Don't try to lie, sorcerer.  My clothes from yesterday are stained with your blood and Leander trusts me enough to grant me a sample of his.  It would be simple for me to discover the truth, but I'd rather give you the chance to be honest."

Meeting the gaze of piercing amethyst eyes, the dark-haired man stated, "Lord Almasy is his father."

"And what, you think I don't know that another man helped to create the boy?"

Eyes widening, Squall asked, "How...?"

"I knew a sorcerer once.  He told me all about your kind, even about..."  Slowly, the healer's face went slack in surprise as he stared at the brunet.  "Hyne on a stick, you're Squall Leonhart, aren't you?"

Confused about how the lord was able to make that connection, Squall didn't have the mind to deny his background.

A disbelieving laugh escaped Kinneas as he pressed a hand to his face.  "Seifer got fucking Squall Leonhart pregnant?  The Sorcerer Prince?  I know he's an amazing flirt, but damn, how did he manage that?"

Unforgotten pain and anger swelled in Squall's chest as he clutched onto the bed sheets and glared at the healer.

Eventually, the lord collected himself.  "Forgive me, but the sorcerer I knew, his name was 'Leander'.  He spoke of you often and, well, am I wrong to assume that Seifer wasn't the one who named our Leander?"

Surprised beyond words, the brunet stared into violet eyes.  "You... knew my uncle?"  Only after the question was spoken did Squall realize that he had stupidly answered every one of the healer's previous inquiries.

But the man didn't gloat at getting what he wanted.  Instead, he smiled with a fond curl to his lips.  "I knew him briefly while he was traveling about fifteen years ago.  He was the one to recognize my abilities as a healer.  At first, I was horribly disappointed to discover that I had inherited such pathetic powers.  I mean, what healer could ever match a skilled sorcerer?  But Leander scolded me, and then explained that he actually envied my future because I would be able to help people while he could only cause harm."

"Sounds like him," Squall murmured, lost in his own memories as he wrapped an arm tight around his waist.

"It's nice to know that our Leander was named after a good man."

After a time of silence, the sorcerer looked to Kinneas and asked, "Will you tell Lord Almasy?"

Violet eyes studied the man before him, and after a moment of thought, the healer smiled.  "No, I don't think I will.  He obviously doesn't recognize you, so that's his own fault.  Though, I won't lie for you if Seifer begins to ask questions, which he probably will now that you've gotten his attention.  There aren't many people who could survive the claws of a single Ravage, let alone seven of them."

Squall exhaled a shaky breath, knowing that it was his own fault for using his powers too boldly, but he hadn't expected the overwhelming fear that had embraced his heart when he first saw one of the creatures attacking Leander.  From that point on, it had been pure instinct and rage which had led the sorcerer's actions, and a large part of him was proud of what he had accomplished.

"Lucky for you," Kinneas continued, "Seifer is an idiot with the memory of a flea, so your secret should remain safe for a while longer.  Though I'm curious - does Leander know?"

Squall shook his head.  "He's drawn to me, but he doesn't know why."

"A-ah, the bond of birth parent and child."

Not appreciating the mocking tone of the healer, Squall declared, "Lord Almasy has decided to be rid of me, so none of this matters now."

"Hmmm?  Oh, you're referring to that ridiculous tirade of his, are you?  He's already changed his mind.  Seifer is weak when it comes to the desires of his only child, and Leander would be heartbroken if his father sent you away."

Though surprised that he'd be allowed to stay, the sorcerer ignored the ache in his chest and said, "I shouldn't be here."

"Where else do you have to go?"

"... ..."

"You were once a prince to your kind, your father a near equal to our Emperor.  But now, you are a servant in the kitchens, hiding away from those of the Imperial Army while secretly watching over your bastard son.  You've fallen far, sorcerer, and I imagine that this is the safest place you'll find since the Emperor fears the power of the Almasy name."

Though the words were harsh, Squall felt like the healer didn't mean to be hurtful.  Everything mention was the simple truth of his current life, an unavoidable truth that no longer hurt him like it once did.  "What do you care?"

Kinneas grinned at the question.  "You're an interesting man.  And as long as you don't intend any harm toward Seifer, I think that you would be a great benefit to this household."

Scowling, the sorcerer replied, "I would rather if that man didn't know I existed."

The healer straightened at the cool words and hesitantly asked, "Do you really hate the man that much?"

"... ..."

"What about when... I mean, he must have enticed you back then."

Squall breathed a sharp laugh of disgust.

Violet eyes widened in surprise.  "But if he... How--"

The question was cut short by the sound of loud knocking, the door then opening without the person being given permission to enter.  The sight of the broad shouldered blond made Squall reflexively tense in anger, but quickly, the mask of the submissive servant overcame his features as he lowered his eyes and relaxed his pose.

"So, Kinneas, how is our little hero doing?"

"Perfect as can be, thanks to his amazingly skilled healer, of course," the healer replied flippantly, his humored state returned.  "But why don't you ask him directly."

Almasy huffed, the man apparently considering it a burden to speak with the servant.  But when he spoke, his words were hinted with true concern.  "How are you feeling?"

Squall wanted to reply that he felt good enough to leave the property as previously instructed, but at that moment, Leander stepped into view and stood next to his father while his soft green eyes focused on the sorcerer.  It was painful to watch as a large hand settled on the boy's dark hair, the touch wholly welcomed by the child as he leaned against his father's leg.  Unlike times before, Squall couldn't simply turn away and busy himself with a servant's task.  Instead, he was trapped and his eyes morbidly attracted to the connection between father and son.

"Squall."

His name spoken sharply, the brunet automatically looked up and met the emerald eyed gaze that Leander had inherited.  Startled, the sorcerer then recognized that the young lord now knew his name.  Frowning at that realization, Squall glanced away and stated, "I am well, my lord."

"Hn.  Even if that may be the case, I think you need more rest before you return to the kitchens."

"I thought I was relieved of your service, my lord."

With shift of his stance, Almasy said, "Yes, well, I was upset and I directed my anger at you.  After saving my son, I should be rewarding you, not kicking you out onto the streets."

Squall glanced over at the boy who was obviously confused by the information that the servant was to be sent away.  "I have no desire for a reward."

"Don't lie.  Why else would you stupidly face a pack of Ravages?"

As Squall remained silent, Leander pulled on dark slacks.  "Father, you never told me what a Ravage was."

The large blond sighed before looking down at his son.  "Ravages are vicious beasts that came into existence because of a a sick scientist by the name of Odine.  He uses healers to experiment with chimeras, perverted creatures formed from natural animals.  His only success has been the Ravages, a mix of wolf, panther, and Hyne knows what else.  In the end, we got a monster that would kill its own handler if given the chance.  The Emperor was pleased with the outcome and demanded that they would be used in the Massacre against sorcerers."

Soft green eyes went wide as Leander pressed closer to his father.  "They attack sorcerers?"

Quickly, Almasy knelt down and hugged the young boy tightly.  "I won't let anyone or anything else harm you."

"You shouldn't promise the impossible."

The blond lord turned around sharply, his emerald eyes flashing with anger as he glared at the dark-haired servant for his comment.  "How dare you--"

"Those beasts came out of nowhere," Squall interrupted softly, letting some of his fear from that day sound in his voice.  "On your own property, they were lying in wait for someone to come near, to feed their endless hunger.  How can you protect your son when you can't even anticipate the attack?"

Almasy frowned with offense.  "I will protect him now that I know there is a threat to my family.  But the question remains - how were you able to protect him against those beasts?"

"... ..."

"No reply, is it?" the blond asked with a sneer.  "Then what about the Emperor?  Would he have a reply for you?"

"Enough, Seifer," Kinneas demanded as he moved between lord and servant.  His voice lowered in a serious tone, the healer said, "This man saved your son through his own methods.  Don't let your paranoia get the best of you."

Almasy stood tall to face the lanky man.  "We all know that the Emperor has to approve the use of Ravages.  This is obviously a plan of his, but whether to be rid of my son or to fool me with a spy in the guise of a hero, I cannot be certain."

"I would never serve that man," Squall hissed coolly, purposefully keeping his eyes downcast to prevent the lord from seeing any unnatural flash of energy in the stormy depths.

"And why should I believe any word that leaves your mouth?" Almasy demanded.

"Squall doesn't lie!" Leander yelled as he escaped his father and crawled onto the bed next to the dark-haired man.  "And he isn't bad!"

"Ander, you don't understand," the blond lord said as he reached out, but before he could retrieve his son from the mattress, a steady hand settled on his arm and forced him to look into violet eyes.

"I will vouch for him," Kinneas offered sincerely.

Both lord and servant were surprised by the healer's words as they stared at the long-haired man.  Almasy was the first to regain his voice as he demanded, "Why would you do something so foolish?"

"Seifer, have you forgotten that this man didn't wish to see a healer?"

Almasy straightened at the question.  "But you said--"

Kinneas interrupted.  "During his treatment, several aspects of his background were revealed to me.  And before you ask, no, I won't reveal his secrets to you, but I want you to trust me when I say that this man has no desire to obey the Emperor.  And," he added while looking to the sorcerer, "he has suffered enough in this life.  He doesn't need you punishing him for his heroic deed.  Stupid, but heroic."

Squall felt the weight of the amethyst eyes, knowing that the healer was scolding him simply because he could.

After tense silence, Almasy commented, "You are asking a lot of me, Kinneas."

Returning his gaze to the blond, Kinneas smiled warmly.  "I know, but I swear to you that this man... that Squall means you no harm."

Though frowning deeply, the lord nodded and then looked to the bedridden brunet.  "I hope you realize the debt you now owe Lord Kinneas.  There are few people whom I can trust by word alone."

Squall bowed his head, not intending to argue the obvious.

"If that's settled," Kinneas stated in a lighter tone, "Will you both leave me to my patient?  I still haven't had the chance to examine him properly."

With a huff, the blond lord turned to leave, but his dark-haired son remained on the bed as he looked to the seated man.

"Go, cub," Squall said gently, resisting the need to touch the youth.

With the same frown as his father, Leander nodded and reluctantly followed the large blond out of the room.

At the sound of the closed door, Kinneas sighed in relief as he slumped down onto the edge of the mattress.  "That man will be the death of me someday."

"There was no reason for you to fight him over me."

"Seifer is a thick-headed idiot.  Fighting is how you get anything through to him."

Though hating the great debt he owed the healer, Squall placed a fist at his chest.  "With the core of my power, I swear to someday repay you for your generosity."

As if startled, Kinneas looked over sharply at the sorcerer and frowned.  "You don't need to be so dramatic."

Squall scoffed, but didn't speak his thoughts concerning how the healer currently controlled his very existence with the information he held.  With one word, the Imperial Army could execute him for being a sorcerer.  Or else, the blond lord could be informed of his relation to Leander, and there was no telling how the volatile man could react.  It seemed Fate was determined to make the sorcerer's life as difficult as possible.

"We were interrupted earlier," Kinneas stated with serious eyes.  "Tell me, how did it happen that you were with Seifer?"

Scowling, Squall replied, "That is none of your business."

"I know, but..."  With a frustrated scratch to his hair, Kinneas leaned back.  "Is it wrong that I want to know if Seifer hurt you?"

Briefly closing his eyes as past memories assaulted him, the sorcerer glanced at the expression of the violet-eyed man and weakened at the obvious distress of the healer.  "He didn't rape me, if that's what you are asking."

Kinneas exhaled deeply at the response.  "Thank Hyne.  In the past, when he would get overly drunk, I was always afraid that Seifer wouldn't be able to control himself.  And now, with your reaction to his presence... I won't pry any further, but thank you for letting me keep some faith in that idiot friend of mine."

Watching the healer, Squall couldn't help wondering how the blond lord was able to gain the loyalty of such friends.  Ward was the same, willing to follow Almasy without an explanation as to why he held faith in the arrogant man.  And Leander loved his father to the point of worshipping the blond.  His soul hurting from the unintentional betrayal of his son and his father's friend, Squall wanted to know what they saw in Almasy that he could not.

Kinneas fidgeted vaguely, the sudden anxiousness making Squall frown at the healer.  "What?"

With violet eyes wide in a somewhat innocent expression, the man asked, "Could I make a final request?"

Squall glared with the intent to refuse, but deciding that he shouldn't upset his potential ally, he arched a dark eyebrow in a questioning expression.

"May I see that 'big stick' Leander has mentioned?"  At the brunet's confusion, Kinneas smiled and explained, "I believe he meant your staff.  Either way, I've only seen the core of a sorcerer close-up once before and if it wouldn't be too much of a bother..."

Once remembering that the man had known his uncle, the request wasn't a great surprise to Squall.  Not giving a vocal reply, the sorcerer lifted his hands from the mattress with his palms facing the ceiling.  The air above his hands blurred as if from heat, and then came into sharp focus as a long staff of thick gnarled wood appeared from nothing.  First holding onto the important weapon in brief reluctance, Squall offered the staff to Kinneas.

Violet eyes wider than before, Kinneas took the weapon with a reverent touch and examined the burnt etchings along the wood.  The numerous tiny runes covered every inch of the staff, a fact that would have made the length of the weapon appear black from a distance.

"Incredible," Kinneas breathed in true awe.  "Leander, your uncle, he had mentioned that you were powerful, but I didn't know that a single sorcerer could hold the knowledge of so many spells.  And you're so young."

Scoffing, Squall pointed out, "You can't be much older than me."

"And that's why this is so amazing.  Hyne, you must have spent half of your lifetime in the library to learn this number of spells.  Did you ever play as a child?"

The sorcerer scowled in response.

Laughing at the expression, Kinneas returned the staff.  "Thank you.  I know that it takes a lot of trust for you to allow someone else to hold the core of your power like that.  Even old Leander was reluctant to let me examine his, and he knew me for over a month at that point."

With an indifferent shrug, Squall took the weapon in one hand, the dark staff then disappearing as it was restored to his body where it belonged.

Kinneas stood from the bed and smiled as he met cooler eyes.  "Now, shall we see how well you are healing, hmm?"


Seated on damp grass, Squall gazed up at the clear sky that warned of another heated day in the last month of the summer.  It was only a short time after the sun had risen, but the brunet already felt sore and worn.  Edea Kramer had taken pity on the young man in the week previous, allowing him to settle into the hectic pace of the kitchens while the last of his deeper wounds had healed completely.  But that temporary break had ended, forcing Squall to return to his typical duties that involved everything from carrying water, pealing potatoes, and waking lazy servants... basically anything that he was told to do by the strict matron.

The sound of a sharp intake of air made Squall glance down at Leander, the dark-haired youth seated with his legs crossed and his elbows resting on his knees.  The boy was completely involved with watching his father and Ward spar, something that had become more frequent as of late.  Squall didn't care much for the demonstration, but with nothing to do until lunch had to be prepared, he couldn't refuse the invitation to spend some time with his oblivious son.  Though, if Squall had known previously that it would involve watching Almasy swing his blade around...

"Father was a soldier, y'know.  He was an important officer in the army."

Squall grunted in agreement, knowing better than the young boy about what role Almasy played in the Imperial Army.

"He looks so fast, and he's just sparring."  Glancing back to the stormy-eyed man, Leander asked, "Do you think he could've killed those wuffs?"

Unable to lie to his son, Squall instead moved his gaze to seriously examine the blond lord.  In the past weeks of renewed training, Almasy had improved greatly since his first attempt at sparring the large steward.  Strengthened muscle moved with the fluid grace of a natural swordsman, his hands and feet reacting quickly as if the green-eyed man could foresee the coming attack of the veteran fighter.

It wasn't the first time Squall had witnessed the skill of the young lord, and though he hated to say it, he eventually replied the boy's question with a terse, "If he were smart about it."

His small nose wrinkling, Leander asked, "What does that mean?"

"Watch him fight.  He may attack with skill, but he doesn't defend as he should.  Ravages strike in packs.  If you can't strike down one animal while protecting your back from two others, you're dead."

Naive eyes wide, Leander turned and watched his father with a more critical examination.  "But... you think he could've killed them, right?"

"A-ah," Squall eventually replied, deciding that the protectiveness of the father over his son would have given Almasy an extra edge against the viciousness of Ravages.

"Un, I think so, too."

While bittersweet, the sorcerer had to feel some relief that the young boy loved the man would took part in his creation.  It was risky in the past to leave the infant at the doorstep of the Almasy Estate, but there were few other choices available to Squall.  At the time, he had partly feared that the child would be placed back outside with the trash.  Instead, beyond his greatest hopes, Leander had been made heir to the estate and, despite the impossibility, he gained a true father in Seifer Almasy.  It was almost unfair that the child had it so easy.

"Father, you were great!" Leander called out, alerting Squall to approach of the sweaty lord.  As the boy stood to properly greet his father, he asked, "When do I get to use a sword?"

"Not for a few more years, kid.  But perhaps we can start some general training once I'm back in shape, hn?"

"Really?!"

Laughing at the energetic reply, Almasy ruffled dark hair.  "It's a promise.  But first, you have to impress me by improving your progress in your studies."

Instantly the boy quieted at the condition, his lips forming an admirable frown.  "I have been working hard."

Almasy smirked.  "I know that, but I won't let you use our time together as an excuse to 'forget' your lessons."

Leander deepened his frown as he jerked away from his father's touch, but the youth didn't argue any further.

Bright green eyes then looked up from his son, the lord's smile fading as he focused on the seated servant.  "Ander, why don't you help Ward clean up."

Confused by the request, Leander looked between his father and Squall, but receiving a gentle push from the blond, he reluctantly jogged in the direction of the large steward.

Meanwhile, Almasy shifted his stance into a more intimidating pose.  "Shouldn't you be working?"

"I'm on break, my lord."

"And you chose to waste your time with a six-year-old child?"

Hearing the accusation in the man's voice, Squall scowled as he stood from the ground.  "He invited me."

"That doesn't matter.  I'll be frank with you - I don't like my son spending so much time with a servant I hardly know.  I would appreciate it if you could... limit your contact with him."

It took an incredible amount of restraint for the sorcerer to school his expression as he stared unbelievingly into emerald eyes.  To be ordered to not see his son... But of course Almasy had no knowledge about their ties, and if he wanted to, Squall could understand why the lord would demand such a thing for Leander's safety.  Still, Squall had no desire to be rational.

Turning his back to the large blond, Squall stated coolly, "I won't turn him away if he comes to me."

"Then I'll make certain that he won't."

With his breath caught in his throat, the sorcerer didn't reply as he stepped in the direction of the overly large mansion.

"That isn't the way a servant should excuse himself."

Stopping in place, Squall closed his eyes in a silent count of three before he turned around with his head bowed.  "Forgive me, my lord, but my break has ended and I'm needed back in the kitchen."

Almasy huffed at the suitably submissive tone.  "Very well, but only because Matron would have my head if I interfered with her domain."

Nodding, the sorcerer returned to his escape.

"But be warned, Squall.  I'm watching you."

The servant continued to walk away, using all of his skill to mask the amount of damage the lord had caused.  Erratic emotions flared within him, distracting Squall as he returned to the kitchens without a word and delved directly into his everyday tasks.  More than ever, the sorcerer was certain that he should have never come to the Almasy Estate, no matter how much his instincts demanded that he should be at his son's side.  But thinking that, he also knew that leaving Leander a second time would be near impossible.

A hand at his shoulder startled Squall, making him drop his partially pealed potato as he looked behind him.  Seeing the scarred face set in a serious expression, the brunet resisted an annoyed frown and returned to his task.

"Why do you do this?" Ward asked in his gruff voice.  When he received no reply from the brunet, he continued, "I told you that Master Almasy wasn't comfortable with Leander's friendship with you.  I warned you about that specifically, and you flaunt that in front of his face?"

Squall didn't explain his actions, hating the need to hold his tongue.  The large man didn't know about the sorcerer's connection to Leander, and though Squall wasn't too certain Ward would be disgusted with his unnatural existence, he couldn't risk losing the respect of his father's friend.  Though young at the time, he remembered the measured gazes that always followed his kindhearted uncle, and Squall didn't think he could survive being the focus of that same offended glare.

Sighing, Ward squeezed the brunet's narrow shoulder.  "I've told you before that we've been lucky to have you around to watch over the young master, but... can't you be more discreet about it?  Especially now with Master Almasy feeling overly protective of his son?"

Focused on the flashes of his moving blade, Squall wanted to argue back, to declare that he had an equal right to hover over the boy he had nearly lost.  Instead, he continued to peal potatoes with a vicious speed, hoping to not lose a finger in process as he finished one potato and reached for another.

"Squall," Ward scolded while grabbing onto the smaller man's wrist, thereby preventing him from continuing his task.  "I'm worried about you.  Do you want to be discovered?"

With a quiet growl, the sorcerer jerked his hand out of the man's hold.  "And what if I don't care anymore?"  When the large man had no immediate response, Squall glanced up and immediately regretted his unthinking words as the steward stared down with a haunted and horrified gaze.

"Tell me that you don't mean that."

Avoiding the man's stare, stormy eyes shifted to the barrel of potatoes.  "Of course I don't.  And... and I promise to hold better judgment in the future when it comes to Leander."

An approving hum rumbled in the large man's throat.  "Thank you.  But Squall... if you need someone to speak with... about anything..."

"I'm fine," the brunet replied, knowing that Ward felt responsible for him, and yet, the steward had always been uncomfortable with playing the fatherly role.  Unable to express his appreciation for the man's concern, Squall smiled softly and repeated, "I'm fine."

Ward frowned with a pained glint to his eyes, and then turned sharply to face the exit.  He muttered a quiet, "I'm sorry," before walking away, leaving the speechless sorcerer behind.

Squall watched the man's broad back until Ward disappeared beyond the doorway.  Exhaling a tired breath, the brunet wasted several moments on useless thoughts as he wondered the numerous 'what ifs' that plagued him daily.  But the hypothetical fantasies did nothing to change his current reality, and so, Squall retrieved a dusty potato from its barrel and proceeded to bury himself in the seemingly endless task.


Seated on the edge of the mattress, Squall held tightly onto the shaking child in his arms and wondered when he became so vulnerable to the desires of his son.  For over two weeks, the sorcerer had obeyed the order to leave Leander alone, and at the same time, Lord Almasy had held his word to keep the boy from the vicinity of the servant.  In that time, Squall found himself exhausted, and yet unable to sleep despite the extra effort he was placing into his work.  It frustrated him to no end, but then a short time earlier, Leander had snuck into the servants' quarters, and Squall recognized the reason for his anxiousness.  The dark-haired boy seemed relieved to find the servant awake, and with a quiet plead, Leander led the older man to his chambers.  Though reluctant, Squall didn't argue and eventually found himself in his current position seated on the bed with the crying child in his arms.

Hiccupping, Leander asked, "Wh, where've you been?  I... I had dreams... and... and you got eaten... and there was b-b-blood!"

With a quiet hush, Squall pressed his cheek against dark hair.  "It was just a dream."

"B, but--"

"Shhh, you need to calm down.  I'm safe and well, so there's no reason to be afraid."

Shoving against the chest in front of him, Leander leaned back to glare at the servant.  "But why aren't you around anymore?"

Squall smiled weakly, but didn't reply.  "You should get more sleep.  Don't you have a busy day tomorrow?"

The boy scowled at not getting an answer.  "Do you hate me now?"

"Never.  But I've told you before, Leander, I'm only a servant.  It's not proper for a young lord to spend too much time with his servants."

"But... but you aren't--"

"It's what I am, and someday you'll understand that.  But for now, it's time for sleep."

Moist green eyes reflected soft candlelight as Leander stared up at the dark-haired man.  "Will you stay?"

"Leander--"

"I don't wanna sleep, but if you stay, it wouldn't be so bad."

"I shouldn't."

"Please?"

Sighing, Squall again questioned what made him so weak to the child before him, but entrapped by the innocence presense in the green eyes, the sorcerer found himself nodding to the boy's request.  Though intending to move to a nearby chair, Squall was jerked downward by the young boy and suddenly found himself lying on the bed with Leander curled against his chest.  Hot tears were once again felt against cold skin, silencing the sorcerer's arguments about the child being left to his bed alone.

Wrapping his arms around the youth, Squall kissed dark hair and whispered, "Go to sleep, young lion, and may the Goddess grant you pleasant dreams."

~ > < ~

It was the sound of yelling and the sensation of being lifted that wrenched Squall from sleep.  The dim lighting of the room made the sorcerer think of fire, the nights of the Massacre never dark with the city and castle engulfed in flames.  Reverting to that time, Squall instinctively drew in the air around him to create a dense shield, the act saving his breath as he was shoved roughly against a wall.  He then felt the approach of a thrown punch before seeing it, and with the shield slowing down the attack, Squall easily grabbed onto the large fist before finally focusing on the man before him.

Stormy eyes widened at the sight of Lord Almasy, the blond not hiding any of his confusion at his punch being blocked by a servant.  But confusion quickly melted into furious anger as the lord growled and shoved the smaller man hard against the wall for a second time, forcing a quiet groan from the brunet.

"I tell you to leave my son alone, and I find you in his bed?" Almasy hissed in a low threatening tone.  "How fucking dare you, you perverted bastard!"

As the hand at his shirt lifted to encircle his throat, Squall was stunned by the realization as to why the blond lord was so adamant that he was to keep his distance from the boy.  It had nothing to do with the heir of the Almasy Estate making friends with a lowly servant, nor something connected to the Ravages and the Emperor who commanded them.  Staring forward with disbelieving eyes, Squall hardly heard the cries of Leander begging for his release.  Others were entering the room, only the large form of Ward recognizable to Squall in his current state, but discretion no longer mattered to the sorcerer as heated rage built up in his chest.

In a fast move, Squall clamped his fingers around the wrist of the hand that was trying to suffocate him.  Locating a pressure point, he loosened the deadly hold and jerked the hand away, giving himself minor scratches from cut fingernails.  With the use of his shield, Squall knocked the large man away, and was silently impressed when Almasy saved himself from falling onto his ass.

Glaring directly into green eyes filled with confusion and anger, Squall found it hard to breathe.  "You know shit about me.  For you to even assume that I would lay a threatening hand on Leander..."  Teeth clenched, the sorcerer battled against the overwhelming desire to tear apart the blond before him.  But then Leander ran into view, the boy latching onto his father's leg with a frightened gleam to the soft green eyes.  Something broke within Squall as he realized that the child was afraid for the life of the father he knew.  Wild power crashed back within the sorcerer as his resolve died, and with his head bowed, Squall said, "I was a fool to ever come here."

Stepping to the doorway, Squall hardly noticed as the random spectators moved aside to allow him passage.  Only Ward attempted to stop him, but the large man was knocked back a pace with a gentle wind attack.  Reaching the hallway, Squall could hear the yelling of the blond lord as he demanded his son to release him, but the sorcerer couldn't take any pride in the fact that Leander was instinctively using his powers to protect the servant.  In the end, the life of Seifer Almasy had come first to the young boy, and Squall didn't know how to deal with that.

Once turning into an empty hallway, Squall summoned his staff.  Grasping the gnarled wood in two hands, the sorcerer spoke a single word as he slammed the weapon into the ground, and with no thought of future plans, Squall vanished from the Almasy Estate.

Chapter Text

With a meticulous rhythm, pale hands pushed a worn brush back and forth against scuffed wood.  It was a dreary task that left a man's back sore and angry, but in the same sense, it was a mind-numbing chore which Squall found himself preferring in the recent weeks.  And if the occasional worrisome thought did cross his mind, he quickly reverted to his favored tactic of silently reciting the more difficult incantations he knew by heart.  The mixture of the ancient language and the flicker of anticipating power rarely failed to cleanse his soul of its temporary concerns.

But even distracted as he was, Squall didn't fail to hear the clicking of shoes on wood.

"Leon, the Lady wishes to see you."

Halting in his chore of cleaning the ballroom floor, the dark-haired man sat back on his heels and gazed up at the intruding handmaid.  "At this moment?"

The young woman nodded with an amused smile.  "Don't worry about cleaning up your appearance.  You know the Lady doesn't mind things like that.  And she did imply that you should hurry to her sitting room."

Nodding, the man of tired blue-gray eyes dropped his brush into a bucket and stood from the hardwood floor.  As the handmaid led the way, Squall stretched his sore joints while he considered the reasons for his current summons.

For nearly two months, the sorcerer had spent his days in the Heartilly mansion, resuming his role as a servant in repayment for the Lady Rinoa's kindness.  She had discovered him on the road, exhausted and hungry over a week after his flight from the Almasy Estate.  While a true aristocrat in her appearance with raven black hair and creamy white skin, the Lady had the heart of a good person who cared too much about the wellbeing of others.  And for that reason, it had taken little thought on her part to offer the homeless brunet a job.

"Right in here, Leon.  And will I see you later at the after party?" the handmaid asked with a flutter of her eyelashes.

Squall glanced at the woman for whom he had no name.  It was somewhat distressing to look at the striking woman of blond hair and pale brown eyes and find no attraction for her.  He couldn't remember if it had always been that way, but he felt numb while meeting the gaze of the obviously interested woman.

Eventually, the handmaid saw something in his expression and frowned.  With a muttered, "I see," she turned and walked away before Squall could even think to apologize.

Sighing, the dark-haired man stared at the closed door, and with a last attempt to understand why he was summoned, he hesitated.  But unable to guess the mind of his Lady, he surrendered to the inevitable and rapped his knuckles against painted wood.  A woman's voice called for him to enter.

It wasn't the first time Squall had been in the Lady's sitting room, but he was still caught off guard by the brightness to the room.  Tall windows lined the far wall, welcoming in the sunlight as well as some additional lighting reflected from the small pond outside.  The white furniture of the room didn't help matters as Squall squinted to focus on the raven-haired woman seated in a cushioned chair.  The Lady smiled fondly at the sight of her servant and she motioned him forward.  Squall obeyed the silent command until his eyes were attracted to the movement of someone else in the room, the large figure standing from the sofa adjacent to Lady Rinoa.  Stopping in place, Squall stared at the unexpected guest.

Turning, the tall man of short golden hair focused his vibrant green eyes on the brunet.  There wasn't the hatred of before in those eyes, but instead a disturbing quietness to the expression of the typically arrogant lord.  And when the man spoke, Squall was surprised to hear the tone of relief in the man's low voice.

"Squall.  Thank Hyne, it's you after all."

As the sorcerer continued to stare at the man, Lady Rinoa sat up straighter in confusion.  "'Squall'?  Seifer, this is Leon.  Isn't he the man you wanted to see?"

Green eyes narrowed at the woman's interruption.  "Forgive me, Rinoa, but I need to speak with this man alone."

"For a reason you have yet to explain to me.  And I'm worried - are you planning to steal him away?  Because Claire is quite fond of him.  Good help is so hard--"

"Rinoa.  Please."

Startled by the defeated tone of the lord, Squall slipped a foot back a pace, but he couldn't prevent the reply of the Lady.

"Very well.  Use the veranda since I have letters to write," she said while standing and then approaching the tall blond to place an elegant hand on the man's cheek.  "Perhaps one of these days you'll come to visit me?"

Almasy smiled weakly as he gazed into dark brown eyes.  "You know I'm worthless, Rinoa.  Don't waste your heart on me."

While not appreciating the comment judging by her expression, the Lady surrendered with a nod.  "But you will stay and enjoy my party tonight, won't you?"

"A party, huh?"  Green eyes shifted to the servant.  "Thank you for the invitation, my Lady, but I may have more pressing matters to attend to."

Her eyes narrowed with hurt, Lady Rinoa removed her hand and forced a smile.  "Very well.  At least say 'goodbye' before you leave this time."  Receiving a quiet 'of course' from the nobleman, she turned and walked to her decorated desk at the other side of the room.

That left the two men alone and Squall felt his pulse quicken as Almasy motioned for the servant to join him outside.  Ready to fight and flee if necessary, the sorcerer clutched his hands into tight fists and followed the lead of the larger man.  But once standing in the cool air of mid-autumn, Squall was surprised when the blond lord simply moved to a wide pillar and leaned against the solid support.  After a length of time without words or actions, the sorcerer found himself bored and distracted as his eyes turned to the tranquil scenery of the lush garden and its beautiful pond.

"You know nothing about me, either."

The sudden words made Squall frown.  "Excuse me?"

"When you left, you said that I knew nothing about you.  And while that is entirely true, you should realize that you know nothing about me, either."

"Why should I care?"

Almasy turned sharply at the question, his startled expression transforming into one of amusement as loud and brief laughter flowed from him.  "Damn, I've already forgotten about that tongue of yours.  In a different time, I think I would've enjoyed your candid nature."

Not finding the same amusement in the situation, Squall glared at the man.  "Why are you here, my lord?  Is there not enough distance between your son and myself?"

Humor gone, a guilty look overcame the lord's features.  "That's not why I'm here.  I came to apologize, actually.  It appears that I was wrong about you."

Squall stared at the blond, recognizing the true effort the man was making given his tight voice.  The brunet figured it wasn't a common practice of the arrogant lord to apologize to his servants, but that didn't make the nobleman's accusations any easier to forgive.

"But you have to see this from my eyes," Almasy added quickly.  "A servant comes out of seemly nowhere, a man who has befriended my only son behind my back, and then I find that servant in my son's bed of all places!  How else was I supposed to react?!"

"This is an apology?" Squall muttered, unmoved by the lord's returned anger.

Exhaling a deep breath, Almasy placed a hand over his eyes.  "Forgive me.  It's been a long couple of months.  Ward has returned to the surly man he was when he first served me.  Matron purposely doesn't sweeten my food anymore, though she says otherwise.  And Kinneas..." With a short laugh, he continued, "The bastard actually punched me, if you can believe it.  He ranted on and on about vouching for you and what kind of friend am I if I didn't trust his word."

Though surprised that those people were reacting so noticeably to his departure, Squall couldn't feel any pity for the blond lord.

"But worse than all of that - Leander hates me.  The son I was trying to protect fucking hates me and it's killing me!  He doesn't ride with me anymore, he doesn't eat during our lunches, and as of last month, he doesn't even speak to me..."  Removing his hand, Almasy turned his emotion-filled eyes to the servant.  "Why have you turned him against me?"

Stormy eyes narrowed to threatening slits, Squall growled, "I never turned him against you, bastard.  You did that yourself."  Done with being accused further, the sorcerer turned to the glass doors, but his arm was grabbed by a strong hand.  He wanted to knock away the offensive touch, but the lord spoke first.

"You're right.  It was wrong of me to say that," Almasy said while gently releasing his hold.  "And I know that I don't deserve any favors from you, but what will it take to get you back?"

Breathing a cynical laugh, Squall shook his head as he kept his back to the lord.  "No."

"No?  Are you implying that nothing will convince you to return with me?"

The sorcerer didn't reply, knowing that he could never explain his reasoning to the nobleman.  Over the years of residing at the Almasy Estate, Squall believed that he was slowly approaching insanity.  Aside from the everyday worries of being discovered as a sorcerer, there was Leander, his son who would never recognize his birth parent and who would always call Squall by name.  And at the same time, there was Almasy, an oblivious idiot who did nothing to warrant the child his seed had created.  The pair of them would talk and play together as only blood could, and they protected each other as only father and son should.  To watch them from the shadows and to recognize that he'd never receive that same devoted love... It was slowly draining the life from Squall and he didn't know how to rescue himself aside from leaving altogether.

"You saved Leander's life," Almasy commented with returned firmness to his voice.  "Surely that means something."

"Think what you want."

"Then, is it only because of me?  Do you really hate me that much that you'd further injure Leander?"

Turning, Squall glared questioningly at the lord.

"He's been depressed and quiet ever since you left.  And while he won't speak to me, I overheard him with Ward.  Leander kept asking if you would ever return and if Ward would bring you back.  I don't understand any of this, but you are important to him, and damn you to Hell if he isn't important to you as well," Almasy added in a near snarl.

"You don't know me."

"And you don't know me," the lord replied immediately.  "But we've already covered that ground.  For whatever reason, Leander wants you, and I can't deny my son anything which benefits him."

With a dark eyebrow raised, Squall stared incredulously at the blond.

"Don't give me that look.  I've already admitted that I was wrong about you.  And though I can't trust you yet, I realize that you have never and will never harm Leander.  What more do you want from me?"

Suddenly tired, Squall had no desire to point out that the lord had yet to officially apologize for his accusations.  With a quiet, "Whatever," the brunet stepped to the glass doors and made his exit before he could be stopped.

"Sq-, I mean, Leon," Almasy called out while trailing behind the servant.  "We're not done yet."

"Forgive me, my lord, but I have chores to finish before the Lady's gathering tonight."

"Leon, don't you think--"

"Seifer, what is the matter?"

Both men stopped at the concerned question of Lady Rinoa, Almasy being the first to recover as he replied with a charming grin.  "Do not worry yourself over us, dear Lady.  You know how men are - we enjoy our arguments more than civil conversations."

As the raven-haired woman smiled in relief, Squall felt disgusted with the fawning tone of the nobleman.  Bowing his head to hide his face behind longish strands of dark hair, the servant spoke a clipped, "Lady Rinoa.  Lord Almasy," before departing the sitting room.  No one argued against his leave, but Squall felt the sharp gaze focused on his back and heard the quiet order from the blond lord -

"Don't you disappear on me."

~ > < ~

Stacking dishes on a sturdy tray for his final trip to the kitchens, Squall enjoyed the relative silence of the dining room.  With the rest of the servants busy entertaining guests in the ballroom and the others preparing extra beds for those too indisposed to return home, Squall was left alone to the task of cleaning the dining room.  He didn't mind, and in fact had volunteered for the hated chore which kept him out of the sight from those with noble blood and gave him rare time alone.

"Careful with those."

The warning failed in its purpose as Squall turned sharply and tipped over a stack of dishes.  Automatically calling upon his powers, air condensed around the plates, keeping them in a stack while slowing their descent to the floor.  With quick hands, Squall caught and lifted the dishes in a smooth arc such that the stack rested safely on his spread hand.

"That's the second time I've seen you do that.  Have you spent time in the circus for such reflexes?"

After a calming breath, Squall lifted his eyes to glare at the intruding nobleman.  "All guests are supposed to be in the ballroom, my lord."

Almasy scoffed.  "And you know that I didn't come here to entertain the Lady.  I came for you."

After momentarily meeting vibrant green eyes, Squall moved to return the dishes to the tray.  "I'm busy."

"Why were you in my son's bed?"

The sudden question ignited a flame of anger within the sorcerer, but Squall had no desire to satisfy the lord with the emotional response the man obviously wanted.  Clutching onto the handles of the tray, he lifted the dishes and exited the dining room.  Once entering the kitchen, he sat the plates heavily onto the counter next to a wide basin, but despite the clatter of dishes, Squall still heard the footsteps that had followed him.

"It's a simple question, 'Leon'.  Make me understand."

Needing to keep his hands busy before he could slip and punch the blond, Squall selected a plate and began to wash the expensive dinnerware.

"Were you cold?  Do the servant quarters need more firewood?"

One plate done, another taken in hand.

"Were your sleeping arrangements unsatisfactory?  Perhaps I should consider better mattresses for the help?  I'd hate for servants to suddenly end up in the guest chambers in search of decent sleep."

Harder than needed, the cleaned plate was placed onto a drying rack, but before Squall could grab the next dish to be washed, a large hand clamped onto his forearm.

"Was Leander dreaming again?"

The serious question amongst sarcasm caught Squall off guard, making him react to the thought of Leander being plagued by nightmares before he could properly school his expression.  Almasy, however, had seen the look of concern and promptly smirked at getting a reaction from the silent servant.  Releasing his hold, the nobleman shifted to lean casually against the counter.

"That was it, wasn't it?"

Glaring at dirty water, Squall bit out, "What does it matter?"

"As a father, I have to know.  And while I may not currently trust you, that doesn't mean I don't want to try for the future.  Especially if you're going to be spending more time with my son."

Stormy eyes narrowed further.  "You assume too much."

"Do I?"  A heated finger caressed the back of Squall's neck.  "Right here, you have the scars from a full set of teeth.  Did you get this while shoving Leander in the direction of the mansion?  I can't imagine you being stupid enough to show your back to a Ravage otherwise."

Knocking away the searing touch, the sorcerer stepped back from Almasy, but couldn't escape his words.

"I can't protect Leander from everything.  You were the one to tell me that, and I think I finally understand the deeper meaning of those words.  I meant to protect him, but in the end I caused more harm than good.  I hurt my own son through my presumptuous actions.  I recognize that, but I don't understand why you won't let me heal him.  Why won't you return with me?"

"Because..."  Squall bit off his retort, not nearly angry enough to let loose any secrets to the nobleman.

"'Because'?" Almasy mocked with a smirk.  "That isn't much of an argument."

Hands clenched into tight fists, Squall silently questioned why it was so wrong to punch the blond lord.

"I'll bring Leander here."

The fight instantly drained out of the sorcerer as he stared forward in disbelief.

"You hate me, thus you can refuse me all you want without fail.  But can you treat him as coldly and say those same words to Leander?"

Terrified to know the answer within his heart, Squall looked away from the lord.  "Don't use him against me."

"Now, Squall, you should know the rumors about me - I exploit every resource I control."

The sorcerer shook his head, tired of fighting, tired of everything.  "I have my responsibilities here."

Almasy scoffed.  "I saved Rinoa's life years ago.  Her father's a famous general, you know, and she once thought it'd be a great idea to visit him on the battlefield.  While her rescue led to her bothersome infatuation with me, I don't mind abusing that for certain favors, including the return of a misplaced servant."

"And if I don't want to return?"

"Then you're only lying to yourself," Almasy stated as he pushed up from the counter.  "I'm leaving after breakfast.  You can pack tonight and meet me out front."

"I haven't agreed to go."

An unexpectedly warm smile crossed the nobleman's lips.  "Don't work too late tonight.  I'd hate for you to oversleep and delay our trip.  Oh, and if you get a moment, pack us something for lunch."  With a turn and a small wave, Almasy headed to the doorway and said, "Good night, 'Leon', and see you in the morn."

Watching the large blond leave, Squall felt rooted in place.  He lost.  He didn't want to return to his silent Hell, he didn't want to face Leander, and most of all, he didn't want to be manipulated by the green-eyed lord.  But in less than a day, Almasy had figured out his weakness and discovered how best to exploit it.  It was unbelievable to the sorcerer that the nobleman held any dose of intelligence behind his front of idiocy and pride.

With a sigh at his vulnerability, Squall turned with the intention to finish the dishes, but found himself staring into greasy water instead.  Gazing into the gray eyes reflected in the basin, the sorcerer recalled the words of Lord Kinneas.  The onetime Sorcerer Prince had fallen far, both in status and in spirit, and there was no way to escape that reality.  And with his surrender came the knowledge that there were few places he could hide from the eyes of the Emperor.  Kinneas hadn't been exaggerating when he mentioned that the Almasy Estate was probably the safest place for a rogue sorcerer.  It was something Squall already understood well after years spent on the property no matter how much it sickened him to rely on the blond lord for that protection.

Frustrated, Squall slammed his palm hard against the water surface, but the spark of enraged energy vanished and left him exhausted as he slumped over the basin edge and let his head hang in defeat.  His words hoarse with emotion, he declared, "I hate that man."


Uncomfortable and frustrated, Squall ascended the front steps of Almasy Manor as he trailed behind the tall form of the impossible lord.  The daylong ride spent with Almasy had been overly stressful, the blond wanting Squall seated next to him within the luxurious carriage instead of allowing the servant to ride with the coachman.  The lord had then attempted to initiate various forms of conversation with the brunet, but eventually surrendered to the fact that he wouldn't receive anything more than single syllable answers, if an answer at all.  It was a minor comfort to Squall when the nobleman had fallen asleep, but the day of traveling had still left him frayed and anxious.

"Squall...?"

The low call of his name made the brunet lift his eyes to find the large steward holding open the front door.  Ward's surprise passed quickly into an expression of relief as he nearly left his position, but then remembered himself as he bowed to his lord and master.

Almasy smirked at the taller man.  "Told you that I would bring 'Leon' back."

Lips tightening into a grimace, Ward replied, "So you did, my Lord."

Stormy eyes narrowed on the steward.  "You told him...?"

When the large man didn't respond, Almasy spoke for him.  "Don't be too hard on the old man.  He admirably resisted my interrogations until a certain child broke his resolve.  Even so, he only offered a short list of names that he thought you would use and 'Leon' topped that list."

The feeling of betrayal burning through his chest, Squall focused on the large man until pale blue eyes finally met his.  There was a familiar gleam of shame in those eyes, but there was also a hardness which told the brunet that Ward didn't regret his decision.  Unable to hold his anger against the man's decision, Squall released a breath of air and looked away in a wordless sign that Ward would have to explain himself later before the brunet would consider forgiving him.

Oblivious to the silent exchange, Almasy asked, "Where is Leander?"

"In his room.  Allow me to fetch him for you."

Hesitating, the lord grunted his agreement.  "Bring him to my study."

As Ward walked in the direction of the main stairs, Almasy looked over his shoulder to the dark-haired servant.  "I don't believe that I have thanked you yet.  That you were willing to return despite my poor treatment towards you, I truly appreciate it.  If there's anything I can do in repayment..."

Squall said nothing as he met bright green eyes.

Though annoyed at not getting some kind of response, the blond lord didn't press the matter as he proceeded in the direction of his study.  The sorcerer followed behind, keeping a suitable distance between him and the nobleman.  Several servants in the hallway showed their surprise at Squall's presence, and as he watched one of the women run off, the brunet knew that the entire kitchen staff would be prepared for his return.  But before that reunion was a more important matter, and as Almasy led the way into his private study, Squall mentally readied himself for the sight of his son.

With the door closing behind them, Almasy asked quietly, "Do you know how Leander came to be here?"

Confused by the seemingly random question, Squall stared at the blond who had stepped to a large window and leaned against a nearby bookcase.

Almasy scoffed at himself.  "That was a stupid question, wasn't it?  Surely Matron or some other gossip in the kitchens must have told you by now about the tiny babe who was left on the steps of the servant's entrance.  But make no mistake - Leander is my son.  Two healers have testified to that."

"As you say, my lord, I know these things," Squall said with the implied question of why the nobleman was rambling on about nonsense.

"You and everyone else may know the details, but I need you to understand something more.  Frankly, Leander wasn't supposed to exist.  I never imagined myself marrying, never imagined children, and certainly never imagined being a father.  And then out of nowhere, a bastard child invaded my life."

Squall scowled at the lord for his blunt words, and though they were true, the sorcerer didn't care for the man stating that his son shouldn't have lived.

"I won't say that I've been a good father," Almasy continued.  "Those first years were ugly, but since that time, I've done my best to raise him.  And then, at some point, Leander became very important to me."  Emerald eyes hardened as they focused onto cold blue-gray.  "If this turns out to be a mistake to bring you back, I swear to Hyne that you won't escape a second time."

Meeting the serious gaze, Squall said nothing, but his thoughts mirrored that of the blond lord.  He knew some vague details about how Leander was treated in his infancy, but because the nobleman had changed his ways by the time Squall had returned after years of traveling, the sorcerer had chosen to let Leander stay with his father.  But even so, Squall was always ready for the wrong word or the wrong action toward Leander, something that would give him an excuse to destroy the green-eyed nobleman without earning the child's hatred at the same time.  It was almost disappointing that Almasy was a decent father when he tried.

Sharp, rapid knocking broke the tension between the two men, and the door to the study flew open before a call to enter was made.  Unbalanced by the confrontation with the nobleman, Squall couldn't completely mask his emotions when he first set eyes on the breathless boy standing in the middle of the doorway.  It had only been a couple months, and yet Squall saw the subtle changes in the growing boy, as well as noticing his lost weight.  Concern flared within the sorcerer, but he couldn't move as he stared into soft green eyes.

Suddenly, angry tears slipped down reddened cheeks as Leander sprinted forward and wrapped his small arms in a surprisingly strong hold around a leg.  "Why'd you go?!"

A simple question, an obvious question, and yet Squall didn't dare answer the child.  Instead, he placed a hand into thick hair.  "I'm sorry."

The reply made the boy squeeze the leg even harder in frustration and anger, but Leander then leaned back to tug onto the coarse material of the servant's shirt.  Obeying the silent demand, Squall knelt down and allowed the child to renew the hug as Leander buried his tear-wetted face against his neck.  He held the boy gently while whispering more apologies, and eventually calmed his son enough to stop the tears that were his greatest weakness.

"Squall came back for you," Almasy stated, reminding the two of his presence.  "He didn't want return to after what I did to him, but he missed you."

Pulling back, Leander looked at the servant.  "You're going to stay now, right?  Father says he won't be mean to you anymore."

Squall stared into the blinking eyes still wet with tears and replied, "I can't stay here forever."

"But why not?"

Smiling weakly, the sorcerer bent down and whispered to the boy, "I will always be near whenever you need me."

With an admirable pout, Leander nodded vaguely.  "Alright.  But you have to promise."

Placing a fist to his chest, Squall bowed his head.  "I swear it on the source of my life."

Satisfied, Leander leaned forward against the sorcerer and rested his head on a thin shoulder.  "It hurts when you're gone."

The sorcerer closed his eyes at the statement and wrapped a comforting arm around the child.  Meanwhile, he silently cursed himself for reentering the life of his son and accidentally forming a bond with the young boy.  Though weak compared to the connection he held with his own father, Squall prayed that Leander hadn't suffered from the sensation of loss.  Without training, his child would never understand that emptiness, nor that it was better to feel that loss instead of nothing at all.

Pulling Leander back, the sorcerer gazed into soft green eyes.  "You look hungry.  Why don't you come to the kitchens with me."

"Alright.  But you have to make my sandwich."

Squall nodded with a slight smile, wondering what it was about their bloodline that made them enjoy sliced liver and apples between two pieces of bread slathered in butter.  Pushing up from the ground, Squall was startled when a heated hand rested on his shoulder.  He looked back with wary eyes and questioningly stared at the blond lord.

"Make certain he eats whatever he wants."

"Yes, my lord," Squall replied cautiously, waiting for Almasy to spout a new threat for good measure.

But the large blond didn't react as expected as he instead gazed down at Leander and smiled softly.  After a short moment, Almasy turned without an additional word and proceeded across the room in the direction of a large desk.

Seeing the tired slump to the broad shoulders, Squall inwardly sighed at pathetic sight of the blond lord.  Though he knew the man deserved his punishment, the sorcerer didn't wish the anger of a child on any parent.  Bending down, Squall looked directly into muted green eyes and stated quietly, "I didn't hear you welcome your father home."

Leander pouted at the implied order.  "I'm mad at him."

"I know, but you can't be mad at him forever.  He made a mistake.  Haven't you made a few mistakes that angered your father?"

Reluctantly, the dark-haired boy nodded.

"And didn't he forgive you in the end?"

Eyes lowered, Leander nodded again.

"Well, then, I think you know what to do."

With a deeper frown, the child looked to the tall man across the room who had already put on a pair of narrow reading glasses and was skimming through a set of papers.  Though he started with slow steps, Leander walked to the large blond and pulled on the lightly colored slacks the man wore.  Surprised, Almasy glanced down with widened eyes at his son.

"Welcome back, Father," Leander said drearily, as if announcing to Squall that he was doing it only because he had to.

After a startled moment, Almasy swooped down to lift the small boy in his arms.  Papers fluttered to the ground as he held the boy tight with a large hand buried in dark hair and his other arm supporting the child against his body.  Almasy then whispered something to Leander before kissing the boy's temple and renewing the desperate hug.

"I'm still mad at you," Leander stated, unable to sound completely upset with the father he loved.

Almasy grunted his understanding, but didn't release his hold on the boy.

"You haveta be nice to Squall."

Another grunt sounded in agreement, though the servant doubted the man cared what he was agreeing to.

"Can I go now?"

Almasy didn't reply.  Instead, his hold on Leander had increased in strength judging by the squirming child.

"Father, I'm hungry.  Let go."

With a disappointed grunt, the nobleman slowly lowered Leander to the ground and eventually allowed the child his escape.  Once released, the boy jogged to the waiting servant and grabbed for his hand to pull Squall in the direction of the doorway.  Purposefully avoiding eye contract with Almasy, the sorcerer turned his back to the man and let the dark-haired boy drag him out from the study.  There was no 'thank you' or anything else from the lord as they left, but Squall didn't expect words of gratitude from the proud man.

The long walk to the kitchen was filled with the rushed and jumbled talk of Leander as he attempted to describe everything that had happened over the past weeks, including every bump and scratch he had received to the new things he had learned from his lessons.  Squall smiled at the resulting nonsense as he wondered if the child actually understood the things coming out from his mouth.  Even so, the sorcerer appreciated the simple moment of listening to Leander ramble as new topics occurred to the young mind.

Eventually reaching the room of heat and controlled chaos, Squall quickly became stiff and uncomfortable when everything came to a stop at his entrance.  The various people in the room stared at the brunet, no one moving or speaking until an older woman shoved her way through.  The appearance of the long-haired, golden-eyed woman was an oddly welcoming sight.

"My poor dear," Edea Kramer said as she stepped directly in front of the lithe man and placed a flour smeared hand at his cheek.  "I didn't think you would return after what happened.  I couldn't believe it when I heard Lord Seifer had accused you of harming the young master.  It was so ludicrous, I thought Leila was playing a cruel joke on me!"

Wary, Squall lowered his eyes.  "I didn't--"

"Oh, hush.  No one agreed with Lord Seifer's fool ideas.  We've all seen you with the young master and watched how you treat him like a younger brother.  I wouldn't trust his care with anyone more than you.  How that idiot boy thought you were up to worse things with his son, I don't know.  His father was the same, paranoid as a loon."

Assured by the soothing tone, the brunet dared to look into lightly colored eyes and saw the honest warmth of the straightforward woman.  In a whispered voice, Squall said, "Thank you, Matron."

Edea smiled softly as she patted his cheek.  "No need for that, child.  I'm just relieved that you've returned.  And look at who you've brought to us," she said while turning her gaze to Leander.  "Is there something I can get for you, young master?"

Shaking his head, Leander replied, "Squall has to make my sandwich.  You don't do it right."

Stifled laughter ran throughout the room until Edea glared at the other cooks, the servants promptly returning to their tasks with overly loud motions and muttered apologies.  Looking back at Squall, the head cook sighed, "Why in Hyne's name this boy enjoys those concoctions of yours, I'll never know.  And don't you try to explain why the intestines of wild geese are considered a delicacy.  I don't want to hear it."

Unable to stop his smile, Squall asked, "Would I be intruding to make us dinner?"

"No, no, use whatever you need as long as I don't have to watch," Edea replied with a disgusted expression, but in the next moment, her eyes softened as she gazed down at Leander.  "It'll be good to see you eating again, young master.  You can't grow up strong without the proper food."

"I know," Leander replied in an irritated whine, implying he had heard that particular comment one too many times.

"You, as well, child," Edea added while pressing a long finger again the chest of the sorcerer.  "I spent years trying to fatten you up, and now look at you!  All of that hard work wasted in just two months.  What am I supposed to do with you?"

"I missed your cooking," Squall said, hoping to appease the motherly woman.

Edea smiled happily at the comment, but her sharp golden eyes suggested that she wasn't fooled in the least.  "Well, no sense in talking further.  You have a hungry boy to feed, and I have everyone else to look after.  Once you're done here, I'll see about putting you back to work in the morning."

Squall nodded, the woman running off at the sound of a crash before he could vocalize his appreciation for being allowed to stay in the kitchens under her care.

"Squall," Leander called with a tug on the hand in his hold.  "I'm really hungry."

"Of course you are, cub," the servant stated as he led the boy to a small table in the nearby corner and helped Leander onto a chair.  "Anything else you want besides the sandwich?"

"Milk.  And cake!"

Smiling at the expected request, Squall bowed his head and replied, "Your word is my command."

Chapter Text

Standing with his back to a tall bookcase, Seifer gazed outside from his favored window in his study.  The garden which held pale roses during the spring and summer months was practically bare, the cold wind of late autumn stripping the shrubs and trees of dead flowers and leaves.  Despite that lack of beauty and the colder temperatures, Leander's new tutor had decided on a walk outside for her lesson.  Something about walls and doors leading to closed minds.  And so there they were, directly in view of the window from where Seifer watched silently as a third joined the tutor and student.

Though a month since his return, Squall hadn't gained back the weight he had lost during his absence from the Almasy Estate.  The patched coat he currently wore hid the skinny form, but Seifer had heard from Edea that the difficult servant wasn't eating much.  As the man reached the pair seated on a bench beneath a bare tree, Squall bowed and said something to the woman of creamy brown skin that spoke of her foreign origins.  She smiled fondly at the comment and replied with a flip of her short dark hair.  Though unable to hear those words, Seifer knew they were speaking in her native tongue.  Leander's concentrating gaze of confusion testified to that.  It was the reason Xu was hired, to teach the young boy various languages while his mind was still young.  But it seemed thus far that Leander had inherited his father's lack of ability when it came to learning new languages.

A series of sharp knocks sounded, the unique rhythm telling Seifer the identity of the man before he was invited to enter.  Without greeting the person, or even turning, the blond lord motioned for the lanky man of long hair and violet eyes to have a seat.

"I'm afraid that I can't stay for long," Irvine stated as he let the door close behind him, "But I know how crazy you get if I don't speak with you before leaving."

Pulling his eyes away from the scene outside, Seifer glared at the healer.  "Is it wrong to make certain that I'm actually paying you for something?"

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that and won't be offended."  With an exaggerated show of exhaustion, Irvine dropped down onto the small couch that faced the window and the nobleman.  "Your servants are fine.  They picked up some parasites from Hyne knows where, though I have my suspicions.  I purged them of the worms and told them to be careful about what they drink from now on.  Currently, they are under the watchful eye of Matron."

Seifer nodded, pleased to know that the young men would be fine.  The three youths had been working with Cid in the stables since childhood, and in that time, they had become like sons to the childless man and his wife, Edea.  The cost of a healer was nothing compared to relieving the worry of the two faithful servants whom Seifer trusted wholly.

"What's so interesting out there?"

Though startled to find himself gazing outside once more, Seifer didn't turn away.  "The new tutor, Xu, is attempting to teach an Almasy how to speak the language of a different country."

Irvine laughed.  "Poor Leander.  Considering his lineage, I'm surprised that he has the bright mind he does, but I suppose fluency in other languages would be a step too far for the lad.  I mean, his father was the man who mistakenly told a Dovorien prince that he smelled of bad fish and had the intelligence of a rock."

"I thought I told you to never speak about that again, Kinneas."

"No, you told me to stop telling others about the day you nearly instigated a war between two allied countries.  Since no one else is here, I'm free to talk as I please."

Sighing in annoyance, Seifer focused on the dark-haired servant who had been grabbed by Xu, apparently being told to stay by the forceful woman.  "Did you know that Squall could speak Niacian?"

Irvine hummed with interest.  "He mentioned traveling in the years before settling here, but no, I didn't realize that he knew the language."

"He knows four languages fluently, according to Xu.  She's been using him to teach Leander more about the flow of conversations."  His eyes focused solely on the unaware brunet, the lord commented, "I'm in trouble, Kinneas."

"You're always in trouble.  I thought you've grown accustomed to it."

"Not this sort of trouble.  I think... I'm afraid that I may be attracted to him."

"To whom?  Xu?"

"No, you deaf imbecile.  To him.  To Squall."

Instead of the laughter Seifer expected, Irvine replied in a rare cold tone.  "Don't play this game, Almasy."

"I wish I was fucking playing around," the blond lord replied sharply as he moved away from the window and sat down in a seat across from the couch.  "I didn't want this, and Hyne, this isn't how my fucked up brain is supposed to work in the first place.  Usually I have to be falling down drunk to want a man, and even then it's only for the fuck I can't seem to have with women.  Lusting after a servant who probably wishes I were dead isn't something I've planned."

"Then why do you want him?"

"If I knew, it'd make things easier."

Irvine shook his head in disbelief.  "You are the most confusing man in existence.  First you hate the man and accuse him of terrible crimes, and now you want him in your bed?  What is rattling inside that thick skull of yours?!"

"I told you already that I don't know!" Seifer replied angrily, but then contained his frustration as he pressed his fingers against his forehead.  "This is your fault.  If you and the rest of you traitors hadn't yelled at me for driving that ill-mannered servant away and forced me to bring him back, I wouldn't be in this mess."

"I believe I told you to get Squall back for Leander.  I didn't mention anything about you needing a new boy to fuck."

Green eyes brightly lit with offense glared at the healer.  "You know I want nothing of the sort."

"Then what do you want?"

His anger faltering at the sensible question, the blond lord shifted his gaze to the rug-covered floor.  "I really don't know, but... He made Leander speak to me."

"Seifer, if this is misplaced gratitude..."

"You don't understand.  This man has some kind of connection with Leander, something I don't comprehend, and quite frankly, it scares me.  But on the day I brought him back, instead of using his influence over Leander to turn him further against me, Squall made Leander welcome me home."

"While that is nice--"

"He didn't do it to be nice," Seifer interrupted.  "And he didn't do it for some reward, either.  But since then, I've gotten my son back, and I know that Squall has had a hand in coaxing Leander to forgive me.  I can't figure him out, and I think that's why I've been obsessing over him."

"You accused him of molesting your son," Irvine reminded forcefully.

Frowning in thought, the nobleman looked to the window, but couldn't see the garden from his seated position.  "Do you think Squall lost a child of his own?"

"W, what?  Why think that?"

Not hearing the slight stutter, Seifer replied, "Matron likes to tell me that Squall treats Leander like a young brother, but it doesn't feel that way to me.  The way he speaks to the boy and touches him gently... It was for that reason that I believed he was doing something inappropriate, but recently, I've caught myself saying those same words and acting the similarly toward my son.  It made me wonder if Leander reminds Squall of someone he lost."

After a pause, Irvine stated softly, "He did lose someone years ago."

Seifer turned in his seat, surprised to get new information from the closed-mouth healer.  "Are you telling me that I'm right?"

Somber violet eyes met green before the long-haired man breathed a laugh.  "As hopeless as you are, yes, you guessed something right for once."  Irvine pushed up from the couch and retrieved his wrinkled cloak from a nearby chair.  "While this has been interesting, I really must leave.  But Seifer, I'll warn you once more to forget this infatuation of yours.  Squall wants nothing to do with you, and if it weren't for Leander, he would have never returned."

"I know that.  But what did I do to warrant such hatred from him?"

Irvine shrugged at the question.  "That is one thing I truly can't answer, though I have my assumptions.  Either way, leave the man alone.  Hyne knows he has earned his peace."

Resisting the need to prod for more information, Seifer commented, "I'll be in the city tomorrow."

"For business?"  At the lord's nod, Irvine smiled with a glint of amusement to his eyes.  "Well then, say 'hello' to Dincht for me, and tell him to stay out of my hospital.  It's exhausting to heal his bones just so he can break them again."

"What, you're not going to invite me over to your place?  I have yet to pay my respects to your bride," Seifer suggested with a grin.

"If you need the alibi, then by all means, come and visit.  I have the day off tomorrow.  Otherwise, I'd appreciate it if you weren't around to tell embarrassing stories about me before she is officially my wife."

"I didn't realize you were so shy, Kinneas."

"Only when I'm in love, Almasy," the healer stated while turning to the doorway.  He then added, "Be certain to heed my advice, Seifer.  I imagine that something like this can't lead to anything good."

Watching as the door closed, Seifer forced himself to stay seated instead of moving to the window where he could further observe the young man of penetrating blue-gray eyes.  He hated himself for being unable to control himself around the difficult servant, at first with wild anger and now with confusing emotions.  He wished he could take Irvine's advice, as if it were that simple to forget the unusual feelings the nobleman didn't want in the first place.  But the morbid side of Seifer wanted to examine his situation, to understand why he desired Squall when no other man had caught his sober attention before.  For a brief moment, he wondered if Irvine was right and that it was simply a case of misplaced gratitude.

Pushing such thoughts side, Seifer stood from his chair with an irritated sigh and a long stretch.  When he moved in the direction of his desk, he purposefully avoided the sight of the window despite his desires otherwise.  There were plans to be made before the winter snow could bring everything to a halt, and though Seifer had no desire to work, he located his reading glasses from beneath a fallen stack of papers and proceeded to bury himself in the lengthy reports.


Dressed in loose and stained clothing, Seifer walked down the streets that were covered in dirty water, discarded trash, and other unmentionables.  Though the faint stench of urine was in the air, the blond noblemen was enjoying the brief escape into the dodgier corner of the city.  As a soldier, he had frequented the area in search of drink and whores, and now in his current station, the lower district was one of few places where Seifer could venture and feel safe from the spies of the Emperor.

With the sun just past its midday point, Seifer reached his destination of a dingy building where a hanging wooden sign declared 'ALE' in a grossly simple manner.  Ignoring the main door, the blond turned into the adjacent alleyway and walked down the set of stairs which led to the cellar door.  Knuckles against dark wood, Seifer rapped in the rhythm of an obscurely known bar tune before the door was opened for him.  The revealed man of deep wrinkles and wild white hair glared at the nobleman and grumbled in a near growl at the interruption to his work.  Seifer smirked at the man's constant annoyance at the world and flipped a gold coin in the bar owner's direction.

"Is Chickie here?" Seifer asked once allowed inside the basement of the bar.

Before the old man was given a chance to answer, a streak of white caught the corner of Seifer's eye.  Already in mid-step, Seifer pulled his foot back to lean away from the thrown punch.  Using his lost balance as an advantage, he grabbed the arm of lean muscle before it could pull away.  Twisting the arm downward, Seifer palmed his free hand against the straightened elbow, but held back from breaking the arm.

With a pained yelp at the handling and a clumsy fall, a young-looking man of spiky blond hair dropped to his knees before Seifer.  "Fucking shit, man!  Easy on the limbs!"

Unimpressed by the yelling of the blond, Seifer examined the hand still trapped in his hold and frowned at the bandaged fingers.  "Damn it, Dincht, I thought you were actually using knuckles against me.  What happened to you this time?"

Zell Dincht looked over his shoulder and flashed a child-like grin of excitement at the taller man.  "It's the season for new recruits.  A few of them needed the lesson that street fighting isn't the same as what we do in the army."

Shaking his head, Seifer released the fighter's arm.  "A normal person would be bored with such things by now."

"Tch, you're starting to sound like an old man, Almasy," Zell stated as he jumped onto his feet and proceeded to massage his abused arm.  The movement revealed a new tattoo along his upper arm, but it didn't compare to the tribal design present along the left side of the man's face, an attempt by the blond to age his youthful appearance that didn't match his twenty-three years.  Dressed in the blue and gray uniform of an Imperial soldier with his jacket sleeves rolled above his elbows, Zell didn't look like much, but the dented shield of a first class Captain was proudly present at his right arm.

Satisfied that his arm wasn't injured, Zell smirked at the larger blond.  "But I have to say that I'm impressed - that was the first time I wasn't able to smack you around a bit.  Did you finally decide to get rid of your rich man's figure?" he asked while backhanding the nobleman's stomach.

Seifer flung a side punch at the man's tattooed face, but the soldier being shorter by nearly a foot, Zell easily ducked under the attack.

"A-aw, you poor thing.  Did the whores cost more when they had to deal with your extra fat?"

"Fuck you, Dincht.  I'm not nearly that bad."  But as green eyes glanced downward in a self-conscious action, Seifer realized that he had lost weight since renewing his training routine in the past several months.  Scowling, he wondered if he had enjoyed a few too many sweet pies in the recent years.

The blond soldier simply laughed as he bounced around on his toes, coming near enough with a few wild punches to goad the nobleman into swinging another fist at the energetic soldier.

With a groaning sigh, the bar owner had reached his fill of the childish play and made way for the wooden steps leading back to his business.  "No messes," was his final comment before he left the cellar and the two younger men behind.

When the door clicked in a sign of silence, Zell dropped flat onto his feet as his entire front of energy fell away into an expression of concern.  "Listen, before we get into anything else, I just want you know that I had heard nothing beforehand about the Imperial Guards planning to use Ravages against you.  When I overheard those regal fucks talking about how some new pups were 'accidentally' released onto your property, I nearly lost it.  And then they mentioned hearing a kid scream for help... Let's just say that if you hadn't sent that message to stay put and do nothing, I would've shown those bastards what happens to baby killers," he stated with a raised fist.

Smiling softly at the man's concern for the young boy, Seifer told him, "Thanks for the sentiment, Dincht, but Ander is just fine.  There was nothing done that Kinneas couldn't handle."

Blue eyes wide with surprise, Zell gaped at the lord.  "No kidding?  I mean, I thought they mentioned a full pack of Ravages being used.  I know that back in the day you could've handled a couple of the stray ones, but five or six of them were enough to take down two sorcerers!"

Seifer held his tongue about the use of seven Ravages, the lord not wanting to dwell on the unusual situation that continued to befuddle him concerning the dark-haired servant.  "We can talk more about that later.  Business first.  Why did you want to meet?"

"What, can't a guy miss his former Captain?" Zell asked with a satisfied grin.

"No.  And judging by your look, you must have something good to share."

Glancing over his shoulder in an amusingly paranoid manner, the blond soldier undid the lower buttons of his jacket and removed a small stack of papers from their hiding place.  Without a word, Zell handed the crumpled sheets to the larger man.

Not expecting much, Seifer skimmed over the first page, but noticing a few key words, he reread the page more carefully.  A pale eyebrow raised in true surprise, the nobleman asked, "Where in the world did you get these?"

"Now, now, I can't divulge all of my secrets or you may try to make me retire."

Seifer chuckled as he continued to scan the papers.  "Hn, then it was that girl of yours who maintains the palace library.  When are you going to getting around to fucking her, anyway?"

"Like you're one to talk, Almasy.  When's the last time you put your dick to good use, eh?"  Not receiving a reply to the taunt, Zell huffed loudly.  "Well, about the report, it looks legit to me, but I know you have better instincts about this sort of thing."

Nodding, Seifer silently agreed that he would have to carefully read the material in hand before he could believe a word of it.  Raising his eyes, he looked at the youthful man.  "Even with this, you know I that should ask you to stop playing spy.  The Emperor doesn't like his secrets being given away to his enemies."

"Tch.  What about you, huh?  You could overthrow the bastard and take his spot without breaking a sweat.  More than half of his higher ranked officers fucking belong to you and everyone knows it, and that's not to mention the outer cities you've saved from Deling.  You have the support and the money to overthrow four Emperors."

"As always, you're exaggerating about things you don't understand.  Even if I chose to dethrone the pompous prick, I'd make a terrible Emperor.  It's simply not my place."

Grunting, Zell pointed at himself with his thumb.  "And as long as you believe that, then my place is between you and Emperor Ding-a-Ling."

"Idiot."  Folding the sheets in hand, Seifer placed the material into a hidden pocket of his worn jacket.  "Well, if that's everything, then I should head off before I'm here for too long."

"No fucking way you're leaving yet, bastard.  You haven't told me how you killed all of those Ravages."  Fists waving in an imaginary battle, Zell asked, "Man, I wish I could've been there to watch your back.  It would've been like old times."

Scoffing at the romantic notions of the younger blond, Seifer corrected him.  "I wasn't there, actually.  One of my servants saved Leander from the monsters."

Zell spun around to face the man.  "One of your servants fought off five Ravages?"

"No, seven.  Killed every one of them, too."

Light blue eyes wide, the soldier seemed at a loss for words before asking, "How in Hyne's name did you pick up a fighter like that?"

"I didn't," Seifer stated cynically.  "The ass stumbled onto my property over three years ago and Ward allowed him to work as a kitchen hand."

Chuckling lightly, Zell commented, "Sounds like you don't care for the guy."

"It's not that I hate him," the nobleman argued as he roughly scratched his fingers through his short hair.  "Lately, though, this servant has made everything difficult for me.  And Hyne damn him, things would be better if Squall hadn't fucking entered my life and flipped the world upside down."  Lost in his anger and distracting thoughts, Seifer almost didn't hear the strangled noise that came from the soldier.  "What was that, Chickie?  You've got to speak up."

"Y... you said, 'Squall', right?  The guy's name?"

"Yeah.  What of it?  You know him?"

"No, it can't be... but to kill Ravages..."  Shaking his head, Zell asked, "Just in case, what does he look like?"

"Well, he's a bit taller than you, though that doesn't take much.  Dark, somewhat long hair.  He's a skinny thing with pale skin.  Oh, and somewhat unusual eyes - light blue with a hard edge of gray.  When he glares at you--"

"--You feel like your soul freezes?"

Startled, Seifer looked at the smaller blond for the interruption.  "So you do know him."

Zell stepped back, his hands rubbing along bare arms as if to drive off the cold.  "Shit, Almasy, how could you not know him?  If his name is really Squall... If he's really Squall Leonhart..."

"'Leonhart'?  Why does that sound familiar?"

Laughing with a hysterical edge, Zell said, "That's right.  You never faced him during the Massacre, did you?  Our group was split up when that one room was set on fire...  You weren't with us when we encountered him, the Sorcerer Prince himself - Squall Leonhart."

"Wait right there, Dincht.  You can't convince me that the scrawny servant I have back at home is the man who was killed along with the rest of his 'royal' family."

Apparently not hearing the lord, Zell stared forward with vacant eyes.  "We came across this room filled with kids - eleven or twelve-year-olds down to newborns.  The guys I was stuck with wanted to kill them, and it was our order to kill every moving thing in the castle, but they were fucking kids!  I tried to stop the others, but they pushed me aside.  I was sitting on my ass while I watched one of them raise a sword against this wide-eyed girl.  But no one noticed the frost on his leg until it was too late.  The sword never fell and the bastard froze solid on the spot with a terrified look that put the girl's fear to shame."

Seifer stood silently as he listened to the man talk.  He had never heard the tale amongst the other war stories they had shared over the years.  Zell had always been quiet about the day their unit was split into two groups, when only the young blond out of fifteen returned without a serious injury.  The disturbed look to the once innocent eyes prevented Seifer from questioning the younger man about what had happened, and he had never asked since.

"It had happened so fast.  This... blur of black moved across the room, leaving dead or dying bodies in its wake.  Some were frozen, others cut cleanly in half, but most had seemingly... exploded from the inside.  It was like their brains and guts had tried to escape their bodies."

The nobleman straightened at the description, remembering the odd state of the killed Ravages.

"In no time, I was the last soldier left moving.  I nearly pissed my pants when a short man dressed in black stepped in front of me, but he didn't do anything.  He stared at me with those fucking eyes of death before he revealed his face.  I couldn't believe it when I saw he was a kid, no older than me.  One of the younger kids called out his name, and that's when I knew I was facing Squall Leonhart."  With a tight laugh, Zell said, "At that moment, I did piss myself."

Though the other man paused in expectation of laughter, Seifer didn't mock the humiliating occurrence.  Hardly fourteen back then, Zell was the babe of their group, a boy who was forced into the army by his overzealous uncle.  He couldn't blame the one time youth for fearing a sorcerer who could brutally kill several men without a fight.

Realizing that his former Captain wasn't going to say anything, Zell smiled weakly in gratitude before continuing, "A bunch of the kids laughed at me, but Leonhart didn't.  Instead, he actually glared at them for it and said something like, 'This one wanted you to live, and you ridicule him?'.  When no one talked back, he dismissed them, telling the older children to led everyone through some passageway.  As they left, Leonhart turned to me and bowed his head in a type of thanks, I guess.  He then had a long staff in his hands - y'know, those weird ones sorcerers always carry around - and before I can blink, he's gone."

Recalling Leander's words about the servant using a 'stick' to fight the demonic wolves, Seifer fell into his thoughts as he reexamined the recent events that were connected to the mysterious servant.  The Ravages on his property had been killed brutally, suffering from far more damage than a simple man with a large stick could have caused.  Ward, a friend of the deceased 'Sorcerer King', was overly protective of the ill-mannered servant and always seemed to know more about Squall than he would tell.  And with a vague smile of disbelief, Seifer remembered the odd tricks of the servant, how several plates had been saved from destruction by the unique skill of the brunet.

But the lord's slight smile disappeared as he realized that another person had played a role in protecting Squall's identity.  As sickening anger flooded through the nobleman, Seifer turned on his heels and called back, "I have to go, Dincht.  I'll be contacting you."

"Wait a moment!  Is the guy really--"

Seifer didn't listen to the soldier's question, and in fact hardly heard the man as he stepped hurriedly outside and jogged up onto the main level of the street.  Refusing to run like a common man in distress, the green-eyed lord walked with a purposeful stride as he silently warned himself that he couldn't strangle the life out of a friend he trusted.  However, light torture seemed forgivable enough, and with a sneer, Seifer began to consider the possible items he could use that wouldn't leave a noticeable mark.

~ > < ~

At the thirteenth pound against resilient wood, the double doors opened inward to reveal an older man of slicked back hair and a pinched face that complemented his expression of annoyance and disgust.  With a forced note of helpfulness to his voice, the servant declared, "All appointments with Lord Kinneas should be handled at the hospital, sir."

Seifer sneered at the man.  "Don't give me that, Percy.  Tell me where Kinneas is hiding or I'll find him myself."

Dark eyes widened vaguely before the servant stepped to the side and bowed.  "Forgive me, Lord Almasy.  I did not recognize you in that... attire."

"Stop groveling and tell me where your master is."

"He is having supper with his lady, my lord.  If you would like, another plate--"

Not waiting for the offer of diner, Seifer headed in the direction of the dining room and warned himself to not punch the traitorous healer in front of the man's fiancée.  That spark of restraint, however, vanished when the blond lord stepped through the open doorway and his eyes settled on the smiling face of his friend.  In a wild moment, Seifer believed Irvine's laughter was the healer mocking him for his months of ignorance.

The golden-haired woman seated at Irvine's side was laughing lightly, but as her azure eyes shifted to the entrance of the broad-shouldered man, her amusement swiftly transformed into stiff apprehension.

Irvine followed her gaze and straightened at the sight of the nobleman.  "My, Seifer, dressed for a masquerade at this time of the day?  How unusual."

"Don't start with me, Kinneas.  We need to talk.  Now."

"Very well."  Standing, Irvine bent down to brush his lips against the pale brow of his fiancée.  "Forgive me, Quistis, but you know the stories of my friend's anger."

The woman nodded, a faint blush appearing at her cheeks from the public display.  Turning her eyes to the larger man, Quistis glared with a regal haughtiness.  "Lord Almasy.  I expect you to display the behavior befitting a lord during your stay here."

Caught between disbelief and outrage, Seifer let his anger recede into the background as he chuckled at the audacity of the onetime slave.  Bowing, he took an elegant hand in his and pressed his lips against slender fingers.  "I swear to you that no murder will happen tonight, my lady.  Merely a discussion between two old friends."

Quistis nodded, though uncertainty was still present in the hard eyes.  "Then take him, but do not be long.  He has promised to listen to my music tonight."

Amused by the beauty's controlling nature, the blond lord smiled warmly at the woman.  "Thank you, my lady.  I shouldn't take much of his time."

As the two men left the narrow dining room, Seifer held his tongue until he was certain that they would not be heard by the young woman.  "She's grown bolder since the last time I met her."

With a proud smile, Irvine replied, "Quistis has a strong soul.  It was the only thing which kept her from breaking under the ownership of Sloan, that sadistic healer I once told you about.  But she hadn't regained her confidence until recently.  Despite my aunt's arguments, I believe that Quistis will make a perfect Lady for this household."

Seifer scoffed.  "She already has the attitude of a noblewoman, that's for certain."

Irvine only chuckled in reply, and then held opened the door which led to his private room.  Seifer stepped into the small den, accustomed to the sight of a lit fireplace, a collection of large comfortable furniture, and a few bookshelves that contained selected books amongst random pieces of art.  Moving to a nearby wall, Seifer stood in place while staring at a new painting of the lord, his eyes not seeing the thick swirling lines of black as he waited tense and prepared.  At the sound of a final click of the door being locked, Seifer moved with a turn and a lunging step, then shoving the lanky man hard against the door.

His muscular arm pressed against the healer's throat, Seifer glared directly into shocked and panicked eyes.  "How fucking dare you allow a sorcerer to live under my roof and not tell me a damned word."

Understanding flickered in the violet depths, but Irvine quickly covered himself with look of ignorance.  "Seifer, I told you from the beginning that Leander had the blood of a sorcerer.  Is your memory truly that bad?"

Growling, Seifer jerked his arm in a quick and hard thrust against the man's throat, causing the healer to choke.  "I won't be messed with, Kinneas.  You knew about Leander with hardly a touch, so you must have discovered Squall's secret when you saved his life.  What I want to know is why you lied to me?"

"I didn't lie."

Tempted to seriously hurt the man, Seifer instead backed up a step and grabbed the healer by the throat.  Emerald eyes glared at unresisting friend, and once seeing the lack of fear in the violet eyes, Seifer snorted with disgust as he threw Irvine against the door for a final time.  Purposely turning his back on the coughing man, the blond walked to the fireplace and stared into the burning embers.

"I didn't lie," Irvine repeated in a hoarse voice, "And the secrets I held from you weren't mine to tell."

Seifer fingered a poker of solid metal which hung next to the hearth.  "Don't hide behind that excuse, Kinneas.  That 'secret' endangered both Leander and myself.  The fucking 'Sorcerer Prince' on my property... The Emperor would have killed us all to assassinate one man.  Did you ever consider that?"

"Yes, but Squall has been a member of your staff for years.  Obviously, he is quite skilled at hiding his heritage.  What would it matter now to learn that he's a sorcerer?"

The green-eyed lord didn't answer the question, Seifer uncertain about what angered him more - that his friend had betrayed him or that he had been unknowingly sheltering a sorcerer.

A groaning sigh sounded as Irvine took a seat in one of the chairs.  "When I was summoned to your Estate that day months ago, the last thing I expected was to find a dying sorcerer.  Stepping into that room, I was practically smothered by the power that radiated from Squall.  His innate magic was trying and failing to keep him alive, and even in that state, he refused to be touched by me.  He didn't realize that I could already sense what he was, and instead of being discovered, he opted for death.  To save his life, I had to swear to protect his secret.  He wouldn't let me help him otherwise."

Eyes closed, Seifer recalled that day, envisioning the limp body lying on the stained mattress while blood flowed from too many wounds.  The bright red blood had contrasted sharply against ashen skin, and though his very life was pouring away, the brunet had spoken clearly and sharply that no healer was to be summoned.  Green eyes snapped open with a flash of remembered anger at the stubborn man.  But with more thought, Seifer realized the man hadn't feared death that point.  There were far worse things for a rogue sorcerer to fear more than death.

Still, the anger burned.  "Did you really believe I would hand him over to the Emperor?"

"Of course not.  But unlike myself, Squall doesn't believe he can entrust you with his life and wellbeing."

"But why doesn't he--"  Seifer didn't finish his question as he turned around and looked at Irvine with a startled gaze.  "The Massacre... Is that why he hates me so much?  Because I was a soldier back then?  But you must have told him how I... how all of us were sickened by the whole thing."

"I told him that, but Squall just scoffed and asked, 'then for what reason did my family die?'.  How the Hell do you answer a question like that?"

Seifer glanced away and ran an unsteady hand through golden hair.  "He would ask something that has no answer, wouldn't he?"

"The part that disturbs me the most is that there should be an answer.  His family, his capitol, and his people were all destroyed and devoured by flames."  With a frustrated sigh, Irvine moved in his seat and said, "Squall has nothing left but his life and his secrets, and without a choice on his part, he entrusted both in my care.  I couldn't betray that kind of confidence, not even to you."

Continuing to avoid violet eyes, Seifer glared at a nonexistent spot while conflicting thoughts fought in his mind.  He wanted to hate and blame Irvine for choosing a stranger over their friendship, but instead, the blond lord found himself remembering his first run-in with Squall.  The servant's eyes were defiant and cold, but beneath it all, Seifer had seen the gleam of fear in the stormy depths.  Thinking back, the nobleman realized that every one of Squall's actions since then had held the same hint of terror, a fear Seifer had once thought was unfounded.

"If I may ask," Irvine questioned quietly, "how did you discover his identity?"

"If you can believe it, Dincht was the one to make the connection."

With a surprised hum, the healer commented, "I forgot about Zell coming face-to-face with the Sorcerer Prince.  He was in shock for days after that experience."

"Well, he was only a chick at the time."  Frowning in sudden thought, Seifer straightened.  "Fuck me, Squall couldn't have been over fourteen himself back then and he was fighting and killing like an aged soldier?  Maybe the Emperor was right about sorcerers being a threat."

"Don't even think it, Almasy.  We all fight differently when our home is in danger.  And just because Squall is a powerful sorcerer, don't mistaken him for a deadly threat.  Sweet Hyne, he's been a servant for the past several years without your knowledge, and the only trouble he's been involved in hasn't been his fault."

"Hn, I suppose that's true. ...So, this is the reason, isn't it?"  At the healer's questioning look, Seifer elaborated, "That damned connection between Ander and Squall, it exists because they both have the blood of sorcerers."

"In part, but Squall has told me that Leander is reacting more on instinct than anything else.  Without training, I suppose that isn't much of a surprise."

"Damn it to Hell, if I had known earlier about this, then I would have never..."  Seifer cut off his own ranting as he suddenly realized what it meant to have a trained sorcerer under his command.  Green eyes bright and hopeful, the blond lord asked, "Say Irvine, do you think that Squall would be willing to teach Ander?  I've always wanted the boy to improve his powers, but since the Massacre, no one would dare to offer himself as a tutor in sorcery.  And if this 'Sorcerer Prince' is really the warrior I've heard rumors about, then he could also train Ander to defend himself."

After staring at the blond for an unbelieving moment, Irvine laughed.  "You are impossible!  You walk into my home, prepared to strangle me for holding secrets from you, and now you want to take advantage of those secrets?"

With a shrug and a grin, Seifer replied, "I was angry and I got over it.  You should know that I can't stay upset with you for too long.  Otherwise, I would've killed you at least ten times over the years we've known each other."

The healer shook his head.  "What a benevolent friend you are."

"You still haven't answered my question - would Squall be willing to train Ander?"

Hesitating in thought, Irvine eventually replied with a lazy smile, "It depends on how nicely you ask."

~ > < ~

Returning to his Estate shortly after nightfall, Seifer walked through the hallways with his lips curled in a faint smile and his favored sword, Hyperion, clinking at his waist.  His entrance into the main kitchen caused the hustle of cleaning servants to slow, but the dissipating noise was replaced by soft, questioning whispers.  The nobleman paid little mind to the handful of women, knowing that his unchanged clothing and the weapon at his side made him quite the sight.  Instead, he glanced around the room, disappointed to not find the familiar mop of dark hair.

"Master Seifer."

The scolding voice made the blond turn and face the unhappy expression of the head cook.  "Matron.  Just the person I need."

"Never mind that, young man.  Where were you this evening?  Leander waited a full hour before having dinner without you.  You were supposed to be home hours ago, and look at you, you haven't even cleaned up yet."

"I know, I know, but some unexpected business arose while I was in town.  I promise to make amends with Ander in the morning.  But first," Seifer began while leaning in closer to the tall woman, "where is Squall?"

"Why do you want to know?" Edea asked, her wary golden-eyed gaze shifting down to the nobleman's sword.  "Do you mean to drive him away a final time?"

"No," Seifer replied with a charming smile.  "I simply have some questions to ask him."

Though hesitant, Edea sighed.  "He finished his chores a short while ago, so I doubt he went to bed just yet.  He's probably somewhere near the meadows."

Pleased at getting an answer with little trouble, Seifer placed a kiss at the older woman's cheek and said his thanks before rushing past the startled matron.  Though the night air was cool, it was an unusually pleasant autumn evening with no wind to chill the bones.  But the nobleman hardly noticed the world around him, his green eyes instead focused on the moonlit trail that led to the pastures behind the manor.

Once reaching the open land of long grass, Seifer slowed to a stop and looked for his hiding servant.  Not seeing anyone along the fence, however, the lord wondered if it had been a bit too easy to gain an answer from the motherly cook.  Then a loud neigh followed by a calming whisper made Seifer look out into the meadow and quickly set his eyes on an immense black horse that was standing a short distance beyond the fence.  Before the animal, however, was the more interesting sight as Seifer stared at the dark-haired man who was stroking his pale hands against ebony fur.  Standing next to the warhorse, Squall appeared smaller and more fragile than usual, and for a moment, Seifer doubted the word of his friend that the brunet was the so-called 'Sorcerer Prince'.  But recalling the sight of the bloody man left alive amongst the mutilated bodies of several Ravages, the blond lord reminded himself that he couldn't underestimate the servant.

Squall turned, his gray eyes flashing like cold metal in the pale light of the moon.  He said nothing, perhaps hoping that he wasn't the object of the nobleman's search, but there was still a stiffness of fear in the man's stance.  The fear of a man who didn't want to be discovered.

But then, in a strangely playful manner, the warhorse nickered softly and bumped its massive head against Squall's chest, an obvious demand for more petting.

Seifer smiled at the sight and commented, "Fritz typically doesn't care for strangers like that."

With an uncertain frown, Squall looked into the dark eyes of the horse.  "I haven't been a stranger here for a long time, my lord."

"Hn, I suppose not.  You've been here for, what, almost four years now?  But still, that beast doesn't like most people.  I'm impressed that you could charm him."

Sighing, the brunet stepped back from the warhorse and waved him off, the trained animal snorting as he turned and trotted in the direction of the stables.  After watching the horse leave, Squall stepped to the fence and hesitated before slipping through.  With his head bowed in a submissive fashion, he asked, "Is there something you want, my lord?"

Seifer didn't answer directly, his eyes instead studying the lean form of the servant.  There was no visible strength to the man, nothing to consider a threat, and yet, Seifer knew that there was plenty to fear within the thin body.  He stepped closer to the smaller man, but then stopped when the brunet became more tense with his presence.

Hating the discord between them, Seifer asked, "How do I apologize for something that was out of my control?"

"... Excuse me, my lord?"

"The Massacre.  It should have never happened."  As puzzled blue-gray eyes gazed at him, Seifer growled with frustration and ran a hand through his hair as if the action could better organize his rampant thoughts.  "I admit that I was a part of the Imperial Army back then, but I was only sixteen and wholly believed the lies of the Emperor concerning the threat of sorcerers.  By the time I realized the truth, we were too deep into their capitol and it became a matter of 'kill or be killed'.  I truly didn't hate sorcerers back then, and I never wished for their extinction."

Stony eyes narrowed as Squall asked carefully, "Why are you spouting this nonsense?"

"Because... it's something I want the 'Sorcerer Prince' to know."

There was a flash of surprise before an icy mask overcame the man's expression.  "Your guilt means nothing to me."

Though offended at the harsh words, Seifer contained his anger with the knowledge that he deserved the sorcerer's ire.  "Yes, well, I suppose there is no undoing the past."

"Easy words for someone like you," Squall muttered as he stepped forward in an attempt to leave, but an unsheathed blade blocked his path and made him look questioningly at the lord.

"You aren't escaping tonight, Leonhart," Seifer stated with a smirk.

"Then, I suppose the Emperor has already been informed."

"Of course not."

Confusion returned to the gray eyes as Squall glanced down at the sword, and then back to the excited gaze of the nobleman.

"I never faced you during the Massacre," Seifer started as his explanation.  "And truthfully, I still find it hard to believe that you are the feared 'Sorcerer Prince'.  You seem too scrawny to bear the weight of that title."

"What are you suggesting?"

Hearing the tinge of anger to the controlled voice, the lord smiled and rested his weapon on his shoulder.  "A friendly spar.  Give me that, prove to me that you are worth the trouble, and I'll assure your safety here."

With a disapproving frown, Squall asked, "Have you been drinking?"

Seifer laughed.  "I'm not drunk, and I'll have you know that I haven't been drunk in well over four years.  But if it assures you at all, I do have my reasons to fight you.  Reasons that could benefit you in the end."

The dark-haired man said nothing for a time, his eyes of cold metal unfocused as he considered his options.  The lull quickly wore on the nobleman's patience as he sighed loudly and ran a hand through his pale hair to noisily scratch his scalp.  Still, no sound came from Squall.  Near ready to demand an answer from the brunet, Seifer almost didn't notice the faint tingling of his leg.  Cursing at his inattention, the blond stomped his foot hard against the ground and shook the crystals of frost from his leg before glaring at the servant.  Squall smiled softly at the look of irritation.

Breathing out a laugh at the smug expression, Seifer moved his blade in front of his body.  "I suppose that was your acceptance to the match?"

The man's faint smile vanished into a neutral line as the sorcerer held out his hands and a dark staff materialized from the night air.  Resting the weapon at his shoulder, Squall stroked the carved lettering with a type of reverence before looking up at the blond.  Gray eyes flashed pale blue, the sight entrancing Seifer in the moment before a howl of wind made him jump and lunge to the side.  Looking back at the sound of scattered dirt, Seifer stared at the gash that had been created deep into the meadow ground.

"Not bad."

The dry words of the servant made Seifer look up, and after a startled moment, he laughed at the apparent compliment.  Changing his grip on his sword, the nobleman launched at the smaller man.  The direct attack became a poor decision as an unseen shield slowed the lord's strike, giving Squall enough time to twist away and move his staff in a counterattack.  Seifer allowed the strike to occur, and despite the loss of breath, he managed to trap the staff against his body.  That more than anything caused a reaction in the sorcerer, his gray eyes going wide with a flash of blue fire before he stepped forward with a raised knee.  Releasing the staff, Seifer blocked the groin attack, but a sudden gust of wind shoved him him back several paces.

The sorcerer breathing hard, Squall lifted his staff before him, and with a hand at the very end, he abruptly swung the long weapon in a downward arc.  Expecting the staff to land against the ground, Seifer was surprised at the new sight of a wide sword held in a steady hand.  Dark lettering was present along the pale metal of the blade, but Seifer wasn't given a chance to examine the new weapon any further before he was forced to defend himself from fast and numerous attacks by the sorcerer.  Squall drew first blood with several minor hits along the lord's body, Seifer being surprised by the smaller man's speed.  However, the blond was more accustomed to sparring given his recent sessions with his large steward, and eventually, Seifer found an easy rhythm to block the rapid attacks.

In short time, the strikes of the servant became noticeably weaker, something that disappointed the lord, but given Squall's recent eating habits, Seifer knew the man couldn't have much energy left within his body.  Deciding to test his theory, the blond used harder blocks and made the smaller man reach further for every strike, hoping to wear down the brunet.  Soon, Squall stumbled with a long step, the surprise obvious on his face in the moment he realized his mistake.  Seifer wasted no time in taking advantage of the opening, but as he moved in with a thrust of his blade, the sorcerer suddenly twisted during his fall and ran the fingers of his free hand along the lord's side.  Heat burned at that spot, but nothing more, and Seifer was allowed to finish his downward strike as Hyperion cut through skin and continued further into the soft ground of the meadow.

For a long moment, there was only silence as Seifer stood over the fallen sorcerer.  Squall laid on his back in a limp position, as if a blade wasn't cutting deep into the top of his shoulder and preventing him from standing.  His sword was gone, vanished into the night, but Seifer knew the sorcerer was far from defenseless.

Focused on the attractive face set in a weary expression, Seifer stroked a hand along his side and winced at the remaining tenderness.  "You could've killed me just now."

Squall didn't react to the comment except for a slight narrowing of his eyes.

"All this time, you haven't concealed your hatred for my existence, and yet, you didn't take the chance to be rid of me.  Why not?"

Pale lips parted as if to answer, but then closed tightly as Squall turned his face away from the lord.  "This hurts, you realize."

Startled into action, Seifer knelt down and helped the servant to remove himself from the blade.  At the flow of blood, the nobleman pulled off his shirt and cut it into strips with a knife before binding the fairly deep wound.  Squall didn't resist the aid as he sat silently while the blond tended to him.

"How badly does this hurt?  Should I contact Kinneas?"

The sorcerer scoffed with disgust.

"Enough of that.  You can't think the worse of him for this situation.  You should know that he didn't tell me anything about you until I figured out things for myself.  And even then, I had to threaten his life before he confirmed my theories."

Squall shifted his eyes to the lord, uncertainty clear in the frozen orbs.

"Believe me or not, but for people like us who need a confidant, Kinneas is a trustworthy man.  An ass, but a loyal one."

"... ..."

"Either way, this cut is deep one.  If you don't want Kinneas, Matron has a steady hand with sewing.  And though she'll have my head in the morning, you should have her treat this once you return to the manor."

Looking toward the meadow, Squall nodded vaguely in a sign that he would do just that.

Seifer finished his bandaging with a small knot and sat back on his heels.  "I didn't intend for you to get injured, but you startled me with that touch of yours.  I'm truly amazed that you didn't take the opportunity to kill me."

"It doesn't matter."

The nobleman wanted to argue that it mattered greatly, but decided to save it for another time.  "As you know, there was a reason to all of this, and since you've proven your worth... Do you know that Leander also has the blood of a sorcerer?"

Squall stiffened at the question.

"Isn't that why you protect him?  Because he is one of the last of your kind?"  Taking the man's silence as a confirmation to his beliefs, Seifer explained, "For a long time, I've been listening for any rumors about rogue sorcerers.  Ander... Well, his mother left him in my care, but I know nothing about sorcerers.  Someone needs to teach him about his heritage, and preferably, I want someone who can show him how to defend himself.  You can be that someone."

The sorcerer shook his head as a harsh laugh left his lips.  "Don't lie."

"What reason would I have to lie about this?  You have no idea how much I fear for Ander's life and--"

"I don't mean that."  Turning to the blond, Squall said, "His 'mother' didn't abandon him.  His other father did."

At first stunned into silence, Seifer smiled weakly.  "I suppose there's no use hiding that fact from a sorcerer.  But that doesn't change my request."

Guarded eyes studied the nobleman.  "You're serious."

"Of course I'm serious.  You've already gotten a taste of what trouble the Emperor can cause, and he has yet to learn about Ander's background.  As you once told me, I can't protect him from everything, but I can make certain that he is ready for the worse.  And for that, I need you to teach him the ways of sorcerers."

Squall sat in thought for a long moment before pushing up with his good arm and standing above the blond lord.  "I can't promise much.  I was able to write my first spells before I was six; meanwhile, Leander can barely call upon a cold wind.  It may be too late for him to learn properly."

"What...?" Seifer whispered in a fearful moment, and then demanded while standing, "If that's true, then why haven't you tried to teach him already?  Why have you left him defenseless?"

"I was trying to teach him without being noticed, but my... involvement in Leander's life was taken as something else entirely."

"Fucking Hyne, why does everything go back to that?!  I didn't realize--"

"I know," Squall interrupted softly, his somber calm dowsing the lord's heated anger.  "You only wanted to protect your child."

Staring at the youthful sorcerer, Seifer watched as a slight wind caused dark locks to sway against pale skin.  Not for the first time, the lord wanted to reach out and brush aside the hair that always seemed to hide the man's eyes.  And then suddenly, he was doing just that, his touch along cool skin making Squall jerk back and glare at the nobleman.  Instantly, Seifer was entranced by the faint blue glow that highlighted the gray eyes and he didn't think to pull back his hand until it was roughly knocked aside.

Realizing what he had done, the lord stuttered, "Ah, sorry, I thought... I thought there was something... in your hair."

Though scowling for a moment longer, Squall huffed and turned his back to the lord.  "I'll do it."

Seifer looked at the servant as if trying to understand his words.  "You'll do it?"

The sorcerer sighed.  "Despite his father, yes, I'll train Leander.  But in secret and without your interference."

With a broad smile at getting his way, the blond lord replied, "I won't swear to that last condition, but if there's anything else you want in payment for your services, it's yours."

Squall gazed over his shoulder, and with an odd look to the softly glowing eyes, he said, "Everything I want, I can't have."

The statement left Seifer with no reply, and with his voice gone, he simply watched as the injured man headed to the manor.  Once the sorcerer stepped out of sight, Seifer moved his gaze higher to view the rooftop of his mansion that rose just above the trees.  For a moment, he tried to imagine the only home he ever knew set ablaze and the people within being slaughtered simply because they were associated to the Almasy name.  It sickened him only in thought, and yet, Seifer was present when merciless flames had fed on the family, home, and life of the 'Sorcerer Prince'.  He was there and he had done nothing.

A gust of cold wind woke Seifer from his thoughts, reminding him of his shirtless state.  Rubbing a hand along a bare arm, the blond lord moved to retrieve the sword that was still upright in the ground, but then stopped in place when his eyes noticed the shimmer of blood on the blade.  Kneeling, he ran his finger through the cooled blood and stared at his stained skin.

His lips forming a soft smirk, Seifer said distractedly, "If you bleed, then you're still alive, sorcerer.  And I think it's time you learned to appreciate that."

Chapter Text

Seated on a cushioned piano bench, Squall stared down at the wooden keys that were yellowed with age and dust.  Although alone in the room, the sorcerer still found it awkward that it was so quiet.  Several tall and wide bookcases lined the room, but instead of texts filling the shelves, numerous instruments from all countries were present.  Apparently placed there for storage and not for display, most of the instruments were dull from dust and cobwebs.  Since the first time Squall had stumbled upon the room, he was amazed and disappointed to find the various instruments of excellent quality being left unused in a room where both the outdated furniture and the few windows were covered by heavy sheets.  But despite the regretful neglect, Squall had welcomed the solitary escape where few seemed to venture judging by the layers of dust.

And after three years of peace, Squall was about to lose his last sanctuary on the Almasy Estate.

A soft knock followed by an opening door broke the quiet of the room.  A child's voice then sounded, Leander questioning his father about why they weren't going to the stables.  Judging by the amused expression on the lord's face, Almasy had remained silent to the boy about the plans for Squall to tutor the young boy.  Not enjoying the nuances of surprises, the sorcerer sighed loudly and stood from his spot behind the piano.  The movement instantly caught the eye of the young boy and made him cry out.

"Squall!  Why are you here?"  The smiling boy ran up to the servant, but then stopped short with a wary glance back to his father.  "Is something wrong?"

Almasy laughed and shook his head.  "No, Ander.  This is something I imagine you've wanted for long time."

"What I've wanted?" Leander repeated as small eyebrows scrunched in deep thought.

Amused by the befuddled expression, Squall knelt down and gazed directly into green eyes.  "I'll explain what he means in moment, but we have something else to discuss first.  Tell me, Leander - have you ever sensed something different and perhaps strange about me?"

The young sorcerer hesitated before replying cautiously, "I guess... the air feels weird around you.  Nothing bad, but... weird."

"And on occasion, that sensation is stronger than usual?"

The boy nodded, his confidence returned with the servant's belief in his answer.  "Sometimes it feels really heavy, but I like it.  It makes me less scared and it smells like rain."

Surprised by the offhanded comment, the stormy-eyed man asked, "Scared?  Why are you scared?"

"... ..."

Guessing the source of his fear, Squall placed a gentle hand at his son's cheek.  "If you are referring to the secret concerning your sorcerer blood and powers, then I already know."

Startled and fearful green eyes met calm gray.  "You... you know?  But you... I never..."

"Leander, think for a moment.  Why would I know that you consider me different than everyone else?"

The child stared at the man he had befriended over the years, and after a long silence, Leander lifted a shaky hand to touch the larger one still resting on his cheek.  Green eyes instantly brightened with the unique glow of a sorcerer as the youth gaped for a moment and then asked, "You're like... me?"

"A-ah."

Leander shivered at the simple reply as his eyes moistened near tears.  "You're like me."

"Yes, cub, and this is something your father discovered recently.  Instead of sending me to the Emperor, he has asked me to tutor you in the art of sorcery.  I agreed."

As if not hearing the words, the dark-haired boy launched forward and grabbed onto the man's shirt with two hands.  "Do you know my mommy?"

Startled by the sudden question, Squall could only stare wordlessly at the child.

"You're a sorcerer!  Like me!  That means you know my mommy!"

"I... I can't say..."

"Why not?  Don't you know my mommy?"

"Leander," Squall exhaled in a whispering breath.  "I'm sorry..."

With a quiet and hurt-filled 'oh', Leander released his desperate hold on the man's clothing and glanced away for several moments.  As the sorcerer had intended, his regretful voice could have implied anything to the young boy - that his 'mother' was dead, that the person didn't want to be known, or that Squall simply didn't know the person's identity.  And while watching the dark-haired child, Squall wished he knew exactly what thoughts were occurring in the young mind.

Eventually, with a soft gleam to his eyes, Leander returned his gaze to the brunet.  "Are you really gonna teach me how to use magic?"

"A-ah, I am," Squall replied, thankful for the boy's change in focus despite the remaining disappointment that lingered in his voice.  "We will meet here twice a week, and your father wanted today to be your first lesson."

Leander turned around at that information.  "I can use my powers now?"

Almasy smirked with a playful edge to the curl of lips.  "Of course, but only under Squall's supervision."

"Thank you, Father!"

"No need to thank me, kid," the blond lord responded as he stepped forward to the piano.  While running a finger across the propped lid of the instrument, Almasy commented, "But I have to say, Squall, I'm curious about your choice to meet here instead of my study.  Aside from my surprise that you even know about this room, it doesn't seem to be a good place for learning."

Not hiding his annoyance that he was required to explain himself, the sorcerer replied, "There are open windows in your study through which anyone can observe us.  And while training outside would have been best in a circumstance that didn't demand privacy, this room has certain tools that can be used to strengthen Leander's control."

After scowling at the smear of dust on his fingertips, Almasy looked to the brunet.  "Tools?  There's nothing here but random instruments my mother attempted to learn and then discarded in frustration."

Forgoing a verbal response, Squall lifted from his kneeling position and moved his gaze to a nearby shelf.  His hand raised, the sorcerer calmed his center and allowed the whispers of earth and air reach his ears.  Without a sound, a flute made of tarnished metal rose from its dusty resting spot and glided forward a bare foot before tilting at a slight angle.  Just as a slight gasp came from the young boy and his father looked about ready to make a comment of disinterest, a quiet note broke the silence.

No one spoke as the untouched flute began playing a song of low notes, a haunting tune that only the whispers of wind could produce.  It wasn't a complex song, but it required the cooperation of the air to mimic the flow of breath while the earth moved the pads of the instrument to produce the correct notes.  While not an easy task, the sorcerer had played several instruments in his long past and was accustomed to the strain of forcing the air and earth to work together.  But it was for that reason Squall was startled partway through the song when he noticed that one of his fingers was already shaking from the amount of concentration and energy that was required to control the flute.  It was distressing, but understandable given years of neglect toward his magic and training.

With a sharp movement of his hand, Squall stopped the wind from coaxing music from the old flute and allowed the instrument to return to its resting place.  Unconsciously rubbing his injured and sore shoulder, the sorcerer stared at the tarnished metal and murmured the words his father spoke during a similar lesson long ago - "Any fool can create a tornado or a firestorm to destroy a city, but it takes a skilled man to use those same powers to create a simple, beautiful song."

After a time of quiet, the next sound came from Leander as he excitedly demanded, "When can I learn that?"

Squall smiled softly and placed a hand onto dark hair, but didn't reply.  Instead, he glanced over to the silent blond with the expectation of a snide comment from the arrogant man.  Almasy, however, didn't notice the challenging gaze as his green eyes continued to stare at the unmoving flute.  It wasn't a frightened gaze, nor one of amazement.  The lord was in deep thought and Squall wasn't certain if he felt comfortable with the look of concentration.

"Squa-all," Leander whined while moving the hand from his head.  "Please, can I learn how to do that?"

"Not yet, cub," Squall stated with some amusement, wondering if this was the first time the boy was eager to be tutored.  "You have many things to learn first, not to mention how to play a flute."

With surprise clear in the green eyes, Leander asked, "Isn't it just a spell?"

"Unfortunately, no.  Our magic relies on the manipulation of air, earth, and fire.  While certain spells may help us to focus on the exact action that we desire of those elements, the spells alone don't command them."

The boy frowned, obviously trying his best to understand the words, but there was only so much a child of six years could grasp.

"Don't worry.  You'll understand in time," Squall assured him as he knelt down once more to be eyelevel with the boy.  "Anyway, you have something more important to learn than music.  Today, you will learn to bring forth the core of your magic."

His eyes wary, Leander gazed at the servant.  "My core...?  Will it hurt?"

With a soothing smile, Squall sat back on his heels and held out his hands.  The rush of wild energy made the brunet sigh, the impossible mix of fire and ice coursing down his arms never failing to create an oddly pleasurable sensation.  And then the staff of dark red wood and deep carvings was resting in his hands, exposed for anyone to see.  Leander stared at the long weapon for an awed and fearful moment.  Raising his small hand, he moved to touch the staff, but then hesitated as he looked into calm eyes for permission.  With a slight nod, Squall watched as careful fingers touched the weapon and glided along the ridges of complex spells.  Then, whether by chance or with subconscious knowledge, Leander lingered on a simple warming spell that had been used to protect the onetime newborn from the cold of night.

"This is the stick you used to kill the wuffs."

"That's right," Squall replied softly.

"But you do magic without it..."

Hearing the implied question, the sorcerer explained, "It's possible to command magic without exposing our center, but it's safer to summon our core to completely control the elements and to prevent a backlash of power.  Also, for those learning magic, it's necessary to reveal this part of ourselves in order to imprint new knowledge, to make it a part of our magic."

Dark eyebrows scrunched in deep thought, but Leander was far from understanding the things he had yet to experience.

Pulling his core from the child's touch, Squall allowed the weapon to dissolve and flow back within himself.  Leander seemed hurt at the sudden loss, but didn't vocalize his thoughts.  With an encouraging smile directed at the youth, Squall announced, "Now, show me yours."

With wide eyes, Leander stared at the sorcerer.  "I don't know how."

"It's simple.  Just close your eyes, hold out your hands, and guide your powers into your hold."

Though uncertain at first, the child did as he was told.  For a long time, Leander stood with his hands palm up and his eyes closed tightly in deep and apparently painful concentration.  Squall remained silent, watching how pink lips eventually twisted into a frustrated scowl.  It was a familiar expression, one that belonged completely to the elder Almasy and it caused a deep burn within the chest of the sorcerer.  For the briefest of moments, Squall had forgotten that Leander was the child he had given to another man.  He had forgotten that his son had never belonged to him.

Huffing loudly, Leander slapped the back of his hands against his thighs and interrupted the sorcerer's distracted thoughts.  Soft green eyes were moist with held back tears as the boy declared, "It's not working."

"Don't quit now, cub," Squall said soothingly as took hold of the child's hands and lifted them to their previous position.  "For my first time, I needed my father's help, as well."

"You did?"

"Of course."  Placing his fingers at the boy's chest, Squall instructed, "Close your eyes once more and focus on placing your energy right here.  As your power moves, it should feel like ice forming at your feet.  Eventually it will become a heavy frost that crawls up through your legs and to your center.  But where my fingers are, there should be a searing heat that makes every breath hot.  Do you feel it?"

With a quiet noise, Leander nodded and shifted uncomfortably.

"That's the fire moving within you and gathering at your chest.  And wherever fire goes, air and earth will follow.  Can you hear their whispers?"

"Uhn... they want... I think they want out."

"Then release them," Squall said while removing his fingers, thereby cutting off the additional touch of fire which the sorcerer had used to lure the child's power into his center.  "But don't grant the elements their freedom.  Instead, release them into your hold and within your control."

Leander frowned at the last requirement of releasing his core, but pink lips soon parted in a surprised gasp as small arms shook at the sudden flow of power.  Green eyes snapped open as Leander looked down at his hands, the flash of accomplishment quickly replaced by a disappointed pout.  Resting on his open palms was a thin stick made of pale, unmarked wood that was no bigger than a conductor's wand.  It was obviously not what Leander was expecting.

Silently laughing at his own memories of first seeing his core, Squall placed a consoling hand on dark hair.  "You are young, cub, and very inexperienced in the ways of sorcery.  With training and age, your core will grow stronger with power and spells."

"Really?" Leander asked, his light green eyes peaking ashamedly from beneath dark lashes.

"Trust me.  My core was smaller than yours when I first started."

Confidence returned, Leander smiled brightly as he turned and hurried to the blond nobleman.  "Look, Father.  I'm going to have a staff like the sorcerers in the pictures you showed me."

"I never doubted that for a moment," Almasy said with true pride as he leaned over his far smaller son.  "May I see it?"

Without hesitation, Leander held up his core in an offer for the lord to hold the precious stick.  Squall blamed himself for not explaining the deep importance of the eventual staff, that the child's very life energy was intertwined with the power of the elements.  But watching Almasy gently lift the core of pale wood, the sorcerer realized that it wouldn't have mattered to warn Leander beforehand.  No innocent child would fear entrusting his life to his parents.

Shifting away his eyes from the large blond, Squall looked at young boy and noticed a thoughtful expression that didn't belong on the face of children.  Unable to look away, the sorcerer watched as Leander turned, stared at him for an uncomprehending moment and then glanced down at his small hand.  An excited smile suddenly broke out on the boy's face as he turned to his father.

"Can I have it back?"

Though confused, Almasy nodded as he returned the stick, the man unable to sense the importance the pale wood anyway.

Grabbing onto his core, Leander moved quickly to the dark-haired servant and demanded, "You have to look at it now."

Pale eyes of blue-gray stared down at the boy as cold disbelief coursed through the sorcerer's body and mind.  Leander was a child, a mere boy who didn't understand the elements, the limitations of his power, nor the invisible strings which tied people together.  And yet, there was an intelligence, an overwhelming certainty in the soft green eyes that suggested Leander had recognized the touch of his father holding onto his core, that he had identified the absolute bond of parent and child.

Remaining stiff and silent, Squall stared at the stick of pale wood, a young core that held no shields and no stains of blood.  The sorcerer knew what Leander was attempting, that when the boy had examined his aged staff, he had felt 'something'.  However, that sensation was dampened by layers upon layers of defenses which Squall had placed over the years onto his all-important core.  The same wasn't true for Leander's newly exposed staff.  And when Leander had unexpectedly offered his unprotected center to Almasy, Squall had no doubt that Leander had immediately sensed the bond of 'father' with the blond lord.  But for Leander to connect that sensation with the muffled 'something' from Squall's staff, from the single moment when his small fingers had graced the sorcerer's weapon... That was inconvenient.

And now, Leander stood before the dark-haired servant, innocently asking for the impossible.  It was tempting for Squall to set his hand on the pale wood and reveal everything to the young boy.  He wanted to freely hold onto his son and to hear the child's voice call him 'father'.  But instead, Squall dug his fingernails into his palms and turned his hard stare to the boy's face, all the while saying nothing.

"Please, Squall..." Leander goaded more softly, some hurt sounding in the young voice as if the sorcerer was rejecting the boy by refusing the offered staff.

Silently apologizing to his son, Squall narrowed his eyes and spoke coolly to the youth.  "You shouldn't hand off your core so thoughtlessly.  That is more than a stick or some toy - it is the manifestation of your power and life energy.  I won't have you be reckless with it."

Green eyes widened in a crushed expression, Leander rarely being at the focus of the chilling tone.  His small core vanished in an instant, and as his pale skin flushed dark red, the young boy murmured an embarrassed and hurt apology.

"Now wait a moment," Almasy spoke in a near growl, ready to defend his distressed son.  "There's no reason to--"

Squall interrupted him.  "If I were to snap that core, I could drain his power and take it as my own.  His center destroyed, Leander would sink into a life of insanity where vengeful elements would control his body and mind."

Silence followed the sorcerer's statement, the quiet then broken by short laughter.  "What kind of joke is that?  You would never hurt Ander."

"It's not a joke, and you shouldn't belittle my words.  You have never witnessed a sorcerer's madness."  Looking to Leander, Squall warmed this tone and told him, "You did very well today, cub.  Few children are able to summon their core on the first day of their lessons.  But you should go rest now.  We'll continue in another few days."

Leander frowned.  "I can do more.  I don't feel tired."  But as he walked toward the sorcerer to argue further, the small boy stumbled and dropped to his hands and knees.  With a quiet 'oh', Leander proceeded to lay out on the floor and close his eyes with a sigh.

Startled, Almasy moved quickly to kneel at his son's side.  "Ander, what's wrong?  Are you hurt?"

"He exposed his core for the world to see," Squall began as he turned to leave.  "It leaves a child exhausted, and when he awakens, he should be starving.  I'll ask Matron to have someone deliver a tray to his room."

"And that's it?  He collapses in front of you and you'll do nothing more than order some food for him?"

Refusing to let the nobleman's easy anger overwhelm him, the sorcerer walked to the door.  "Leander is simply asleep.  He'll wake in a few hours, and I assume that you would rather to carry him to his room yourself.  Meanwhile, I have postponed my chores long enough."

Not allowing Almasy the chance to comment, Squall opened the door and quickly stepped into the hallway where he walked in the direction opposite of the wing which held the family bed chambers.  It was a quick journey down a set of staircases, and though he intended to return to the kitchens, Squall continued to walk as the image of the hopeful Leander stuck in his mind.  With his attention distracted by worrisome thoughts, the sorcerer didn't notice the passing scenery until a cold wind brushed against his neck.  Though startled to find himself standing outside and amongst thin trees, Squall didn't spare much thought on the common occurrence of losing himself in his mind.

Exhausted, the sorcerer lowered to the ground covered with dead, moldy leaves and laid out on his back.  His palms pressed down against cold dirt, Squall allowed the low tones of the earth to wash over him and grant him a sense of aged peace.  It was a rare escape that the brunet allowed himself, but it still wasn't enough to calm the deep fears churning in his stomach.  Leander would hate him soon.  In the case he learned the truth, he would hate the man who deserted him and betrayed his trust.  Or in the brunet's attempt to protect the truth, Leander would eventually hate him for the harsh words and cold manner.  In the end, Squall was about to completely lose his son and he didn't know how to prevent the impending shatter of his soul.

"Please..." the sorcerer whispered, his eyes of impure sapphire focused on the cloudy sky above.  "Please, Shiva.  I need strength when I have none left.  I need... something... someone... anything that will help me stand.  I need..."

With a short laugh of disgust at his worthless plead, Squall moved onto his side and rested his head on the bent arm of his uninjured shoulder.  Eyes closed, the thin man savored the cool weather and considered enjoying a nap before returning to the heat of the kitchens.  It was a tempting thought, a nearly fulfilled desire as the sorcerer sunk deeper into calm darkness, but tiny kisses of ice brought Squall back into full awareness.  Blinking, he rolled onto his back and stared up as white flakes glided gently from the sky.  It was an early snow, the first snow of the year.  And as small flecks of ice stuck to dark lashes, Squall focused on the gray sky above and silently feared that his thoughtless words had been heard by the frozen goddess of his people.


After a second string of stronger knocks, Squall heard a tired call to enter.  He opened the door wide enough to slip through the formed crack and stepped just beyond the threshold where he quickly closed the door and leaned back against the wood.  His hand steady on the doorknob, Squall was determined to leave at the first possible moment.

"What do you want?"

A deep chuckle sounded from across the lengthy room.  Seated behind his large desk of polished wood, Almasy gazed over a pair of golden framed glasses and smirked at the agitated man.  "I don't believe it's the position of a servant to question the desires of his lord and master."

"You are not my master."

Chuckling once more, Almasy adjusted his glasses and returned his attention to a stack of papers.  "You know, pressed against the door like that, you look like a mouse being stalked by a bored cat.  Have a seat and relax."

"No, thank you.  Why did you summon me?"

"That wasn't a suggestion, Squall.  Have a seat."

Scowling, the stormy-eyed sorcerer glared at the nobleman and questioned for the hundredth time why he hadn't kill the blond when he was given the chance.  But when there was apparently no bargaining with the frustrating man, Squall sighed and walked to the seat placed directly in front of the disorganized desk.  Just as he reached the cushioned chair, however, he noticed a plate of various cheeses and bread resting on the dark red seat.

"Couldn't find room on your desk for this?" Squall asked as he picked up the plate, but Almasy waved him off.

"No, I had that delivered for you.  Matron mentioned you preferred either overly plain foods or some grotesque meals that I wouldn't care to witness, so I asked for something simple."

"I already had breakfast."

Almasy scoffed as he wrote something on the report he was reading.  "That was over four hours ago and it was half of an apple.  That doesn't qualify as a meal."

Stunned, Squall stared at the blond lord.  "You're spying on me now?"

"While tempting, no, I'm not spying on you.  Matron freely offered the information.  She doesn't approve of your eating habits either."  Lowering his glasses, Almasy casually examined the thin body poorly hidden by loose clothing.  "Really, I'm surprised that you lasted as long as you did during our little spar.  You certainly wouldn't have gotten that injury of yours if you had taken better care of yourself.  Now eat."

Thoughtlessly, Squall placed his free hand at his healing shoulder.  "I'm not hungry."

Eyes of vibrant green peered directly at the sorcerer, the intense gaze forcing the brunet to resist the need to shift uncomfortably until Almasy eventually sighed and removed his glasses.  "Fine.  Just set it on the floor and sit down."

"I won't stay for long," Squall stated while taking the seat and resting the plate on his lap with the full intention to return it to the kitchen with his leave.

"We will see about that."  Leaning forward with his chin resting on folded hands, Almasy spoke in a low, soothing tone as he asked, "Why didn't you answer Ander when he asked if you knew the identity of his mother?"

"I answered him," the sorcerer argued cautiously.

"No, you apologized.  That's hardly an answer."

In a derisive murmur, Squall commented, "I'm surprised you noticed the difference."

"Yes, well, sometimes I manage to display more intelligence than a six-year-old child.  But now I'm curious - why did you lie?"

The servant glowered at the blond, silently informing him that it hadn't been a lie.

"You're going to be difficult again, aren't you?"

"... ..."

Smiling amusedly with a lopsided grin, Almasy sat back in his chair.  "Fine, you didn't outright lie, but you did let Ander assume that you don't know his birth parent.  Isn't that just as bad?"

"What do you want from me?"

"I want whatever knowledge you have about the man I fucked."

Growling under his breath, Squall stood up with the plate of bread and cheese in hand, but before he got further than turning his back to the crude man, Almasy continued to speak to him.

"You're my last chance at finding him."  When the servant halted at the serious plead, Almasy explained further, "I used to drink a lot, as I'm certain you've heard.  It was a misguided attempt to forget the past and my... unique problems.  Whenever I had sex with that sorcerer, I was full of alcohol.  No matter how much I've tried, I haven't been able to remember a thing about him.  Hell, I don't even know when it happened.  I can assume it was around a year before Ander was left in my care, but beyond that..."

Staring at the door across the room, Squall felt the elements stirring within him, encouraging him to escape the study and then vanish from the Almasy Estate altogether, but instead, he asked, "What does it matter to you?"

There was a reflective pause before the lord answered.  "Truthfully, I haven't thought about the man in years.  Of course, I tried to find the person, but after almost a year, I gave up when searching for rogue sorcerers in the area became a complete waste of time.  And eventually, I came to the conclusion that finding the man would lead to more trouble than he would probably be worth.  But yesterday, with Ander's question, with that damn pleading expression of his...  all this time, I had no idea that he was thinking about his 'mother'."

Eyes narrowed, Squall resisted the urge to call the man a blind fool.

"I know you don't owe me any favors, but unfortunately, you are my last resource.  And for Ander's sake--"

"I won't help you."

Almasy hummed softly, disappointed but apparently unsurprised by the refusal.  "Then, what if I offered this?"

There was the noise of moved papers and a quiet sound of wood settling on wood.  Curious despite himself, Squall turned around and noticed the previously absent box.  Gray eyes studied the long and decently sized box, taking in the sight of the deep scratches in the red wood and the black streaks of fire damage along its entire length.  Unmarked otherwise, Squall couldn't determine why the blond lord would believe that the ruined box would hold any appeal to him.

"Open it."

Squall gazed into green eyes, hoping for some sign about what Almasy could be scheming, but nothing was obvious beneath the man's cocky expression.  After first setting aside the plate of bread and cheese onto his vacated chair, Squall stepped in front of the wide desk and glared at the suspicious item.  With a hand on the lid of the box, the sorcerer hesitated as the strong sting of dormant magic rushed up his arm.  But it wasn't until the faint taste sweet smoke reached his tongue that the brunet showed any surprise, his pale eyes widening in disbelief.  His thumb undoing the simple latch protected by a weak earth seal, Squall opened the lid and stared within box that was divided into two sections and lined with dark velvet.

"Interesting," Almasy stated with awe, disrupting the sorcerer's stunned silence.  "It took the merchant a hammer and wedge to open that box.  For you to open it so easily, I assume that it's protected by magic of some sort?"

Unable to look away from the box, Squall demanded quietly, "How did you get this?"

"One of the merchants I trust in the capitol knows about my obsession with sorcerers, and he finds these artifacts on rare occasions.  I usually buy them simply because I believe that they belong in Leander's hands if not another sorcerer.  It'd be a shame for some rich fool to purchase these as war trophies or the like."

Hardly hearing the reply to his question, Squall reached inside the box and ran his fingers across the white pieces of stone that were handcrafted into detailed chess pieces.  Taking hold of a bishop, the sorcerer stared at the piece that was no larger than his pinky finger.  And as he examined the smiling face, Squall had to resist the sudden urge to shed the tears he thought no longer existed within him.

"Now, about that information I want..."

Still staring at the chess piece, Squall muttered, "You stupid, arrogant bastard."

"I've been called worse," Almasy answered with a laugh.

Growling, the sorcerer gripped tightly onto the bishop.  "Did you ever speak with Ward about sorcerers?  About our laws and beliefs?  Did you ask him about anything that would be relevant to your son's heritage?"

Taken aback by the reproachful tone of the servant, Almasy stalled before replying, "While he offered some advice, Ward doesn't like to explain anything at length.  And with the downfall of your family, I decided that it would be counterproductive to teach Ander the values of a nation that no longer existed."

"In other words, no, you never took it upon yourself to understand anything about your son's murdered ancestors."

Green eyes flared with offense, but before hurtful words left the lord's mouth, Almasy sighed and ran a large hand through his golden hair.  "You're right.  I suppose that I've been ignoring that side of my son for too long.  Or perhaps I've been avoiding it.  Either way, I was wrong to keep those things out of Ander's life."

The unexpected surrender and admission of the lord stole away the heat to Squall's anger, leaving him a little lost as he gazed down at his aching hand.  The base of the chess piece had dug into the flesh of his hand, leaving sharp lines of red along his palm.

"Perhaps you can educate me?"

Gray eyes flicked to the blond, expecting to see the man's strong features set in a mocking expression.  But while the ever-present smirk was in full force, Almasy's appearance was one of challenging determination rather than the childish arrogance Squall typically associated with the lord.  And as a pale eyebrow lifted in a questioning manner, the sorcerer sighed deeply in a sign of defeat.  But unable to look at the blond any longer, Squall turned to the side and walked to a large window where he leaned against cold glass.

Eyes not seeing the garden wasted by cold weather, Squall asked tiredly, "Did you know that this chess set belongs to my family?"

"I had hoped so.  While I purchased it long before I learned your identity, I was told that the Loire crest was branded into the wood beneath the velvet.  It's something I remembered this morning."

Cursing the lord's apparent luck, Squall gazed at the cold marble in his hand.  "My grandfather made the set himself, mostly through magic.  So much of him is in every piece.  Even now, by only touching the stone, I can smell and taste the pipes he would smoke."

With a soft hum, Almasy said, "Then I'm glad that I bought it from that merchant.  This set obviously belongs to you."

The sorcerer nearly bit his tongue to refrain from commenting that if the chess set belonged to him, it should have been freely returned into his possession.

"But enough about this.  You can't avoid the issue of Ander's 'mother' forever."

Ignoring the impatience of the lord, Squall told him, "Look at the face of the black bishop."

There was a pause before Almasy followed the instruction and searched noisily through the box.  A quiet curse signaled his discovery of one of the desire pieces.  "I'm sorry, Squall, but it looks like some of these were damaged."

"That's doubtful.  These pieces were formed by magic and can only be destroyed by magic."

"But there are some bad scratches--"

"Across the bishop's face and midsection.  Yes, I know.  In fact, both of the bishop pieces are disfigured like that."  Staring at the piece of white marble in his hand, Squall explained carefully, "My grandfather had two sons, my father and my uncle, and he designed the bishops after them.  The white bishops have my father's features and the black bishops bear my uncle's appearance."

As the lord searched and found the second bishop to confirm the sorcerer's words, Almasy asked with stunned curiosity, "Why are both ruined like this?"

"Because my uncle was an abomination."  Closing his hand around smooth stone, Squall faced the window.  "You ask to know the identity of Leander's other father, but how can you accept that reality without disgust?  A man was never meant to take the place of a woman.  It was a mistake and a sin that it ever became possible."

"Wait, are you suggesting that your uncle...?"

Nearly laughing at the nobleman's sudden discomfort, Squall shook his head.  "No, it would be impossible for him to be Leander's father.  Aside from the fact that he died during the Massacre, he was in love with another man, a warrior who burdened him with a child, left him in absolute disgust, and denied the existence of the child he helped to create."

"That's... that's ridiculous.  Why would he leave him in such a state?"

Squall scoffed.  "The warrior wasn't the only one to turn against my uncle - he was also disowned by his father, shunned by his friends, and hated by our people.  He became an Untouchable and was banished from the palace until my grandfather's death.  And although my father welcomed his brother back wholly, few ever spoke to him.  Ward, Kiros, and of course my parents..."

"What about you?"

Unable to explain his connection to the man who understood him better than his own father, Squall instead asked, "Do you understand yet?  The man who gave birth to your son has been living a life of shame and misery.  Why do you want to extend that pain further?"

A reluctant noise came from Almasy.  "I think I understand... But..."

At the blond lord's hesitation, Squall turned and stared as he watched the man stroke a calloused thumb along the scratched midsection of the bishop.  The lord's eyes were unusually soft as he examined the marred ebony, his eyes shining a warm green-blue that Squall had never witnessed in the previous years.  He was drawn to those striking eyes sheltered by pale eyelashes, and he instantly feared that attraction.

"What am I supposed tell Ander?  That his 'mother' was ashamed of him?  That he was unwanted?"

Squall looked away sharply and pressed his forehead against cold glass, forcibly ignoring the desire to argue that he had never been ashamed of Leander.  "Tell him nothing.  As you said, my country is dead - its laws and beliefs should die with it.  As long as his birth parent never reveals himself, Leander won't have to understand the shame related to his creation."

Almasy chuckled bitterly.  "That will only last so long.  He's a curious child with a dangerous dose of intelligence."

"Then wait until he is ready.  For now, let him be an innocent."

There was a pause, a long moment during which Squall felt eyes focused on his back.  Unable to stop thinking about the sea green hue of the man's eyes, the sorcerer suddenly felt awkward as he pressed closer to the window in a poor attempt to make himself hidden.  It was a habit, he supposed, a reaction that had become like second nature in the necessity to hide his identity from wandering eyes.  And yet, leaning against the window misted by his body heat, Squall felt like a frightened child.

"Does it still hurt?"

At first confused by the question, Squall then noticed that he was massaging his injured shoulder in a nervous action.  Pulling away his hand, the sorcerer scowled and muttered that he was fine.

"You know, Kinneas likes you despite your hostile nature.  He wouldn't mind coming out here--"

"I'll live without his help, thank you."

"But if you're in pain--"

A steady string of knocks interrupted the lord, prompting a quiet growl from the blond as he called for the person to enter. 

Unaffected by the harsh tone, Ward walked inside the study and bowed slightly.  "Lunch is about ready to be served, my Lord."

"Alright.  I'll be there shortly."

"Leander is waiting," the older man mentioned, but then his pale eyes shifted sharply to the open box on the desk.  "Hyne, is that...?"

"My grandfather's chess set," Squall finished for the steward as he held up the bishop in his hand.

Ward looked to the sorcerer, but his eyes didn't move far from the sight of the white stone.  "Impossible.  The palace was destroyed by fire.  Nothing could have survived."

"Leave it to the tenacity of human vultures to find valuable merchandise," Squall stated cynically as he lowered his hand.

Not one to be swayed by the mood of the one-time 'Sorcerer Prince', Ward smiled softly as he said, "I remember how much you adored that set, even when you were just five-years-old.  You always asked Laguna to play, though you didn't understand the game.  You just wanted to examine each piece and understand the magic.  And then you would try to fix the black bishops, saying..."  The older man trailed off, his eyes widening in a horrific expression as he finished in a surprised whisper, "Saying that you didn't like seeing your uncle hurt."

As questioning eyes focused on him, Squall maintained a neutral expression despite his rapid heartbeats and the sudden sickness at the base of his stomach.

Oblivious to the tension, Almasy spoke with a hardened edge to his voice.  "Squall told me all about his uncle, something you failed to do in the past six years.  Why did you never tell me about the hardship of sorcerers who could bear children?"

"Because I never believed in it," Ward stated clearly, his pale eyes focused on the dark-haired man despite answering his lord.  "While I served the royal family faithfully, I have no hint of sorcerer blood in my body, and therefore had no desire to follow their beliefs.  That Laguna's brother had to suffer for the creation of precious life... it's not enough to say that I was disgusted by how he was treated."  Turning to face the nobleman, Ward continued, "You were blessed with the chance to raise a son.  I didn't want your thoughts tainted with the idea that Leander was a worthless abomination."

Almasy scoffed loudly.  "I'm not that easy to influence.  But now I understand why you weren't overly helpful in locating Leander's 'mother'."

Ward frowned slightly.  "The sorcerer had a reason to stay hidden, and someone had to remind you of that fact."

"You could have simply explained it to me."

"Nothing with sorcerers is simple, and certainly not this."

Scowling, Almasy glanced down at the dark bishops in his hands.  "Hn, I suppose not."

There was a time of somber silence before Ward cleared his throat.  "Master Seifer, Leander is still waiting for you."

Grunting that he understood, the blond lord gently placed the scarred chess pieces back into the velvet-lined box.  Almasy then stood from his chair, and as he straightened his clothes, he stated, "We're not done talking about this, Ward."

The older man bowed his head, hiding a faint smirk viewable from Squall's vantage point.

Looking to the silent servant, Almasy smiled softly in an honest fashion that brightened the cerulean hue of his eyes.  "Thank you for your time, sorcerer.  We will do this again, soon."

Though dreading the idea of more time with the blond lord, Squall lowered his gaze and replied, "As you wish, my lord."

Almasy breathed a laugh and murmured something unintelligible as he walked across the room.  Slowing as he reached the closed door, he glanced back over his shoulder.  "Are you coming, Ward?"

The large man shook his head.  "If you don't mind, my Lord, I would appreciate the chance to speak privately with Squall."

The nobleman frowned in reflexive distrust, but then shrugged.  "Do what you wish.  I'm planning to take Ander out riding after lunch, so you are free to use this room until I return."

"Thank you, my Lord," Ward said with a slight bow.

Almasy replied with a dismissing wave as he opened the door and exited into the silent hallway outside.  The door slowly closed behind him, and with that sound of renewed privacy, the large steward was the first to speak.

"Why did you never tell me?"

Not looking away from the door, Squall commented, "I don't believe this is the place to discuss this."

"I wouldn't be concerned with Master Seifer.  He's not subtle enough for spying, and by offering the use of his study, he's assuring us complete privacy."

"You trust him that far?"

"Yes, I do."

It was difficult for the sorcerer to set aside his doubts concerning the lord's sense of honor, especially with Ward's absolute faith in the man.  But faced with the problem of needing to speak away from curious ears, Squall reluctantly decided to place his trust in the steward's word.  His hand tightening around the bishop of white marble, the brunet faced the window and asked, "Are you disgusted with me?"

"Of course not.  I respected your uncle as much as your father.  And you are--"

"A whore," Squall interrupted.

After a quiet moment, Ward stepped close to the smaller man, near enough to be felt, but not quite touching.  His voice soft and deep, he asked, "How did it happen?"

"... ..."

The older man sighed with faint frustration.  "I suppose that you're disappointed with me for never noticing.  Leander looks just like you, and of course to be named after your uncle... While it's not an excuse, I always thought Master Seifer was the one to name him.  It's not a rare name, after all.  But for the child to be a sorcerer, and for you to appear years later... I should've known."

"You thought I was dead," Squall murmured.

"That's--"

"And for Leander to be my son, it meant I had to sleep with another man.  With Seifer Almasy."

After a startled moment, soft laughter rumbled from the large man.  "You've got me there.  I suppose that imagining you sleeping with a man never entered my mind, but then, you never were an amorous sort.  Hell, in the past several years, you've never once recognized the advances of those interested in you."

Scowling, Squall glanced back at the large man.  "Interested in me?  Who are you talking about?"

"Oh, just about every new woman who joins the staff.  A couple of the men, too.  Even one of Cid's boys has had his eye on you, though I don't think he's good enough for a man of your lineage."

Though not overly trusting of the smirking man's words, Squall didn't question him further about the unimportant matter.  Instead, he lowered his eyes and leaned against the cool window, wishing he could somehow evade the remaining questions which had yet to be mentioned.

"Why doesn't Master Seifer know?" Ward asked, his voice changed to a soothing, coaxing tone.

"... He was drunk."

In a sudden move, the steward grabbed onto the brunet's uninjured shoulder and spun him around until they were face to face.  Pale blue eyes were hard and cold as Ward demanded, "Did he rape you?  I swear, if he forced himself upon you..."

Though tempted by the opportunity to avoid the truth, Squall shook his head.  "He didn't."

The large man exhaled deeply in relief as his painful grip relaxed, but didn't release the slim brunet.

Eyes lowered, Squall commented, "It's curious that both you and Kinneas were afraid that he had."

"Lord Kinneas knows?" Ward asked in a startled whisper.

The sorcerer simply nodded in reply.

"Hn.  While inconvenient, Lord Kinneas is a trustworthy man.  And he knows far better than myself about Master Seifer's unstable temper while drunk.  But forgive me, it was wrong to assume that you wouldn't have been able to protect yourself from a drunken idiot."

"... ..."

"So, you still won't tell me how it happened?"

Squall shook his head, briefly shivering at held back memories.

"Does Leander... No, he can't know.  He would have revealed something by now."

Not offering any type of response, Squall was surprised when, without warning, heavy arms wrapped strongly around his shoulders.  Relaxing in the fatherly hold, the sorcerer felt years worth of exhaustion be set free into his body, the energy used to maintain his secret no longer needed in front of his father's longtime friend.  Surrendering to his need for contact, Squall slumped forward against the towering body and grabbed loosely onto the man's shirt with a single hand.

"Laguna would have loved his grandchild," Ward said sincerely as he pressed his cheek against dark hair.  "And Leander would have been honored by his name-sake.  You have no reason to be ashamed."

Squall shook his head, but couldn't vocally reason that the two most important men in his life would have rejected the child born from sin and shame.

"Don't argue with me, boy.  You didn't know your father and uncle like I did.  And young Leander is an amazing child despite his Almasy blood.  You've done a great job of raising him behind our backs."

Emotion burning at the back of his throat, Squall tried to push away, but the large man wouldn't be moved.  "Stop this.  He's not my son anymore.  He isn't mine."

"But he is.  No one can take him away from you."

"I gave him up!" Squall retorted as he surrounded himself in wind and forced the steward back several steps.  Loose papers were stirred by the sudden wind and fluttered between the two men, reminding Squall vaguely of new snow.  Reluctantly looking away from the fallen sheets to meet pale eyes, the sorcerer stated in a soft, desperate voice, "He will never be my son."

Ward scowled at the defeated comment and glanced away from the destroyed prince before him.  But before he made another argument, the steward's frown changed into something more thoughtful.  And as a faint smirk widened on his scarred face, Ward asked, "Tell me - what do you think of our lord and master?"

"He's not my master," Squall replied by reflex, only thinking afterward about the odd question.

Bending over, Ward retrieved the forgotten plate of bread and cheeses.  "Well, he is my master, and I know that he never eats shortly before lunch.  Even when starving, he doesn't want to spoil his meals with Leander."  Looking to the silent sorcerer, Ward stated with certainty, "Master Seifer had this delivered for you."

Scoffing, Squall moved to the desk and dropped his white bishop into the open box.  "He was trying to soften me with food and presents."

"Soften you?"

Closing the lid to the box, the brunet stated, "Leander asked about his 'mother' yesterday, and Almasy decided that a fellow sorcerer would know the man's identity."

Ward laughed deeply.  "At least I'm not the only blind man around here, though I imagine that Master Seifer is certain that he would recognize the man he had impregnated."

Squall said nothing in reply as he silently reactivated the earth seal on the latch to the box.

"He'd spoil you, you know."

Turning sharply, the sorcerer glared at the smirking steward.  "What nonsense is that?"

"For the past couple weeks, Master Seifer has been asking questions about you.  Very detailed questions.  And though he'd never admit it to an old man like me, it makes me believe that he's interested in you."

"His curiosity was prompted by the Ravage incident, that's all."

"While that may have been the beginning to everything, that's not what I meant.  I've seen him watching you, mostly from this very room, though he pretends that he is only looking at the garden.  He's also been asking Edea about your sleeping and eating habits.  He's certain that you are slowly trying to kill yourself."

"That's none of his concern."

"He's making it his concern."

Fists clenched at his sides, Squall stated slowly, "Then someone needs to remind him that I'm not his problem."

"Even if that were the case, I won't be the one to speak with him."

"What?  Why not?" the sorcerer demanded.

"Because, in the past several years, you've been dying before my eyes.  Only recently have you started to show new life, and whether you want to believe it or not, I know that Master Seifer is at the root of your revival."

Breathing an incredulous laugh, Squall argued, "You're imagining things.  And if it were true, why not assume it's because I'm allowed to spend more time with Leander for once?"

Ward shook his head, and as he stole a piece of cheese from the plate, the steward began walking in the direction of the doorway.  "As I already said, you can believe what you may, but consider this - Leander has always been a small part of your life, while Master Seifer has just now entered it.  When have you felt more alive?"

"You don't understand," Squall called out, but the former soldier had already opened the door and left, his deep chuckling heard until the door closed on its own.

Angered and betrayed, the dark-haired sorcerer fell back against the desk, his hand brushing against damaged wood.  Looking down at the burnt box, Squall rested his hand on the sealed lid, but resisted the need to see the pieces once more.  He wouldn't take the offered set, the chess pieces being too elegant for a mere servant.  Almasy would question him, perhaps demand that the set belonged to him... And it worried Squall that he could almost hear the lord's impassioned voice.

Removing his hand from the marred box, Squall pushed up from the desk and stood still for a moment as his gray eyes scanned the papers that had been scattered onto the floor by his mild wind attack.  For a brief moment, he considered straightening the mess, but then decided that the blond lord wouldn't notice the added disarray to his work.  Stepping slowly to the exit, the slim brunet massaged his hurting shoulder and debated about returning to the main kitchen.  Ward would have already arrived, the hardly eaten plate of food in his hand.  Matron's scolding words held no appeal, nor the potential of Ward's further comments about his 'master'.  But reluctantly remembering his place, the dark-haired servant knew that he had chores to complete before nightfall.

Prepared to play deaf and dumb in the face of his elders, Squall sighed softly and longed for the days when he was left alone to his misery.

Chapter Text

For the first time in over a decade, Seifer was alone in the music room that he had long ago put out of his mind.  Staring at shelves filled with dusty instruments, the green-eyed lord wondered why he didn't have any thoughts of his deceased mother at that moment when, after all, the room had belonged to the lovely woman of bright golden hair.  But instead, his gaze settled on a single instrument, a tarnished flute that rested innocently on wood, and his thoughts lingered on the image of the difficult brunet.

In the complete silence of the room, Seifer swore he could still hear the echoes of the haunting song the sorcerer had created over a week previous.  And with the enchanting music filling his mind, he reached out for the flute, his hand hesitating just before his fingers caressed chilled metal.  There was no flash of fire, no sting of lightning at the cautious touch, and Seifer frowned at the lacking sign that the flute had been surrounded by the magic of the sorcerer.  There was nothing and he had wanted so much to know...

The sound of a click and an opening door made Seifer jerk back from the flute and promptly lower his arm to his side.  Turning to the door, he watched as his young son walked backward into the room, his wide green eyes focused on the person following him while he asked about the day's lesson.  Squall pushed the door further, smiling as he only did for Leander, but before he answered the child, the sorcerer looked up sharply at the silent lord.  Blue-gray eyes harsh and cold, Squall hardened in a reflex that pained the nobleman.

"Don't let me interrupt," Seifer stated hoarsely, unable to hide his increasing disappointment.  "I'll just watch from my usual place."

Squall relaxed some at the words, and then nodded vaguely.

Their conversation limited to that, Seifer moved to the collection of chairs next to the piano and took a seat at the single uncovered chair.  Leaning back against old wood, Seifer turned his attention to the two dark-haired sorcerers across the room.  With Squall already kneeling to be eyelevel with Leander, the blond lord was struck by the subtle similarities between the two.  They shared the same small and delicate body frame, and joined with their pale complexions, there was an air of unnatural refinement about the sorcerers.  To add to the likeness, Leander had asked for his shoulder length hair to be cut short earlier in the week, something the boy had adamantly refused to do in the previous years.  The new style gave a thicker appearance to the wavy brown, reminding Seifer of the elder sorcerer's messed hair.  Musing to himself, Seifer wondered if the two were distant cousins or otherwise related, something that wouldn't have been surprising given their shared heritage.

Quickly setting aside his distracted thoughts, the nobleman watched as Squall continued the lesson with quiet instructions to the boy.  It was the fourth session for Leander, and like every lesson previous, Squall wanted him to reveal his core.  The youth continued to struggle with the task, unable to produce the pale wood without the aid of the elder sorcerer, but Squall remained confident that Leander was progressing as expected.

Despite that assurance, the impatient boy eventually scowled accusingly at his small twig of a staff.

"Don't frustrate yourself at this point," Squall scolded as he stood from his kneeling position.  "You'll only make your magic more hesitant to reveal itself."

"But... but it's so hard."

"And everything from this point forward will be even harder.  Are you going to quit now?"

"No.  But..."  His pout softening into a worried expression, Leander gazed up at his mentor.  "Will it be too hard for me?"

"Of course not."

It was a simple answer, one that shouldn't have been able to satisfy the child in Seifer's opinion, but Leander smiled brightly in relief.  "Then can I learn something else?  I don't feel tired this time."

A dark eyebrow raised, Squall posed a silent question of doubt to the youth.

"Really, my head doesn't hurt."

After a continued moment of examination, the elder sorcerer sighed out a surrendering breath.  "Very well."

While Leander smiled at his easy victory, Squall summoned his staff with an effortless display of experience.  Seifer unconsciously straightened at the sight, his green eyes drawn immediately to the red wood covered by dark carvings.  It wasn't the first time he had seen the weapon, but knowing more about the sorcerer's character and recognizing that the staff was an important part of the man, Seifer had the overwhelming desire to closely examine the brunet's so-called 'core'.  But as the staff was taken protectively into two hands, Seifer knew that he would never be allowed the same privileges that had been granted to his son.

"The next step in your training is to change your core," Squall stated softly as he lifted his staff to eyelevel.  In a fast move, the sorcerer jerked his hands in an up-and-down motion, the silent command causing the dark wood to abruptly melt into a bright amber liquid that flowed to the sorcerer's feet.  The sudden display made Seifer jump to his feet, but once the glow of magic had disappeared, the blond lord stared at the created length of beige silk that was held in the sorcerer's raised hands.  Dark lettering covered the shiny material, spells written in a language unknown to the nobleman, but it wasn't the strange markings which attracted Seifer's eyes.  Instead, there were faded shadows of brownish-red that covered the length of the sheet, reminding Seifer of his discarded uniforms which couldn't be cleansed of spilt blood.

Waking from his moment of awe, Leander asked reverently, "Can I touch it?"

Squall's stance stiffened vaguely, the blond lord immediately recognizing the reaction of silent terror that was unfortunately commonplace in his presence.  Though curious what the man had to fear from the young boy, Seifer asked nothing as the elder sorcerer nodded almost reluctantly and Leander was allowed to gently hold the sheet.

With widened eyes, Leander declared, "It feels really soft.  Really, really soft."

Squall managed a small smile, though his tenseness had yet to fade.  "Perhaps, but that's not the purpose changing our cores into this form."

"Does it hurt to do it?"

"No more than exposing your core in the first place."

"Then why is there blood?" Leander asked with a sad frown, his small hand moving to caress a particularly large stain that wasn't nearly as faded as the others.

"It's nothing to concern yourself with."

"But--"

In a sudden action to interrupt the youth, the length of silky material shot up into Squall's hold and vanished into the nothingness from which it had come.  "Stop being distracted, cub.  You need to focus on your training and this is an extremely important step.  You won't be able to learn spells and imprint them onto your core without changing its form first."

His frown deepening into one of anger, Leander asked peevishly, "But why do I haveta change it?  I can't make it appear by myself anyway.  I can't do anything like you."

Calm eyes met the boy's frustrated glare.  "You will.  And someday, you will be better than me."

The statement of praise caught Leander off guard as he stepped back and held his small staff close to his chest.  Looking down at the floor in embarrassment, he argued, "But you're so strong..."

Squall placed a reassuring hand on dark hair.  "Have faith in your powers and they will never fail you."

Leander glanced up, but the movement made the youth sway vaguely as the pale wood disappeared from his hold.  Staring blankly at his empty hands, Leander seemed near tears.

Recognizing the clear signs of the child overtaxing himself, Seifer moved from his overseer position and stepped close to the pair.  "I think that's enough for today, Ander.  You're more tired than you realize."

Leander turned to his father, ready to argue, but bit his lower lip instead as he pressed a fisted hand against his forehead.  Looking up with disappointed eyes, the dark-haired boy said, "I really didn't think I was tired."

"Hn, well, you were the one who woke up too damn early this morning to go see the new pups in the kennel.  The sun wasn't even over the horizon when you dragged me out of bed."

With a sheepish smile, Leander murmured, "Oh yeah.  I forgot."

Seifer grinned at his son and ruffled dark hair.  "Damn brat.  One of these days, I'm going to wake you up nice and early and see how you like it."

The young boy grabbed onto the large hand and pulled it aside, laughing at his father's annoyance.  It was a happy laugh that only a child could produce, an infectious noise that made Seifer smile brightly in return.  But then movement attracted the lord's eyes, interrupting the moment as Seifer frowned at the sorcerer attempting a subtle exit.  "And where do you think you're going?"

Squall paused at the closed door, his hand resting on the handle.  "Isn't that obvious, my lord?"

"But the lesson hasn't ended just yet."

The sorcerer turned to look over his shoulder, pale eyes narrowed in a confused expression.

"Ander may be too tired for that 'core' business, but he is still able to listen.  And, unfortunately, his other tutors have been slack in teaching him about the country and culture of the sorcerers."

With a vague scowl, Squall declared, "My country and people are dead."

"All the more reason for you to tell Ander about his heritage.  He's not going to learn it from anyone else, and I'm certain Ander has plenty of questions about sorcerers, too, don't you, kid?"

Leaning against his father's leg, Leander stared wide-eyed at the servant and asked, "Were all the sorcerers strong like you?  Could they kill those wuffs, too?"

A pained look crossed Squall's face before he leaned back against the door and shook his head.  "No, not everyone was strong enough to survive against those monsters."

Seifer placed a hand at his son's shoulder, knowing that the young boy wouldn't recognize the sore subject he had brought up and would continue with difficult questions if he wasn't stopped.  "Why don't we sit down and let Squall tell you everything from the beginning.  You can ask more questions later."

Leander nodded and allowed his father to guide him to the padded piano bench.  But once seated, Leander moved to the very edge of the bench in an attentive pose, his green eyes bright with unasked questions.  The obvious interest of the young sorcerer eventually pulled Squall away from his position at the door.  With a sulking air, the brunet moved to the piano and leaned back against the large instrument, his arms tightly crossed and his head bent low.

After a time of silence, Seifer smirked and asked, "Well, aren't you going to start?"

"And what exactly should I say, my lord?"

"There's plenty to say, but I suppose you could start with a description of your homeland."

Squall frowned at the suggestion, but said nothing.

Growling out a sigh at the frustrating man, Seifer said, "Fine, then I'll start and you can correct me as I go along.  But I'm warning you now - my head has been filled with the Emperor's propaganda.  Most of the things I know as truth are probably lies."

The dark-haired servant shrugged, never raising his head.

Refusing to let himself be baited by the indifferent attitude, Seifer turned to his son.  "I've never told you this, Ander, but I once set foot in the country that was controlled by sorcerers.  It was a small and narrow country, mostly formed of dangerous mountains and immense cliffs that would make the bravest man watch his step.  I don't believe that I'll ever again experience such harsh lands like that place."

Squall scoffed quietly and muttered, "It was stupid place for a country."

Though surprised by the comment, Seifer agreed with a chuckle.  "That's for certain, but there was a great seaside view."

"You were near the ocean?" Leander asked with wide eyes, the child only hearing about the immense bodies of waters in his studies.  "Did you swim all the time?  Is it really salty and cold?  Are the waves big?  Did you ever see a shark?"

The string of questions caused the sorcerer to smile softly.  "The water was too cold and the beaches too rocky to enjoy like you think, but I suppose I spent plenty of time near the water.  It was a lot quieter than the palace."

"You lived in a palace?" Leander asked in surprise.  "Was it bigger than here?  Did you ever meet the king?"

"Ander," Seifer scolded quietly, upset with himself for choosing a topic that had too quickly led to uncomfortable questions.

"No, he has the right to ask questions," Squall countered as he turned somber gray eyes to the boy.  "I knew Laguna Loire, but he was only considered a king by his people.  Our country was insignificant in the eyes of the world, and given our recluse nature, we were partially forgotten except for the countries with which we had trade pacts."

Frowning in thought, Leander asked, "But if he owned a palace, didn't that still make him a king?"

Squall smiled at the boy's naivety.  "He was a beloved king to his people, and that's all that mattered to him.  But to the rest of the world, he was nothing more than a leader of lepers."

Seifer tensed at the wording, wishing to argue against the harshness of the statement, but quickly realized that the sorcerer was speaking the simple truth.  Few countries dared to barter with the nation ruled by sorcerers, as if their amazing powers would eventually bring a curse upon those who mingled with such magicks.  It was a ridiculous notion, especially in a world that relied on the skill of healers, but it was a commonplace belief that would never be corrected.

"Loire was the king of a lifeless land," Squall stated after eyeing the blond lord, expectant of an interruption that hadn't come.  "As your father mentioned, Leander, it was a harsh country with few spots of fertile soil.  That's why we were mostly a culture of artisans and merchants, using our wares to gain food from other nations."

"The land may have been worthless, but I haven't mentioned the capitol yet," Seifer interrupted on an excited note.  "It was amazing, Ander.  They had built their entire city along these huge white cliffs, and their palace was built directly into the stone.  No one but the sorcerers could have managed such a ridiculous task and achieved perfection.  The first time I saw the capitol, it was in the dead of night and starlight was reflecting off the ocean.  It gave the white stone an ethereal glow that stole away my breath.  For a moment, I though we had stumbled upon Heaven."

Feeling a chill along his spine, Seifer glanced to the side and met the eyes of the sorcerer, the pale orbs bright with accusation and fury.  Shame instantly burned through the nobleman's chest, reminding him that the night he had first seen the city was the same night fire had torn through the capitol.  With a hint of sadness, Seifer knew the dark-haired man would never believe his words that he wished he hadn't taken part in the destruction of sorcerers.  In the end, actions meant more to the serious man, and Seifer's hands would forever be stained with innocent blood.

Somewhat lamely, the blond lord murmured, "It was an incredible city, Ander, and I wish you could have seen it."

"What happened to it?" Leander asked, his soft voice suggesting that he already knew, but wanted to be told differently.

"It was destroyed during the Massacre, when the Emperor had us all fooled that the sorcerers and their followers were dangerous people out to enslave the world."

"Why didn't you tell them he was lying?"

The innocent question cut through Seifer, making him choke slightly before he answered.  "I didn't understand a lot of things back then.  My father, your grandfather tried to tell me that I shouldn't believe everything I heard from the city, but I didn't listen to him.  Instead, I joined the Imperial Army with the dream to rid the world of evil.  Stupid me, I didn't know where the real evil lied, and so I..."  Seifer glanced to the sorcerer, not in search of strength, but because he didn't want to appear a coward in front of the onetime prince.  "I took part in the destruction of that capitol and its people.  It's not something I'm proud of, but I won't lie about the role I played."

Squall offered nothing in reply, but the unnatural glow to the blue-gray eyes had dimmed to a softer shine.  The sorcerer then glanced downward with an odd expression, making Seifer turn and stare at the heavy tears that were falling despite Leander's attempts to wipe away the moisture with shaky hands.  Seifer reached out for his son, but Leander flinched back and bumped his elbow against the piano keys, causing a loud clang of discordant notes.

"Don't," the boy spat out, moving further back on the bench.  "You killed people like me... you killed sorcerers, just like you killed the other people in your stories, didn't you?"

"... Yes, I did."

"Why?"  When there was no immediate answer from his father, Leander asked, "Did you hate them?"

"No.  I feared them, perhaps, but I never hated sorcerers."

Leander sniffed loudly as he continued to wipe at his tears.  "Then why did you haveta kill them?"

Speechless in the face of the simple question, Seifer never imaged that his savior would be the quiet servant who had every right to let him suffer.  Not seeing the man move, Squall was suddenly at his side, kneeling in front of the piano bench as he rested a hand on the boy's leg.

"It wasn't his fault."

The statement of certainty made Seifer straighten in disbelief.  Equal confusion was apparent in Leander's widened eyes, still flooded with tears, but hope lit the green beneath.

Realizing that he'd have to explain his words, Squall sighed out a long breath.  "The world has never cared for our kind.  Healers were forgiven for their abnormal powers, people assuming that they were blessed with the touch of angels.  But sorcerers... we are destroyers according to common legends.  For a long time, people were happy to forget our existence as long as we were quiet, but we knew it wouldn't last forever.  This isn't the first time we've been wiped out to near destruction, nor will it be the last.  And for you to blame your father for the idiocy of the world, well, it's a bit unfair."

Leander looked to his father, uncertainty clear in the young eyes.  "But..."

Seifer held the child's gaze as he said, "I'm not perfect, Ander.  Hyne in Heaven, I wish I was, but I'm just human.  If there was something, anything that I could to make amends for the past, I would.  But things so terrible can't be settled that easily."

Still wary, Leander inched closer to the large blond and quietly stated, "I'm a sorcerer."

Action before thought, Seifer had the small boy trapped in his arms in a potentially hurtful hold, but the nobleman didn't care as he pressed his cheek against dark hair.  "You're my son.  I would protect you with my very life and never regret that choice."

Though careful and light, Seifer still felt the eventual touch of small arms trying to wrap around his waist.  He loosened his hold at the returned hug, and with a kiss to dark hair, Seifer leaned back to look down at his son.  Pale green still moist with tears met his gaze, but Leander managed an embarrassed smile for his father.

"I love you, Daddy."

"Not more than me, kid," Seifer muttered while ruffling shortened hair.

His smile widening, Leander slumped against the larger man's body, allowing the touch that he typically hated.

After a time of watching his son, Seifer looked over to the silent servant with the intent to thank the surprising man, but that thought vanished as saw the downcast expression of the brunet.  Blue-gray eyes were purposefully directed away from both father and son, but Seifer could still see the pained edge to the pale eyes.  Not understanding how the man could defend him at one moment and then suppress his obvious hatred at the next, Seifer focused solely on the kneeling servant.

"Squall..."

The sorcerer didn't move at the call of his name.  And before the nobleman took another breath, a loud knock prevented him from gaining Squall's attention.  Seifer glared at the offending person behind the door and growled out, "What is it?"

Entering at the demanding question, Ward stepped inside and used his bulk to screen the room from wandering eyes in the hallway.  "Forgive me for the interruption, but the tailor has arrived to fit Master Leander for his new clothing."

"Oh, is it already that late?" Seifer muttered to himself as he continued to stroke dark hair with his thumb.  "Well, kid, do you feel steady enough to handle a fitting?"

Leander nodded slightly, though didn't move from his position against his father.

"Come on, brat.  If you want join the party later this week, you need new formal wear.  You've grown too much since last year."

"Alright," Leander muttered halfheartedly as he pushed up into a sitting position.  "But can we talk more later?"

"Of course.  In fact, I'll join you shortly.  I just need a few words with Squall first."  Once noticing a protective glint to the reddened eyes, Seifer added, "I need to speak with him alone."

Though frowning in displeasure, Leander nodded his understanding.  He then turned to his mentor and whispered his thanks.  Squall smiled vaguely in a silent reply as he stood and allowed the young boy to move past him.  Blue-gray eyes followed the child as Leander stepped to the scarred steward and reached out for a large hand.  Ward showed his surprise at the wordless request, but still grasped onto the hand as he led the boy outside.

"I don't deserve that kid," Seifer said softly.  He was somewhat impressed that the sorcerer didn't offer his opinion about the matter, but the lord was beginning to understand that the attractive man would always hold more surprises for him.  "Why did you defend me like that?"

Squall said nothing as he moved to the piano and leaned back against the instrument in a familiar pose.

"I know you don't care for me, but I always thought the reason you hated me was for my role in the Massacre.  Did you really mean what you just told Leander or were you lying to him for my sake?"

Pale eyes narrowed as the sorcerer pinned the nobleman with an icy glare.  "I won't lie to Leander, especially not for you."

"Then, you don't blame me for the Massacre?"

Squall snorted as he pushed off from the piano and stepped in the direction of the closed door.

Jumping after the man, Seifer grabbed tightly onto a slim wrist before the brunet could escape.  "I hate it when you do this.  Am I so horrible that you can't finish a damned conversation with me?"

"... ..."

"Just wonderful.  Well, for your information, I wanted to tell you that I won't be joining you and Ander for the next tutoring session.  The party Rinoa tricked me into hosting is going to take up my time for the rest of the week, so you'll have Leander to yourself."

Somewhat cautiously, Squall glanced back at the news.

"Don't look at me like that.  I'm not sitting in on these lessons because I don't trust you.  I just want to know the things Ander is learning, and... well, is it that strange for me to want to learn more about sorcerers, too?"

Blue-gray eyes widened vaguely before softening in an uncertain expression.

Releasing his hold on the man, Seifer said, "That's all I had to tell you, though I would appreciate meeting with you the day after the party.  I want to know everything about his progress and what he learns.  If you don't mind, of course."

Squall met the lord's gaze for a long moment, and then turned his back to the larger man.  "The Massacre happened because there was a group of people who believed something and acted upon it.  I can't blame a single idiot for something like that."

Seifer frowned, tempted to grab onto the brunet once more, but fisted his hands instead.  "Then why?  Why do you hate me so much?"

With a quiet scoff, the sorcerer stepped to the door and to his escape.

The blond lord thought to stop Squall, to force the man to say more than the few cryptic words, but Seifer couldn't move as he watched the sorcerer move with a subtle grace.  Once again left alone in the music room, the nobleman considered what he had been told.  For a brief moment, Seifer felt heartened at the idea that he wasn't despised for a situation that had been out of his control, but that respite ended quickly once the lord realized the meaning behind the sorcerer's words.

A frostlike coldness crept through his chest as Seifer moved to a shelf of instruments and he rested a shaky hand on silver.  He breathed a laugh at his blindness, a part of him knowing all along that Squall was the type to hate a man who had done something unforgivable by his own choice and method.  And since it was the lies of the Emperor and the general fear of unstable times that had caused the horrors of the Massacre, it meant that there was something else that had happened between the lord and servant, something Seifer had done through his own stupidity.

Stroking the flute with numb fingers, he asked out loud, "What in Hyne's name did I do to you?"


Seated in his favored chair of his study, Seifer leaned back with an arm over his eyes and an unread book in his lap.  It had been a day since he had last spoken with Squall, and since then, he wasn't able to get decent rest as he continually thought about the past in search of a single memory, even a fragment of a memory, that would help him understand why the sorcerer despised him.  But Seifer couldn't recall anything beyond the recent past where Squall only smiled in the presence of Leander and blue-gray eyes were constantly guarded with shields of ice.

The sound of knocking startled Seifer, waking him from near sleep and waiting dreams of his obsession.  Irritated at being denied his rest, he ignored the call and slumped further into the cushions of his chair.  The person beyond the door, however, didn't appreciate the lord's desire to sleep and continued to knock in a longer string of loud rapping.

Growling as he straightened in his chair, Seifer called out, "What is it?"

The door opened to reveal Ward, the steward appearing vaguely apologetic as he said, "Forgive me, Master Seifer, but Lady Heartilly--"

At her name, Rinoa slipped past the large man and walked into the study.  "Seifer!  It's been so long and... Oh, Seifer, you look horrible.  Have you been up late drinking again?"

Pressing a hand to his face, Seifer wondered how many times he would have to explain to the woman that he no longer had a taste for alcohol.  After dismissing Ward with the wave of his hand, the blond looked at his guest.  "Rinoa... I thought you were arriving tomorrow."

"Well, that was the original plan, but..."  The raven haired beauty moved directly in front of the seated lord and placed a soft hand at the man's stubble-roughened cheek.  "I thought I could be useful to you if I came early."

"I appreciate your kindness, but I have able people within my staff to plan every little detail of the party.  There was no need for you to come today."

"But surely I could help you otherwise."

Hearing the suggestive tone to the melodic voice, Seifer smirked and chose to ignore her offer.  "Don't play innocent.  It's your fault I'm hosting this party in the first place."

Rinoa pouted at the implied refusal and removed her hand.  "So, you are only doing this because of the favor you owed me?"

"You shouldn't be so surprised.  I hate these sort of engagements, something you know all too well."

Dark eyes soft with hurt, Rinoa forced a smile.  "Yes, I know, but you shouldn't be so adverse to the idea.  People won't trust you unless you open your home to them."

"If you say so, my Lady."

Before the noblewoman could say something else, a soft knock sounded from door, a distinctive knock that was light and short as if the person didn't want to be heard.  Seifer smiled gently at the tentative knock and told the man to enter.

After a second of hesitation, the door slowly opened to reveal the dark haired servant.  Squall stepped inside as far as the width of the door, his hand tight on the handle.  "Matron wanted me to inform you... Oh, forgive me, my lord.  I didn't know you had a guest.  I can come back--"

"Nonsense, you and Lady Heartilly know each other well enough," Seifer said as he stood from his chair and approached the servant before the man could manage a fast escape.  "Now, what did Matron want me to know?"

After briefly eyeing the noblewoman, Squall moved his icy gaze to the lord.  "She read over your list and agreed with your suggestions about the dinner for the party.  Everything will be prepared as you wanted."

"That is good news," Seifer said as he stopped in front of the smaller man.  "Matron is a difficult woman when it comes to changing her menus."

A noncommittal noise came from the brunet as he shifted his stance.

"... Is that all?"

Squall frowned at the question, but his continued presence suggested to the blond that there was indeed an additional comment the man wanted to make.

Smiling at the man's indecision, Seifer leaned in close to the sorcerer and asked quietly, "Do I need to get rid of her?"

Blue-gray eyes widened at the offer, the servant's surprise soon passing as he shook his head and reached inside the folds of his shirt.  "That's not necessary.  Leander's tutor wanted me to give this to you.  It concerns his lesson for tomorrow."

Curious, Seifer took the offered piece of crumpled paper.  At first not recognizing the complex letters, the lord then noticed the tiny words listed beneath each symbol.  His head snapping up, Seifer stared at the brunet, but couldn't find the words to question the man's trust.  That Squall had decided to translate some of the sorcerers' secret language for him... Seifer was bewildered and honored.

Lips set in a small frown, Squall said, "The tutor mentioned you wanted to learn whatever was taught to your son.  Was he mistaken?"

Still suffering from shock, Seifer couldn't reply directly as he carefully folded the paper before smiling softly.  "Give my thanks to the 'tutor'.  I didn't imagine that he would go this far to keep me informed."

Shifting back a small step, Squall nodded.  "As you wish, my lord.  I'll also inform Matron that you'll be entertaining the Lady tonight."

"Are you trying to escape already?"  At the servant's vaguely pleading gaze, Seifer breathed a disappointed sigh.  "Very well, you may leave.  But tell the tutor that I still expect to speak with him later this week."

After a slight bow, Squall turned his back to the blond and closed the door behind him.

"My, was that really the same Leon I took in months ago?"

Seifer held his tongue, not certain if the former Sorcerer Prince wanted others to know his true name.

"He seems healthier than I remember.  He has certainly gained some needed weight, though he is still far too thin in my opinion."

The blond lord had no reply for the comment, his thoughts instead distracted by the recent surprise of the sorcerer.  Thumbing the folded paper in his hold, Seifer wanted to read over the listed translations, wondering if he'd recognize any of the symbols as the ones which were displayed on the brunet's staff.

"You know, he was a terrible mess when I first found him.  It's good to see a touch of light in those eyes of his."

Schooling his expression, Seifer turned and returned to his seat.  "Enough about my servants.  Since you're already here, you might as well be useful and tell me what I need to know about our guests.  I haven't been keeping up-to-date with the latest gossip."

Dark brown eyes brightened at the suggestion, her painted lips curling into a conspiratorial smile.  "But there's so much to tell since you last showed interest.  Let's see, did I tell you the full story about Lady Briere's affair with her cousin?  I can hardly believe it myself, but I heard from..."

Seifer listened to the woman talk, only paying attention enough to respond with the required expression of offense or surprise.  The rest of his thoughts, however, were focused on his obsession and the time they would spend together later in the week.  While there were serious questions the lord had for the sorcerer, Seifer couldn't stop his imagination from diverging into less likely scenarios with the slim man draped across the couch, the brunet's clothing mysteriously absent.  And with the noblewoman clueless about the reason for his mischievous smile, Seifer silently wished for the quick passing of the next few days.


Lit by the flames of numerous lamps and candles, the expansive ballroom of the Almasy Estate glowed brightly in a golden light that best displayed the art pieces of the room, as well as the gaudy jewelry worn by the visiting ladies.  At the center of the room, the younger men and women of nobility were enjoying the night as they danced to the music of the small orchestra.  Surrounding them were the older Lord and Ladies who took part in a completely different type of dance, finding their own enjoyment in attempting to outwit each other with never ending word games.

And as he watched over the people he hardly knew, Lord Almasy found himself incredibly bored.

"You have such a lovely home, Seifer.  It's a shame that you let this gorgeous ballroom go to waste."

Growling under his breath, the green-eyed nobleman forced a smile.  "Rinoa, my Lady, don't force me to remind you again how much I hate these functions.  I only agreed to host this party because I owed you a favor."

The fair skinned woman laughed gently at the terse reply.  "Speaking of which, I haven't seen Leon amongst the rest of the serving staff.  Is he not well?"

"Of course he is well.  He doesn't care for these crowded situations, so I imagine he's hiding away in the kitchens."  After a time of quiet, Seifer glanced down at the petite woman and found an incredulous gaze focused on him.  "What?"

"How do you know that he doesn't like... No, why do you know?  It's not like you to be concerned with servants like that."

Seifer had no immediate response, his thoughts instead distracted by the insight that the noblewoman had more intelligence than he had ever truly considered.  Then the blond lord suddenly realized that his silence would give the woman ample time to answer her own dangerous question.  And as dark eyes lit up with a mischievous glow and full lips formed a slow smile, Seifer knew he was too late.

"The other day, I was surprised when he allowed you to stand so close to him.  The last I saw you both, he didn't seem to care for you much.  Even so, you still managed to steal him away from me.  But I must know - what is it about the man that has caught your fancy?  Certainly he's attractive--"

"Rinoa, don't suggest things you understand nothing about."

"Oh, I may understand more than you realize," Rinoa countered as she moved her eyes to the assortment of finely dressed men and women.  "Eight years I've known you, and not once have you shown anything more than a passing glance at the available ladies of good blood.  Something that has offended me greatly, just so you know.  You even have a child, but no woman to raise him.  It leads to scandalous assumptions, my love."

"And only assumptions, I might add."

Rinoa hummed softly in disbelief while she continued to watch the crowd, and after a bare sip from her wine glass, her dark eyes widened with surprise.  "My, my, it appears you were wrong.  Leon has decided to show his face after all."

Seifer looked sharply in the direction the noblewoman was facing, and once setting eyes on the unexpected servant, he stepped toward the man, but was stopped by a hard grip on his wrist.  Glancing back, Seifer scowled at the interfering woman.  "Forgive me, Rinoa, but--"

"How cruel," the noblewoman interrupted, her eyes downcast and shadowed.  "I spend years trying to gain your attention, and the mere mention of that... that servant has you running to him.  You are a horrible man."

Hearing the shakiness to the woman's voice, Seifer managed a small smile before placing his free hand at her cheek.  "Haven't I said before that you could far better than me?"

"I never wanted to."

"I know, I know, but... Well, you're the one making assumptions about my tastes."

"That doesn't mean I want to believe it," she announced in a fearful voice.

The nobleman glanced back over his shoulder, relieved that Squall had yet to disappear.  "I'm sorry, Rinoa, but even though I didn't make this choice, I can't stop myself."

"Even now, saying those terrible words to me, your attention is on him."  Releasing her desperate grip, the raven haired beauty turned her back to the blond lord.  "Go to him, then.  At least I have the comfort knowing that I didn't lose to a woman."

Seifer spoke a quiet apology, certain to speak at length with the lady at another time.  Meanwhile, his eyes remained focused on Squall, the servant appearing more serious than usual as he weaved through the crowd at the far side of the room.  Seifer hardly recognized when he had started walking himself, but a sick feeling gnawed at his stomach as he attempted to reach the brunet.  It wasn't until he was halfway across the room that Seifer saw the reason Squall had left the kitchens, and watching Leander being led away by the sorcerer made the nobleman quicken his stride.  But to his surprise, Squall slowed in spot empty of people and turned to face the green-eyed lord as if expecting him.

"What is happening here?" Seifer asked in a loud whisper, not wanting others to hear, but unable to control his anxiousness.

"Don't you trust me in the least?" Squall asked in return, his soft voice just barely heard above the murmur of the crowd.

Feeling the answer was obvious, the lord instead took a moment to glance over the servant.  The man was composed as always, but looking between the brunet and the boy at his side, Seifer focused on their joined hands - long fingers were pale in their tight hold on the small hand, and though Leander said nothing, his face showed the pain he was feeling.

Confused and somewhat frightened, Seifer asked a second time, "What is happening here?"

"If you care in the least for your son's life, let me protect him."

Though somewhat offended by the implication that he may not care about Leander, Seifer instead breathed a steadying breath and turned to his son.  With a louder voice intended to draw attention, the lord forced a disapproving tone, "Leander, I thought I told you to stay away from the wine."

Green eyes wide, the dark-haired boy shook his head.  "I didn't--"

"Don't make this worse with lies.  Squall will escort you to your room and you'll remain there until I have the chance to think of an appropriate punishment."

Leander pouted at being falsely accused, but nodded as he leaned closer to the servant.  The nobleman could only hope that his child also sensed the apparent danger and wouldn't be angry at him for the undeserved treatment.

"Go," Seifer stated with a sharp wave of his hand, "And Squall, make certain that he doesn't leave his room."

The sorcerer seemed surprised at the cooperation of the blond, but with a hint of relief to his blue-gray eyes, Squall bowed and spoke a quiet, "As you command, my lord."

While the servant and boy made their way through the crowd, Seifer watched them closely until a gentle hand was placed at his arm and he glanced down at the noblewoman he had left behind.

"That seemed a bit harsh," Rinoa commented, her lighthearted smile already returned given the eyes of curious others upon them.  "My father let me have wine when I was younger than little Leander.  What's the harm?"

"The harm, my Lady, comes when one underestimates the dangers of intoxicating drinks," Seifer replied, continuing the ruse that would allow Squall do whatever was necessary to protect Leander.

Scoffing playfully, the raven haired woman said, "It's hard to believe that you're the same man who saved my life and celebrated with three bottles of my father's favorite whiskey."

"A lot has happened since then," Seifer murmured, uncaring about the past.

But with Rinoa's offhanded comment, the other guests promptly began to ask questions, encouraging the noblewoman to tell the story of her kidnapping.  Though abhorring the tale that had been told too many times, Seifer chose to endure his torture at Rinoa's side, a decision prompted by her hand still wrapped around his forearm.  Hardly hearing the words spoken and the occasional gasps of the noblewomen, the blond lord thought about the odd state of the servant and wondered what was endangering his son's life at that moment.  Stranger still, Seifer considered his lack of serious concern, his anxiousness held back with the certainty that Squall would do anything to protect the child sorcerer.

An elbow prodded his side, and as Seifer noticed the interested gazes focused on him, he realized that he had missed a question that had been directed at him.  Plastering on a charming smile, the blond lord prepared himself to ask Rinoa to repeat the undoubtedly inane question, but was instead saved by the blaring sound of a horn as a late comer was about to be announced to the crowd.  Only a few curious people turned to face the entrance of the ballroom, but with the eventual introduction of the latest guests, loud murmurs of surprise flooded the room as everyone looked to the open doorway.

"Presenting the honorable Emperor and Empress of Galbadia."

Seifer forced a neutral expression on his face, as if he had known all along that Emperor Deling would appear at his home.  Meanwhile, his heart was beating in a wild rhythm of hatred and fear as his emerald eyed gaze narrowed on the plump form of the Emperor.  Several of the nearby nobility began asking rapid questions, only the women sounding offended that they weren't warned to prepare for a meeting with the Empire's rulers.

Ignoring the voices around him, Seifer placed a hand on the fingers wrapped at his elbow.  "Why is the Emperor here?"

"I... I'm sorry, I never thought he would come."

The nobleman looked down with a hard emerald gaze, silently demanding an explanation.

Rinoa pressed close to him in order to speak quietly.  "Don't get mad, but I sent an invitation to the palace.  It's a basic courtesy that I knew you wouldn't understand.  To not invite the Emperor would have hurt your social status and--"

"Enough," the blond lord interrupted, cursing the noblewoman's well-meaning deception.  "The harm is already done.  Would you care to join me in greeting our guests?"

"Of course," she responded, her typically melodic voice grated with venom.  "I have always wanted to meet the man who killed my father."

After directing a fond smile to the woman, Seifer straightened his posture and led the way to royal couple that had yet to move from the entry as several large men filed inside and took protective stances around them.  The man of thinning dark hair and a heavy build stood proud at the entryway, Emperor Deling wearing a pristine uniform of black and gold with several unearned badges displayed on his broad chest.  Like another undeserved prize, the woman at his arm stood nearly six inches taller than her husband, something that was nearly comical except for the knowledge that the beady eyed man controlled the fate of the entire continent.  More fitting to her royal position, the Empress wore an elegant dress of black that highlighted her flawless beauty and brightened her freely flowing white hair.  The noblewoman was first to chose to recognize the approach of the lord as she focused golden eyes on the tall man and smiled derisively.

Reaching the closest distance the bodyguards would allow, Seifer ignored the growing ache to his chest as he bowed deeply and Rinoa curtsied at his side.  "Welcome to the Almasy Estate, your Highness.  I am honored that you chose to grace my home with your presence."

"You have my dearest to thank for that," Deling stated with boredom.  "She has always wanted to see what was hidden beyond your gates."

"Please rise, child," the Empress added quickly, her voice uniquely musical and calming.  "We haven't seen your face in years."

Straightening, Seifer held back the instinct to growl at being called a child.  "If I may, I would like to introduce Lady Rinoa Heartilly, the daughter of the late General Caraway."

Though the Emperor scowled at the name, his wife smiled with a subtle curl to darkly painted lips.  "My, you are a beauty like the stories say."

Rinoa blushed at the compliment.  "I'm honored, my Empress, especially with those words being said by a stunning woman like yourself."

The Empress tilted her head, acknowledging the praise as if it were to be expected.

Clearing his throat, Deling took hold of the woman's pale arm.  "My dear, we are only here for a brief time and there are others I wish to speak with."

"Yes, my husband, but first..."  The golden eyed woman made a show of glancing around the room before asking, "Is your child around, Lord Almasy?  I have heard about his youthful charm and I had wished to meet him for myself."

"I'm afraid he was sent to bed early as punishment, Empress."

"What a pity.  And what was his name again?  Leonard?  Lionel?"

"His name is Leander, Empress."

"Ah yes, Leander, a man with a lion's heart," she stated distractedly, her eyes focused elsewhere.  "How forgetful of me."

Seifer stared at the woman for her comment, something in her voice suggesting that she had never forgotten the child's name.  Though wanting to question her interest in his son, the lord knew he would never receive a truthful answer.  Saying nothing of his suspicions, Seifer allowed Rinoa to take the role of hostess, the noblewoman born for the role as she proceeded to introduce the Emperor to the people he desired to meet.  Seifer followed and spoke when necessary, but his mind was elsewhere as he thought about Leander, unable to imagine why the Empress desired to meet the young boy.  Hoping the child's constant guardian would have some answers, Seifer tried to focus on the conversation at hand in order to dissect the Emperor's words in search of future weaknesses.  It was an opportunity he couldn't afford to waste, no matter his other worries.


Though the suffocating smell of perfume and smoke had been left far behind, Seifer held a hand to his chest as he hurried down the secluded hallway that led to the family chambers.  The strange heaviness in his chest had yet to disappear and he knew it wouldn't dissipate until he could confirm the safety of his son and the child's protector.  Upon reaching the door to Leander's private rooms, Seifer was surprised to discover it firmly locked, but no door in the Almasy Estate could keep out the blond lord.  Producing a master key, the nobleman stepped inside quickly and automatically relocked the door behind him.

It was dark in the main room of the suite, dark enough for Seifer to stumble upon a low table and yell out a creative curse.  His outburst was followed by a weak call of 'Daddy?', and without another thought concerning his leg, Seifer rushed toward the single spot of light in the room, a line of flickering light that identified the location of the boy's bedroom.

Shoving open the door, Seifer nearly demanded outright to have his questions answered, but the sight inside stilled his tongue as he stared with widened eyes.  Lit by the light of a single fat candle, Squall and Leander knelt in the middle of the wide bed, the elder sorcerer holding the boy close to his body in a sheltering grasp.  Shadows played between the two, and from the darkness, an odd glow of dark blue shone from the narrowed eyes of the servant.  Accustomed to the rare display of soft blue shining in the sorcerer's eyes, Seifer stared into the dual flames of darkness and instinctively feared the light of death that stared back at him.

"Daddy..." Leander whispered from beneath of folds of slim arms, his green eyes just barely viewable from the shadows.

Speechless, Seifer approached the two, but only reached the bedside before an unnatural coldness seeped into his body and warned him to step no farther.

"Is she gone?"

The hoarse voice made Seifer look into the sorcerer's deathly gaze once more.  Just before asking about whom the man was referring, the lord was startled by cold realization.  "The Empress.  Your protecting Leander from her, aren't you?  What does she want with him?"

Frosty eyes narrowing further, Squall repeated, "Is she gone?"

Though irritated that his questions weren't being answered, Seifer recognized the desperation hidden within the angered voice.  Daring to move closer to the pair despite the surrounding chill, the blond lord sat on the edge of the bed and spoke calmingly.  "Yes, she's gone.  I had Ward follow her and the Emperor to the gate just to make certain that they wouldn't leave any more surprises for us.  They're gone."

With a sighed out whisper thanking his goddess, Squall released his hold on the frightened youth and sat back in an uncommonly graceless move.

Before Seifer had the thought to question the sorcerer about his health, he suddenly had an armful of his son, Leander trying his hardest to place as much bodily contact between them as possible.  Wrapping strong arms around his child, Seifer whispered soothing nonsense to the boy as he stroked and kissed dark hair.  Hot tears were eventually felt on the bared skin of his neck, and when Leander began to stutter muffled words against his chest, Seifer was forced to pull back his son for the sake of understanding what the boy was trying to say.

"What happened, Ander?"

"Th, th, there were arms and, and eyes and..."  Fat tears fell from reddened eyes as Leander lunged forward to press his face against the broad chest of his father.  "Don't let them come back!"

Beyond confused, Seifer settled with holding his frightened child close and turned to the more composed sorcerer.  "What is he talking about?"

Stormy eyes hazed to a dull gray, Squall looked up at the darkened ceiling.  "She was searching.  To Leander and myself, the spell she used looked like ghost arms with eyes, ready to recognize, grab, and murder beings of magic."

"What?  How were you not noticed?"

"I shielded us," Squall stated, a gleam of dark blue flashing in his eyes.  "I made us dead to her spell."

Leander shivered in Seifer's arms, making the blond tighten his hold as he dug his fingers into dark hair.  "Why do I doubt that it's as harmless as you make it sound?"

The sorcerer shifted his eyes to the lord, the exhausted gaze revealing the only answer the man was willing to offer.

"Please, Squall, I don't understand anything that has happened tonight.  And from your talk, it almost sounds like the Empress... but I have to be wrong.  How could she have the same powers of a sorcerer?"

"Because she does."

Seifer froze at the statement that had been said in a bland tone.  His first thought was to argue against the ridiculous notion of a female sorcerer, a sorceress who could never exist to the lord's knowledge.  But with his impossible son pressing harder against his chest, Seifer decided to be more opened minded to the servant's words.

"How... How is that possible?  I've only heard of sorcerers..."

Eyes half-lidded, Squall muttered, "Sorceresses are only possible on a rare chance... when wrong blood is allowed to bear children... a sin that shouldn't have..."

The sudden collapse of the brunet caught Seifer by surprise, but burdened with his clinging son, the lord watched helplessly as the sorcerer dropped to his side.  Thankful that the difficult man hadn't thought to stand and attempt to leave the room, Seifer sighed out a breath of relief when Squall cursed softly and tried to push up from the mattress.  Pulling Leander aside, Seifer spoke a quiet instruction to stay put as he moved off the bed and stepped around to the other side. 

Leaning over the mattress, the large blond reached for the weakened man and dragged Squall to the edge of the bed, and from there, into his arms.  Squall protested the handling, but managed nothing more than vocal objections mixed with muttered insults against muscled-brained soldiers.  Seifer smiled as he lifted the smaller man into a standing position that required Squall to use the lord as a support to avoid an equally embarrassing collapse to the floor.  With an arm firm at the brunet's back, Seifer bent over to jerk down the blankets to the mattress and proceeded to help the sorcerer back onto the bed.

Seated on the edge, Squall scowled up at the bane of his life.  "What are you doing?"

"Putting you to bed."

"But..."  Shaking his head, the sorcerer placed a hand at his temple.  "This is Leander's room."

"At least you still know where you are, but that doesn't make you any less exhausted."  When the brunet looked ready to argue further, Seifer pushed him onto the mattress.  "I know exactly what you are trying to say, Squall, but why don't you believe me when I say that I trust you?"

"No, I think... but you... you don't..."

Smirking at the flutter of dark lashes over dazed gray eyes, Seifer commented, "See, now you can't even form a full sentence.  Whatever magic you performed to protect Ander must have been something else to drain you this badly."

The fight seemed to vanish from Squall as he sunk back into the pillows and turned his face away from the blond.

"Sleep here tonight and we'll speak again in the morning."

"... ..."

"You're welcome," Seifer stated with a smile.  Straightening in order to resist the urge to touch pale skin, the lord suddenly noticed the careful crawling approach of his son.  "Did you want something, kid?"

Leander frowned as reddened eyes shifted between his father and the prone sorcerer.  "Can I sleep, too?"

Hesitating, Seifer glanced down at the brunet, noting the subtle way Squall adjusted his position such that he was a touch closer to the small boy.  While reflexively uncomfortable with the situation, Seifer quickly remembered the man's desperate hold on the child, as if Leander would be stolen away at any moment.  Though uncertain how true that might have been, the blond lord decided that Squall had probably felt the same terror as the younger sorcerer, but while the child was free to express his fears with tears and the need to be held, Squall didn't have that same privilege.

Smiling at the pride of grown men, Seifer nodded his consent.  "Just for tonight, though."

Leander smiled weakly at the given permission and sluggishly grabbed the blankets to crawl under the covers, eventually settling close to Squall, but far from touching.

Seifer watched them for a short time, surprised when the sorcerer fell fast asleep despite his lingering presence.  Leander took longer, the boy tossing and turning under the blankets every so often until he was even closer to his mentor.  With a shake of his head, Seifer moved around the width of the bed and walked to the single lit candle, but once blowing out the weak flame, the lord found no desire to leave the room.

His movements careful in the darkness, Seifer sat down on the bed and leaned back against the padded headboard.  He did nothing for a long time except watch over the two sleeping forms, his irritated thoughts focused on his inability to protect his son.  It wasn't a new frustration for the lord, instead something that had plagued him since the day he had seen Leander covered in blood and torn clothing.  But compared to those months previous, he felt more comfortable with the notion of Squall being the one to act and save his son, being the savior Seifer couldn't be.

His eyes adjusting to the darkness, Seifer smiled as he watched Leander move a final time, his body only a hair's breath away from the elder sorcerer.  At another time, the lord knew he wouldn't have been pleased with the unconscious actions of the boy, but there was a sense of earned peace, that something terrible had been barely avoided.  The innocent need for closeness seemed insignificant in comparison.

A pained whimper sounded in the darkness, the small body under several sheets shivering violently.  Seifer frowned at the apparent nightmare of the boy, the lord not at all happy that there was another terrible thing which had invaded the child's dreams.  Sighing out a breath, Seifer started to lean over to comfort his son, but a quiet, tear-choked call stopped him short.

"...mo... momma..."

Staring at Leander, Seifer felt hurt that the boy hadn't asked for him, that he wanted a nonexistent mother to reassure him.  But while he hovered near his son, the lord heard a shifting of sheets.  Glancing up, he watched the slow movements of the sleeping sorcerer, Squall unfolding under the blankets as he placed an arm around the child and pulled him close to his body.  Leander instantly calmed at the contact, though there was a final whine of annoyance as if the child had been made to wait for too long.

Widened green eyes focused on the unmoving pair, Seifer's tired and stress worn mind unable to comprehend the sight before him.  Squall was Leander's protector, a man who was always close to the young child, but thinking back, Seifer realized that he had never received a straight answer as to why the servant was so concerned about the boy.  He had been allowed to assume whatever he wished, the dark haired sorcerer never correcting those views.  It was the same method Squall used to handle Leander's more difficult questions, and Seifer felt betrayed that he had apparently been given the same treatment as a six-year-old child.

Moving closer to the pair, Seifer thought to wake the sorcerer and demand some answers, but a flutter of curtains added light to the room, revealing the pained and exhausted expression of the brunet.  Freezing in place, the lord recalled the last time Squall had exposed similar emotions, when the sorcerer had talked about male pregnancy, about the unnatural pregnancy of his uncle.  Then the voice of the brunet came to his mind, reminding him, 'The man who gave birth to your son has been living a life of shame and misery.'

A pitying whisper of, "Oh, Squall," left dry lips before Seifer consciously realized what secret he had stumbled upon.  Inhaling a sharp breath, Seifer's first thought was that he didn't remember sleeping with the man he currently desired, but that attempt of denial slipped away with the knowledge that he couldn't recall half of his drunken meetings with men.  And as he continued to stare at the unaware brunet, Seifer recognized that his lacking memory had been his only reason to never consider Squall as anything more than a servant protecting his ward or a sorcerer guarding the last of his kind.  He had never considered...

Now, with the thought alive within his head, Seifer couldn't believe his blindness.  Similar features to Leander aside, Squall was a sorcerer, one of the few who had survived the Massacre and was able to keep himself alive.  Given his hatred for the blond lord, there was no good reason for Squall to willingly live the life of a servant within the walls of the Almasy Estate.  And of all things, Squall had freely admitted to having an uncle, a blood relation, who could bear children.

Seifer felt hysterical laughter building up in his chest, but held back to avoid waking the resting sorcerer.  It was beyond his wildest dreams that he could have everything he wanted placed so simply before him - the sorcerer who had given life to his cherished son and the man whom he desired more than any attractive woman from his past.  There was a vague thought of even more for the future, but Seifer quickly set aside the hopeful imagery in fear of losing that unlikely opportunity.  Still, a foolish grin crossed the lord's face as he gazed at the brunet cradling Leander in his pale arms.

Thoughtlessly, Seifer reached out to graze his fingertips along smooth skin, needing to know that Squall was real and truly before him, but with the first contact of skin against skin, the bare arm jerked away from the heated touch as if burned.  His heart turning cold, the blond lord pulled himself away from blissful ignorance and returned to the reality where Squall despised and feared his presence.  However, this time, Seifer's eyes were wide open to the possible reason for that hatred, a likely reason given his current lust and his past abuse of alcohol.

A deep sickness forming in his stomach, Seifer slipped down onto the mattress and curled on his side.  One arm wrapped around his midsection, the nobleman carefully moved close to his son and rested his forehead against soft hair.  Silent pleads rang in his mind, Seifer desperate to know if he had hurt... if had raped the man he had come to respect and crave.  He searched his memories in an attempt to find a sign that it wasn't true, but after months of fantasies, he couldn't set aside his wild imagination from reality.  In the end, only Squall knew the truth and Seifer didn't feel brave enough to ask the candid man.

"... Daddy?"

Seifer started at the meek voice in the silence, unable collect himself fully as he replied somewhat sharply, "I'm here, Ander.  What is it?"

Leander turned in his protector's hold, not noticing or else not caring about the tight arms around his body.  His eyelids barely open, the boy looked at the nearby man.  "You gonna stay...?"

"Only if you want me to."

Closing his sleep hazed eyes, Leander muttered nonsense as he grabbed onto his father's hand and pulled it to his chest.  As if clutching a favorite toy, the child fell fast asleep between the lord and servant.

Seifer found comfort in the boy's hot touch, an innocent reminder that no matter what had happened in the past, the blond couldn't regret the future it had created.  He lightly squeezed the small hand and closed his eyes with the hope to escape into sleep, a task made easier as he listened to the soft breaths of the other two.  Resettling into the covers of the bed, he listened to the soothing sound, and without a plan of how to handle the morning, he soon began to dream of an easier life where Squall welcomed the arms wrapped tightly across his chest as the lord and servant watched their young Leander use his magic safely under the sun.

Chapter Text

Soft light of a cloud-covered sky slipped through the crack of thick curtains and onto the wide bed of messed sheets.  The single occupant groaned at the interfering light, but reluctantly opened his eyes despite the desire to hide beneath the covers.  Blue-gray eyes dulled with sleep, Squall stared at the far wall beyond the mattress, not recognizing the dresser and full-length mirror.  It slowly seeped in that he wasn't where he was supposed to be, and the fact that sunlight had wakened him also implied that he was late for kitchen duties.

Squall attempted to sit up at that thought, his body protesting against every movement until he finally rested back against the headboard and tried to regain his lost breath.  He couldn't understand his pain until he glanced at his hands, his fingernails displaying a dangerously dark blue color that was a clear aftereffect of manipulating his life-force.  Wrapping his arms tight across his chest, Squall shivered at the remembered sensation of death that had been caused by complex and hazardous magic.  It was something he had experienced only twice before and he knew that he would never grow accustomed to the disturbing feel.

A quiet knock sounded to distract the sorcerer from his memories, and though Squall glanced up at the door at the noise, he didn't invite the person to enter.  Even so, the handle turned and the door opened silently, revealing the last person Squall wanted to see, and yet he wasn't the least bit surprised by the man's visit.  With a covered tray balanced on one hand, Almasy stopped short in the motion of closing the door, his green eyes focused on the brunet in a scolding glare.

"If you were awake, you should've answered."

Squall matched the nobleman's scowl, but said nothing.

Almasy muttered a quiet 'Why do I bother?' as he closed the door tightly.  Moving across the room, the blond set his tray on the end table closest to the bedridden man.  "You were frozen this morning when I moved you, something I can only assume is a result of that magic you used last night.  Whatever the cause, the fire didn't seem to be helping you much, so I had some hot food prepared for you.  And before you think to refuse, Matron wants you to know that she made the oatmeal especially to your taste."

As he spoke, the lord uncovered the tray to reveal a large bowl of oatmeal and several small pastries that still steamed from hot jam.  Despite his reflex to resist Almasy at every move, Squall could smell the sharp scent of nutmeg and cinnamon to the oatmeal and instantly hungered for the warm food.  Attempting a reluctant look, the sorcerer accepted the offered bowl and placed the heated dish on his lap before sampling the specially made oatmeal.  It wasn't until after his third savored bite that Squall noticed the concentrated gaze directed at him.

Glancing over, he frowned at the staring blond.  "What?"

Almasy smiled gently, undisturbed by the terse tone of the sorcerer.  "Forgive me, but once again, I find myself indebted to you after such a short time.  I'm afraid that I don't know the best way to handle this situation."

"I didn't do anything for you."

"Leander is my son and only child," Almasy replied with a hardened edge to his voice.  "Do you think that his life means nothing to me?"

"That's not what I said," Squall countered before enjoying another spoonful of his breakfast.  But while finishing that bite, his other hand was suddenly taken into a strong hold.

"Holy Hyne, your fingers are blue.  I hadn't noticed earlier."

With the icy coldness of his hand melting at the touch of the lord, Squall allowed the unwanted contact.  "It's simply a side effect of the spell.  I'll be fine once my body regains its warmth."

"All of this to protect..."  Almasy didn't finish his sentence as he cupped his hands around Squall's and breathed hot air onto the frozen skin.  Startled by the unexpected action, the sorcerer said nothing as he stared at his entrapped hand.  Slowly, green eyes lifted from the warming task and met confused blue-gray.  A small smirk formed as Almasy adjusted his hold on the cold hand, placing his hands under Squall's.  Though at first appearing to nearly kiss the bent fingers like a gentleman would to a lady, Almasy only breathed a mocking chuckle such that the puff of warm air was felt by the servant.  His hand was then carefully lowered back onto the mattress top.

Frowning at the apparent taunt, Squall quickly wrapped his arm around his midsection, thereby keeping his hand out of reach from the unpredictable blond.

Almasy smiled softly at the move, but didn't comment on his amusement.  "How is the food?"

His frown deepening, the sorcerer returned his attention to the cooling meal at his lap.  "I was enjoying it."

"Then don't let me stop you," Almasy replied as he moved from the bedside to retrieve a chair from the far corner.

Watching the man from the corner of his eye, Squall resumed eating the spiced oatmeal.  It was reviving to feel the warm food fill his chilled body, and though he didn't want his present company, the brunet had to admit that he appreciated the gesture by the nobleman to bring him something to eat.  To add to the lord's credit, Almasy returned to the bedside and sat in his chair without a spoken word, purposefully directing his attention to the nearby window.  Recognizing the attempt to ease his discomfort, Squall chose not to comment on the occasional shift of green eyes, the blond apparently unable to stop looking at the servant for any decent length of time.

With the eventual sound of light scrapping against the bottom of the bowl, Almasy turned to fully face the brunet.  He removed the empty bowl to place it on the tray before offering the plate covered with pastries.  Squall selected one filled with cherry preserves, but didn't taste the treat before saying, "I know you have questions."

Almasy set the plate on the mattress space between them and selected one for himself.  "As obvious as that may be, I can wait until you have recovered."

"It's not like you to be patient."

"Yes, well, maybe I'm also in the process of recovering," the lord replied with a crooked smile.

Conceding that the man had the equal right to fear the near lost of his son, Squall didn't argue and instead took a small bite of the pastry.  Sweet jam slipped into his mouth and nearly coaxed out a pleased hum at the sugary warmth.  Squall, however, restrained himself in front of the watchful nobleman.  Directing a suspicious glance at the broad shouldered blond, the sorcerer thought about the previous night, briefly worried about his hazy memories of being held within strong arms.  But Squall placed aside that concern, understanding that there were more important things to discuss with the lord.

"What did I tell you last night?"

Almasy lifted his eyes, a rare gleam of blue softening the sharp green irises.

Before a word was spoken by the blond, Squall insisted, "Don't patronize me.  I'm well enough to sit on a bed and talk."

The lord stared for a long moment before his lips curled into a vague smirk.  "As always, you appear to be right."  Finishing off his pastry, Almasy licked the remaining dark red jam from his fingers, the swift movements of the pink tongue catching Squall's eye as he unwittingly stared at the man's mouth.  Once done with long fingers, an extended thumb was taken into that mouth and the last of the jam was sucked clean from calloused skin.  A breath of laughter suddenly sounded, Almasy quickly regaining the startled attention of the the brunet as blue-gray eyes met the the nobleman's overly interested gaze.

Unable to explain himself, Squall scowled and reminded the man of his unanswered question.  "What have I already told you?"

Almasy smiled broadly, but wisely chose to not comment on the slip in composure.  "We didn't have a very satisfying discussion last night, but you did tell me that the Empress was looking for you with some spell that had scared the shit out of Ander.  You know, he was shaking this morning when he woke up.  He then spouted things about arms ripping his soul from his body and I didn't know how to console him since... Tell me, Squall - do we need to be afraid?  I can't tell him to feel safe if he should be on his guard."

Squall sighed, silently upset that he hadn't been awake to help the young sorcerer.  "Ultimecia would not have left if she discovered anything.  Unfortunately, she will always be suspicious, but I've fooled her like this in the past and she has never returned."

"But you can't be certain of that."

"... No," Squall admitted tightly.

Almasy frowned, his brow crinkled in thought.  "Last night, you told me that the Empress was a sorceress, a woman with the same powers as yourself.  If that's true... I assume it was by your magic that you knew the Empress was coming shortly before her arrival.  How could she not sense you in a similar manner?"

With a shake of his head, Squall explained, "She isn't connected to the elements like a true sorcerer.  We listen and coax the elements to do our bidding.  Sorceresses, on the other hand, demand the obedience of the elements without ever hearing their cries of pain."

"I don't understand... How does that stop her from knowing you're here?"

"It wasn't me who 'sensed' her.  Instead, the wind saw Ultimecia's approach and spoke its warning to me and, in a lesser sense, to Leander.  Sorceresses, like humans, can't hear those words.  But even if she could hear the voice of the elements, they would never tell her about my presence.  They despise and fear her existence."

Almasy replied with an uncertain hum.  "And that's because she forces these 'elements' to do whatever she wants?"

"It's more terrible than you can possibly understand."

The blond lord stared down at his hands, his eyes narrowed in frustration.  "And that's going to be my life from now on, isn't it?  That I will never be able understand anything about you or my son."

Squall frowned at the act of self-pity.  "Of course you won't be able to understand something you can't experience.  You should have realized that the moment you accepted Leander, a sorcerer by blood, into your life."

"I know.  I know that, but... I've never really thought of him as a sorcerer.  He's a kid, for Hyne's sake."  Almasy shook his head, facing the denial of a father.  Lifting his eyes, he focused on the sorcerer.  "Does he really hear these voices?"

"Some.  He needs more training before he'll be able to understand the words of the elements."

"And you'll stay to train him?"

Squall couldn't answer immediately, something in the lord's voice striking the sorcerer as... different.  He eyed the blond, trying to identify something within the man's expression as suspicious or otherwise dangerous, but only tired, slightly reddened eyes stared back as Almasy waited patiently for an answer.

Holding that gaze, Squall replied, "I already promised to tutor him.  I will stay until he can at least defend himself."

With an exhaled breath, Almasy leaned back in his chair and placed a hand over his eyes.  "Hyne, you had me worried for a moment there."

The sorcerer continued to watch the man, noticing the movements of muscles that hadn't been so defined as when the lord had attacked him months previous.  That sight of strength would have once brought a sensation of wariness in the servant, but now with the threat of Ultimecia hanging above him, Squall was thankful that Almasy had enough sense to resume his training with various weaponry.  But as his eyes moved higher and lingered on the nobleman's face partly covered by a calloused hand, Squall heard quiet laughter.  Though only hearing it once before, the sorcerer instantly recognized the wild and harsh sound as belonging to the most unreliable and the most powerful of the elements.  Turning around to face the fireplace, Squall saw nothing different to the low flames and they weren't talking to him.  But the light laughter continued.

"Are you alright?"

Startled by the deeply toned voice, Squall stared wide-eyed at the blond before he recognized the question he was being asked.  Looking away sharply, the servant stared at the bed covers and ran fingers back through his hair.  "It's nothing."

Almasy hummed unconvinced as he stood from his chair.  "You're tired - it's alright to admit that, you know.  Go ahead and rest.  You can stay here as long as you wish."

Glancing down at the bed and remembering it wasn't his, Squall asked, "Where is this room?  I don't recognize it."

"Oh?  That's surprising," the lord commented as he moved aside and motioned to the wall behind him.  "Beyond that tapestry is a room you know very well."

Squall looked at the dark wall hanging, the scene depicted by the skillfully woven threads familiar in a vague recollection, but otherwise unknown.

"Can it be that you haven't visited his room that often after all?"

Blue-gray eyes widening, the sorcerer asked in disbelief, "You don't mean... Leander's room...?"

"That's right.  This room has been vacant for several years, ever since Ander's last nanny was sent to the streets.  I suppose that it's about time this room was put back into use."

With a frown of confusion, Squall moved his eyes away from the lord, but settling on the sight of the tall dresser, the sorcerer stiffened at the unnoticed presence of a narrow box, an overly familiar box ruined from fire and age.  Stormy eyes unable to look away, Squall questioned, "What is the meaning of this?"

Stepping in the direction of the dresser, Almasy brushed off nonexistent dust from the lid of the wooden box.  "You left this in my care the last time we spoke at length.  I'm returning it to you."

"No..."

With a surprised look to his expression, the blond lord eventually smiled with a resigned curl to the pink lips.  "Come now, at least hear my proposal before refusing me."

Arms crossed over his chest, Squall glared at the man in a silent demand to move on with the matter so he could refuse properly.

Almasy returned his gaze to the burnt box as he halfhearted played with the lock sealed by magic.  "I didn't sleep well last night.  At first I was able to get some rest, but then I was wakened by nightmares of Ravages and fairy tale witches.  I sat for a long time, thinking about how lucky I was to have you around to save Ander, but I almost wasn't lucky enough, was I?"

Squall frowned at the rhetorical question, not certain what the nobleman was implying.

Daring to turn around, Almasy met cold blue-gray eyes.  "Both times, with the Ravages and with the Empress, you had to run to Ander, to reach him in time to protect him.  A few minutes... Hell, maybe even a few seconds could have changed everything and it makes me sick to think that.  That's why I want you here.  As Ander's personal servant, no one will question you being at his side at any and all times.  You can even increase the length of your tutoring sessions and no one will be suspicious of you spending that time with him.  And--"

"And I'd run the risk of being recognized in such a high profile position," Squall interjected coolly.

The lord nodded, but then spoke quickly to prove he had already considered that matter.  "Of course there would be some risk, but it has been almost a decade since you were in the public eye.  And even then, few people this far west have ever seen your face.  I doubt anyone of importance would recognize you from sight alone."

"My name..."

Almasy straightened, an interested gleam to his eyes.  "I suppose your name does stand out a touch.  It's strange that you didn't think to use an alias here, but you did at the Heartilly Manor."

Blue-gray eyes lowered to avoid the lord's gaze.  "It wasn't my fault.  Ward... he was surprised to see me back then."

"A-ah, so the old man spoke up for you and ruined any attempt to hide your identity?"

"... ..."

"Well, no matter how it happened, you've been living here for years and no one has questioned your past.  I don't see that changing with you taking a new position.  And be realistic - as Ander's steward, you would still be a low class servant, someone whom nobles wouldn't give a second glance.  I don't believe you'd be risking as much as you think."

In an angry mutter, Squall commented, "It's not your life to fear losing."

"... No.  No, it's not, but I do fear losing my last and only son.  And if you were to consider it closely, I think you'd realize that the risk of him being killed is far greater than anyone giving a shit about you."

His head snapping up, the sorcerer glared at the arrogant man, but found no words to counter the cheap argument.  Instead, he felt his chest burn in frustration as his secret son was once again used against him.

Almasy met the gaze of icy fire for a long moment before exhaling in a deep sigh.  With a hand resting on the box holding the stone chess set, the blond lord asked quietly, "Do you think that, if the worst were to happen, I wouldn't do everything in my power to protect you?"

Scoffing, Squall replied, "And why would you bother?"

Green eyes flashed with an unnamed emotion before the nobleman looked to the box of charred wood.  "I appear to be asking too much of you today."  After a final brush of his fingers along the latch of the box, Almasy moved to the doorway.  "You've earned your rest, so remain in bed as long as you like.  And don't think of visiting the kitchens tonight - I've already told Matron that you aren't allowed to work.  But by morning... if you chose to refuse my proposition, then go back to the kitchens and hide.  Otherwise, meet me in my study.  We can fight over your duties and compensation during morning coffee.  Understood?"

With his hand on the handle of the door, Almasy didn't wait for a vocal reply as he looked into blue-gray eyes.  Instead, he nodded as if hearing the answer he wanted and promptly slipped out of the bedroom while closing the door behind him.

Pressing a hand to his face, Squall wondered out loud, "And what if I don't care for coffee?", but with the lord gone, his question went unanswered except for the amused crackle of fire.  His lips set in a scowl, he asked the flames, "What do you know?"

As if done hiding in the charcoals, new flames flared to life and danced in the enclosure of the fireplace.  Golden orange and vibrant red moved in chaotic motions until settling on a particular image of a basket made of interweaving fire.  Squall tensed at the sight, his eyes widening as a tiny hand reached out from the wall of the basket, reaching out for him.  But then a howl of wind abruptly sounded in the walls of the chimney, causing the flames to swirl and the image to disappear into irritating smoke.  Though its fun had been ruined, the fire held onto its amusement and continued to laugh in light snaps.

Shaken by the fire's action, Squall closed his eyes and inhaled deeply to settle his heart.  He knew the malicious element was simply mocking him for being unable to deny his child anything, that he'd sacrifice his own life to guarantee Leander's safety.  But the point had been made and the dark-haired sorcerer knew that he had no real decision to make concerning Almasy's offer.  He should have been grateful that the nobleman was freely giving him an excuse to stay near Leander and to watch over the boy, and yet there was something at the back of the sorcerer's mind, a quiet voice warning him that he was blindly stepping into a den of sleeping lions.


"I think he knows," Squall stated quietly, his breath trailing in the air cooled by snow and ice.

Ward chuckled and shifted beside him, the massive man unsuccessfully hiding his bulk within the warmth of his coat.  "And who knows what, exactly?"

The dark-haired sorcerer said nothing for a time, his pale eyes focused a fair distance ahead as he watched the movements of father and son playing in the depths of snow.  It was one week after the party and Almasy had decided to gift his son with an early present before the winter solstice - a set of wooden swords.  Despite the foot of snow covering the expanse of the estate, Leander begged to try out the practice weapons, something his father unsurprisingly considered to be an excellent idea.  Squall's scowl and attempt of an argument was promptly ignored when the pair of idiots ran outside with weapons in hand.

Currently leaning back against the outer wall of the mansion, the brunet watched as Almasy combined play with a true lesson in handling a sword.  Their movements were erratic and occasionally flamboyant, but the former soldier skillfully knocked his son's wooden blade in ways that forced the youth to hold his weapon tightly, insuring the eventual callusing of soft skin and the strengthening of his muscles.  With no knowledge of his father's purposeful attacks, Leander continued to laugh and cry out meaningless threats at the large man.

"Almasy," Squall eventually clarified for his longtime mentor.  "I think he knows I am Leander's other father."

"What?!" Ward asked loudly, and then quickly placed a gloved hand over his mouth when he realized how loud he had been.  With the play of father and son continuing without interruption, the large steward asked more quietly, "What in Hyne's name makes you think that?"

Squall shrugged, unable to explain the subtleties that had led to his conclusion.  Aside from that first morning after the party, it was the continued tutoring sessions which had left the sorcerer with a sense of disquiet.  The lord was silent as usual during the lessons, but his eyes had taken on a sharper gleam that made Squall feel like his every secret was exposed to the world.  More so, whenever Squall would touch the dark-haired boy and secretly glance at the silent nobleman, there would be an odd hurtful expression mixed with disbelief on the strong face, the open displays vanishing into a smirk once Leander would look to his father.  With such unusual moods in addition the sudden placement of Squall as Leander's steward, the servant could only assume Almasy had stumbled upon the truth that would have been obvious to any other fool.

Shaking his head, Ward argued in a low rumble, "You must be imaging things.  The moment Master Seifer realizes the truth, the first thing he'll do is attack either Lord Kinneas or myself.  And if he doesn't accidentally kill us, he'll demand to know why we hadn't told him anything about something so important.  As you should know well by now, he isn't a man who controls his anger."

Squall nodded, remembering the healer's tale of nearly being killed by Almasy once the secret of the former Sorcerer Prince came to light.  With uncertainty lingering in his voice, the brunet admitted, "I suppose I could be assuming too much..."

"Trust me, if he hasn't discovered your secret yet, he won't anytime soon.  I image that your paranoia is a result of spending more time with our Lord than you'd like," Ward suggested with a lopsided grin.

"... ..."

Directing a knowing eye to the smaller man, the elder steward continued to ask, "How is that going, by the way?  I was surprised to hear that you agreed to help our hopeless lord to learn the language of sorcerers."

"He's an utter idiot," Squall said quietly.

Chuckling, Ward nodded.  "That may be true, but the question remains as to why you are tutoring him."

"He's interested in everything Leander learns, but he has problems keeping up when a six-year-old manages just fine."

The pale-eyed man laughed deeply before asking, "Did you consider that Leander understands better since he has the instincts of a sorcerer?"

"... ..."

"Well, in any case, there surely needs to be an additional reason for you to willingly subject yourself to Master Seifer's presence."

Glaring at the large steward, Squall hissed, "I have no interest in that man.  Why are you so persistent about this?"

Ward smiled smugly as he met the angry gaze.  "Because I still think you deserve each other."

"What the hell do you--"

Unable to finish his question, Squall was interrupted by the whispered warnings of wind, a voice that led him to automatically raise his hand and create a thick shield of air in front of his body.  The subsequent 'thud' and splattering of snow made the sorcerer blink in surprise before he glared forward at the troublesome pair which had apparently found a new game to play.

Leander, unable to contain his laughter, quickly pointed at his large father as the thrower of the snowball, something Almasy didn't deny as he smirked at the irritated brunet.  "Sorry, but you looked too serious over there.  It's nearly the winter solstice and the year-end festival - try to look jolly and all of that holiday ridiculousness."

Squall scowled in spite of the suggestion, and it didn't help his mood that he continued to wonder why his mentor and father's friend had decided that he somehow deserved the green-eyed curse.

His grin widening, Almasy commented, "Well, your reflexes aren't too bad there, but that's cheating to use shields.  Why are you afraid of a little snow, princeling?  It's not like some ice can make you any colder."

A dark eyebrow rose in disbelief at the man's childish thought process.

"Uh-oh," the lord said mockingly as he bent down toward his son.  "Do you think I made him mad, Ander?"

The boy giggled, not realizing that he was being used as a screen by his father, Almasy proceeding to make another snowball behind small legs.  Although the blond was quick in collecting the heavy snow, Squall was well prepared for the obvious attack.  With the help of wind, the snowball was destroyed the moment it left the gloved hand, the splattering of slush hitting both father and son.  Leander yelped with a playful laugh and proceeded to hide behind his large father.  Almasy, meanwhile, scowled at the sorcerer and placed a fisted hand on his hip.

"You know, you sure have a knack at ruining my fun."

Focused on the lord's pouting expression, Squall couldn't stop a small smile from forming as he considered the ridiculousness of the situation.  And worse, he felt the inescapable need to respond in kind.  Cold wind answered immediately as Squall directed it into the snow along with a touch of fire, the swirling air submerging into the depths of whiteness to eventually rise with four orbs of compacted snow.  Almasy stared with widened eyes at the hovering snowballs, the lord wasting precious moments before realizing the purpose behind the demonstration of magic.  He turned quickly to run for cover, but the forgotten presence of his son behind him made the large blond stumble and fail to dodge as he was pelted with cold slush.  Yelling out in surprise, Almasy fell face first into the snow, Leander just barely avoiding the crush of his father's weight.

"Whoa," the dark-haired boy expressed with awe, his light green eyes then moving to the sorcerer.  "How'd you do that?"

His smile widening, Squall motioned for the child to come close.  While the nobleman took his time rising from the snow, the sorcerer placed a hand at Leander's shoulder and faced him in the direction of his father.  "First, summon your core to better control the elements," Squall stated softly, waiting a brief moment as the child called upon the young staff, a task that had become easier for the boy.  "Now, you will need to have the wind turn in the snow, but the secret is the touch of fire to melt the ice and help form the sphere shape.  Also, fire has a playful nature that the air and earth will always follow for things like this."

As he spoke to the child, Squall watched as Almasy slowly stood up and brushed the sticky whiteness from his coat.  The nobleman eventually felt the gazes focused on him, a blond eyebrow then rising in a curious arc as he noticed the close proximity between student and teacher.  But by that moment, it was too late for the lord as Squall felt the elements stir at the silent, but insistent pleas of the youthful sorcerer.  Clumsy and misshapen, a clump of snow rose from the ground.  Leander smiled at the first attempt, his hand then taken into Squall's.

"And now, we let it go," the elder sorcerer declared as he swung the small arm forward, Squall adding his strength to help launch the snowball at the blond lord.

"Oh shit," Almasy cried out, stupidly not expecting the obvious attack, but he still managed to cover his face in time with a bent arm.

As the snow splattered against the block, Leander cried out happily, "I did it, I did it!" and promptly spun around to wrap his arms around the brunet's legs in a dangerously tight squeeze.

Barely holding onto his balance, Squall placed a hand onto dark hair and ruffled the thick strands.  Ward bent down next to them, congratulating the young boy with a light punch against a small arm.  Leander laughed and then proceeded to explain what it was like to use his first wind spell in addition to the warming spell he had learned only days earlier.  Glancing up from the pair, Squall looked to the abused lord and was unsurprised to find green eyes hovering on the sight of the sorcerer's hand resting on Leander's head.  But then those eyes glanced up, meeting stormy blue as a soft, pleased smile crossed pale lips.

Before the sorcerer was given a chance to question that expression, the gentle smile turned into a broad smirk as Almasy called out, "Hey, small stuff!"

When Leander turned at the voice of his father, Almasy motioned the boy over, a request the child didn't think to refuse as he hurried clumsily through deep snow.  The large man opened his arms as if ready to give his boy a congratulatory hug, but the moment Leander came within range, Almasy promptly grabbed and dumped the child into deep snow.

"That's what you get for attacking your father," the blond stated as he flung more snow onto his son.

Unable to hold a pout, Leander laughed as he tried to sit up.  It was at that moment that Squall noticed the pale stick still in the child's hand despite the interruption in concentration.  The small hand tightened slightly, his thumb brushing against the engraved wind spell Leander had learned earlier in the week, and Squall could feel the hesitant obedience of the air.  The sorcerer shook his head, amused at the boy's quick study with the worthless technique to create snowballs.

Kneeling over his son, Almasy didn't notice the lump of snow behind him, the surprise nearly being ruined by a stifled laugh from Ward.  But before Leander could figure out how to make the snowball fly at his father, Squall heard the quick progression of steps in snow.  Panic tightening his chest, the sorcerer directed a shot of air at the snowball, destroying it into a mess of slush that covered the lord's back.

Almasy yelled out a playful, "Hey!", but then quieted at the sudden appearance of a maid, the breathless woman holding her skirt high in a failed attempt to keep the dress dry.  Sitting back on his heels, the blond lord focused sharp green eyes on the maid as his smile slipped.  "Was there something you needed?"

The young woman flushed at the reprimanding tone.  "Forgive me for interrupting, my lord, but the young master's tutor has arrived early and wishes to begin so he may leave before nightfall.  I first tried looking for Mr. Zabac..."

"It's alright, Casey," Ward assured as he moved from his place at the wall.  "It's my fault for not telling anyone where I was.  Go back inside and dry off in front of a fire."

With a clumsy curtsy in the snow, the woman said her apologies once more before retreating.

"Well, I guess that's enough fun for you, kid," Almasy said as he wrapped his hand around a small arm and lifted his son from the snow.  "Go with Ward and get into some dry clothes before heading to your lesson.  I don't need you catching cold before our trip to the city in a couple days."

"I'll help him," Squall said stiffly, his body tensing with cold anger.  He should have known better than to teach Leander to use magic outside the safety of the manor's walls.  And now, after years of hardships to keep their secret safe, everything had been nearly ruined by a simple, worthless snowball.

"No," Almasy argued as he shoved Leander in the direction of the large steward.  "There's something we need to speak about, so Ward can handle your job for a short while.  Of course, only if that is alright with you."

Squall frowned, knowing he didn't have a real choice in the matter.  Arms crossed over his chest, he looked at Leander and silently wished he could have escaped with the boy.  Not understanding the purpose behind the brunet's gaze, Leander simply waved 'goodbye' as he hurried off to match Ward's far longer stride.

Eventually turning his back to the departing boy, Squall followed the lead of the large blond who was doing his best to shake clinging snow from the back of his jacket.  Blue-gray eyes settled on the exposed neck of the man and Squall thoughtlessly watched the shift of muscle as Almasy stretched awkwardly to shake his coat.  It was a bad habit as of late, the sorcerer finding himself staring at the blond in a shameless and inexcusable manner.  He couldn't explain his sudden interest in the former soldier's body, but the more he looked, the more he understood the reason why the briefest appearance of Almasy could make the maids stop their work and sigh.  But even with that understanding, Squall believed the women fools for fawning over the arrogant man.

In short time, the two men entered the back doorway which led directly to the lord's private study.  Squall relaxed his arms from their tight hold across his chest and sighed in relief at the sight of tall flames within the wide fireplace.  Not removing his coat, he moved close to the source of heat and held his hands out to the entrancing flames.  Never realizing Almasy hadn't continued to his desk like always, Squall jumped at the touch to his arm.

Almasy smiled apologetically, but didn't release his hold on the ragged jacket.  "Sorry, but I just realized that this thing is worthless.  You must have been freezing outside.  Why didn't you get something warmer?"

Jerking his arm free, Squall informed the lord, "This is my best coat."

"Well, that won't do.  You are now the personal servant of an Almasy - we need you look more presentable than this.  Once we're in town, remind me that we need to purchase you new clothing."

Squall bit back his urge to reject the offer, the former prince knowing all too well about the never-ending pageantry within the society of nobles.  But needing to voice his annoyance, the sorcerer asked, "Is this what you had to speak to me about?  That I don't take good enough care of my clothing?"

"Of course not," Almasy declared as he moved from the brunet's side.  Supplying nothing more to his reply, the lord took off his jacket and tossed it over the back of a chair.  His leather gloves soon joined the wet cloth on the seat of the dark wood.  Almasy then raked his fingers through his hair and scratched roughly to remove wet snow from the short strands, the flight of water droplets landing just short of Squall's feet.

"What are you - a dog?"

Blinking, Almasy glanced up at the comment, his startled state fading with a soft smirk.  "I've been called worse," he said before giving his hair one last good scratch.

With a quiet sigh of exasperation, Squall demanded, "Would you just tell me what you want?"

The question caused a flash of various emotions to cross the unshielded eyes of green, but Almasy didn't appear to act on those impassioned thoughts as he instead moved to his desk and leaned back against the polished wood.  "It's frustrating that you always go directly to the point, but since there's no helping it..."  After closing his eyes in a brief moment of thought, the lord stared directly into blue-gray and began, "I brought you with me because I knew that if I left you to your own devises, you would sit in some corner and brood over damned 'what ifs' in connection with that maid.  In plain terms, I don't give a shit that someone almost saw Leander using magic.  No one did and that's that."

Eyes narrowed, Squall argued in slow words, "Someone could have been watching us the entire time."

"Wouldn't the wind have told you otherwise?"

"If the wind were to tell me everything it saw, I would go deaf," the sorcerer replied angrily, upset that the nobleman had assumed they were safe.

Though an eyebrow rose with interest, Almasy countered, "That doesn't matter.  I specifically chose that spot to practice since there are few windows looking over the area.  And frankly, there will always be a chance that someone will oversee Ander using magic.  He needs to learn how to cover his ass when that happens, just like how you destroyed his snowball before that maid came into view."

Squall showed his surprise at the comment.  "You knew about the snowball behind you?"

"Of course.  Whenever he tries to control those elements of yours, he concentrates so hard that his left eye begins to squint," Almasy explained while pointing to his own eye and demonstrating the expression.  "It's cute, really."

Dumbfounded, Squall asked, "If you knew..."

"Why didn't I do anything about it?  Please, I'm a father.  Sometimes I let the little one get the better of me to help build up his confidence."

The brunet had no response to offer, only able to stare at the broad shouldered man as if seeing him for the first time.

"Also speaking as a father, I have to ask - how proud should I be that he picked up that snowball trick so fast?"

His eyes cold gray, Squall looked away from the man who was already smirking with extreme pride.  "I shouldn't have taught him in the first place.  I was--"

"You were being fucking human for once," Almasy stated in a near growl, "and thank Hyne for that.  I think today was the first time I've seen you have a bit of fun.  No matter what you say, it felt good to see you smile, and that half-assed thing you usually show Ander doesn't count."

"... ..."

"Damn, you're a stubborn one.  But I imagine that is what has kept you alive all of these years."

Hearing a tinge of regret to the typically strong voice, Squall looked over to the man and watched as he moved to the front of his desk.  Papers were brushed to the side, revealing a decent sized box that Almasy picked up and opened.  Offering it in the sorcerer's direction, the lord asked, "Have you tried these?  It's a new chocolate they are making further south."

Squall stared at the box of candies ranging in color, his arm tightening around his waist.  "Ward told you."

Honest confusion crossed the lord's face, his softened green eyes flitting between the box and the brunet.  "Told me what?  Do you have something against chocolate?"

While unable to determine if the man was being truthful in his innocence, Squall could tell that the chocolate would taste amazing either way, and it had been years since he had savored the dark sweet.  At first hesitant in his approach, the sorcerer crossed the room, feeling much like a stray cat being lured into a trap by a piece of fish.  But once in range, Almasy did nothing except to smile broadly and extend his arm further in a coaxing manner.

Squall stared directly into the clear green eyes, and finding no evidence that the lord was toying with him, he finally selected a chocolate molded into the shape of a seashell.  He took a small bite of the treat, more of a sliver than a real taste, but it was enough.  A shaky sigh escaped the servant as it melted on his tongue and teased his senses after years of deprivation.  And with that single taste, Squall knew he was in trouble as he forced his eyes open and looked straight into intense green eyes that had widened in surprise.

"Oh..." was Almasy's succinct remark, revealing that the nobleman had indeed not been aware of the sorcerer's weakness.  But judging by the touch of fire in the emerald gaze, Squall knew the man won't soon forget the dangerous piece of information.  Pink lips curled into a mischievous smirk as Almasy selected a dark chocolate for himself and placed the box back onto the cluttered desk.  "Good, aren't they?  I got them from a couple of close friends who had traveled to Centra recently."

Knowing it'd be unwise to watch the blond lord eat his treat, Squall quickly glanced down at the desk and the still open box of chocolates.  His eyes focused on the safe spot, he took a larger bite of the dark candy, far better prepared for the taste he loved.  But as his gaze drifted, stormy eyes were quickly attracted to a piece of paper trapped beneath the thin wood, the curled parchment revealing a broken seal of dark gray wax.

Swallowing down the suddenly sickening piece of chocolate, Squall faced the blond lord directly and demanded, "Why are you dealing with Biggs' mercenary group?"

Once again surprised by the servant, Almasy finished off his chocolate with a heavy lick to his thumb.  "You recognize his seal?"

Not replying to the obvious, the sorcerer glared at the lord and waited for an answer.

"Well, not that it's anything you need to know, I'm thinking about enlisting the help of the Elite Soldiers to clean up a mess down south."

Squall stared directly into green eyes, the lord's gaze suddenly shielded and hard.  "You're not telling me the full truth."

Pale lips curled into a lazy smirk.  "As I already said, it's nothing you need to be concerned with."

Though bristling at the brush off, the servant held back his desire to argue and instead warned the lord, "Don't trust Biggs.  He'll betray you the moment he can benefit from it."

"Oh?  What makes you say that?"

Upset and uncomfortable with sudden emotions, Squall turned away from the blond lord and stepped in the direction of the chair that held the drying coat of the nobleman.  Placing a hand on dark fur, the sorcerer stroked the soft material as he spoke.  "When the Empire attacked my country, it wasn't a surprise.  Our few spies told us months beforehand that the Emperor planned to rid the continent of sorcerers and their followers, him ready to claim that we were plagues of the human race.  We tried to prepare ourselves, but our people were artisans, not warriors.  Even amongst the sorcerers, there were few willing and able to fight.  And so, my father decided to hire a skilled group of soldiers to protect the capitol from an initial attack..."

A loud banging noise made Squall spin around, stormy eyes instantly settling on the tight fist held against the clutter top of the desk.  Almasy sneered viciously as a loud growl slipped past his lips.  "Those bastards.  I was there when Biggs told our generals that they had already handled the city's defenses.  But Biggs and his group were the 'defenses', weren't they?"

Squall didn't reply, his attention otherwise entranced by the anger of the large blond.

"Damn them to Hell, they had also bragged about not losing a single man to the pathetic 'army' of the sorcerers.  I even envied their supposed ability to destroy the sorcerers' defenses without raising a single alarm.  Why do I have to be so fucking blind all of the time?!"

There was a fire to the lord's eyes, a verdant blaze that Squall hadn't seen since the night he was wrongly accused of molesting Leander.  Seeing that sign of impassioned anger, the former prince didn't want to believe that Almasy truly cared about Biggs' betrayal against the lost country of sorcerers.  But as Almasy lifted his hand and rubbed reddened knuckles, Squall felt oddly heartened that the one-time soldier of the Imperial Army was angered by the treachery that led to the elimination of innocent men, women, and children.

Losing some of his heated energy, Almasy sat back onto his desk.  "And to think, I was this close to hiring them.  I can't even begin to imagine how many lives could have been lost.  But damn them, they are the strongest group on the continent and the only ones worth their gold."

Squall focused on the green eyes that were distant with thought, and exploiting the distracted moment, the sorcerer said, "You don't want them for a skirmish down south, do you?  You're after bigger game to the east of the mountains."

Almasy sat straight at the announcement, his eyes wide in the surprise of someone caught red-handed.  But quickly covering himself, the lord smirked and chuckled lightly.  "I think there's a misunderstanding here.  I do need help further south, in fact to protect and maybe even expand my property in the region where these chocolates have come from."

"Fine, then that was the truth, but you only want to test the Elite Soldiers before you decide on their skill and trustworthiness."

The nobleman sat quietly for a time, his smile fading into a more worrisome expression before he asked, "What gave me away?"

Though somewhat surprised by the quick admission, Squall was relieved that the man trusted him enough to stop the game of lies.  Deciding to show the same respect, he explained, "The Elite Soldiers are respected for a reason, the same reason why my father decided to hire them.  But despite their reputation, the Elite Soldiers chose the side of the Emperor and ruthlessly broke their contract with the sorcerers.  And now, for you to be worried about that, it makes me believe that you are planning something that would involve using those mercenaries against the Emperor, a plan that would end in carnage if you decide to use Biggs."

With a loud exhale, Almasy moved to his feet.  "Thank Hyne, only you would make those assumptions with such little information like that.  I don't need others coming after me with that same knowledge."

Squall frowned as he thought about the attack from Ravages.  "Doesn't the Emperor already assume you are planning something?"

The blond lord smiled at the concerned voice.  "The Emperor can assume all he likes, but he'll never get rid of me publicly unless he has evidence to that fact.  Instead, he has decided to threaten me on a yearly basis in an attempt to keep me tamed.  Though I have to say, his use of those monsters was a bit dangerous.  Everyone knows that only the Emperor likes to use those murderous beasts."

The servant gazed at the man, realizing that in his dislike for the blond, he had blinded himself about the deeper traits of the arrogant lord.  Almasy's stance and expression were still displays of exaggerated pride, but for the first time, Squall could see the hidden intelligence to the vibrant eyes, an intelligence that the Emperor would fear if he knew of its existence.  Instead, Almasy played a recluse noble who had money, power, and an apparent disinterest in both.  While the Emperor wasn't completely fooled, the dark-haired servant knew those of nobility had bought the act.  During his time at the Heartilly Estate, Squall had heard the various rumors associated with the blond, some fairly reasonable about his love of swordplay, but then descending to the completely ridiculous concerning a harem of foreign women hidden away in the cellars of the manor.

Overall, Almasy was hardly considered a rival within the noble society, most finding him entertaining when he bothered to attend various gatherings.  And now, with the hint of the real Seifer Almasy shown before him, Squall hated himself for believing the same lies.

Placing aside his anger at himself, Squall asked the nobleman, "What reason do you have to challenge the Emperor?"

"Many reasons, actually, but it all started with the Massacre," Almasy replied with a strange gleam to his eyes.  "He used me and others to kill innocent children.  At first, I tried to drink until I forgot the faces of the dead.  When that did little to help, I then proceeded to try and kill myself on various battlefields, but obviously, I somehow failed at that simple task."

The lord said nothing more, and though Squall knew there was more to the man's story, the servant understood the base emotion of wanting to stop living.  "And what happens if, by your god's will, you succeed?"

"Heh, you mean, do I intend to take the throne of Emperor for myself?"

Squall replied with a slight nod of his head.

Almasy smiled a cat's grin. "No, I don't think so.  The last thing I'd want is to be named Emperor.  Frankly, it's too much work to rule a country.  I'd rather place a man on the throne and have that person forever indebted to me and my whims."

"Then whom do you have in mind?" the brunet asked, finding it amusing that only the lord in front of him could find a benefit in being lazy and irresponsible.

"Currently, Alexandros tops my list.  He's rather fair and wouldn't do anything reckless, even to save his life.  Also, he's a blood cousin to Deling, which should make the nobles happy enough.  Mostly, I fell in love with his daughter when I met her last year.  She'll make a wonderful queen when her time comes."

Squall looked away from the lord at that point, trying to remember as many details as he could about the head of the Alexandros family.  Nothing stood out as dangerous or different than any other noble, and while the sorcerer didn't have as much faith as Almasy had concerning the man's ruling abilities, Squall knew the role of Emperor could be one of a figurehead if the man was incompetent enough.

Reluctantly deciding to trust the lord's judgment, Squall asked, "If you need a strong group of warriors, would you consider accepting the help of the Shumi?"

There was no immediate reply, and when the servant faced Almasy once more, the man appeared beyond words as his mouth hung open without a sound.  Eventually, a disbelieving laugh left the blond as Almasy said, "The Shumi?  Hyne's hips, those demons are worse than the Ravages.  If I set one foot on their land, they'll cut off my legs and watch me bleed to death."

The sorcerer grinned faintly.  "There's a reason for that - it makes the meat of their enemies sweeter to let them bleed out first."

Shifting back in surprise, Almasy watched his servant carefully before a light of understanding came to the clear eyes.  "Then it's true that the sorcerers controlled the Shumi?"

A sharp laugh left Squall as he shook his head.  "The Shumi would allow no one to be their masters.  No, centuries ago there was a bloodied war between us that occurred over a misunderstanding.  Afterward, once the falsehoods had been cleared, a truce was made, which then led to a type of kinship.  That's all."

The lord frowned at the explanation, his brow creased in thought.  "If they were your allies, then why didn't they lift a hand to help you in the Massacre?"

"Unfortunately, while we sorcerers trust the Shumi, not everyone in our capitol would have been comfortable with them residing within the city.  And so, my father hired Biggs' mercenaries to defend the capitol and give us time to notify the Shumi.  We were never given that chance."

Releasing a deep sigh, Almasy raked his fingers back through soft spikes of gold.  "Hyne, if those Shumi had been there, I sincerely doubt your city would have been destroyed.  Hell, I'm not too certain I would have been willing to fight against those odds.  Facing the sorcerers was bad enough, but to defend ourselves against those beasts--"

"Stop referring to them as monsters," Squall demanded sharply.

Though at first surprised by the outburst, Almasy smiled apologetically.  "Forgive me.  I've already forgotten that these are friends of yours."

Glancing away toward the fireplace, the sorcerer nodded in a vague sign that he wasn't overly offended.  In truth, he could understand the man's point of view, one held by the entirety of the continent save the magic users.  Outsiders only knew of the matured warriors of the Shumi race, dangerous fighters with the head and claws of tigers, but placed on the slender and upright bodies of humans.  Their reddish fur was also something of rumor, the legends stating that their love of blood had stained their once white coats.  It was all lies and fairy tales, but with few men daring to tread onto their land and threaten their homes, the Shumi weren't motivated to dispatch the mistruths.

"Squall... May I ask you something?"

The voice low and tenuous, the sorcerer turned slightly and eyed the blond lord without facing him directly.

"I know I'm probably asking for trouble by asking this, but I need to know before I make myself insane with hopeful assumptions.  I mean, with you going so far to offer your connections to the Shumi, and this in addition to teaching me about sorcerers..."  Almasy bowed his head and scratched the back of his neck in hesitation before sighing and returning his clear-eyed gaze to the sorcerer.  "Do you still hate me?"

It was a straightforward question that should have had an equally straightforward answer, but Squall found his throat suddenly dry and his tongue stuck as he continued to stare at the young lord.  Months or even several weeks earlier, the servant knew he wouldn't have even paused in his answer.  But that was before Almasy proved his right to be Leander's father, before the tutoring sessions during which Almasy would show his true interest about the sorcerers and their magic, and long before Squall found himself alone with the charismatic lord on an almost daily basis.  Searching within himself, the servant could no longer sense the heated anger he once felt for the nobleman he thought he knew.  Instead, there was simple wariness of the lord's true intentions behind his actions, and oddly, a deep concern related to the sorcerer's own desires in connection with the blond.

"I know I did something to you," Almasy spoke out in a rush, apparently worried by the brunet's long pause.  "I still can't remember what happened between us, but I'm not surprised that it was my fault and that I've hurt you.  More than anything, I wish I could make up for that past, but I know there are some things which are unforgivable..."

Looking at the blond, Squall tried to understand his feelings for the anxious lord and why the hate had disappeared.  Then his focus went to the large hand that was still wrapped at a broad shoulder.  It was a hand that had touched him and burned his skin, but those remembered sensations had grown dull and surreal over the years.  Instead, there were clearer memories of the rough hand playfully messing with Leander's dark hair, of long fingers wiping aside the boy's frightened tears, and of warm skin wrapped around the sorcerer's frozen hand, a touch that was never vocally declared unwanted.

Squall shook his head lightly in denial of his thoughts, but as the corner of his lips curled into a disbelieving smile, the servant knew there was no escaping the facts - he had grown soft to the idiot lord before him.

Green eyes flashed with pain at the misinterpreted sign of dismissal, and as Almasy opened his mouth to stutter out another pled for absolution, Squall interrupted him -

"It seems that I have already forgiven you."

Almasy stood stunned for a long moment, a soft cerulean hue seeping into green eyes as he stared wordlessly at the sorcerer.  Eventually, a breath partway between a laugh and a cough escaped the lord as he ran a shaky hand back through his hair.  Quickly regaining his center, Almasy looked to the brunet and grinned blissfully.  "You are an utter enigma, princeling, though I think you'll regret telling me that."

Squall frowned.  "Forgiveness is not the same thing as trust."

"Oh, I know that, but trust is something that can be built slowly over time.  Forgiveness, on the other hand..."  Almasy trailed off into momentary thought, his eyes growing distant.  "There's nothing I could've done to earn that."

Stormy eyes widened slightly, his insides twisting at the indication that the lord indeed knew everything despite his earlier declaration that he had no memory of their past.  But frustratingly, the sorcerer knew he couldn't confront the lord on the slim chance Almasy honestly didn't know the full details of what had happened.  And as Ward had already mentioned, it was difficult to believe that the volatile man wouldn't react poorly once stumbling upon forgotten memories.

Uncomfortable silence followed Almasy's troubled statement, and though typically appreciating quiet moments, Squall felt his time with the lord had gone too long.  A hand tight at his waist, the brunet turned and made a step in the direction of the door.

"You're leaving?"

Pausing in place, Squall replied, "There's nothing more I want to say and Ward has better things to do than watch over a child.  So, if you don't mind, my lord--"

"Seifer."

Dark eyebrows scrunched in confusion, the sorcerer looked back at the smirking man.  "Excuse me?"

"It's my name and I want you to use it."

Scowling, Squall replied, "I know it's your name, but it wouldn't be proper--"

"I don't care," Almasy interrupted for a second time.  "After everything that has happened in the past several months, I think we've moved beyond meaningless honorifics."

"... ..."

With a mischievous smile and a determined glint to his eyes, Almasy added, "Or if you want to remain stubborn, I can play that same game, your Highness."

Stormy eyes widening, the former prince choked out, "You wouldn't."

"Not to the point of threatening my Liege's safety, but..."  The lord let his words hang, suggesting endless torment until he got his way.

His left eye twitching in angered exasperation, the sorcerer turned sharply and placed a hand at his forehead.  "Fine."

"Fine what?"

After taking a cleansing breath, Squall clarified slowly, "When others aren't around, I won't use honorifics."

"Alright, but only as long as Ander and Ward don't count as 'others'," Almasy said as he moved behind the smaller man, close enough for his heat to be felt across the bare inches between them.  "But I believe you missed something."

Though becoming lightheaded by that unexpected closeness, Squall straightened with resolve.  "Also, and only when necessary, I will call you by name."

A breathy chuckle left the lord, the warm air causing strands of dark brown hair to sway.  "Hyne, you are so difficult.  It's a wonder I bother."

"I'm leaving," the sorcerer announced sharply, trying not to dwell on the question of why the man was 'bothering' in the first place.

"A-ah, of course, I shouldn't keep you from Leander's side for too long."

Ignoring the man's attempt to bait him into another argument, Squall stepped quickly to the door, somewhat surprised when no hand reached out to stop him.  Nonetheless, there was the burning sensation at his back, every move of his escape being watched by piercing green.  Creating an opening just wide enough for his lean form to slip through, the sorcerer quickly closed the door behind him, but with his heartbeats rushed, Squall found himself unable to move straightaway.

His hand still on the handle, Squall rested his head against dark wood, wordlessly demanding himself to stop thinking about the low voice that made him weak, the clear-eyed gaze that flashed with passion, and the smug smirk that coaxed too much out of him.  It didn't take long for the sorcerer to realize that the traitorous thoughts wouldn't leave him so easily.  His breaths shallow, Squall became overwhelmed by a new sort of terror as he pressed further against the door.  Though his eyes were closed tightly in denial, the servant knew he would no longer be able to fully protect himself from the man beyond the threshold.

With a light growl, Squall pushed away from door and glared past the thin wooden barrier as he imagined the large blond seated at his desk.  In a barely audible voice, the sorcerer announced, "I was wrong.  I hate you.  I hate you... Seifer..."

Chapter Text

Despite the cold weather and the threat of snow from low clouds, the main street of the capitol was packed with numerous booths selling various items including everything from cheap trinkets, to prime meats, and to specially made weapons.  It seemed that snow and ice alone couldn't stop opportunistic merchants from taking advantage of the people readying themselves for the approaching winter celebration.  It was a century old festival which lasted from the winter solstice and until the new year, and with little time before the shortest day of the year, many people were eager to spend their extra coins on a special gift or two.

Standing just inside the tent belonging to his favorite tailor, Seifer looked past the colorful flaps of the entrance and smiled fondly at the activities of the marketplace.  It had always impressed the lord that he could find nearly whatever he desired and some things he had never imagined amongst the typical merchant wares.  The musicians and performers looking for spare change were an added charm, and though over a week away, the entire energy of the crowd spoke of the coming celebrations.  Aside from the spring festival, there was no better time to visit the marketplace.

But even while enjoying the sights and activities of the capitol's main street, Seifer kept his hand tight on his young son's shoulder, both to keep Leander in place and to protect the boy from potential dangers.  At the fighter's other side was Hyperion, the weight of his favored blade adding a sense of safety for the paranoid blond.  It had been nearly two weeks since the ill-fated party, and though Seifer figured the Emperor would be a fool to attempt something in the crowds of the marketplace, he felt calmer with the wide blade at his hip.  Even the presence of his large steward inside the tent didn't give him the same sense of protection.

"That's enough."

Seifer smirked softly at the irritated voice as he turned and lifted his free arm to prevent the escape of his servant.  "Hey now, I thought we were getting you new clothing."

Lips set into a deep scowl, Squall pointed behind him.  "She wants me to wear that."

Seifer lifted his gaze and eyed the older woman carrying a soft blue material patterned with dark indigo in her arms.  The lord knew the fabric was a bit too much for a servant, but he also could tell that the coloring would be an excellent match for the servant's cold eyes of blue-gray.  Flashing a convincing smile, Seifer commented, "You do need some formal wear in addition the warmer clothes we came here to buy."

His gaze incredulous, Squall spoke in low, threatening voice, "It would draw too much attention to me."

Seifer sighed at the argument, noting the hint of justified fear in the man's voice.  "Fine.  But I still want you fitted for other clothing.  Let me speak with them about what material to use."

Reluctantly, Squall nodded and allowed an assistant to drag him to a corner for measurements.

Seifer watched the brunet briefly before looking down at his son.  "So what do you think, Ander - do you like that color?"

"Is it for Squall?"

"That's the idea.  Don't you think it would look good on him?"

His soft green eyes thoughtful, Leander carefully examined the fabric.  "I've never seen him wear anything nice."

Overhearing the discussion, the woman holding the pale blue fabric smiled and moved toward the father and son.  Kneeling down, she encouraged the boy to give the material a closer look.

His small hand stroking the fabric, Leander smiled and announced, "It's soft.  Can we get it for him, Father?"

"Of course.  In fact, why don't we make it your gift to him for the winter celebration?"

Leander smiled brightly at the suggestion and nodded in way that made his short hair bounce.

Seifer grinned at his son's unwitting cooperation, the lord certain that Squall wouldn't reject the gift of expensive clothing if it came from the dark-haired boy.  Looking to the tailor's assistant, Seifer said, "I want something formal, but I'll have to trust your judgment to know what would look best on him.  And please, keep this a secret from the man.  He'll become even more difficult if he finds out."

"As you wish, my lord," the white-haired woman said with a conspiring smile.  "Did you want to pick out any other material for him?"

"Not particularly.  I'm certain you can find some neutral colors that won't offended him, but I want softer fabrics.  Maybe something with fur.  It looks like it's going to be a cold winter and I don't need him getting ill."

"That is kind of you, my lord.  Will there be anything else?"

"No, that should everything for now.  I trust this will pay for the first half of your fee," Seifer said while retrieving a pouch from his jacket and handing it to the woman.  At her nod, the blond called over his shoulder.  "Ward."

The large man moved from the entrance, an amused smile causing the scar down his cheek to curve upward.  "Yes, Master Seifer?"

"Ander and I are going out to look for more gifts.  I trust you can wait here with Squall and manage to hold your tongue about what you just overheard?"

Ward's grin broadened at the implication that he had been eavesdropping.  "Of course, my lord.  I wouldn't want to ruin the young master's surprise for him."

Assured of the steward's cooperation, Seifer looked to his son.  "Ready to spend some more money?"

His green eyes bright, Leander asked in a loud whisper, "Are we going to go see the scary man with the special things?"

The blond pressed a finger against his lips in a shushing motion and winked as if sharing a great secret with the child.

"Do you think you will be long?" Ward asked.

"I can't imagine why.  We'll meet you both back here, and then we'll find some dinner before going home."

"As you wish, my lord.  Good luck with your shopping."

Taking a small hand onto his, Seifer led the way outside to the busy street of the marketplace.  As they walked down the cobbled street, Leander would twist in his hold on occasion, ogling the magicians and acrobats who performed on every corner.  Seifer laughed at the child's interest and wondered if he had done the same years past when his mother would take him to the capitol for various festivals.  But their ultimate destination wasn't on the main street, and after several blocks, they changed direction and slipped down a narrow side street.  With no more distractions, Leander took the lead and tried to make his father move faster as they walked farther away from the busy marketplace.

"And why are you so excited?"

Leander grinned as he tugged harder on arm restraining him.  "Because I want to get Squall something good.  I've never gotten him something before."

"Oh?  And what about the clothes you're getting him?"

With a pleading frown, Leander declared, "But that's clothes and I wanna get him something with magic in it.  Like that box with the little men we got last time."

"I don't know.  That sort of thing is usually very expensive."

Coming to a stop, the young boy looked up with wide eyes.  "But... but he likes things with magic.  In his room, he always plays with those little men."

"Is that so?" Seifer said with a smile, intrigued that Squall was secretly pleased to have the chess set returned to him.  "Well, if that's the case, then maybe you should get him something extra."

"Thank you, Father!"

Excited with the given permission, Leander resumed his previous lead with the occasional hard tug on his father's arm.  Seifer allowed himself to be pulled along, silently impressed that the six-year-old boy knew where he was going.  For several blocks, they walked past the common shops and bakeries, Seifer forced to stop his anxious son as the boy forgot about the back alleyway they were supposed to go down.

It wasn't until there was a short distance left before the antiques shop when Seifer felt eyes upon them, the sensation causing the blond to slow his step and examine his surroundings more closely.  There was no one else in the narrow alleyway, a large difference from the crowded marketplace and something that made Seifer instantly wary.  Leander whined at the slowed pace, but a quiet command from his father to come close silenced the boy as he moved to the lord's side and allowed an arm to wrap protectively around his shoulders.  Looking up at the building tops, Seifer squinted at the glare of low clouds, but saw no movement that should have alarmed him.  Eventually deciding that it was the cold weather getting the better of him, Seifer pushed Leander forward in a silent sign to hurry to the shop entrance.

Using his full weight, Leander forced open the door and then waited for his father to follow close behind.  Seifer grinned at the youth's demonstration of bravery, knowing well of the child's apprehension toward the store owner, Heinrich.  With a firm hand placed on a thin shoulder, Seifer ushered his son inside the antiques shop.  It was a dreary place with the collection of numerous bookshelves blocking out the light from the few windows and the scattered lamps did little to otherwise brighten the store.  The narrow space smelled of dust and mildew, unsurprisingly drawing a sneeze from Leander once the door closed behind them.  Seifer smiled at the sneeze that nearly rocked the small boy off his feet.

"Who's there?"

Seifer looked up at the back door and watched the limping approach of the old man Heinrich.  A survivor of three wars, the man of wild white hair bore more than his share of battle wounds, including a roaming glass eye that never failed to make Leander cringe against his father's legs.  Seifer flashed a smile at the aging soldier and announced, "It's just us, Heinrich."

Focusing a cloudy blue eye on the father and son, Heinrich huffed as he moved to the back of the counter.  "You got my letter then, eh?"

Seifer didn't reply, both men knowing full well that the lord wouldn't have come if he wasn't certain that new goods were available.  The lord instead bent down and lifted Leander to sit him on the edge of the counter, giving the small boy a better view of the dusty surface.  Heinrich shuffled around the bottom cabinets before retrieving a large box with a heavy lock.

"I thought you'd be here today," he stated while removing the chain from his neck and producing an old key.  "Three days after I send a letter and you're at the door.  Impatient as always."

Seifer grinned at the muttering of the old man, hearing the same line before.  Meanwhile, his eyes stayed firmly focused on the opening of the familiar box.  Bony hands dipped into the box, revealing each item with a painful slowness that was unavoidable given the shaky hold of the aged soldier.  Soon spread out on the flat surface were the typical items that Heinrich seemed to have in excess - ornamental knifes, assorted coins, and extravagant jewelry.  None of the pieces held any appeal to the nobleman, and with every new object placed onto the countertop, Seifer felt his previous anticipation fade as he wondered if the old man had finally failed him after years of worthwhile treasures.

A quiet gasp abruptly sounded as Leander pointed to the necklace that had yet to be set onto the surface.  "I want that, Father.  I want to give Sq... uh, him that," he said, barely catching himself as he was previously warned not to speak Squall's name to the store owner.

A thin eyebrow arched, Heinrich look to the blond lord.  "You're not here for yourself this time around?"

With a relaxed smile, Seifer lied, "Ander wants to give a present to a little friend of his."

"This is a mite expensive for a little one."

"Well, she is a daughter in the royal blood line.  It doesn't hurt to impress, and perhaps to encourage young love," Seifer stated with a wink, suggesting that he was just another nobleman attempting to gain relations within the royal lineage.  "May I see it?"

Heinrich shrugged, quickly uninterested in the games of nobility as long as it meant a sale.  He placed the necklace of heavy chains in the lord's hand and returned to the task of emptying the box of its items.

With his son hanging on his arm, Seifer examined the silver necklace bearing a large pendant of a lion's head with its mane flowing down into a holy cross.  Though trapped in mid-roar, Seifer didn't find the lion to be fierce, but instead there was a sense of pride and wisdom to the animal king.  Vaguely recalling that the Loire family crest displayed a similar lion, Seifer had a feeling his son knew exactly to whom the necklace belonged.

Giving the necklace to Leander, the blond said, "I don't know, kid.  This is pretty heavy."

"But..."  Leander frowned, his eyes glistening with a light that didn't come from any lamp.

Knowing the child wasn't comfortable with lies, Seifer laughed and looked to Heinrich.  "I suppose it'll take a few more years before he'll learn that ladies don't like the same things as men."

The old soldier coughed out a chuckle.  "If I remember right, I got my first love a toad.  She didn't like it much."

Seifer stared at the man, surprised to get a touch of conversation out of him.  "No, I can't imagine she did."

The reminiscing moment past quickly as thin lips sunk back into a perpetual frown.  "Is that going to be all for you?"

"If you don't mind, I'd like a quick look before deciding," Seifer replied while moving to glance into the box.  As expected, nothing truly caught his eye.  Heinrich was usually very good at guessing what pieces would interest Seifer, and the fact that he hadn't presented something outright suggested that the old man was merely gambling that there was something worthwhile to Seifer amongst the random trinkets.

Disheartened, Seifer sighed as he knocked aside the remaining items within the box, hoping he had simply missed something due to the poor lighting of the room.  The frustrated action prompted a gruff growl from the store owner, but Seifer didn't care as his eyes set upon dark metal.  Brushing aside a decorated purse and scattered jewelry, the blond lord lifted out a curved plate of tarnished metal.  Turning it over, Seifer stared into the partial face of a raging lion.  It was a half-mask that was scratched, chipped, and blackened from age, but even so, Seifer was impressed by the intricate work that had been done, including details down to the fine lines of muscles which spoke of both the physical and inner strength of the king of beasts.

Entranced by the mask, but knowing it could possibly be a fake, Seifer quietly asked his son, "What do you think, Ander?"

Leander hummed out an agreeing noise, a sign to let his father know that the mask had indeed been made by sorcerers.  "But I like mine better.  That one smells funny.  Like blood."

Seifer looked at the young boy, curious as to what he meant by the comment, but knew it would have to wait until they were alone.  "Well, this isn't for you anyway, kid, so it's none of your concern.  Heinrich, I think we have found everything we need.  Now, let's talk price."

After long minutes of bartering down the old soldier's price, Seifer was satisfied with the final cost, especially considering his disadvantage with Leander's obvious desire to have the necklace.  From behind the counter, Heinrich produced a bag of soft material for the silver jewelry and used a scrap of similar cloth to wrap the old mask.  The sale completed, Heinrich muttered something about 'next time' and limped his way back to his previous hiding spot.

Placing both items into the hidden pockets of his jacket, Seifer looked down to his son and was once again struck by the similar appearance of Leander and the difficult servant.  Fair skin, expressive eyes, and slender body lines... Ever since the boy had shortened his hair, Leander had become a perfect image of what Seifer believed the sorcerer would have looked like in his youth.  Smiling softly and remembering that he once thought the two mere cousins, Seifer placed a large hand on top the boy's head and ruffled the dark hair which stuck out from all sides.

"You know, kid, I don't think I've ever asked why you decided to cut your hair.  I thought you liked it long."

Green eyes lowered in bashfulness, Leander knocked aside his father's hand and proceeded to finger the shortened strands.  "Because..."

"Because why?"

"Because... Matron told me..."

Confused, Seifer asked, "Matron told you to cut your hair?  Since when did you start listening to her?"

Leander shook his head.  "No, she didn't say that.  A long, long time ago, she told me... she told me that if I really wanted something, I had to grow my hair and make a wish."

The father stared at his child, knowing all too well about the myth that supposedly made any wish come true.  "But you've cut your hair... Ander, don't tell me that you got your wish."

With a shy smile, Leander looked up at his father.  "Un, I think so."

Seifer continued to stare at the boy, wondering how much Leander consciously knew about his other father.  It didn't occur to him that Leander would wish for anything except a mother, the lord knowing that his son was always given whatever else he desired.  And yet, it seemed strange that the child hadn't known from the beginning that Squall was the one who gave him life.

It was with great reluctance that Seifer decided against further questions, and instead smiled softly.  "Well, congratulations on getting your wish.  That doesn't happen for everyone."

"Nh, that's what Matron said."

Offering his hand to the young boy, Seifer nodded in the direction of the doorway.  "Let's head back.  I'll bet Squall and Ward are waiting for us."

Hand in hand, father and son left the dusty antiques shop and stepped into the coldness of winter.  Leander breathed deeply at the fresh air and then rubbed the sleeve of his shirt beneath his nose to rid the small nub of remaining dust.  With grin at the endearing action of his young son, the blond pulled Leander forward and began to lead the way back to the entrance of the narrow side street.

Forgetting his previous paranoia, Seifer was suddenly reminded of the abnormal silence of the streets when a low growl rumbled from behind.  There was no hesitation from Seifer as he unsheathed Hyperion and spun around in the same motion, the deliberate move also placing his son safely behind his legs.  The blond swordsman stared at the beast before him, his heart pounding at the sight of the unexpected Ravage standing in the middle of the cobbled street.  The beast's crystalline blue eyes framed by dark brown fur were focused on its new prey while its pointed ears twisted at sounds that only it could hear.  Mismatched to the head of the wolf, the Ravage's long body of short tan fur swayed vaguely, enhanced by the slow, anticipating wag of a cat-like tail.  Exposed claws clicked on the stones of the street, but the monster seemed to be savoring the moment before a kill, its black tongue sweeping over the blood-matted fur of its muzzle.

Leander whimpered behind his father and clutched onto the back of his pants.

"You have to let go, Leander," Seifer warned quietly, his sharp green eyes focused on every twitch of the Ravage's heavy muscles.

The child did as told, a sniffle sounding as he backed away a step.  "You can kill it, right?  Squall said you could."

Seifer stiffened at the declaration, his surprise at the sorcerer's supposed praise briefly distracting him until the monster began to crouch low to the cobbled streets.  "Don't worry about me, Ander, but I need you to run.  Find Squall and he'll protect you.  And don't let anyone else touch you.  I don't care if your secret is revealed to the entire world.  Just protect yourself.  Understood?"

"...uh-huh..."

"Good boy.  Now make me proud and run!" Seifer yelled out as he jumped forward to gain the attention of the beast, praying to Hyne that Leander could escape without difficulty.

Unsurprisingly, the wolf-faced monster dodged the direct attack of the large blond and began a sprint to its weaker prey.  Ready for the change in direction, Seifer turned with an extended arm that gave his blade a wide arc.  Though the Ravage was faster than the veteran soldier remembered, Hyperion still connected with long body of the beast and cleanly removed a back leg in addition to the tip of its tail.

As the Ravage howled at being injured, Seifer used the moment to look at the entrance of the side street and sighed with wholehearted relief when he didn't see his son in view.  That momentary glance, however, was more than the swordsman had time to spare.  With a pained roar, the Ravage whipped around to face its tormentor, and despite missing a leg, it managed rear up in an unbalanced attempt to pounce on its larger prey.  Caught unaware by the monster which should have been grounded, Seifer fell back to the stone ground and lost his faithful blade when his bent arm slammed against the street.  Though surprised, the experienced soldier automatically raised his left arm to guard his throat and face, the move coming hardly a moment too soon when the bloodied muzzle of the Ravage lashed forward in search of revenge.

Seifer yelled out in agony when long fangs sank into his defenseless arm and the raw strength of the Ravage's jaws threatened to break his forearm in two.  The beast then shook its head in an irritated attempt to remove the object preventing it from attacking the man's vulnerable throat, and for the briefest of moments, Seifer feared losing his arm completely.  To add to his agony, the Ravage was forced to work around its handicap as it placed a heavy paw at the man's stomach and used the extra leverage as a necessary aid in its murderous endeavor.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, the former soldier reached down with his free hand and clawed at his thigh until finding the hilt of a short knife sheathed in the holster strapped to his leg.  Lacking his typical smoothness, Seifer fought to free the blade from its holder, forgetting at first to remove the strap holding it in place.  Seconds wasted, the blond growled at his fear induced stupidity and thumbed aside the band of leather to remove the knife.  Seifer pushed the head of the Ravage back, angling the beast to his liking before slicing the blade across the underside of the monster's wide neck.  The Ravage lunged back at the injury, making Seifer once again worry for his arm, but the beast released its hold as it tried to use its mouth to regain the ability to breathe.  Its mouth gaping, the Ravage stumbled back several steps, leaving a thick trail of blood at its unsteady feet before finally dropping to the ground.

Seifer didn't focus on the fallen beast for long, knowing that the vicious creature wasn't patient enough to play dead for the purpose of luring its prey into false security.  Quickly sitting up, the blond fighter spent the moment to tear off the remains of his ruined jacket sleeve and used the thick fabric to bind his injured forearm.  It was a hurried job that would do little to stop the blood, but Seifer had already heard the first footsteps of new opponents as he reached for his dropped sword.

"My, my, it looks like the honored Captain Almasy of the Imperial Army can still handle at least one Ravage single-handedly."

Seifer relaxed into a defensive pose to save his remaining energy as he eyed the new-comers.  There were four men in view, all wearing the dark blue uniforms lined with black that identified the soldiers as members of the Royal Army.  Of the group, the brown-haired, brown-eyed man who had spoken was the only one who displayed a shield on his right arm, a golden shield that signified his high-ranking status within the personal army of the Emperor.  The other men were large and heavily muscled, and though Seifer was accustomed to sparing with Ward, the blond lord knew that if it came to a fight, he would be severely disadvantaged with his injured arm and battered body.

Swinging a thick leather leash and muzzle, the army officer smiled, "I should thank you for handling that puppy.  We were cleaning the streets of vagrants and it got away from us.  I was afraid it was about to head directly for the marketplace."

Seifer glared at the man, the lord's green eyes bright and sharp with his pupils contracted fully.  He knew the officer was being far from truthful, the smirks of the soldiers behind him a clear sign of that fact.  Tensing in readiness, Seifer adjusted the angle of his sword and spoke in a low voice to the officer.

"What is the meaning of this?  The Emperor has already tried to kill me in this particular fashion and failed.  Why try it again?"

Brown eyes wide in fake innocence, the leader declared, "We weren't trying to harm you, my lord.  And I assure you, the Emperor hasn't declared your life forfeit."

Seifer sneered at the man.  "The Empress, then?"

The officer's expression relaxed into something more serious, his brown eyes narrowed in vague surprise at the lord's guess.  "Then you do realize that you have offended the High Lady."

"I have done nothing to offend that woman.  Instead, she is the one who had threatened my home and family.  And now, out of nowhere, she has decided that it would be best to end my life?"

Humming softly, the brown-haired man stepped to the side.  "The Ravage wasn't meant as an attempt against your life; rather, it was a test to determine if you were the one who could have handled the Ravages that were... 'lost' on your property months ago.  Strange that you can hardly protect yourself from one Ravage, and yet you supposedly killed a full pack by your own strength."  Reaching the stone wall, the officer leaned against the solid support and tilted his head curiously.  "Perhaps the Empress was right about you after all."

Seifer wasn't given the chance to question the statement, his focus on the leader's movement and words leaving the blond vulnerable to the other soldiers.  Seifer swiftly turned with Hyperion steady before him, and though the bloodstained blade bit into the thick neck of the fastest soldier, it did little damage as the sword was promptly knocked aside by a gauntlet-covered hand.  Before Seifer knew what was happening, his wrists were taken into strong, meaty hands and he was launched back into the unforgiving wall.  Hard boots stepped into the back of his legs and he was forcibly dropped into a kneeling position.

"We know there is a sorcerer, Lord Almasy," the officer stated as he stepped in front of the fallen blond.  "Frankly, the Emperor and his Lady don't like unknowns within their Empire and your alliance with an unidentified sorcerer is too dangerous to ignore."

Seifer didn't struggle against the holds pinning him against the wall, though his left eye squinted slightly at the rough fingernails biting into his loosely bound forearm.  His eyes focused solely on the lean soldier, Seifer said hoarsely, "There is no sorcerer, idiot.  I fought and was nearly killed in the Massacre - I have no love for those magic users.  As for those Ravages, did you ever consider that there were other people who helped me to kill those monsters that invaded my property?"

The officer smirked, not persuaded in the least.  "Say what you will, but my Empress is confident that you are hiding a sorcerer.  All that remains is for us to flush him out."

Defenseless, Seifer watched the brown-haired man step close and kneel directly in front of him.  The officer reached into a pouch strapped to his side and removed a decorated glass vial that contained an abnormally bright red liquid.  There was a sharp order to, 'open his mouth,' and only then did Seifer begin to struggle against his captors.  But the attempt was worthless against the two large men, one holding his nose and the other forcing his jaw open as they tightened their grasps on his wrists.

Seifer gagged and tried to spit out the liquid that tasted of blood and alcohol, but the hand at his chin slammed his jaw shut, the forceful move causing the back of his head to knock against stone.  Inadvertently swallowing at the pain, green eyes went wide with the realization that he was probably in serious trouble.

Grinning, the lean soldier mocked, "That's a boy.  Drink up your medicine."

Seifer coughed as his head was released from the vice-like grips and he was able to breathe freely.  "What... did you give... me?"

"Nothing deadly... well, as long as your sorcerer decides to show himself."

With a chuckling cough, Seifer bowed his head in defeat.  "There is no sorcerer... who would save my life."

"Interesting.  Then there is a sorcerer you are hiding away somewhere."

The blond lord shook his head.  "... Not what I said," he muttered, his throat feeling hot and raw as time continued to pass.  There was also an uncomfortable warming sensation growing within his stomach, but Seifer couldn't be certain if it was a result of simple mind games or if he was truly in trouble.  Either way, he wasn't about to plead for his life, not when it would mean forfeiting Squall's life in return.  His head still bowed and his green-eyed gaze focused on the ice of the street, Seifer smiled bitterly and mourned at the notion that once everything was said and done, the cold-hearted sorcerer would never know of his sacrifice.

"All right boys," the lean officer said while pushing up from the ground.  "Go ahead and release him.  There's nothing left for us to do except to wait."

Though his arms were freed, Seifer didn't consider that he could easily reach for Hyperion, the wide blade resting a short distance away and ready to enact revenge against the soldiers of the Royal Army.  Instead, the blond lord was fully distracted as his eyes remained focused on the ice of the street, a thin frost on stone that was suddenly trailing after the steps of the unsuspecting officer.  Seifer bit back the instinct to warn a fellow soldier about the telltale sign that a sorcerer was close by, and with morbid curiosity, he watched as the ice eventually took hold of the man's foot and crawled up the long leg.

A moment too late, the lean soldier stopped and noticed the clinging ice.  A curse hanging on the man's lips, his entire body abruptly turned pale blue as every touch of fire left the officer and escaped into the cold air of winter.  The man's underlings jumped back from the officer in plain shock, all of them slow with obvious choice to draw their blades.  Their reaction, however, seemed to matter little as Seifer heard the sound of metal moving across stone and, when he turned, he found Hyperion gone. 

The next sound was a scream of pain, Seifer certain that someone had tasted the edge of his blade.  His lips settling into a prideful smirk, the lord glanced back to the doomed soldiers and was in time to witness the man with a split gut fall to the ground.  Meanwhile, a brown blur had already moved from the one target and raced directly between the last two soldiers.  Abruptly coming into focus for human eyes, Squall stood in place with Hyperion piercing through the chest of one man and an elegant hand placed on the exposed side of the other soldier.  At the same moment the first man gasped out his last breath, the last soldier standing watched helplessly as his innards exploded from his stomach and splattered onto the cobbled ground at his feet.

With respect and admiration, Seifer stared at the dark-haired sorcerer as Squall slowly turned while examining his surroundings, the final pleads of the dying soldier completely ignored.  The blond thought to call out and reassure the servant that there had only been the four men, but before he could force his voice through his hurting throat, Squall abruptly summoned his staff and slammed it to the ground.  A fierce wind sounded from high above, the sudden howl chilling Seifer though he never felt the slightest breeze across his skin.  Then, from seemingly nowhere, a scream sounded and slowly gained volume until sharply ending with a dull thud.  Looking to his left, Seifer stared with widened eyes at the body of an unknown man resting further down the side street, the person's surprised and final expression focused on the lord though the rest of the man's broken body was directed the other way.

"Why are you still sitting there like an idiot?"

Seifer blinked at the reproachful tone, and then slowly faced the sorcerer.  Unable to hide his awe, the lord gazed into the bright eyes that shone like polished silver and sapphire.  Half wondering if the cause of the burning in his chest was from the poison or from the man before him, the blond said hoarsely, "Y'know, I've never seen you do that before.  I've only heard..."  Abrupt and harsh coughs exploded from Seifer as he covered his mouth and closed his eyes in a silent plead for it to mean nothing more than the winter air irritating his lungs.

"What's wrong?" Squall asked as he approached the blond.  "Your arm... Are you injured elsewhere?"

Seifer tiredly shook his head, but before he could say anything more, his hand was forcibly taken into an icy hold and the servant stared at the revealed palm coated with spots of thick red.

"Shiva..." Squall whispered in plain horror as he hovered his fingers over the dark red liquid.  "How much did you drink?"

With a soft smile, Seifer focused on the slim fingers wrapped at his wrist.  "So, you can tell?"

"That doesn't matter.  How much did they make you drink?"

"I... I can't say.  And you can't help me," the lord added as he jerked his hand away from the smaller man.  "If you do, the Empress--"

"She'll know nothing.  Everyone who witnessed you taking the potion is dead, including her spy, and not even a sorceress can speak to those without life," Squall stated calmly as he shifted back onto his heels and lifted the hem of his shirt to retrieve a small knife.

"But you said... the wind can't tell you everything."

"It tells me enough when I ask."

With a shake of his head, the nobleman insisted.  "But Ander...  If I die, she'll think that there is no sorcerer whatsoever.  He would be safe."

"And if you truly believe that, then you're more of a fool than I thought," Squall stated as he placed his knife at his wrist and made a small, but deep cut.  Directing the bleeding wound in front of the lord, he encouraged, "Drink the blood.  It'll neutralize the potion that has yet to seep into your veins."

Seifer scowled at the offering and tried to shift away, but found his body heavy and unresponsive.  "You don't understand."

The sorcerer scoffed.  "And you don't understand what it means to be poisoned with Lengen ni Werlogh.  It's more than death and you do not deserve that sort of ending."

Gazing at the pooling blood on pale skin, Seifer muttered quietly, "Werlogh... that's 'sorcerer' in your language, but I don't remember the other one..."

"Take the blood and I will tell you."

The hint of unsteadiness to the typically cold voice made Seifer glance up and look directly into the entrancing eyes that still shone with an inner light.  It was with some surprise that the nobleman found true concern in the stormy eyes, and with slow realization, Seifer came to recognize the desperation hiding behind the guarded expression.  The lord closed his eyes in disbelief that his life meant anything to the brunet, but instead of questioning that thought, Seifer reached out for the offered hand.  Focusing his gaze onto blue-gray eyes, Seifer placed his mouth on the seeping wound and lightly sucked on the warm fluid.  As the first mouthful blood was swallowed, Seifer jerked back at the icy touch that trickled down his throat, the unexpected sensation renewing a coughing fit from the blond.

Moving his hand to the broad chest, Squall said soothingly, "Ward will be here soon.  We'll get you to Lord Kinneas."

"No.  If the Empress has spies at the hospital..."

"... Then she'll know you have been poisoned," Squall finished with pained understanding.  "But you need a healer, a very skilled healer."

Seifer grinned broadly despite a deep, burning itch starting at his injured arm.  "Heh, I'm going to have to tell Irvine that you think so highly of him."

"This is serious--"

"Oh, I think I realize that, princeling.  I'm the one who feels like I swallowed some hot coals, remember?" the lord said as he rubbed his bandaged forearm.  "There are places only Ward and I know about.  He can bring Irvine there."

Squall nodded before placing an interfering hand on the nobleman's arm, preventing his attempt to scratch away the heated itch.

Seifer scowled at the meddling, but as he glanced down at the cool hand, green eyes went wide at the sight of his injury beneath the loose wrappings.  As dark red blood steamed in the cold air, Seifer felt an unknown sickness as he saw small portions of his skin and flesh seemingly melt from the edges of the wound and drip onto the ground below.  Unable to move, the lord stared blindly as Squall took the stained cloth and rewrapped the wound to cover the sight.

"What...the Hell...?"

Squall sighed softly before saying, "'Lengen ni Werlogh' means the 'Sorcerer's Haunting'.  It's an ancient poison used to curse those unfaithful to sorcerers.  It makes the elements within your body fall apart and attack each other.  As it is, your organs are slowly being destroyed and without a healer... There's not enough I can do to save your life."

Seifer stared at the downcast face as he became hyperaware of every heated ache and piercing pain within his body, uncertain which were a result of fighting with the Ravage and which were due to the poisoning.  But after that initial fear, the lord found an unexpected sensation of peace as his studied the face of the man he had been watching for months, but rarely so close.  And with that closeness, Seifer found himself focused on long, dark lashes that softened to a light brown at the very tips, like touches of golden sunlight hanging high above frozen pools of blue-gray.

A cautious smile on his lips, Seifer lifted a hand to cup a smooth cheek and forced Squall to meet his eyes when he asked, "You wish for me to live?"

Squall scowled at the question, the look of distaste being his only response.

"I know you said you forgave me, but..."  Seifer's smiled broadened into something more reckless as he leaned in closer to the smaller man.  "Let me kiss you."

Blue-gray eyes flew open in shock.  "At a time like this and that's your only--"

"If I am indeed dying," the blond interrupted quietly, "then allow me this last request."

"... Why?  Why me?"

"I don't know, but it is.  It's only you," Seifer replied while closing the bare distance between them, daring the chance that the sorcerer wouldn't deny him a final wish.  With the first brush of lips, the blond smirked at the expected jump of the servant and allowed him that retreat.  Opening his eyes, Seifer gazed into entrancing blue-gray and savored the expression of confusion and wariness that lacked the shadow of fear he had seen too often on the handsome face.  But that moment of pleasure passed too quickly when a flare ignited within his stomach and he was forced to push Squall aside before he lost his lunch to the street.

Coughing in disgust, Seifer clutched onto the torn shirt at his chest and wished that he could ignore the feel of flames licking the inside of his body.  It seemed the fires of Hell were already reaching for him and he was afraid of the pain only getting worse with time.  Lost in his misery, he jumped at the touch of blessed coolness settling at the back of his neck and glanced over at the weakly smiling sorcerer.

"My blood must have reacted with the remaining poison.  It's a good sign that your body is trying to cleanse itself."

Seifer stared at the brunet, feeling ridiculous that he was being soothed like a child with the flu.  And yet, once that thought had passed, the lord knew he didn't deserve any sort of kindness from Squall.  Eyes lowered to the street and his voice quiet, Seifer admitted, "I know..."

The calming hand stilled at the words.  "And what do you know?"

"That you are the other father."

There was no immediate reaction from Squall aside from a twitch of a finger against his back.  Instead, silence reigned for several long seconds until a soft breath sounded from the stoic brunet.  "I figured as much."

Surprised, Seifer glanced up and stared at the somber, resigned expression of the sorcerer.  "You... you figured?"

"You don't hide your emotions well."

After a stunned moment, Seifer breathed deeply as a disbelieving smile tugged at his lips.  "Well, not everyone can be as coldhearted as the snow goddess you worship."

Squall scoffed as he stood, but stopped when a strong hand grabbed onto his wrist in a desperate hold.  Glaring at the lord, he said, "Ward is around the corner.  I--"

"Yes, fine, whatever, but I need to tell you something first," the nobleman begged, stressing his already worn voice.  "If this is it, I want you to know that Ander is yours."

Dark eyebrows furrowed in confusion, Squall asked, "What is that supposed to mean?"

Seifer opened his mouth, wanting to answer the question, but was interrupted by a deep cough that brought back the taste of vomit to his mouth.

"Don't speak," the brunet demanded as he knelt back down to place a hand on the lord's chest.  He then muttered to himself, "Of all the luck... It's already attacking the lungs."

Shaking his head, Seifer placed his hand over the smaller one and squeezed tightly.  He wanted to tell Squall more, about his desire and love for the difficult man, about his plans to share Leander properly, and about the vague dreams of being a family, but there was no breath left in the blond for him to speak those words out loud.  And then, when Squall pulled his arm away from the lord's hold, Seifer feared that it would be the last contact he would ever have with the man.  Unexpectedly, the storm-eyed man didn't try to leave with his freedom, but instead, he placed his cool skin at the lord's cheek and brushed his long fingers back into golden hair.

"I won't let you die, Seifer."

Losing a precious second to shock, the nobleman watched helplessly as the sorcerer removed his hand and stood quickly to hurry in the direction of the side street entrance, his call of Ward's name echoing across stone walls.  Despite that noise, the lingering sound of the brunet's promise made almost everything seem distant and vague to Seifer, but the pain of his chest and arm couldn't be numbed by mere words.  Choking on his own heated breath, the injured man closed his eyes as he tried to focus on the ghost touch remaining on his cheek.  Hardly aware of the hurried steps in his direction, Seifer made a single promise to himself - he would hear his name spoken in that voice at least once more in his lifetime.


Darkness and pressure were the first two things Seifer noticed upon waking, and as he laid motionless, he tried to remember every legend he knew about Hell, but none came to mind which involved the distinctive touch of flesh on flesh and the tickling caress of breath across his neck.  Shifting his position, the blond groaned out a pained breath as his entire body angrily protested the move, the loudest argument coming from the arm that had been injured by the Ravage and was apparently trapped under a solid weight.

Daring to open his eyes, Seifer first stared up at an unfamiliar ceiling stained with water and mold.  Confident that it was a safe house which Ward had chosen, the blond lord remained calm as he looked down to his bare chest.  Green eyes went unblinking for a long stretch of time, Seifer unable to believe that he was truly seeing the mop of dark hair resting on his shoulder and an elegant hand spread out at the center of his scarred chest.  At that moment, he dumbly wondered what he had done to deserve Heaven.

Lifting his free hand, Seifer meant to touch the dark hair to see if the man pressed against his side was real or just an illusion of his dying body, but he froze before making that first contact.  Surprised green eyes focused on the scar of his raised arm, his left arm which he had nearly lost to the deadly attack of the Ravage.  Meanwhile, Seifer could still feel the stinging pain of his right and previously undamaged arm, and bewildered by that revelation, he rested back against the mattress to simply stare at wild dark hair.  After a time of empty thoughts, Seifer decided that it probably meant nothing for his arm to hurt, that the greater surprise was still the naked sorcerer sleeping peacefully at his side.  It would have been a shame to ruin the unimaginable moment, and with a soft smile and his eyes closed, Seifer rested his cheek against thick hair.

Seemingly seconds later, a quiet knock sounded to ruin the moment, then followed by the careful opening of a door.  But the intruder's thoughtfulness ended with a sharp curse.  "Hyne's hips!  I knew I couldn't leave you alone with him."

Curious by the outburst from the typically calm man, Seifer opened his eyes and glared tiredly at his friend.  "Irvine... quiet down..."

The auburn-haired healer jumped at the hoarse call, wide violet eyes promptly meeting the reddened gaze of the lord.  "Seifer.  You shouldn't be awake yet."

With a shrug that inflamed more aches in his body, the nobleman commented, "Squall's asleep... on me... naked..."

Irvine scowled in reply.  "So I noticed, but don't assume too much.  It was necessary to help save your life.  And though you must be enjoying this greatly, I need to wake up that imbecile before he kills himself."

Seifer stared at the approaching healer, not understanding the man's words until a hand reached out toward the sleeping sorcerer.  Reacting before his body could refuse, the former soldier knocked aside the offending hand and placed a protective arm over his servant.  His throat sore and his anger too heated, Seifer chose against words and settled with a hard glare in the direction of the lanky man.

Irvine sighed as if dealing with a child.  "I swear to explain this to you later, but for now, Squall has to be wakened before he hurts himself further.  If you won't let me do it, then I'll leave it to you."

Seifer watched the man for a short time longer, but the words of the healer finally seeped into his fuzzy mind, particularly the comment that Squall was about to kill himself.  Though still confused, Seifer shifted enough to get a better look at his sleeping prince and smiled softly at the intoxicating sight before placing his hand at an overly thin shoulder.  He shook Squall gently, and when the man simply groaned in annoyance, Seifer brushed aside thick hair to blow hot air into the exposed ear.

Eventually Squall responded with a surprised jerk, but didn't remove himself from the shameful position as he lifted his head and looked up at the blond.  "Seifer...?"

The large lord blinked in surprise at the sound of his name, and then relaxed with a disbelieving chuckle.  "I guess I can die now."

Squall scowled at the comment, but didn't give a voice to his irritation.  Instead, his attention was diverted as the hovering healer cleared his throat loudly.

Arms crossed over his chest, Irvine asked, "Am I going to have to move you to another room?"

The sorcerer stared for a moment before shaking his head.  With a bone-weary slowness, Squall pushed away from the large body of the lord and rolled onto his other side with the apparent intent to go back to sleep.

Seifer watched the retreat of the naked man, but the growing pain of his chest prevented any lecherous ideas from taking hold of his mind.  Hissing quietly, he rubbed his palm against the center of his chest and tried to force deeper breaths through his worn lungs.  "Damn.  Am I still dying?"

"You aren't dying, idiot," Irvine tutted quietly before pulling aside the hand.  "Lungs are tricky things.  If I heal them too quickly, they'll scar and irritate you until the last day of your inevitably short life.  The rest of you is fine enough, though, so stop complaining and be thankful you're alive."

"But my arm still hurts," Seifer muttered peevishly before getting his first good look at his right arm.  Green eyes narrowed at the sight of a long vertical cut along his forearm, the wound oddly not healed, but instead stitched together with dark thread.

"Sorry, but there's nothing to be done about that.  Squall had to give you his blood to drive away the poison, but because that cut was used to transfer blood tainted with strong magic, it can't be healed properly."

"Wait, Squall did what?"

"The potion they fed you was some sorcerer curse.  Basically, it's an old poison meant to execute traitors, that a person can survive only if a sorcerer is willing to sacrifice his blood for him.  You're lucky Squall decided to keep you alive.  From what I've read in the past, sorcerers are very reluctant to donate their blood to anyone for fear of it being used against them."

Seifer stared at the healer, afraid to allow himself the hopeful thoughts that could be associated with Squall going to such an extent to save his worthless life.  But then remembering Irvine's earlier words, Seifer turned and faced the bare back of the sorcerer.  "Squall... Don't tell me that you risked your life to save mine."

The servant scoffed, his only response.

"But then why did Irvine say your life was in danger?"

When Squall didn't seem to be eager to reply, Irvine sighed with a frustrated air.  "While he did nearly bleed to death for you, that wasn't what I was referring to.  He..."  The healer hesitated before asking, "Is it true that you discovered another one of Squall's secrets?"

Seifer eyed the man, not overly surprised that his friend had also stumbled upon the same knowledge.  But once where there would have been anger, the lord found a deep respect for the healer who had protected the secret which was so damaging, so painful to the sorcerer.  Smiling weakly, Seifer silently swore that he would properly thank the man for his troubles at another time.

"Well, Seifer?  Is it true?"

"If you're referring to our son, then yes, I know."

Irvine breathed out a deep breath and pressed his fingers to his temples.  "Hyne, it took you long enough to figure it out.  Can you even imagine how hard it has been for me these last several months?  You kept asking question after question, and you were so close to the truth without realizing a damned thing!  'Do you think he lost a child of his own?' you once asked me.  I thought I was going to die from the stress!"

"Yes, thank you, I've already come to the conclusion that I'm a dense idiot, but what does this have to do with Squall's life being threatened?"

The healer lowered his hand, and after glancing at the dark-haired man to see if he would partake in any of the explanation, Irvine began, "I'm not certain what Squall has already told you, but not all sorcerers have the ability to bear children.  Mixed blood is needed, the blood of a sorcerer joined with the blood of a healer.  Obviously, Squall has that trait."

Green eyes narrowed slightly at the words, remembering well when the servant had spoke passionately about his uncle and mentioned that there was a presence of a 'taint' in the sorcerers who could be impregnated.  Seifer cursed the fact that he had never asked Squall what he had meant, assuming that it was just words and not something more.

Irvine continued, "Though dilute, the healer portion of his blood is what kept him alive after that attack by Ravages.  Sorcerer blood isn't able to heal a body and I should've recognized that from the beginning, but I was surprised by the sheer amount of power that was radiating from him and I allowed myself to be distracted.  In any case, he has the ability to heal, but his sorcerer powers dampens that lesser magic.  In short, with you injured and in severe pain, he has the instinct to help you, but the magic ends up warped and dangerous."

"What exactly do you mean by that?"

"I can't say, really, but somehow, instead of encouraging your body to heal on its own, Squall directs his own health and life into your body.  It's impossible, but whenever he does it, I can feel his life slipping away.  Unfortunately, he had to remain here to make certain that his blood would cleanse away the last of the poison from your body, but he swore to stop trying to heal your lungs."

Dumbfounded, Seifer placed a hand on his chest and realized that he hadn't felt any pain in his chest until he was forced to wake the sorcerer.  Looking at Squall with a confused gleam of soft blue to his eyes, Seifer said to Irvine, "Give us a moment."

The healer hesitated before agreeing.  "Very well.  I can't continue healing your lungs until morning, anyway, but I insist that both of you get rest soon.  I hate dealing with exhausted patients."

The blond lord whispered a 'thank you' to his friend, but his eyes remained on the tense back of the dark-haired man.  Waiting for the quiet click of the closed door, Seifer struggled onto his side and moved until only his chest was pressed against chilled shin.  He ignored the wary quakes of the smaller man as he placed an arm around the slim waist and he looked over the thin shoulder.  Taking a hand into his, Seifer gently twisted the arm until the long cut along the forearm was revealed, including the familiar black threads which held together the sliced skin.

"Why...?" was all Seifer could say, wanting to ask everything at once, but unable to think of the best words to use without further alienating the man he worshipped.

"I don't know," Squall replied, his voice quiet and terse.  "But I couldn't let you die."

The lord smiled at the words, amused that the sorcerer was apparently at odds with himself when it concerned the man he once hated.  "I'm honored that you think it's better to keep me alive when I know you once wished for my death."

Squall didn't deny the statement, but also didn't relax within the loose hold of the blond.

"You know, I'm glad it's you," Seifer said as he rested his cheek on the bent arm.  "It's good to know that Ander has the blood of one good man in him.  But I'm sorry... Can you ever forgive me for the circumstances which led to our son?"

The sorcerer rolled slightly, enough to focus icy gray eyes on the blond.  "You bastard, you think you raped me, too?"

Stunned, Seifer tried to process the words.  "Are you saying I... Wait a minute, 'too'?  Who else thinks I raped you?"

"Lord Kinneas and Ward.  Idiots," Squall grumbled as he rested back onto his side.  "As if I can't handle a drunken fool.  And now you... I'm disappointed that you think so low of me."

The lord winced at the affronted tone.  "I'm sorry, but can you really blame us for assuming the worse?  Or would you rather us assume that you wanted to be fucked by me?  ... Unless, is that--"

"Shiva, are you that arrogant?" Squall replied as he pushed up into a sitting position with the obvious intent to escape, but Seifer encircled the man's waist with his arms and held him in place.

"Wait, please, don't go.  I'm sorry that I don't remember, but you are the only one who knows what happened that night, and if I'm ever to make amends, I need you to tell me how I wronged you."

The sorcerer stared down into pleading eyes, and without further struggle, he said coolly, "Let go of me."

Reluctantly, Seifer obeyed the command, hissing in pain as he used his injured arm to sit up and better meet the stormy-eyed gaze.  When Squall didn't use the opportunity to run off, the lord begged once more, "Please, tell me."

Eyes closed, the dark-haired beauty rested back against the headboard of the bed and crossed his arms tight over his chest.  "It was simple, really.  I was hungry and you offered more money than I could refuse.  Nothing more dramatic than that."

Seifer watched the man closely, hearing the lie beneath the plainly spoken words.  Before him was the former prince of a peaceful country, a man who had once been ignorant of the need to work for food and shelter, a man who had been respected and loved.  And he was the same man who was treated like a mere whore on the streets, fucked and left behind.  His thoughts dark, the nobleman considered that it would have been better if he had raped Squall, giving him the chance to blame everything on the lord.  But by accepting his money and lying in his bed, Squall had disgraced himself and his lineage for the natural desire to end his hunger.  With a deep sadness, Seifer wondered if he had been the final insult which had destroyed the proud man.

Seifer moved close to the brunet and placed a steady hand beneath the man's chin, encouraging him to open his eyes.  "I love our son, so I can't say with sincerity that I wish it had never happened.  But I would trade everything I have, including my life, if Leander could have been born under better circumstances."

Stony eyes softened vaguely as Squall looked to the side.  "I know.  I see you with him and... I'm surprised that you make a decent father."

Seifer chuckled gently as he removed his hand.  "Yes, well, I'm lucky to have the type of kid who makes me look good.  And it didn't hurt to have his mother around to help me raise him."

Blue-gray eyes quickly regained an icy sheen as they shifted to the blond.  "I am not a mother."

With a charming smirk, Seifer asked, "Did you not carry him in your body and give him entrance into this world?  That sounds a lot like a mother to me, even if you're male."

"... I deserted him."

Losing his smile, the nobleman said delicately, "When Leander was first discovered and examined by Irvine, he was malnourished.  Not dangerously so, but hungry all the same.  Don't you think it's easy to assume that you were in worse state than your half-starved son?"

Squall closed his eyes and pressed a hand to his face.  "You know nothing."

"Of course not.  I wasn't the one to live through the horrors you've seen, but even so, I can appreciate your pain and sacrifice."  Seifer took a hold of the raised hand and carefully turned it to reveal the long cut.  Pressing a gentle kiss to the fresh wound, he said quietly, "I thank you for my son and my life, Squall Leonhart.  I owe everything to you."

"Don't say that."

"But it's true," Seifer countered as he lowered the arm onto cool sheets.  "And it's a terrible thing that I want even more from you."

Eyes wide and filled with fright, Squall told the lord, "I won't give you another child."

The large blond stared blankly at the servant, beyond confused by the quickly spoken statement.

"I know... That night, you were drunk and you confessed to me that you can't... perform with women.  I always assumed that if you found out about me... and if you wanted another child... you would..."

A disbelieving chuckle left Seifer as he shook his head.  "Just a moment ago, you were insulted that people had assumed that I had raped you in the past, and now you think I could force you into having another child?"

A faint hue of pink graced the cheeks of the sorcerer as he turned away from the lord.

Though enchanted by the sign of embarrassment, Seifer silently wondered if there more than he was seeing to the man's worry.  Then considering how many times Squall had risked his body and life for Leander, the nobleman felt a slight queasiness at the question of what else the brunet would do to keep his son safe and close.

Raking his fingers back through golden hair, Seifer said, "Listen, I've been blessed with one son, and given my past, that's more than I deserve.  Truth be told, I'm a little afraid to ask more of Fate."

Cautiously, Squall turned and faced the lord.  Uncertainty shone in the stormy eyes, but keeping to his stoic ways, he didn't voice his inner thoughts and questions to the world.

Seifer wanted to reassure the man that Leander wouldn't be used against him again, and more than anything, he wanted to promise Squall that he, too, would be safe and protected within the walls of the Almasy Estate.  But words meant nothing to the former prince, only action would do, and for the life of him, Seifer didn't know what action would keep the man forever at his side.

Squall shifted uncomfortably under the gaze of the nobleman, then stated quietly, "You seem fine enough.  There's no reason for me to stay."

Afraid of losing the sorcerer when there were still more secrets to be told, Seifer glanced around the room with the need to find a reason to keep the man in place.  Green eyes then landed on his bloodied jacket resting on the corner of the bed, and with a wide smirk, Seifer announced, "I have a present for you."

Squall was just tying the laces to his pants when he looked up.  "A... present?"

The large blond nodded as he stretched to reach his ruined jacket, the move causing several areas of his body to remind him of his previous near-death status.  The dark-haired servant scolded him for the action, but was too late as a hand grasped onto the bloodied material and Seifer dragged it close.  "It's meant to be a present for the winter festival, but I think I owe you something for your actions today.  Oh, just so you know, Leander's present is here, too, so no peeking and ruining his surprise."

Squall frowned in thought as he sat on the edge of the mattress, his eyes trained on the jacket.  "You shouldn't have--"

"I owe you far more than this trinket, but it made me think of you," Seifer said as he removed the larger of two items from a hidden pocket and held it out to the dark-haired beauty.

Squall hesitated before accepting the gift, his stormy eyes instantly brightening with a silver gleam.  Pink lips parted in bewilderment before he lifted the cloth and revealed the half-mask of a lion.  "How...?" he asked in a breath.

"I purchased it from the same merchant who had your chess set.  I doubt it means anything to you, but I think the lion image fits you well."

His fingers skimming the tarnished metal, Squall smiled incredulously.  "You think it fits me?"

"With your strength and pride, not to mention your family name and crest, how I could I compare you to anything else?"

Glancing up with his shining eyes, the sorcerer told him, "It's mine."

"Well, of course.  I bought it--"

"No, I mean that you have returned another item to me.  I made this mask with the help of my uncle."  Looking back down at the mask, he traced the faint lines at the corner of the hollow eyes of the lion.  "I was eight, almost nine and I was afraid for my uncle's life.  My father had just brought him back home after my grandfather's death and there was so much fear and hate in the palace.  I wanted to be stronger, but no one would teach me what I wanted to learn.  So I turned to the Shumi."

Surprise clear on his face, Seifer leaned in close to the sorcerer.  "The Shumi?  You asked those... them to train you?"

"Not exactly.  Once every five years, they offered their home and skills to sorcerers who wanted to become warriors, but only for a select few.  There was a contest of sorts to win that chance.  My father would have never allowed me to enter the contest, and so I decided to hide my identity and made this mask."

"But... you were eight?!  Any sane father would have forbidden you from training with the Shumi."

The sorcerer didn't argue as he continued to stroke the mask, the metal gaining a new shine with every pass of long fingers.

Momentarily distracted by the subtle display of magic, Seifer realized that the sorcerer wasn't adding anything to the story.  Though he thought he knew the answer, the lord was forced to ask, "Uh, Squall... You weren't accepted, were you?"

The man smirked softly.  "While not the worst, I was fairly pathetic during the challenges, but the Shumi liked my determination.  At the time, I don't think they realized just how young I was."

Seifer pressed a hand to his face and muttered, "Hyne, trained by the Shumi... No wonder you're a terror on a battlefield."

With a final look at the mask, Squall carefully recovered it with the piece of fabric and placed it against his chest.  "Thank you for returning this to me."

"I'll accept the thanks for the gift, but truthfully, I didn't know it belonged to you.  I simply asked Ander if it was a legit artifact of the sorcerers.  The only thing he added was that it smelled like blood."

"... what...?"

"Just that.  I never got the chance to ask him what he meant--"

Squall whispered a quiet 'no' before he stood up in a quick motion.  Seifer reacted without thinking and grabbed for the sorcerer, accidentally digging his fingers into the stitched cut of the man's arm.  Squall cried out at the unexpected pain and jerked away, the awkward action resulting in unbalanced twist that ended in the sorcerer falling to the ground.  Though regretting his mistake, Seifer crawled to the edge of the bed and lowered to the floor where he placed restraining hands on thin shoulders.

Not reacting to the firm touch, Squall stared at the floor with wide, unseeing eyes.  "It's impossible... it should be gone..."

"What are you talking about?"

"I thought it would disappear..."

Gripping tightly on bare shoulders, Seifer asked, "What should have disappeared?  What does this have to do with Leander?"

Squall lifted his head, the previous light of his eyes dead and gone.  "I'm sorry.  I thought... he's third generation, but it's still there."

Seifer stared deeply into the fearful eyes and was struck by the knowledge that there was only one issue which seemed to leave the sorcerer unbalanced and distressed.  "Squall, are you saying that Leander is like you?  That in the future, if he and another man..."

With sudden action, the sorcerer tried to push away from the larger man's hold, but Seifer quickly moved his arms to entrap the brunet in a strong hug.

"Hey, calm down.  It's all right.  It doesn't matter to me what is in his blood."

"No, it's not all right.  I gave him my taint.  I ruined his life!"

Tightening his hold despite the pain it was causing him, Seifer placed a hand in dark hair.  "You did no such thing, and if you think about it calmly, it's not a terrible thing.  Why, you've doubled our chance to have grandchildren."

Squall leaned back and glared at the lord.  "Are you insane?"

"No, but I think you are being unfair.  Why does a man bearing children have to be an abomination?  Either Hyne or your goddess made it possible, and I know Leander is a great kid who couldn't have been born any other way.  I'm sorry, princeling, but I refuse to believe that your blood is tainted no matter how many times you say it."

"Just because it's possible doesn't make it right or natural.  And this... it can't be right when it can lead to disaster."

"If you're insulting my son--"

"No," Squall argued immediately as he looked away from the lord.  "Leander isn't the issue here.  I barely remember after the party, but I think I started to tell you... Sorceresses are rare for a reason."

Nothing more was said, but Seifer had already caught onto the man's meaning.  "And that's the only reason why it's considered a great sin?  Hyne, Squall, do you know how many murderers and other beasts have been born into this world?  The Emperor and that madman Odine aren't saints and they came from the loins of ordinary women.  How can you blame a crazed sorceress on the man who gave her life?"

"Because they wouldn't have a chance for life unless men like me surrender to mindless passion!"

Seifer paused at the true horror and anger sounding in the sorcerer's voice, his thoughts speeding through his mind as he realized an important question he had never asked the former prince.  "You said your uncle was exiled for being pregnant, but you never mentioned what happened to his child.  Could it be possible...?"

Head bowed into a shaky hand, Squall said, "She destroyed everything.  He gave her life and she destroyed his country, killed his family, and then smiled when she made his heart explode within his chest."

With a sorrowful gleam to his eyes, Seifer stared at the ruined man before him, a man who had apparently witnessed the death of his beloved uncle without being killed himself.  Reaching his arms back around the unsteady brunet, Seifer pulled him close and rested a hand in thick hair.  There were no words that could be said, and so he simply held the smaller man while ignoring the drops of hot wetness that fell onto his bare skin.  He wished Squall would have allowed him more freedom to better comfort his pain, but Seifer willingly acknowledged his boundaries.

Long after his few tears had fallen, Squall pulled back from the lord and insisted quietly, "It's wrong."

Seifer held back the argument that immediately came to mind, knowing it would take time to convince the Sorcerer Prince that his blood wasn't black with taint.  Ready to face that challenge when the time was right, Seifer smiled softly at the man he adored and reluctantly admitted to himself that he wasn't the one Squall needed at that moment.  "I think you should go and be with Leander right now."

His head snapping up, Squall gazed questioningly into bright green eyes.

"He must be frightened after seeing another Ravage," Seifer said, gifting the sorcerer with an excuse to be with the child.  "I don't imagine he'll get decent sleep unless you're there for him."

A quiet gleam of sapphire reentered tired eyes and the brunet nodded in agreement.  "I'll go to him, but I think you will need help back into bed first."

With a broad grin, Seifer placed his better arm at the edge of the mattress and extended the other one to the sorcerer in silent acceptance of the man's offer.  As his injured arm was delicately placed around Squall's neck, the large blond played with the idea of placing more weight than necessary onto the narrow shoulders of the servant, but with that first push from the ground, he didn't anticipate the lack of cooperation from his muscles.  Leaning far off balance, Seifer would have dropped back to the floor if it hadn't been for the support of slim arms.  However, Squall's strength couldn't maintain the greater weight of the former soldier, and without a dose of grace, both men fell face first onto the bed.

Though the jolt to his sore body was hardly appreciated, Seifer found himself chuckling at his horrid positioning - a naked man draped on the edge of the mattress with his ass in the air and his arm wrapped around the dark-haired beauty he could never have.  It seemed Fate was toying with him once again.  Rolling to his side, Seifer met the confused gaze of the sorcerer and suddenly realized that he was very close to the other man.  The laughter gone, his lips crept into a smirk as he recalled the last time they were so close.

"Thank you for the kiss."

Squall cringed at the reminder and quickly sat up, but surprisingly didn't knock aside the arm moved to his waist.  "I didn't..."

"Please, princeling, I'm not proud enough to think that I could touch you if you truly didn't want that contact."

"... ..."

Noting the dangerous tenseness to the brunet's bare back, Seifer sighed while removing his arm from the tempting body.  "All right, I get the hint.  Go ahead and comfort your son.  If you remember, let him know that I'm fine.  Oh, and if you have the chance, be certain to tell him that I killed that Ravage all by myself," the lord added with a grin, happily ignoring the fact that he had nearly lost his arm in that fight.

Squall glanced down at the larger man, a shadow of a smile revealing itself to the blond.  "Why not tell him yourself?"

"Because he actually believes what you say.  My word means nothing to that brat."

A glimmer of bright silver flashed in stormy eyes, a mischievous gleam that suggested Squall was proud of his son's intelligence.

His heart lightening at that expression, Seifer pushed himself further onto the bed and away from the dark-haired beauty, all to resist the overwhelming desire to taste the man's lips once more in his lifetime.  "Go on.  I'll bet he's waiting for you while you're wasting your time with me."

The sorcerer nodded as he stood from the bed and retrieved his discarded shirt from the corner of the mattress.  While the lord settled under the sheets, Squall stepped to the single door of the room, but paused there without opening the passageway to his escape.  He didn't say anything in that moment, but Seifer noticed the man cradling the wrapped mask to his chest, and when the brunet continued to hesitate, it suggested to the lord that there was something on Squall's mind, but his pride wouldn't allow a single spoken word.  And so, without anything said, Squall abruptly opened the door in front of him and hurried beyond the threshold to promptly close the door at his heels, never looking the lord in the eye.

Amused at the conflicted antics of his servant, Seifer swore to make amends for the past that made his current endeavor to win the man's heart so difficult.  And with his solstice present already given to the brunet, Seifer decided that he needed a different present for the holiday, something more than trinkets and soft words.  Closing his eyes in thought, he rolled onto his right side and inched near the spot that had long cooled with the departure of the sorcerer.  Idea for gifts quickly left the lord as his mind turned to better thoughts encouraged by the scent remaining on the sheets and pillow.  A childlike smile formed, and with his last seconds of consciousness, Seifer realized that he was hopelessly in love with a man.  It was the fulfillment of his greatest fear from the days of his youth, and yet, he couldn't imagine a better fate.

Chapter Text

Seated on the ledge of a windowsill, Squall gazed out through cold glass and watched the descent of fat snowflakes from the evening sky.  It was the last few hours of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year made beautiful by the serene dusting of snow.  The dark-haired sorcerer smiled softly at the view beyond the window, his thoughts drifting to the legend of the Snow Goddess and her solstice dance beneath dark skies.  Unsurprisingly, it was the voice of his father that retold the story in his mind, and though it had been a hurtful reminder in the past years, Squall felt a measure of peace as he recalled every word, hoping to recount the legend to his own son later that night.

Once certain of his memory, Squall glanced down at his lap and brushed his thumb over the cold metal of his returned half-mask.  The image of the lion was something he had worked on for days with the help of his uncle, old Leander's way of showing his support for his nephew's desire to train with the Shumi.  To Squall's knowledge, his father had uncharacteristically refused to forgive Leander for that secretive aid, but Laguna had never understood the mature mind of his son.  Squall couldn't remember being a child in the ways his own son played until nightfall, smiled in wonderment, and yelled with laughter.  Instead, Squall had spent his youth in the palace library, watching the aged sorcerers copy books of spells while whispering the language of the old times.  It was a common saying of old Leander's that the gray in his nephew's eyes reflected the wisdom of an ancient sorcerer.  Squall never cared much for the idea since his uncle's eyes were the shade of dark iron.  Even as a child, Squall didn't want to imagine what those eyes had seen to give them their cold and deadly color.

The sound of knocking startled Squall out of old memories.  Instantly recognizing the aura of his visitor, he wrapped the lion mask in soft fabric and placed it into the drawer of a nearby desk and away from curious eyes.  The sorcerer then stood from the windowsill and brushed the wrinkles from his clothing before calling for the person to enter.

The door swung open to reveal the immense form of the pale-eyed steward, Ward smiling with a gentle curl to his lips.  "Well, well, I find you at last.  Where were you hiding all day?"

Wrapping his arms loosely across his waist, Squall glanced out the window in an unintentional reply.

"Hyne, don't tell me that you were outside in this freezing weather.  Probably without proper clothing, as well," Ward added with a frustrated sigh.  "Did you at least have a reason for hiding yourself and worrying the rest of us?"

The dark-haired sorcerer frowned at the question, resisting the urge to retort that no one had the right to 'worry' about him.  "Today is a day of fasting."

It took the large steward a moment before he breathed out an amused chuckle.  "And I assume that you feared Master Seifer wouldn't let you spend a day without eating?"

"He's fairly adamant about that sort of thing," Squall muttered irritably.

Ward laughed deeply at the comment.  "Hyne above, it sounds like our lord is starting to affect you."

"... ..."

"Well, despite your bias against the man, you should give Master Seifer more credit.  He wouldn't encroach on your beliefs like that."

Squall glared at the large steward, silently arguing that both Seifer and Ward seemed to greatly enjoy ignoring his beliefs whenever it interfered with their ridiculous plans of romance.

"Don't look at me like that, son.  I know what you're thinking and I don't agree.  Some beliefs are about spirituality and thanking the gods for their mercy, but other beliefs are utter nonsense that came from the minds of men.  Why should our gods care if a man finds his happiness with another man?  Frankly, there are greater sins in this world than misguided love."

The iciness slipping from his gaze, Squall tightened his hold around his midsection.  "Then... you weren't lying?  You didn't hate Uncle Leander for what he was?"

With an assuring smile, Ward spoke in a low voice.  "What he 'was' was a great man and nothing less.  You know that I fought under his command for several years, and while your father was a man of charisma, Leander was a man of unfaltering honor.  The only thing I held against him was his loyalty to Rush."

"'Rush'... Was that the name of the soldier Uncle Leander loved?"

Ward's expression hardened as he growled out scoff.  "A blind love, that was for certain.  Your uncle deserved better than that coward."  When the brunet gazed questioningly at the steward for his comments, Ward reluctantly explained, "I suppose no one told you that Rush was the first to learn of Leander's pregnancy.  Instead of taking the news like a man and accepting his responsibility, he vanished into the dead of night.  But before his disappearance, the traitor left a sealed letter for your grandfather such that he would read it first thing in the morning.  Your uncle never had the chance to prepare himself."

Squall stared unseeingly at the immense man as he recalled the rest of the story he had pieced together from the rare times his uncle spoke about those days.  Tossed into the dungeons for refusing an abortion, Leander had spent the entirety of his pregnancy behind bars, forced to endure the horrid conditions and the mockery of crude guardsmen.  To add to his plight, the disgraced prince discovered early into his pregnancy that he had a daughter growing inside of him, a cursed sorceress who would be killed before her first breath.  Determined to save his child, Leander had disguised her aura until the day of her birth.  The healer had been stunned into silence when he realized he had been fooled, unintentionally giving Leander precious moments to reach out and beg the wind to take his daughter some place safe and far away.  The wind answered without naming a destination and Leander lost his daughter before given the chance to hold her.

Ward breathed out a deep sigh as he scratched at his lengthy scar.  "I'm sorry, this isn't something I wanted to speak about tonight.  You're supposed to be watching your son open his gifts by now."

Squall shook his head, needing to understand more.  "You've witnessed what my uncle suffered, and yet you plan to subject me to that same fate.  Why?"

"That's not true.  Leander deserved more than that louse he called his lover, just as you deserve a moment's peace in your ruined life."

The former prince smirked at the notion that the brass lord was his path toward peace.  "You're wrong, Ward.  I can't imagine Seifer being a better man than the person whom Uncle Leander sacrificed his crown and family to love."

"And that's why I said he was a damned... fool...."  His hand pausing in mid-stroke, Ward stared at the brunet for a stunned moment.  "Wait, did you just--"

"Stop calling him a fool," Squall interrupted angrily, not wanting the additional attention placed onto his slip of the tongue.

"As you wish," Ward said with an overly satisfied grin, "but I'll have you know that I've known Master Seifer for almost a decade now.  I've seen the young man at his very best and his absolute worse, and believe me, there were a few times when I was ashamed to call myself his personal servant.  But even then, Master Seifer wasn't afraid to take his responsibility when blame was due.  Of course, he occasionally needs to be reminded of his involvement in certain situations, but no man is perfect."

Teeth clenched, Squall asked coldly, "Then you're saying that I'm his responsibility to claim?"

"No, of course not.  But that is one of many reasons I consider Master Seifer a better choice than that deserting bastard who destroyed your uncle."

"... ..."

His grin softening, Ward stepped close to the far smaller man.  "Squall, how serious are you about these questions?  Are you just humoring an old man or have you finally seen something worthwhile in our young lord?"

"I... I haven't..."

Not waiting for a final decision, the former soldier placed a consoling hand onto thick hair.  "You don't need to say it, son.  The only thing I ask is that you consider all of your options in this lifetime, no matter how unreasonable they may seem."

Pink lips curling into an incredulous smirk, Squall was fairly certain that the most irrational choice he could make in his lifetime would be to involve himself with the arrogant lord.

"Well, if we're done here, then Masters Seifer and Leander had requested for your presence some time ago.  Don't you think that they have been waiting long enough?"

The dark-haired sorcerer stared up at the large man, and after a brief moment to determine if there was a hidden meaning behind the steward's words, Squall nodded in acknowledgement.  Ward chuckled at the young man's hesitation, but didn't vocally comment on the suspicious gleam to blue-gray eyes.  Instead, the steward took the lead as he turned and walked to the front of the room where he held open the door for the former prince.  Squall glared at the man for his overly formal position at the door, but decided that it wasn't worth his time to scold the veteran soldier.  It was becoming apparent to the sorcerer that Ward wasn't of the mindset to listen to him, anyway.

~ > < ~

Seated in a comfortable sofa chair, Squall watched with a gentle smile as Leander tore through his various gifts from his doting father, as well as presents from the numerous lords who wished to gain early favor with the heir of the Almasy Estate.  Never before witnessing such an event, Squall was mystified by the large range of emotions one child could experience when first viewing upon his unwrapped gifts.  Clothes and expensive jewelry brought an amusing expression of boredom mixed with annoyance, whereas small, harmless weapons and decorative toys made the green eyes light up with joyful excitement.

Amongst all of his presents, the boy's obvious favorite was a complete set of riding gear gifted to him from his father, a present that came with the promise of Leander's choice in horses come the spring auctions.  It was with some pain that Squall watched the young heir jump up onto Seifer's lap and strongly hug the man in thanks, something that must have happened every solstice and every birthday in Leander's life.  The weight of those years felt heavy on Squall's chest and he hated the jealousy he held towards the oblivious blond.

"Squall...?"

The cautious voice bringing the sorcerer out of disheartening thoughts, Squall looked over to his son and noted the boy's uncertain expression.  "What is it, Leander?"

With a small hand resting on his final present, Leander asked, "Can Father see this one?"

The weight of intense verdant eyes instantly settled on the sorcerer, making Squall feel his exhaustion with Seifer's endless desire to know everything in connection with the young boy.  Choosing to ignore the silent questions directed at him, Squall forced a smile and replied, "It's alright."

Leander grinned happily at the permission and proceeded to unwrap the present with greater care than he showed toward his other gifts.  The cloth slowly removed, the boy's cheerful smile faded into something more serious when soft green eyes focused on the statue revealed from its wrapping.  Carved from pale wood, a majestic lion bared impressive fangs as it loomed victoriously over its dying opponent - a Ravage that was far larger than its rival and carved from dark ash wood.  The statue captured the last moments of a vicious battle between the two beasts, burnt wood displaying the blood spilt by both, and yet the lion stood as if uninjured with a firm paw on the chest of the Ravage, coaxing the last breaths from the defeated monster.

His expression thoughtful, Leander ran his hand along the backside of the lion, and with the quiet flash to green eyes, Squall knew the young sorcerer had briefly connected with the magic of the statue, a mix of earth and air that would retell the story of the fictional battle as many times as the boy desired.  With a gasp, Leander removed his hand from the statue and stared at the sorcerer in wide-eyed confusion.

"It's meant to help you with your dreams," Squall explained.  "Keep it near your bed and the lion will protect you throughout the night."

As pale green eyes gained a moist sheen, Leander hurried to the seated sorcerer and pulled himself up onto the brunet's chair.  With a whispered word of thanks, Leander curled against the lithe body in a demanding position that encouraged Squall to wrap a consoling arm around the boy.

Brushing his lips against the child's forehead, Squall replied, "You're welcome, lion cub."

It took some time before the sorcerer remembered that they weren't alone, and when glancing over to the watchful blond, Squall inwardly scolded himself for disregarding the keen gaze of the lord.

Seifer smirked at the brunet's discomfort, but didn't comment on the sight that obviously pleased him.  Instead, his attention shifted to the wooden statue and his grin fell away to a pensive expression.  "I have to say that I'm impressed, sorcerer.  This is absolutely incredible.  When did you have the time to work on something like this, especially with such intricate detail?"

Squall shrugged as best he could given the weight of his son.  "I don't sleep much."

Jaw muscles visibly flexed as the lord refrained from the questions he wanted to ask.  But showing his restraint, no words were spoken as Seifer reached out and stroked his fingertips along the backside of the lion.  Breathing out a soft chuckle, he mentioned, "Hyne, for a moment there, I thought it would feel like fur instead of wood.  Why didn't you mention that you had this skill amongst your other abilities?"

"Manipulating wood and stone is a common talent for sorcerers.  My people were primarily artisans for a reason, after all."

Green eyes narrowed as the lord continued to examine the statue.  "And to think, the Emperor had fooled everyone into believing that the sorcerers were planning to enslave us meager humans.  Your people were murdered when they did nothing more than keep to themselves and create things like this..."

Uninterested with further discussions of the past, Squall said nothing as he continued to hold his son and watch the blond lord study the wooden statue.  Blue-gray eyes became drawn to the journey of calloused fingers as Seifer carefully examined every detail of the lion.  The lord's thumb lingered on the bared fangs that had been blackened with the blood of the Ravage, and with a bent finger, Seifer stroked flattened ears as if to praise the lion for its victory.  Eventually he moved further down the length of lion's thick mane, reaching the crumpled form of the Ravage where Seifer brushed his fingertips over the mortal wound at the monster's throat.

Eyebrows furrowed, Seifer made a sound of surprise.  "Strange, this part still feels warm.  Did you use your fire to darken the wood to this color?"

Squall managed a quiet affirming reply, but his attention was instantly distracted as his blue-gray eyes focused guardedly on the fingers of the lord.  His first thought was to assume that the wrapped statue had been carelessly placed too close to the nearby fireplace, but despite that comforting excuse, Squall couldn't stop staring at the strong hand as it left the statue and moved to rest on the man's thigh.

"Ander, why don't you get Squall's present for him?"

Leander happily agreed to the idea before slipping off the sorcerer's lap and hurrying to fetch the present that had been hidden behind the couch.  Squall frowned at the size of the wrapped bundle, certain that the gift was something too extravagant for a mere servant.  But when Leander placed the present onto his lap, the sorcerer looked into light green eyes and knew that his argument over the matter was lost before it had begun.  Squall didn't have the heart to refuse a gift from his excited son, and with an irritated glance to the lord, he figured that Seifer was laughing at him for his obvious weakness.

Thin fingers easily untied the twine from his present, and with the first glimpse of familiar blue from beneath the covering fabric, Squall closed his eyes in frustration.

"It's soft," Leander decided to announce, openly worried that his present wasn't well received.

Looking to his son and forcing a smile, Squall nodded in agreement.  "It is very nice material, but it's also more than a servant deserves, as I believe I have mentioned in the past."

Seifer scoffed loudly.  "Forget the damned cost of the thing.  If you are planning to watch over Ander during the occasional party I host, then you'll need formal attire.  You know that as well as I do."

Holding back a sigh, Squall nodded his reluctant understanding as he fully revealed the outfit from its wrapping.  While the primarily grayish-blue coloring to the cloth seemed too bright for his liking, the servant had to admit that the high quality fabric would be a nice change from the coarse materials he typically wore.  But when he brushed a loose thread from collar of the jacket, Squall frowned at the touch of magic that he hadn't expected.  He folded down the corner of the collar to reveal the inner lining of the expensive jacket, as well as the treasure hidden within.

"Father let me get something for you from the scary man and I picked that one for you all by myself," Leander announced with a proud smile.

Unable to look away from the heavy metal chain, Squall hated the sudden shakiness to his hand and the increased blurriness to his vision.  Even so, he managed to slip his hand beneath the silver links and lift the necklace and pendant from beneath soft fabric.  The sight of the majestic lion brought back the hollow pain to his heart that had dulled over time, and with a hand pressed against his chest, Squall fought again the tears he had thought were frozen inside of him.

"Squall?"

The concerned voice of the lord made Squall briefly glance at Seifer before the sharp gleam to the verdant eyes became too much.  Looking to his son, Squall felt instant regret at the crestfallen expression to the young boy, Leander not understanding the pain of the servant.

"Thank you," Squall said in a voice no louder than a whisper, "but I cannot except this gift."

"Why not?  Don't you like it?" Leander asked with a hurtful shine to his eyes.

"I like it very much, but it does not belong to me."  Hooking his other hand beneath the heavy chain, Squall slipped the necklace over the boy's head.  "This belonged to your grandfather from your sorcerer lineage, and though he has passed onto the next world, I am certain that he would have wanted you to wear it."

Innocent eyes wide, Leander held the lion pendant that hung down to his stomach.  "My grandfather...?  But it feels like you."

Hiding his wince, Squall felt sudden exhaustion with the lies and secrets he had to maintain.  "Magic auras are complex and often confusing for a young sorcerer, but I assure you, that necklace isn't mine."

Though displeased by the answer, Leander glanced back down at the pendant and fingered the snout of the lion.  "Was my grandfather a nice man?"

Squall nodded, a soft smile forming at his memories of the blundering, kindhearted king; memories he couldn't yet tell the impressionable youth.

"Would he have liked me?"

Recalling a similar discussion with Ward, the sorcerer replied with confidence, "He would have loved you greatly."

Leander grinned shyly at the response, but the pleased expression faded into a small frown.  "This was supposed to be your gift.  You like things with magic in them, and Father got you something else with magic, but you don't want this..."

Momentarily awed by the child's disappointment, Squall placed his hand over the smaller one holding onto the pendant.  "I don't need much, Leander.  It is a greater gift to me that you wear your grandfather's necklace with pride."

Apparently soothed by the man's tone of voice, Leander's smile returned as he crawled onto the lap of the servant and hugged his small arms around Squall's neck.  It was hard to return that hold, Squall hating his base desires to want more from the child who knew nothing about his lineage.  But after years of hiding in the shadows and being unable to hold his son at any great length, Squall decided that he had grown selfish in the recent months.

At the sound of a loud and fake cough, Squall looked to the side and was surprised to discover that Seifer had moved from his chair unnoticed.  In the remaining distance of a single step, the blond stood at the back of the sofa chair occupied by the two dark-haired sorcerers.

"If you're done, Ander, then it's my turn to give Squall his next present."

As Leander shifted to sit on the cushioned armrest of the chair, Squall accepted the thin wooden box handed down to him from the tall lord.  It was with some hesitation that he opened the lid, and given his first look inside, Squall silently cursed the loose tongue of the traitorous steward.

"What's that?" Leander with a confused scrunch to his nose.  "It looks like dried mud."

Seifer chuckled at his son's description.  "It's a kind of treat called 'chocolate'.  And if Squall feels nice tonight, he may share a piece with you."

Pleading green eyes instantly turned to the brunet, an exaggerated expression of want from the spoiled child, and yet Squall couldn't refuse the boy.  He nodded toward the open box, but warned, "Just a small piece.  It's almost time for bed."

Leander eagerly selected a broken chunk of the dark treat and popped it into his mouth.  After a brief moment, he scowled and stuck out his chocolate-smeared tongue in distaste.  "It's bitter and doesn't taste good like normal candy."

Seifer grinned at Squall and commented, "It sounds like your present is safe from little thieves."

As Leander huffed at his father's insult, a quiet knock sounded before the front door opened to reveal the bulky form of the pale-eyed steward.  Thin lips curled into a pleased smirk as Ward took in the sight before him, something that earned him a chilling glare from the sorcerer.  "You summoned me, my Lord?"

"Perfect timing, Ward," Seifer announced as he finished ruffling the hair of his 'spoiled brat'.  "I need you to take Ander and help him get ready for bed.  I want a moment alone with Squall."

When Leander pouted and looked prepared to argued, Squall spoke first.  "Go with Ward.  I'll join you later and tell you a story about the solstice if you wish to hear it."

"A story from the sorcerers?"

Squall nodded, silently pleased that the boy was excited to hear the tales from his forgotten lineage.

"Alright, but don't take too long," Leander demanded as he slid off the chair.  After grabbing his wooden statue and hugging it close to his body, the boy hurried to the door that Ward held open for his young master.  With a slight bow to his lord, the steward took his leave and closed the door behind him.

"Well, that didn't take as much effort as I feared," Seifer commented with some true surprise.  "Dare I assume that you also have a reason to spend a moment alone with me?"

Squall said nothing as he closed the lid to the sinful treats.

"Hey, aren't you going to try a piece?  I wouldn't trust Ander's word that it doesn't taste good."

"It's a day of fasting," the sorcerer stated quietly.

Pausing in surprise, Seifer sighed out a deep breath and ran a hand through his golden hair.  "Hyne, so that's why you've been avoiding me since this morning.  Why didn't you mention something sooner?  You had me worried all fucking day, and I thought that you might have... left..."

Squall turned to look at the blond and noted the way strong fingers clutched onto the short strands of hair.  "I would warn you before I leave a second time."

"Would you?" Seifer asked with a hoarse laugh.  "Why should you bother to give me a warning when I don't deserve one?"

"You don't, but Leander does."

The tall blond stilled at the honest answer, but eventually smiled with a quiet curl to his lips.  "That he does.  Speaking of whom, did you happen to notice?"

"... Notice what?"

His smile broadening, Seifer said, "He didn't ask."

Confused by the worthless statement, Squall watched as the broad-shouldered man stepped in the direction of his cluttered desk.  It took some time before the brunet realized that it was strange for the arrogant lord to hold his tongue concerning something that he considered an important observation.  The additional fact that Squall hadn't noticed the same thing should have had the blond talking.  Instead, there was only the sound of an opened drawer and the shifting of papers as Seifer searched for something, completely disregarding the conversation he had left hanging.

"Here it is," Seifer announced happily as he slammed the drawer close.  Turning around and taking a seat on the edge of the desk, the lord smirked as he folded his arms across his chest, making certain that the sealed letter in his hold was in plain view.  "Now, what were we talking about?"

The full lips of the sorcerer tightened in annoyance, a silent statement to the blond that the game wasn't appreciated.

"Incredible, you truly don't know what I'm talking about, do you?"

"If you would start making sense..." Squall muttered as he turned away from the sight of the lord.

"I have to say that I'm a little bit disappointed, princeling.  You give Ander back that necklace, telling him that it had belonged to his grandfather, and you don't find it interesting that he didn't jump on the chance to ask about the identity of his long lost mother?"

The air suddenly thick and hard to breathe, Squall stared forward into the embers of a dying fire.  Though there was only one good reason for Leander to not question about his mother, the sorcerer refused to believe that the nearly seven-year-old child had discovered the truth.  "He can't know."

Chuckling at the man's denial, Seifer moved from his perch on the desk.  "Maybe, but then what about how easily he accepted your word about the necklace belonging to his grandfather when Ander had mentioned several times that the necklace felt like you?"

"No... He can't... Leander is a child."

"True, but he's your child," Seifer commented as he kneeled in front of the seated brunet.  Green eyes highlighted by warm light, the lord said proudly, "Ander is a smart and devious little boy, and though I've always blamed his demonic blood for his sharp mind, I didn't realize until recently that I should have been blaming his other father for passing along those bothersome traits."

Squall pressed a hand to his face and shook his head.  "I left him.  He would hate me for that."

A heated hand wrapped around the sorcerer's wrist as Seifer pulled aside the hand that hid Squall's face.  His green eyes peering into stormy blue, he spoke in a low voice.  "Ander is too young to care about such technicalities.  All he wants is his family, and judging by his actions around you, he has already claimed you as his mother."

With a deep furrow of his brow, Squall argued, "I'm not a mother."

His eyes bright and his smile lopsided, Seifer responded, "Sorry, princeling, but I don't think Ander sees you as another father.  The way he clings onto you... Well, I guess it reminds me of the way I used to follow my mother around her gardens.  My hand rarely left the hem of her dress."

The sorcerer shifted his gaze away from the kneeling blond, hating the ache that he felt at the man's thoughtless comment.  His own mother dead before his first taste of air, Squall couldn't confirm nor deny Seifer's observation about the boy's actions.  However, the brunet was inclined to believe that the passionate lord saw only what he wanted to see, which apparently included Leander finding the mother he so greatly desired.

"Hyne, you're difficult," Seifer announced as he dropped a sealed envelope onto the sorcerer's lap, the letter he had retrieved moments earlier.  When Squall did nothing more than to stare at the envelope, the blond lord stood and stepped back a pace.  "Go ahead and open it.  It's your gift, after all."

Though curious by the man's easy surrender about the matter, Squall found it difficult to think while looking at the unmarked letter sealed with dark green wax.  The serpent crest of the Almasy family seemed fitting for the arrogant blond.  Squall brushed his fingers over the image embedded into cold wax, hesitating before he carefully broke the seal.  Removing the papers within, the former prince carefully read the words written in sharp, thick strokes that spoke of a bold hand.  Hardly a paragraph into the letter and Squall felt his heart pause in shock at the realization of what he held in his hands.  Incredulous and wary, he glanced up from the letter and gazed questioningly at the blond lord.

Seifer smiled gently at the silent reaction.  "Several people seem to believe that I'm going to have a short life, and while I'm somewhat offended that they think I can't handle myself, I've come to realize that there are many uncertainties in this lifetime.  Last week's events only solidified that fact."

His hold tightening on the papers in hand, Squall asked, "You're giving Leander to me?"

"Well, officially, I would have to be dead first."

Stormy eyes narrowed vaguely as the sorcerer recalled the week previous when Seifer had straddled the line of life and death after being forcefully fed the Lengen ni Werlogh potion.  All night Squall had stayed at the man's side, waiting for any sign of recovery from the unconscious blond.  To imagine Seifer dead... It was a thought that once would have meant little to him, but that was no longer the case.

"Don't think to argue.  I've already sent letters to my witnesses about this matter.  Everything is settled if the worse were to happen."

Glancing back down at the papers, Squall scanned over the sharp lettering one last time before refolding the sheets.  "If you agree to never mention your death again, then I won't refuse your 'gift'."

Brief surprise crossed Seifer's face before his expression broke out into a brilliant smile.  "I think I can accept that condition," he said while stepping close.  Placing his hand on the armrest of the brunet's chair, Seifer leaned forward to smirk down at the smaller man.  "But I have to say that I'm curious - I was under the assumption that you once wished for my death."

"I don't... anymore."

The lord's smirk twisted into a grimace.  "Then it's true.  In our past, you wanted me dead."

Squall closed his eyes to avoid the accusing gaze of jade.  "That was the past."

"So I've noticed, but what made you change your mind about me?"

"... ..."

After a time of quiet, Seifer breathed out a sigh as he pushed back from the sorcerer.  "Well, that took less time than normal."

A dark eyebrow arched curiously, Squall gazed up at the blond.

Seifer forced a smile when he explained, "Lately you've indulged me with at least a handful of answers before sealing those lovely lips of yours.  But this time I managed to silence you with one serious question."

Blue-gray eyes widened slightly as Squall recognized the truth to those spoken words.  Not remembering when his tongue had loosened for the fair-haired lord, Squall glanced down to his lap and focused on the papers resting on the smooth surface of the box of chocolates.  Brushing his thumb across broken wax, the sorcerer realized that a mutual trust had grown between them, a dangerous trust that had already led to weakened defenses and irrational choices.  And yet, despite his imagination providing the vision of a green-eyed python wrapping firmly across his chest, Squall didn't feel worried or threatened.

Still focused on the seal of wax, Squall commented, "I don't have a present to exchange with you."

"And you saved my life just last week.  I think a box of sweets and a contract ensuring you the guardianship over your own son is hardly thanks enough."

"There's also the mask."

"Something else that rightly belonged to you and I merely returned.  No, you owe me nothing, princeling."

"But I do," Squall stated while straightening in his seat and meeting the gaze of curious green.  Though certain he'd regret his hasty decision, the sorcerer offered, "I owe you answers, so as my gift to you, I will answer one of your questions."

Seifer stared at the brunet for his proposal, the lord's expression one of uncertain hope.  "You'll answer a question... Any question?"

Squall inclined his head in a slight nod.

His surprise dissipating to distrust, Seifer stepped close to the seated servant.  "If this is a game of yours, that you'll only answer my question with a single word that means nothing..."

"I'll answer in full detail," Squall assured, but then added, "Within reason, of course."

The blond lord grinned amusedly at the condition, the thought to ask a broad question apparently occurring to the ambitious man.  Returning to his previous position with a hand propped on the armrest of the sorcerer's chair, Seifer met the cautious gaze of blue-gray and softened his smile.  While Squall considered the man's choice in questions an obvious one, the lord seemed to think differently as he took his time in reaching a final decision.

"... Any question?" Seifer asked once again.

Hearing the hint of dread to the typically strong voice, Squall smirked slightly with the comfort of knowing what the blond was afraid to ask.  "Any question."

"I don't deserve this," Seifer whispered under his breath before looking directly into stormy blue.  "Could you ever love me?"

Full lips parted to answer before Squall realized that the man hadn't asked the question he was supposed to.  "... what...?"

With a small smile, the lord leaned in close to the befuddled man.  "You weren't expecting that, huh?  Perhaps you assumed that I would ask about the fateful night Ander was conceived?"  When the servant didn't offer a reply beyond a stunned blink, Seifer continued to say, "I'm sorry, princeling, but while I'm very interested in what happened that night, I won't waste this opportunity on a past that can't be change.  Instead, I need to know if I'm being a fool to hope for future that cannot exist and only you know that particular answer."

His throat tight and his heartbeats strong, Squall couldn't look away from the clear eyes that shone with reckless lust and fearful hope.  Unable to consider an answer, the sorcerer argued quietly, "It's against the laws of Shiva."

"Are you so certain of that?  Or did your people create that law in the name of Shiva to prevent the birth of another sorceress?"

Eyes narrowed, Squall questioned, "Are you mocking my beliefs?"

"Not in the least.  But I am suggesting that too much of religion is communicated through the writings of men.  Even the Church of Hyne preaches that a man mustn't lay with another man, but I've come to the realization that Hyne shouldn't give a fuck over something so insignificant.  Just as new life is born every minute of every day, crime and war are removing those same lives from this world.  How can two men lying in the same bed compare to the sins of murder and hate?"

"When that sin creates a sorceress, a plague personified, our gods have a very good reason to care about your 'insignificant' sin."

"Perhaps," Seifer agreed reluctantly, "but that same sin created Leander, an impossible child who will do great things in the coming years."

"You're being arrogant."

"I beg to differ, princeling.  When Deling falls and the new king takes his place, I envision the nobility taking more control over this failing country.  With our dear son named as my heir, the riches of the Almasy Estate will give him a loud voice and incredible power over the oblivious fools of high society."  Smiling softly, Seifer added, "It's a lucky thing that he was born with your kind heart.  Otherwise, it's likely that he would have become a tyrant given the Almasy blood that runs through his veins."

"You're training him to rule this country?" Squall asked with sincere surprise.

"No, I've already told you that I have my eye on the Alexandros family for the throne.  But in this unpredictable life, balances must exist or else everything would fall to ash and dust.  That has been the guiding purpose of my family for generations - never to rule, but always prepared to amend the wrongs of those chosen by Hyne."  Showing his family ring and the image of the serpent, Seifer said proudly, "We are like the watchful snake, coiled and always ready to strike."

Squall glanced briefly at the silver ring before looking into poisonous eyes, somewhat frightened with the knowledge that his son shared the same coloring to his young gaze.

The sharpness to green eyes faded as Seifer lowered his hand.  "We seem to have strayed from my original question," he said, his implied desire for an answer hanging in the air.

The brunet continued to stare at the face before him, logically able to admit the young lord was attractive and highly desirable if one were to take into account the gossip of the women servants.  It was a baffling mystery to those around Seifer that he had had yet to take a bride, but Squall knew the man's dark secret.

Recalling the drunken ramblings of the blond, the sorcerer felt a sour sickness to his stomach as he looked away from the man.  "You're a fool.  You can't have a woman, so you're settling with a man who can bare children."

A strong hand instantly grabbed onto Squall's chin and forced him to meet intense eyes once again.  "That is not what this is about.  If I were to 'settle' with anyone, I would find a dense noblewoman who wouldn't care if I avoided her bed.  With a bride at my side, I could gain her family's wealth and dispense with the rumors created by the imaginations of those in high society.  In all, I have nothing to gain if this were merely a case of 'settling' with a fertile sorcerer."

"If you have nothing to gain, then why bother?"

The strength of the hard grip loosened as Seifer slid his hand up the brunet's smooth cheek.  "You're not listening to me.  I said that there would be nothing to gain from settling with you, but to love you and to have that love returned...  Ever since you returned with me from Heartilly Manor, I have been obsessed with the man who cared so much for a child that he faced seven Ravages and survived to assure the boy that nothing was his fault.  Eventually, I became attracted to your beauty and your grace, but more importantly, I fell in love with the contradictions that surround you - a proud prince and warrior assuming the guise of a servant; a doting father hidden in the shadows, acting as nothing more than a stranger."  Brushing his thumb beneath a blue-gray eye, Seifer spoke lowly.  "You are incredible man, Squall Leonhart, and I would do anything to gain your heart."

Though the hand at his cheek felt like fiery heat, Squall shivered at the lingering touch.  He had no doubt that the determined lord would keep to his word, something that should have been a frightening realization, but Squall could feel nothing except the dangerous warmth that radiated from the passionate man.  "I shouldn't... I can't accept... or want..."

Shushing with a quiet curl to his lips, Seifer leaned back and removed his hand.  "That's alright, princeling.  I think you gave me the answer I wanted to hear."

Squall frowned at the assumptions of the arrogant lord.  "I haven't given you an answer."

"I wasn't expecting a miracle, sorcerer.  I'm satisfied to be uninjured after challenging your beliefs, and the fact that you didn't immediately say 'no'..."  Seifer left the rest unspoken as he grinned blissfully.

The dark-haired man felt sudden shame at his actions, knowing that the lord was implying the truth, that if Squall had wanted nothing to do with the blond, he would have simply said so.  Instead, he had stumbled over his words and his treacherous emotions without firmly rejecting Seifer's confessions of lust and love.

"I think that is enough for tonight, and I'm fairly certain that Ander is waiting to hear your stories about the solstice."

Clutching onto the box of chocolates, Squall shook his head.  "I didn't answer your question," he stubbornly insisted.

"Squall..."

"And tomorrow is your birthday," the sorcerer added as he focused on the wary expression of the lord.  "Ask another question."

Seifer frowned in concerned displeasure.  "While I'm pleased that you want to honor my birthday with a gift, you don't need to strain yourself like this."

Squall glared in response, silently hoping for the question he first assumed the lord would ask.  He needed to destroy the man's foolish beliefs about the innocence of a man bedding another man.  It had ruined the sorcerer's life, a long year of seemingly endless suffering that he wouldn't let himself forget despite the cherished son who had been conceived from hunger and sin.  But he couldn't simply tell Seifer everything about those days, not without a reason or excuse to force his voice to sound.  Fighting against an incredulous laugh, Squall realized that even when trying to scare away the stubborn lord, he needed Seifer's strength to find the will to speak.

"Another question, huh?"

Squall nodded in reply.

Seifer smirked at the silent response.  "You are a confusing man, Leonhart.  A weaker man wouldn't want to remember the pain you've experienced, let alone speak about it.  It makes me suspicious about your intentions," the lord stated with a curious tilt of his head.

"... ..."

"You don't have to say anything, princeling, because I won't ask the question you want to hear."  At the stunned and frustrated look of the sorcerer, Seifer requested, "Would you let me examine your core?"

Squall stared at the blond for his question.  "But... you've seen it before."

"Of course I've seen it, but how many times have you let Ander touch the engravings of your staff while I've been forced to watch from a distance?  His eyes glow every time and I have to wonder..."  With a quiet scoff and a rake of his fingers through golden hair, Seifer muttered, "What am I thinking, a powerless human like myself."

Squall thought to argue the same, but he could understand the man's sense of irrational jealously, the same jealously Squall had felt whenever he had watched from the shadows and wondered if Leander would smile with the same brightness if it were him instead of Seifer hugging him tight.

Not wasting time on thought, the sorcerer lifted his hands and summoned his staff from the depths of his soul.  With the feel of solid wood resting on his palms came the intense sensation of watchful eyes, Seifer staring at the long staff as if he couldn't believe his wish had been granted.  Squall offered his core to the lord who had impossibly gained his trust, but surprisingly, the blond shook his head.

"Would it be too much to ask for you to change it into your sword?"

Straightening at the request, Squall realized that lord wanted something of his own, to examine the deadly form of his core that Leander had yet to witness.  With an incredulous smirk, the sorcerer encouraged his staff to shift from wood into metal, a reluctant change that made the weapon hot against his skin.  Never showing the strength of that resistance, Squall continued to feel soft amusement at the lord's obvious anxiousness that increased once seeing the blade of pale bluish-gray metal and burnt lettering of spells.

"Damn me to Hell," Seifer whispered in awe.  "Is there a metal in the human world like this?"

"Not likely.  It's a reflection of my soul and my connection to the spirits," Squall explained, subtly noting the twitch of strong fingers.  "If you want, you may touch the blade."

Lips parting without sound, Seifer stared at the sword with a yearning intensity before he hesitantly raised his hand.  Calloused fingers hovered a bare distance over the blade as his hand slowly moved across the length of the weapon without ever touching metal.  "I recognize some of these.  That's the wind attack you used on me... And this one is that defensive earth spell I've wanted to see ever since you told me about it last month.  Does it really create a wall of stone like you say?"

"Seifer," the sorcerer scolded, ensuring the attention of the apprehensive lord.  "You asked to examine my core and I'm offering it to you.  Don't make this harder for me."

Seifer gazed into guarded eyes for a long moment before understanding came to the handsome face.  He whispered an apology before returning his attention to the wide blade.  He again studied the lettering on pale metal before finding a spell of interest.

"Haete nie tselan, your favorite.  I hope it doesn't give my hand frostbite," Seifer said jokingly before daring to place his fingertips on the complex symbol of 'Stolen Heat'.  Nothing happened at first contact, something that clearly disappointed the blond judging by his expression, but he continued to follow the curves of the character burnt onto pale metal.  "Funny, I thought it would feel cold..."

A spark of blue abruptly flashed, igniting small flames of red and blue that engulfed the tips of Seifer's fingers.  Startled, the former soldier jumped back several steps as he hastily waved his hand in an attempt to put out the oddly colored flames.  But when the magical fire refused to vanish, Seifer stopped his frantic attempts and gazed at the dancing flames with a positively mystified expression.

"It's not burning me," Seifer stated in awe as he studied his fingertips.  Green eyes bright from the reflecting flames, the lord laughed loudly.  "Fucking Hyne, you scared the shit out of me!  Did you play this same trick on Ander?"

Squall couldn't form a response, his stormy eyes focused solely on the unexpected flames of crimson and sapphire.  He wanted to declare it a horrible mistake, a cruel prank devised by the fire element, but the twist of icy flames surviving within scarlet fire told another story.  His eyes narrowing as he continued to stare at the play of the tiny blaze, Squall felt betrayed by the whims of his silent goddess.

"Squall...?"

The cautious call of his name startled the sorcerer out of his thoughts, and though glancing at the worried expression of the lord, Squall refused to acknowledge Seifer or his curiosity.  The brunet fisted his hands around both the hilt and the blade of his sword, causing the weapon to shatter into nothingness as it returned into his body.  The flames at Seifer's fingertips flickered and died with the disappearance of the sorcerer's core, something that made the large blond frown in childlike disappointment.

His grip tight on his presents, Squall stood from his chair.  "Leander must be waiting by now.  I should go."

Seifer turned toward the servant, his gaze sharp and guarded as his previous awe fully disappeared.  "You're hiding something from me..."  Before Squall could form a retort, the blond lord breathed out a cynical laugh.  "Listen to me - I might as well complain about it being cold during the winter.  Fine, go ahead and run away without explaining a damned thing to me.  I've learned to be patient for your sake."

Though given permission to leave, Squall wasn't allowed to move when the larger man stepped directly in front of him.  Rough fingers brushed against the side of his neck, burning the sorcerer with fire and ice before he was forced to flinch away.

"You may be escaping for now, princeling," Seifer stated in a low tone, "but I will find out what it means to be touched by your fire."

Squall said nothing as he stared into determined green, afraid that his voice would accidentally give more information to the observant blond.  Seifer smirked at the servant's silent defiance, but didn't press any further as he stepped back a pace, thus allowing the smaller man plenty of space for passage.  Even so, Squall remained tense and wary as he walked forward, his body ready for the touch of the impulsive lord.  It wasn't until he stood several paces away from the taller man that Squall  glanced back in curiosity at the man's good behavior, the brunet unaware of his small frown at once again being unable to predict the lord's actions.  Seifer grinned triumphantly at the expression and bowed in mock respect to the former prince, an act that made Squall's frown deepen as he turned sharply and made his leave.

First returning to his rooms, Squall placed both the large box of chocolates and the wrapped outfit of fine material onto the dresser aside his grandfather's chess set.  He then scanned over the letter that declared his guardianship over Leander on the condition of Seifer's death.  Blue-gray eyes stony and cold, Squall refolded the letter before placing it within the safety of the wooden box that had protected the chess pieces from destruction by fire.  With a shadow of a smile, he found it ironic that the box guarded with his grandfather's magic now protected his claim to his lost son, the letter safely resting on top of the scratched pieces bearing the face of his dishonored uncle.

Brushing his fingers along burnt wood, Squall connected with the magic woven into the box and added his own spells of protection to assure himself of the contents' safety.  The task finished with a few whispered words, the sorcerer reluctantly pulled himself away and stepped to the door that would take him to the son he couldn't yet claim as his own.  After all, he had promised a story and Leander had waited long enough.


Pale skin cold and sweaty, Squall sat on top of his bed with his arms tight around his bent legs and his forehead pressed against his thighs.  His breaths shook with every exhale as he remained stone-still, hoping to calm his burning body from the dream that had recently wakened him.  But even with his eyes open, Squall could still envision the tall fires of sapphire that had threatened him in the darkness of his dream, forcing him to retreat from the flames that would lash out as if trying to reach him.  The elements had refused to answer his calls, only the soft tittering of a woman audible despite the roar of the icy blaze.

"Damn her," Squall whispered bitterly, unable to stop thinking about the procession of the dream he had already had once before.  Too easily the image of muscular arms covered in small crimson fire came to mind, followed by the rest of his dream.  Retreating from frozen flames, Squall hadn't noticed the person behind him until stumbling into the larger form.  Strong arms instantly wrapped around his chest, and though the touch of hot flames should have burned his skin and body, Squall found comfort and warmth within the restrictive hold.  Apparently fearful of the heated blaze covering golden skin, the cold fires ceased their advance, but remained in place at a distance as if to wait for Squall to be left alone once more.

The innocent protection of encircling arms soon changed into something else as fire-warmed hands trailed across pale skin, enticing responsive flesh with every caress and pinch of rough fingers.  More afraid of the sapphire flames than curious hands, Squall endured the groping touches with an attempt of dignity, but it was a facade that thinned and cracked with the increasing boldness of the skillful hands.  Quiet whines and shaky sighs turned into all out cries that tore from his chest and throat.  And with the flames of icy blue flickering in delight before him, Squall arched back into the brilliance of red fire and begged for more...

Hissing in disgust at his dream, Squall ignored the pain of his erection curled against his stomach and dug his fingernails into the skin of his bent legs.  He knew the images were unwanted gifts from his goddess, an insult along with her interference of marking Seifer with the harmless flames made of her magic mixed with her lover's fire.  Squall couldn't imagine another reason for his recent troubles associated with the arrogant blond.  While uncertain of Shiva's intentions to test him in such a manner, Squall felt ashamed that his body had responded to what his mind knew as sinful and wrong.  Obviously his body had forgotten the reasons why a man couldn't lie with another man.

Turning to face the dark window covered in frost, Squall asked his frozen goddess, "What do you want from me?"

No reply reached the ears of the sorcerer, something that was hardly surprising.  But from dark until morning light, Squall stared at the cold glass in silence, never admitting to himself that he was afraid to close his eyes.

Chapter Text

Green eyes reflected the warm light of a dying fire as Seifer stared at the ceiling from the comfort of his bed, silently pondering why he was awake.  It was late into the night and his dream had been wholly satisfying, which left him confused about his interrupted sleep.  Then a light, almost unheard knock sounded beyond the bedroom.  Wide awake and displeased by that fact, Seifer tore the sheets from his body and stumbled from his bed to punish the idiot who had ruined his dreams.  The cold air stung against his skin left bare from his unlaced shirt, something Seifer hardly noticed as he made his way from the bedroom and into the darkness of his sitting room where he narrowly missed tripping over an ottoman.

Gaining a deep scowl by the time he reached the entrance to his private rooms, Seifer swung open the door and growled out, "There had better be a good reason for this."

The person in the hallway stood wordlessly at the demand of the lord, shadowed blue eyes wide open as if surprised that his knock had been answered.

Once recognizing the servant who had wakened him, Seifer's ire vanished and his scowl softened into a confused frown.  "Squall?  What are you doing here at such a late hour?"

The dark-haired man blinked, and then casually averted his gaze as he wrapped a loose arm around his waist.  "Forgive me.  I... I've made mistake."

With some amusement and even more curiosity, Seifer smirked at the man who wasn't making his leave despite his obvious desire to do so.  "A mistake?  Well, that's certainly comforting.  I'd hate to imagine that you woke me for a real reason.  I've already agonized over Ander's safety twice in the past month and I highly doubt that my heart could take another life-threatening incident."

Squall frowned at the offhanded comments, his lowered eyes glowing slightly at the remembered threats to his son's life.  Seifer couldn't prevent his fond smile at the shine of cold blue, but further studying those piercing eyes, he became aware of a tiny water droplet that hung precariously onto dark eyelashes.  Recognizing the melted snowflake for what it was, the lord lifted his gaze and glared at the frozen beads of water that clung onto dark hair.

With a hand placed at the brunet's neck, Seifer hissed at the icy coldness to pale flesh.  "You idiot, what are you doing prancing around in the snow during this time of night?  Are you trying to make yourself ill?"

Though his eyes narrowed into a pained grimace, Squall didn't knock aside the lord's hand.  "I was praying."

"And how is that something that couldn't wait until the morning?"

"She doesn't seem to listen during the day," was the muttered reply.

Seifer opened his mouth to further scold the brunet, but instead held his tongue once he realized the futility of challenging the sorcerer's self-destructive ways.  Removing his hand from chilled skin, Seifer encouraged, "Go back to your room, princeling.  Warm your bed with some coals and get some rest.  There's no reason for you to exhaust yourself like this."

Eyelids fluttered closed for a brief moment, enough to prove to the lord that Squall was fighting against the idea of sleep.  But despite that visible weakness, the sorcerer didn't move from his position as he directed his eyes straight ahead at the body of the blond.  In an unconscious move, Seifer straightened his posture such that his chest left exposed by his unlaced shirt could be better viewed by the distracted servant.

With a soft smile at the silent man, Seifer asked, "Squall, why are you here?"

The question startled Squall, the brunet looking straight into jade eyes with a stunned gaze that spoke of embarrassment and apprehension.  That surprise, however, was concealed behind a thoughtful expression as Squall took his time considering the lord's question.

"It shouldn't be that hard to answer, princeling."

Blue-gray eyes glanced at the tall blond, the shine of cold irritation suggesting that the question was more difficult than Seifer could understand.

"Don't glare at me like that, lovely.  You're the one knocking at my door in the middle of the night."

The words of reason stole the light from pale eyes, Squall scowling as he reluctantly admitted, "I... need a favor."

Seifer hesitated in disbelief, unable to comprehend the sorcerer asking for aid.  "A favor?  Hyne, why didn't you say so earlier?  I owe you a life debt, after all," the blond stated while stepping aside.  "I imagine that this is something which should be discussed in private?"

Squall's response was to walk inside at the implied invitation, his steps quiet and slow as if forced to obey the lord's request.

Though bothered by the man's actions, Seifer chose caution over thoughtless irritation as he stepped outside to make certain that no wayward servant had observed the hallway exchange and the sorcerer's entrance.  Once assured of their privacy, Seifer closed the door and used his key on the lock.  Pausing a moment to collect his thoughts and control his emotions for the sake of the skittish man, Seifer turned with the intention to question Squall's request of a favor, but was surprised to discover that he was alone.  The flicker of a shadow proved that the sorcerer had moved beyond the sitting room and was standing inside the room that Seifer never expected Squall to willingly enter.

Stepping to the door of his bedroom, Seifer leaned against the frame and watched as the stoic man gazed upon the bed of soft sheets and thick quilts.  The blond lord savored the quiet moment, allowing himself foolish thoughts as he studied the slim line of the sorcerer's body and wondered what could prompt Squall to enter his lair.

"I expected silk."

Seifer grinned at the comment.  "I'm so sorry to disappoint, but I find simple cotton more comfortable and warmer during the winter months."

Continuing to stare at the messed sheets, Squall hugged an arm tighter at his waist.

Not liking the sight of increased tension, Seifer sighed tiredly and suggested, "Why don't you tell me about this favor of yours?  You obviously don't want to be here and I wouldn't mind being allowed to go back to sleep."

Dark hair shifted slightly as Squall bowed his head forward in a sign of surrender, and with his voice soft and forced, he said, "I need you to bed me."

Seifer stared at the sorcerer for the request, unable to accept the meaning of those words.  But taking in the ridge posture of the lithe body and the odd act of entering his bedroom, the blond lord couldn't find any fault with his lustful assumption.  "Squall... You can't mean..."

"I'm straying from my path," the brunet began in explanation.  "It's wrong for a man to be with another man.  I know this in my heart, but apparently my body has forgotten that reality and it needs to be reminded."

Anger motivating his actions, Seifer stepped forward and grabbed hard onto a thin shoulder to turn the man around and properly face him.  "And that is your 'favor'?  To fuck you even though you say it's wrong?  You're hardly making sense, sorcerer.  Why would you want such a thing?"

Squall didn't reply to the heated words, but his vague cringe beneath the heavy hand was answer enough to the watchful blond.

"I hurt you," Seifer said in an incredibly quiet voice as he guiltily removed his hand.  "That night... Hyne above, I hurt you and you want me to do it again?"

The dark-haired man glanced away in shame.  "You hurt me because that's the only way it can be.  But it's been too many years and my body has forgotten what my mind knows."

"And you want to be reminded of that?  Why?  Why are you asking this of me?!"

"Because..."

Seifer stared down at frozen eyes, remembering a time months past at the Heartilly Manor when the sorcerer had used that same harsh reply which explained nothing.  And yet, when the lord considered what secrets he hadn't known back then, he realized that Squall had been holding back the reply he wanted to give, an important reply about the pain it caused the man to return to the Almasy Estate and watch over the son who didn't know the identity of his mother.

Though uncertain what new secret the servant was hiding, Seifer placed a soothing hand at the man's cheek and stroked frozen skin.  "'Because' what, princeling?  Could it be possible that you've entertained sinful thoughts as of late?"

The sorcerer closed his eyes in disgrace.  "It's a mistake.  I don't even know why these thoughts plague me."

Smirking lightly at the startling reply, Seifer brushed his fingers back into chocolate brown hair and let his hand slide through the damp strands before persuading the sorcerer to lift his head.  Without permission or warning, Seifer placed his lips against soft flesh in a chaste kiss.  There was no strength to the press, no forcefulness as the blond moved cautiously to the corner of full lips and lapped his tongue along the sensitized flesh.

It was an insignificant taste that made Seifer hunger for more, but with a show of restraint, he pulled away and begged hoarsely, "Don't call this a mistake."

Squall shivered at the low tone, and then bit his lower lip as if to rid himself of any lingering sensation that the lord's kiss could have caused.  Amused by that reaction, Seifer continued to stroke lightly at thick hair and contemplated forcing another distracting kiss onto the vulnerable servant.  But before he could act on that idea, Squall abruptly pushed his hand against the chest of the taller man, the brunet's strength oddly weak as he failed to push the lord aside.  Seifer smirked as he watched thin fingers curl against his bare skin in silent frustration.

Holding back laughter, Seifer pulled on dark hair to gain the attention of the failing brunet.  His green eyes bright and his smile amused, he announced, "Despite your destructive intentions, princeling, I'll go ahead and play along with this game of yours.  But I should warn you - once you lie on my bed, you won't leave until I allow it."

Blue-gray eyes hardened slightly at the lord's arrogance, but after a moment's thought, Squall nodded in vague agreement to the condition.

As the brunet backed away, Seifer reluctantly released his hold on dark hair, trading his physical connection to the sorcerer for the opportunity to watch Squall strip damp clothing from his body.  Wary blue glared at the lord for his obvious interest, Squall then turning around before he grabbed the hem of his nightshirt and removed the oversized clothing from his body.  Seifer gazed reverently at the revealed skin that bore numerous scars of every shape and size, the former soldier able to identify the shadows of wounds caused by bladed weapons and the fangs of Ravages.  There was hardly an inch of pale skin that didn't bear some mark of past injuries, and yet, Seifer would've been disappointed if the sorcerer's skin had been flawless.  Stories could be told through those scars, stories that the stoic man would never tell himself, and Seifer was determined to decipher every mark on the lithe body.  He would learn everything he could about the man he worshipped.

Following the line of a particularly long scar from mid-back to hip, green eyes fell onto the sight of shaky hands that appeared to be uncooperative in the task of unlacing the snow-wetted pants.  With an inward sigh, Seifer stepped behind the smaller man and placed his hand over Squall's.  The sorcerer jumped at the unexpected touch, the reaction pressing his bare back against the lord's chest in a gratifying manner that made Seifer smile.

Bending down to speak directly into a cold-reddened ear, Seifer said, "You aren't fooling anyone, princeling.  You don't want to do this and I'm not in the mood for rape."

Squall knocked aside the hand covering his and glared at the blond.  "I would never allow myself to be raped."

With that said, the sorcerer moved the several paces to the bed while undoing the stubborn ties to his dark pants.  Squall let the material fall unceremoniously to the ground and wasted no time in climbing onto the high mattress covered by soft cloth.  He pulled aside the plush top sheet before sitting back onto his heels and lying down such that his ass lifted delightfully into the air and his head rested on Seifer's pillow.

"And what are you doing there, gorgeous?" Seifer said with a curious laugh as he removed his unlaced shirt.

Squall shifted uncomfortably in his position and muttered, "I know what you like."

Green eyes shining with confusion, Seifer took in the full sight of the man lying face first on the bed and eventually came to the realization that Squall's assumed pose efficiently hid every part of the brunet that clearly marked him as male.  Seifer felt instantly sick at the thoughts of what else he had made the proud prince do, and all because the lord had been disgusted with his inability to be with a woman.  Growling quietly, Seifer stripped off his pants before taking a seat at the edge of the thick mattress.

"While you may know what I liked in the past..."  Seifer placed his hand at a thin shoulder and encouraged the servant to roll onto his side.  "You don't have any clue about what I presently desire."

Dark eyebrows furrowed in a perplexed expression.

"How many times do I have to tell you that I don't want a woman?" Seifer asked as his hand tightened its grip on the brunet's shoulder, assuring that the skittish man wouldn't move as he bent down close.  "I want you," the lord announced before initiating a gentle kiss against full lips.

Squall froze at the press that was stronger than the previous kiss, the reaction something Seifer was disheartened to notice, but he refused to back down against the sorcerer's prudish mentality.  Insistent with the nudging of his tongue and the light biting of his teeth, Seifer was eventually rewarded by the hesitant parting of soft lips.  The lord slipped his tongue past the barriers of lips and teeth, recklessly hoping that Squall wouldn't react with a vicious bite.  While the brunet did retreat from the invasion, he couldn't escape with the bed pressed against his back and the muscular body bent over his smaller form.  Purring in conquest, Seifer roughly stroked his tongue against Squall's, the move drawing a sharp inhale from the servant.  The lord continued the assault, enticing the inexperienced man to join in with the play of tongues, a task achieved when the shy tongue moved clumsily against his.

Seifer hummed in satisfaction as he pulled back from the brunet and grinned smugly.  "I've wanted to do that for some time.  Your lips are simply too inviting."

The haze of stormy eyes evaporated at the flirtatious words, Squall then turning his head as he focused his attention on a far window.  "Just get on with it."

The lord chuckled lightly, unbothered by the cold tone of the man sprawled on his bed.  Lifting away from the servant, Seifer placed a steadying hand on the mattress and leaned over the lithe body to examine every line of the sorcerer.  A small frown coming to his lips, Seifer caressed his fingers along the protruding curve of a collar bone.  "You haven't gained much weight since returning from the Heartilly Manor."

"... ..."

"Don't worry, lovely.  One of these days, I will figure out what other foods appeal to you as much as the sweetness of chocolate," Seifer said with a resolute air to his tone.

Trailing down from the sharp collar bone, exploring fingers drifted along scarred flesh as green eyes took in every sight of the body he wasn't certain he would have again.  A wayward pinky finger unintentionally brushed against a cold-tightened nipple, the brief contact drawing a harsh breath from the stoic man.  Interested in the unexpected reaction, Seifer paused in his examination to further tease the darkened flesh, watching how Squall's lips would part in a silent pant of pleasure.  The lord felt that he could taunt the brunet all night long if it meant causing that expression, but when a weak growl of irritation sounded, Seifer knew he was wasting precious time instead of using the opportunity to show the sorcerer greater pleasures.

Letting his fingers travel lower, Seifer studied the old scars he knew to be caused by blades and hesitated over the dark skin blackened by fire at Squall's waist.  Not wanting to recall the flames of the Massacre, the lord moved lowered and closer to dangerous territory, but paused at the man's pelvic region and frowned at the collection of thin white lines.

"These are odd scars," Seifer mentioned while brushing his fingers over the marked skin.  "I recognize the rest, but what could have caused these white lines?"

Squall muttered something under his breath, Seifer only able to distinguish a harsh, 'oblivious', within the growled tirade.  The sorcerer then took a steadying breath before informing the lord, "They were caused by the changes my body suffered through."

"Changes....?"  Though slow to understand, Seifer soon inhaled sharply such that he lightly choked on that breath.  The large hand then moved to reverently cover Squall's stomach.  "We can't do this."

Squall looked up at the declaration, surprise and anger shining in the blue-gray eyes.  "You agreed..."

"I know and I'm sorry.  But the last thing you want is to be impregnated a second time, and here I am, thinking with only my cock when I promised myself that things would be different if you ever decided to entrust your body to me."

Stormy eyes widened at the sincere statement of regret, his expression then fading into something unreadable.  "I've learned about my body since then.  It won't happen again."

Seifer gazed up at the impassive expression, surprised and disappointed by the lack of emotion in the frozen eyes.  Despising the self-hatred Squall held for himself and his body, Seifer returned his attention to the thin lines that would forever prove Leander's conception, and with a fond smirk, he bent down to lick heavily at the marked flesh.  Squall jumped at the wet touch and attempted to pull away, but Seifer reacted promptly and grabbed onto the brunet's waist.  A quiet whine sounded from the sorcerer, impelling Seifer to loosen his hold, but when the sound of the whine only increased, the lord was satisfied to discover that it was the strokes of his tongue against wrinkled skin that was the source of Squall's distress.

With a purr at the unintentional responses from the lithe man, Seifer took advantage of the sorcerer's distraction and slipped his knee in between slim legs to encourage a wider separation.  The cold gaze of blue-gray could be felt by the lord, but when Squall didn't argue against the move, Seifer smirked hungrily as he shifted his position lower and bent down to lap his tongue along the curve of the sorcerer's penis.

"No, stop..." Squall begged as he placed a hand at blond hair and tried to push away the lord.  "I don't have to be aroused for this."

Seifer lifted his head at the statement, his eyes narrowed in thought.  "While I disagree about your pleasure, I'm curious why this is the first thing you've refused.  It's nothing that should hurt you."

His hand still deep into golden hair, Squall stared into poisonous eyes while considering the response he could give, but Seifer was faster at understanding than the sorcerer was at creating a lie.

"Fucking Hyne, don't tell me that I made you--"

"Don't say it," Squall demanded lowly without looking at the blond.  "And don't disgrace yourself like that."

Seifer pushed up at the muted words and reached out to place his hand at the turned cheek, but Squall refused to face him.  Sighing tiredly, the lord pressed his forehead against dark hair and said, "It wouldn't be a disgrace to pleasure you like that, but I think I understand."

The servant shook his head in the sign that Seifer understood nothing at all.  "Everything is a mess and I... I just want this over with."

"Squall..." the lord whispered as he pulled the smaller man closer.  He hesitated at that point, uncertain if it was wise to continue forward given the sorcerer's darkened mood, but even with his guilt, Seifer felt a growing anger at the man's determination to be a martyr in all things.  "You're wrong, you know."

Squall leaned back to gaze questioningly at the blond.

"It doesn't have to be about pain.  Not in sex, not in love, and certainly not in life," Seifer said in a low voice.  "There can be more."

Squall frowned, his blue-gray eyes narrowed in confusion and slight offense as if worried that Seifer was insulting him.  The lord, however, was focused on pouting lips that appeared soft and wholly inviting in the warm light of the fire.  His small smirk served as his only warning when Seifer bent down and claimed the full lips with a kneading kiss.  Squall tensed at the contact, but being held within strong arms, there was no option of escape.  Seifer smiled into the kiss, savoring the involuntary twitches of soft lips when he caressed the tip of his tongue along the edge of the lower lip.

Trusting that the brunet was suitably distracted, Seifer slipped his hand from the thin waist and cautiously moved into perilous realms.  With no immediate reaction from the sorcerer to dissuade him, Seifer lightly curled his fingers around the vulnerable organ and held on tight when Squall jerked back in surprise.

Seifer pressed harder into the kiss, not wanting to hear a word of complaint as he stroked the heated flesh at a languish pace, giving himself the chance to examine another man's penis.  Hazy memories came to him at that point, recollections of many drunken nights with unnamed men.  It had only been about quick satisfaction while avoiding the obvious male traits of his partners.  Ashamed of his bodily desires and weaknesses, Seifer couldn't remember a night that he hadn't regretted the morning after.

But now, those feelings of disgust and humiliation were like distant memories, the sensation of chilled flesh pressed against his body and the throbbing warmth in his hand warding away misgivings associated with loving another man.  Noting the shorter length and vaguely thicker girth to Squall's penis, Seifer steadily increased his pace along the hardening length, amused when a hand moved to his thigh and dug sharp fingernails into his skin.  While the sorcerer's intent was obviously to discourage the blond, the added pain instead made Seifer moan quietly against full lips, then followed by a brief smirk at Squall's low growl of frustration.

Eventually escaping with a sharp turn of his head, Squall panted softly before declaring, "Don't... This isn't necessary."

"It's entirely necessary," Seifer argued while repositioning the man in his hold such that he could help Squall lay back onto the mattress.  "I'm determined to show you the other side of sex."

Stormy eyes gazed up at the large blond, a glint of fear shining in the pale orbs.  Seifer smiled at the sorcerer's unhidden reaction, pleased that Squall was beginning to understand the flaws behind his requested 'favor'.  Stealing the moment to reach into the drawer of a nightstand, Seifer retrieved a glass vial from the selection within and promptly removed the stopper to release a soft herbal scent into the air.

"What are you doing?" Squall demanded as he shifted awkwardly on the mattress top, visibly uncomfortable with his state of arousal.

"Making things easier for you," Seifer commented as he poured drops of cold oil onto his fingers.  "I had a subordinate in the army who was more experienced in these matters.  He once told me that when I finally found the man I was supposed to love, I should contact him."  With a grin at old memories, the former soldier added, "It's a lucky thing that he didn't hold a grudge against me - I broke his nose when I punched him for assuming that I was attracted to men."

Blue-gray eyes focused on glistening oil, Squall complained, "But... you're cheating."

Holding back a laugh at the unexpected comment, Seifer argued, "It's not cheating, princeling, but adaptation.  As my helpful friend recently told me, you aren't a woman who can get wet at the sight of a cock.  The oil will make this smoother for the both of us."  His point made, Seifer lowered his hand and placed his middle finger at the brunet's puckered entrance.

Squall stiffened at the touch, but didn't reject the clear intention of the blond.  Instead, he glanced to the side and gazed silently at the fireplace, his expression cold and unreadable.

Not surprised by the sorcerer's lack of cooperation, Seifer slid an oiled finger into the tight anus while watching Squall closely for any signs of discomfort.  As he prepared the brunet, green eyes glanced down to settle on a reddish scar located at Squall's left shoulder, a lasting mark that the lord had never seen, but easily recognized as the damage caused by his sword during their duel months earlier.  Instantly drawn to that mark, Seifer bent over the smaller man and dragged a heavy tongue over the thick line.  From that position, he could hear every breath and feel every quiver of the lithe man, quickly learning what type of touch gave Squall the greater pleasure.

The eventual shove against his shoulder, however, was unexpected and forced Seifer to look up at the sorcerer's face.

Squall glanced at green eyes before returning his gaze to the fireplace.  "Stop making this harder."

Seifer bit his inner cheek, resisting the desire to point out that making things harder was the entire point behind foreplay.  But studying the slight glow to blue-gray eyes, Seifer recognized the conflicting fear within the vibrant orbs - though visibly afraid of the physical pain associated with sex, Squall appeared more frightened of being made to enjoy the sinful act.

Seifer smiled in sympathy to the man's plight, but also understood that it was necessary to move forward.  Sitting back on his heels, the lord placed more oil onto his palm before slicking his thickened length.  The cold oil against hot flesh drew a throaty groan from the blond, the sharp contrast surprisingly sensitizing.  Forcing his eyes opened, Seifer glanced forward to find that he had gained the sorcerer's attention in that brief moment, the pale eyed gaze focused on the oil-coated erection.

"You're bigger," was Squall's succinct observation.

Seifer hesitated at the comment before saying, "Maybe.  I couldn't have been older than sixteen when we last met and I know that I'm several inches taller than I was then."

Squall nodded at the explanation before closing his eyes, the last sign Seifer received to continue with their act.

Lifting a slim leg to rest on his shoulder, Seifer pressed the head of his cock at the stretched entrance.  He waited a silent second to allow Squall a final opportunity to change his mind, but the sorcerer did nothing except to shift his hips into a more comfortable position.  Both proud and frustrated with the man beneath him, Seifer forced himself deep into heated tightness, the oil helping, but not preventing all pain as Squall gasped and his body lifted into a taut bow.

Whispering pleads of forgiveness passed over dry lips, Seifer sincerely apologetic, but unable to consider an intelligent form of communication with the hurting man.  He pressed light kisses along the underside of the knee at his shoulder, impatiently waiting for Squall to adjust to the thick intrusion.  And as the urge to thrust became stronger, he mercilessly bit the pale flesh.

A keening moan came from the sorcerer at the hard bite, the pleasure-filled noise cut short by bitter laughter.  "You bastard."

After a lick to pooling drops of blood, Seifer whispered another apology.

"Stop stalling.  I know you need to move."

The strained voice made Seifer growl out a frustrated breath before he pressed deeper into constraining heat.  It was heaven and hell to have what he wanted and know that he wouldn't taste the same ecstasy another time.  Soon impressed with the sorcerer's flexibility, Seifer leaned forward such that he could reach scarred flesh with his tongue and lips.  Restrained thrusts into the servant quickly changed into something hard and unforgiving as Seifer was overwhelm by the desperate need to be deeper within Squall.  No cries came from the smaller man, allowing Seifer to believe that he wasn't causing an unbearable amount of pain to the former prince.

When the need for leverage became necessary, Seifer pushed up sharply and grabbed hard onto the sorcerer's waist with his free hand.  It was disappointing to see Squall's returned focus to the fireplace, but after a blinking moment, Seifer noticed the greater brightness to the room.  Following the sorcerer's gaze, Seifer stared at the dancing flames that had impossibly grown in size without the addition of new wood.  And the longer he stared, the blond became certain that the fire wasn't shifting like a normal blaze.

A cold hand on his arm startled the lord, making him look at Squall and the white light that shone in the depths of stormy eyes.

"Don't stop."

The unexpected command brought a slow smirk to pale lips, Seifer gazing in wonderment at the proud sorcerer, that lasting until the hand at his wrist squeezed in a painful hold.  Laughing at the hungry lion hidden within the stoic prude, Seifer conceded, "As you desire, my Prince."

The large blond resumed his previous intention to increase the pace and power of his thrusts, but with the hand still at his arm and the long fingers tensing with every drive forward, Seifer found years of celibacy weighing heavily on his body.  Closing his eyes to avoid the flushed appearance of the lovely sorcerer, Seifer pleaded to the gods for lasting strength, that Squall deserved the first taste of bliss after years of pain.  And it was that thought of the past that made Seifer thrust hard and deep with lingering anger, the sharp move making Squall clench tighter than before.  No sound ultimately came from the brunet, but the feel of hot wetness at his stomach made Seifer pant out a thankful laugh before he pushed himself to complete satisfaction.

Tired and blissfully sore, Seifer leaned over the smaller man and contemplated how he could find the energy to remove himself from comforting heat.  It didn't serve his purpose that the flames of the fireplace had apparently gone out, making the room dark and highly appealing for sleep.  Hovering in that position with eyelids closed, Seifer was rudely awakened by the touch of a cold hand clamped at his shoulder.

Flinching from that touch, Seifer cursed, "Hyne's fucking dick, does nothing make you warmer?"

Pale eyes glowing slightly in the darkness, Squall scowled up at the blond.  "That's not my problem.  Now, if you would move, I can leave for my own room."

"Hmmm?  Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that was a part of our agreement," Seifer stated as he bent down to press lazy kisses along the sorcerer's neck.

"But... you're done with me," Squall reasoned while thoughtlessly stretching out his body, giving the man better access to sensitive regions.

"Gods above, how could I ever be done with you?"

His hand squeezing at the larger man's shoulder, Squall argued, "You got what you've wanted.  Isn't that enough?"

"In normal cases, yes, but the difficulty lies in the fact that I haven't gotten what I truly desire."  Pushing up with hands on either side of the brunet, Seifer grinned at the befuddled and flushed expression of the stoic man.  "You aren't allowed to leave this bed without my permission, sorcerer.  You agreed to that condition and I intend to hold you to your word."

Squall stared up at the blond lord, pale eyes shining in the dim moonlight with a curious mix of puzzlement, awkwardness, and fear.  He said nothing in argument, unmoving and quiet as Seifer carefully removed himself from the abused anus.  It wasn't until the larger man flopped next to his side and pulled several sheets over their bodies that Squall pushed against the chest of the lord and looked into verdant eyes.

"Why?"

Seifer breathed a laugh at the single-worded question that didn't really ask anything.  Assuming the thought foremost in the sorcerer's mind, Seifer rested his arm at the man's waist and replied, "Because this is the only night you'll let me have you.  Why wouldn't I want to make it last?"

Full lips parted in a silent declaration of surprise, Squall didn't fight against the strong arm that pulled him close.

"Just think of me as something to keep you warm tonight.  It's nothing that can hurt you."

"... So you want me to think," the sorcerer muttered, but didn't move as he stiffly rested his head on a muscular arm.

While not disillusioned that Squall particularly wanted to be at his side, Seifer felt assured that the skittish man would still be in his bed come morning.  His lips set into a satisfying smile, Seifer closed his eyes in anticipation of viewing the lithe body in the morning light.  He was extremely curious to see how many of his kisses would have left visible marks on the skin marked by the battles and pains of the sorcerer's past.


Seated next to the shelves of numerous musical instruments, Seifer watched with a fond smile as Squall attempted the task of teaching Leander to play the piano.  Like most young boys, Leander was frustrated with the need to begin with scales and chords before being allowed to play an actual song, a fact that Leander vocalized after each successful repetition of a scale.  It was with great amusement that Seifer watched the sorcerer skillfully ignore his son's complaints and continue forward with the lesson at hand.

Letting the discordant notes fade into the background, Seifer found himself focused solely on the face of the lovely brunet, mesmerized by the soft fall of dark brown hair that framed smooth pale skin.  There was no blemish to the former prince's face aside from the deep scar between cold eyes, a peculiar contrast to the heavily scarred body hidden beneath dark clothing.  Of most interest to Seifer were those scars gained during the chaos of the Massacre and from the fangs of insatiable Ravages, dark and ugly scars that would forever stand out from beautifully pale skin.  Verdant eyes hard in thought, Seifer felt insignificant with the knowledge that any other person would have been broken by the tormented life of the sorcerer.

Squall eventually noticed the eyes upon him, and though his lips slipped into a slight frown, there wasn't the same look of wariness or disgust to the servant's expression.  The eye contact was brief, ending when Leander hit the wrong key in the new chord he was learning, but Seifer felt satisfied in what he had seen in the stormy eyes.

It was two weeks since the fateful night Squall had requested his favor, two weeks since the morning Seifer had wakened to find the sorcerer resting on his chest in peaceful slumber.  In that single moment, Seifer knew everything was worth the hardships of dealing with the impossible brunet, and though he recognized that he had yet to gain the man's trust, he felt the first surge of hope since the day he had found himself ridiculously in love with Squall.  Since that pleasure-filled night, Seifer had made certain that there would always be contact between them, enjoying the various reactions of annoyance and embarrassment that he would receive.  But more importantly, he needed Squall to understand that one night wasn't enough, that his hunger went deeper than a single session of sex.

"But why can't you help me?"

Leander's frustrated whine made Seifer sit up, somewhat upset with himself for becoming so lost in his thoughts that he hadn't noticed the change in direction with the piano lesson.  Noting the thin wand held in Leander's small hands, Seifer felt dejected that he hadn't watch his son summon his inner core, a task that had grown easier for the young sorcerer.

"Leander," Squall scolded in his typically soft voice.  "You can't always rely on my help.  The elements won't gain any respect for you that way."

The young boy scowled at the response, his displeased glare focused on the yellowed keys of the piano.  Seifer smiled at the slight squinting of Leander's left eye, but when there was no immediate response to his silent demands of the elements, Seifer felt some sympathy for the inexperienced sorcerer.

After a time of strained concentration, Leander huffed loudly and begged, "Please help me, Squall?  I can't make it work."

With a shake of his head, Squall said, "I won't help you, but I'll show you again what it feels like.  Hold my arm like the last time."

As the dark-haired sorcerer lifted his arm toward the aged piano, Leander immediately rested his hand on the slender wrist.  There was a vague twitch of long fingers before the first note sounded, then followed by the slow progression of the scale Squall had apparently wanted Leander to attempt.  Though no longer new to the sight of magic, Seifer still felt a sense of awe while watching both sorcerers focused on the elements, their eyes glowing softly as they connected to something Seifer knew he could never comprehend.

The simple scale finished shortly, Squall lowered his hand and gently removed the small hand from his arm.  "That's all it takes, cub.  Speak to the earth element and simply ask it to follow your lead.  The more you try to force the earth into obeying your command, the more stubborn it will become."

Leander's brow creased in deep thought as he glared at the old piano keys, the child looking offended that the earth element wouldn't give him the same response as it did to Squall.  The more experienced sorcerer sat quietly as he waited for Leander figure out his words, the brunet's patience seemingly unending.  In time, Leander tightened his hold onto his meager staff and lifted his other hand in the direction of the piano.  Soft green eyes glimmered with hesitant magic and small fingers twitched as if trying to play the piano from a distance.  Finding amusement in the attempt, Seifer almost missed the vague quiver of a pale key.  But keen eyes caught the slight movement, enabling the lord to witness the first note his son would ever play by magic alone.

"I did it, I did it!" Leander announced happily as he hugged Squall, the boy apparently unbothered by the weak sound of his single note.

"Well done," Squall said while gently wrapping his arm around small shoulders.  "The first note is always the hardest."

Leander pulled back to grin brightly at the sorcerer.  "Can I learn a song now?"

Seifer laughed at the eager request, impressed by the single-mindedness of his precious son.  Squall glanced up at the lord for his laughter, blue-gray eyes narrowed in accusation as if to say that Seifer was at fault for passing along the bothersome trait.  The ever-suffering expression boosted the energy to Seifer's laugh, the lord feeling proud that his son had inherited a true Almasy characteristic.

"Did I say something wrong?" Leander asked with a slight frown.

Squall shook his head before suggesting, "Why don't you finish this scale before I teach you a song."

Though visibly depressed by the response he should have anticipated, Leander nodded before attempting the next note to the basic scale.

The lesson lasted for another hour, the young boy pushing himself until his small staff wavered and vanished.  And as with previous times, Leander grew angry at the betrayal of his core, but Squall easily soothed the child with a few quiet words.  Seifer stood from his chair at the sign of the ending lesson, and after a brief stretch, he approached the two sorcerers.

"Good job, kid.  You looked good."

"But Squall is better," the dark-haired boy stated with a frustrated and tired frown.  Looking to the servant, Leander asked, "Can you play the flute again?  I liked that song."

Squall hesitated before replying, "It would be better for me to play the piano.  Watch closely for future lessons."

With his hand raised in a limp pose, the stormy-eyed sorcerer focused on the piano for a silent moment.  The first note was soft and tentative, then followed by another quiet note that rang in the small quarters of the music room.  Gradually the slow string of notes began to increased in speed, and then amazingly blended together to form unexpected chords that spoke of beauty within chaos.  Seifer looked away from the dance of piano keys, his eyes attracted to the sorcerer and his glowing eyes.  The song faded to the background as he studied Squall's profile, Seifer impressed by the complexities of the man he once believed to be a mere servant.  A prince and servant, a warrior and musician, a master sorcerer and father... there seemed to be no end to the roles that Squall had played in his short lifetime.

With a final flutter of keys, the brief song ended on a quiet note as Squall closed his eyes in a silent sigh, the expression surprisingly exhausted.  Keen eyes then glanced down, just catching the sight of Squall lowering his raised hand.  The noticeable shake to long fingers immediately made Seifer think of Leander and the boy's habit of overtaxing himself.  Though feeling concerned, the blond lord knew for certain that Squall would say nothing in front of the impressionable youth.

Seifer placed a hand on a small shoulder, easily gaining Leander's attention.  "You got your song, kid, and now it's time for you to get some rest before your afternoon lessons."

"But I'm not tired, Father."

"And the last time you said that, Lord Aveno complained that you fell asleep during his poetry readings."

"But it's boring and you said that you didn't like poetry neither."

Seifer sighed, fairly certain he had meant to say those words under his breath.  "Don't argue with me, Ander.  You're too smart to be neglecting any part of your studies."

Leander flashed a mixed expression of annoyance and embarrassment at his father, proud at being considered intelligent, but irritated by the responsibilities that came with the classification.  "Squall's tired, too.  Can we take a nap together?"

While Squall stiffened at the innocent question, Seifer chuckled at his son's boldness.  "Maybe later, but I have to speak with him first."

"But you always haveta talk to him."

"That's because I like talking to Squall.  Do you have a problem with that?"

Soft green eyes blinked in confusion before a mischievous grin crept into the boy's expression and he motioned for his father to come close.  Once the blond bent down to appease the child, Leander cupped his hands around Seifer's ear and asked in a barely understandable whisper, "Do you like Squall?"

Swallowing down his laughter, Seifer leaned back and smirked at the boy before nodding.

The reply brought a cheerful gleam to naive eyes, Leander flashing a bright smile at his father for changing his ways toward the servant.  No longer reluctant to leave, Leander hopped off the piano bench and gave Squall a tight hug.  "Thank you for the lesson!"

Somewhat startled by the child's sudden cooperation, Squall didn't have the chance to return the hug as the young boy hurried away and left the music room with a cheery, 'Bye!'.

"... What did he say to you?" Squall asked suspiciously.

"Nothing important.  You know that he's protective of his mommy, so he worries whenever you're left alone with me."

The sorcerer glared coolly at the blond for the flippant words.  "I've told you already, I'm not--"

"Yeah, yeah, you aren't his beloved mother," Seifer interrupted with a smirk, "But it's cute how your eyebrows twitch whenever I suggest it."

"... ..."

Green eyes dancing with silent laughter, Seifer stepped close to the seated brunet and decided to change the subject before Squall chose to storm off in anger.  "I enjoyed the song you just played.  Is that another one you learned from your father?"

"... No.  There was a friend of his, a master healer who was more musically inclined than my father.  He's the one who taught me most of the songs I know."

His smile gentle, the blond lord gazed at the former prince, a man who once would've replied with the simple, 'no'.  "A healer, huh?  And I was beginning to assume that you had something against all healers."

Squall looked away with a quiet, "Whatever."

"Well, I still liked the song.  It was complex, but beautiful.  I imagine that it was a difficult piece to play."  Fully focused on the brunet, Seifer asked, "Is that why your hand was shaking when you cut the song short?"

Eyelids lowering such that only a line of pale blue shone through, Squall made no argument or excuse for what the lord had observed.

"Even Ander noticed that you aren't at your best," Seifer added as he placed his hand at a smooth cheek, encouraging Squall to face him.  "I haven't seen this listless side of you before.  Are you feeling well?"

"... I'm fine.  Just tired."

"Tired?  It's hardly mid-afternoon and I can't imagine you exhausting yourself over a song."

"It's not your concern."

Seifer breathed a hard laugh, unable to stop himself as his hand slipped back into thick hair.  Fingers tangling deep into dark strands, Seifer bent down in a quick motion and pressed his lips against soft flesh in a bruising kiss that clashed teeth and threatened to break fragile skin.  Anger and frustration controlled the kiss, the lord unable to soften his statement that he would worry for Squall whether given permission or not.  He would always care about his Prince and savior.

The kiss broken with an inhale of air, Seifer vowed hoarsely, "I'll make it my concern since you obviously don't care enough about your wellbeing to live alone in this world."

"I've gotten this far," Squall reminded him.

"No, you haven't.  Since the day you lost your father and uncle, you've been a dead man walking in a world you despise.  You may have survived this long, but you haven't lived in years."

"... And what would it matter if I lived?"

Seifer stilled at the question, a sickness settling in his stomach at the hollow tone.

"I was a prince who couldn't defend his country, a warrior who traded his body for food, and a father who left his child on a doorstep.  Everything I am, everything I have done has gone to ash.  It's all been for nothing, and yet you expect me to hunger for life?"

"Don't say that," Seifer demanded as he tighten his grasp onto dark hair.  "Yes, you've been through things that would've destroyed a weaker man, but you are still here.  Don't lie and tell me that you have no desire for a better life."

Cold blue-gray stared at the blond, a haze of thought dulling the pale eyes as Squall sat silently for a time.  Heavy lashes then lowered, the man's exhaustion revealing itself to the lord.  "I haven't slept well lately."

Somewhat irritated by the change in subject, Seifer argued, "You told me that you rarely sleep throughout the night.  Why would it matter now?"

"It's worse than before.  And it doesn't help that..."

"What doesn't help?"

Lips twisting into a sour expression, Squall hesitated before stating, "I hate that I slept until the morning when I laid in your bed."

"Hn, that you did," the blond lord said with a proud smirk, recalling the weight of the sleeping man against his body.  "But some vigorous activity can help anyone to sleep."

Pale eyes flashed with annoyance.  "Sex with you didn't require that much effort."

Seifer winced at the slight against his abilities.  "You don't have to be that cruel, princeling.  I know for a fact that you found some enjoyment from our night of bonding."

Squall sighed and looked away.  "That's not the point.  I've tried practicing with my blade to tire myself, but it's done nothing to help."

"You've been playing in the snow again?" Seifer scolded as he took a seat on the piano bench.  He then placed a strong arm around the brunet's waist and held on loosely, anticipating Squall's retreat at any moment.  "If my bed is the only solution to your problem, why haven't you said anything in these past weeks?  Surely you know that I wouldn't have refused you."

Squall bit at his lower lip, his pose stiff and unforgiving as he glared at the rug-covered floor.

Grinning at the cold response, Seifer bent in close and brushed his lips over the curved tip of an ear.  "Come to my bed tonight, Squall.  Nothing has to happen.  Just two bodies warming each other during a winter night."

The sorcerer breathed a harsh laugh.  "And you expect me to trust you?"

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but haven't you already entrusted your lovely body to my whims?"

"If it were only my body you wanted, I wouldn't be as concerned."

Green eyes widened at the dully stated words, but Seifer didn't dare question the sorcerer's changed opinion about what the lord wanted from him.  Instead, he tightened his hold in a firm hug, and then reluctantly released his hold as he stood from the piano bench.  Squall stared up at the large blond, blue-gray eyes crossed in puzzlement at being freed without a struggle.

Grinning at the expression of the dark-haired beauty, Seifer said, "As always, I thank you for teaching Ander everything he needs to know to survive in this world.  I imagine that he would have been lost without you to teach him.  It's relieving to know that he will one day wield his power with the grace and intelligence worthy of his lineage."

"I'm not doing it for you," Squall stated coolly.

"So you constantly tell me," Seifer drawled in feigned exasperation.  Then, with a single finger, the lord brushed aside long bangs to better view the man's face.  "You were blessed with your mother's beauty, weren't you?"

Jerking back such that dark hair fell back over his right eye, Squall glared threateningly at the flirtatious man.

Seifer chuckled at the man's expression, wondering if the former prince would ever accept one of his compliments.  "Well, I had better return to my study so that I can finish today's work.  After all, I wouldn't want to keep you waiting tonight."

Eyes widening, Squall objected, "I didn't say--"

"Don't start lying now, dear Prince.  It was refreshing to get the truth from you," Seifer commented as he turned and stepped away from the seated brunet.  "I will see you tonight.  And if you choose to pray to your goddess before then, please do it indoors.  It takes too long to warm your body when you do something as idiotic as kneeling in snow."

Though he heard Squall stand up from the padded bench, Seifer left the music room and allowed the door to fall shut before the conflicted sorcerer could voice any more arguments.  His stride long and light, Seifer headed directly for his private study, motivated to review his plans for the coming year.  Subtly was a necessity for achieving his goals without drawing suspicion onto himself, and the young lord would be the first to admit that patience and refined planning were his greatest weaknesses.  Then a sudden thought came to mind, and with his lips curling up into a roguish smirk, Seifer realized that his prude prince had given him yet another important lesson to live by - with both the determination to want the best and the wisdom to act at the right moments, anything was possible.

Even the love of a skittish lion.


A grumbling whine emitting from the large blond, Seifer fidgeted underneath plush covers as he tried to find a comfortable position.  It wasn't until he blurrily recognized the reason for his discomfort that he opened his eyes and stared at the empty spot at his side.  Lips setting into a frown, Seifer decided that he didn't like how large his bed felt at that moment.

A soft sniff startled the lord, the blond head snapping up as green eyes focused on the unexpected sight of the exquisite and naked body standing at a tall window.  Squall had both arms wrapped around his bare body, his attention directed to the snow-covered landscape beyond the panes of glass.  Seifer, meanwhile, was completely focused on the scarred body of the former prince, memories of the night previous creating a flush of heat that forced him to better cover his lower regions.

Though he knew no one would believe his word, Seifer did have the pure intention to only sleep with the dark-haired beauty, the large blond wanting more than a couple of pleasure-filled nights to remember during his elder years.  But Squall had other ideas, stripping with his first steps into the lord's bedroom.  Seifer couldn't quite recall if he had resisted that temptation or simply pounced the smaller man, but he did know that no penetration had taken place.  Squall had been furious at the pleasured forced upon his body without the interruption of pain, but his muted cries and blissful expressions outweighed those vocal declarations of loathing.  And Seifer had greatly enjoyed smothering those arguments with a crushing kiss, the resulting taste sweeter than the chocolate his Prince treasured with every bite.

Rolling onto his side, Seifer smiled weakly at the naked figure surrounded by soft morning light, savoring the image for the first and perhaps last time.  "This is disappointing - I was beginning to believe that my bed had magical properties."

Squall turned slightly, dark hair shielding his face as he glanced over his shoulder.  "What nonsense are you spouting?"

"Isn't it obvious?  You're awake when I had assumed that I was the solution to your insomnia.  Perhaps it truly was the sex that had helped you to sleep."

The sorcerer scoffed as he returned to facing the window.  "I woke only a short time ago."

At first thinking he misunderstood the soft voice, Seifer noted the way fingernails bit angrily into soft flesh, a clear sign of the brunet's annoyance at his body's constant betrayal.  The lord grinned a fool's smile as he grabbed a heavy quilt from the mattress top and slid off his bed.  Wrapping the blanket around his bare shoulders, Seifer stepped behind the smaller man and hugged the thin body with both strong arms and the warm quilt.

"Fucking Hell, you're freezing again.  Why are you so determined to make yourself ill?"

Squall shifted back against the heated body of the blond.  "I needed to think."

"And what, it's easier to think when you have frost coming out from your ears?"

The sorcerer hummed a noncommittal sound as he grabbed onto the edge of the quilt and better covered his bare skin.

"So, what were you thinking about?"

"... ..."

"If it's about last night... While it was entirely your fault for being naked within my presence, I should have somehow restrained myself.  I didn't mean for anything to happen."

"... But I did."

Green eyes widened at the admission, then abruptly narrowing in anger.  "You coy bastard, you didn't get hurt the last time, so you wanted to try your luck with a second go?  Do you really think I want you to suffer?"

"No," Squall said in his soft way.  "I know you wouldn't intentionally hurt me, but I always believed that it was unavoidable between two men.  It was supposed to be a sign that Shiva disapproved of such abnormal love."

Relaxing at the brunet's words, Seifer chuckled lightly.  "Well, that's ridiculous.  Haven't you ever heard soldiers bragging about breaking in their virgin brides?  I have yet to hear a story that didn't include the phrase, 'she hated it at first, but I made her worship my cock by morning'.  Sex can be painful or blissful depending on how it's done, and it has nothing to do with your cold-hearted goddess."

"She's not cold-hearted," Squall muttered sullenly.

"I disagree," Seifer said as he pressed his lips against the back of the sorcerer's neck.  "She's a frozen bitch who is currently the only thing standing between me and my greatest desire."

Squall stretched vaguely, allowing the caress of warm kisses.  "She isn't against you."

"I find that hard to believe."

The dark-haired servant said nothing more about the matter, apparently having no interest in convincing Seifer about the true intentions of the snow goddess.  Instead, Squall leaned back against the solid form of the blond, an unexpected move that encouraged Seifer to hold the man tighter in his arms.  Enjoying the submissive side of his Prince, Seifer kissed and tongued the backside of an exposed ear.  Squall responded beautifully to the wet touch, squirming in a fashion that made Seifer groan and press his hips forward to meet the movements of the lithe brunet.  Though fairly certain he hadn't locked the door the night previous, Seifer didn't have the mind to care if anyone witnessed their indecent joining.

"Do you still wish to enlist the Shumi?"

As Seifer continued to taste pale flesh, his brows creased in deep confusion at the random question.  "Actually, I had hoped to fuck you without the aid of an overgrown kitten."

With a groaning sigh, Squall twisted away from the larger man.  The heavy quilt slipped from slim shoulders as the sorcerer gazed up into bright green eyes.  "Don't assume that I stayed here for your pleasure."

"Then tell me, sorcerer, why did you stick around this morning?  We didn't have the same deal as the last time we joined.  You could've escaped and made me think that I had only dreamed about making you scream."

Blue-gray eyes cold and unaffected, Squall didn't bother arguing the fact that he had never screamed.  "You didn't answer the last time we spoke about the matter - do you or do you not want to enlist the aid of the Shumi for your planned treason?"

"You're offering me the allegiance of the most feared warriors on the continent.  Why would I think to refuse?"

"Because most people don't care for their kind," Squall commented, a quiet light shining in pale eyes.

"Well, I'm not planning to integrate them with the rest of the men loyal to me, if that's what has you concerned.  In any case, from the stories I've heard, I assumed that the beasties would be more effective if I left them to their own devises."

Squall closed his eyes in momentary relief.

Seifer placed his fingers beneath the brunet's chin and encouraged him to meet his gaze.  "Listen, I'm not stupid.  My men are faithful to me, but I don't doubt that a good lot of them wouldn't mind ridding this world of a few monsters.  The pathetic realty is that I'd lose a few skilled men before a single Shumi would shed a drop of blood."

Soft lips formed a slight smile.  "I'm pleased that you have some respect for them."

"Well, they are the ones responsible for training you and helping you to become the feared Sorcerer Prince.  I have to respect them for that."

"... ..."

Removing the heavy blanket from his shoulders, Seifer wrapped the warmed material around the bare body of the servant.  "Now, why exactly are we speaking of the Shumi when I was in the middle of seducing you back into bed?"

Squall directed a scolding glare at the blond.

Grinning a smile that failed to be innocent, Seifer commented, "Don't pretend that you're no longer willing."

Squall breathed an exhausted sigh before replying to lord's previous question.  "The Shumi are a race of ceremony and honor.  Before they will consider your request for aid, you need to prove to them that you are trustworthy.  It could take anywhere from one to three months for them to make a final decision."

"Three months?  Fucking Hyne, I've been in wars that have taken less time.  Why can't they take your word about my intentions and credibility?" Seifer asked, afraid to hear the reply that the dark-haired man didn't find him trustworthy in the least.

"Because... I won't take part in this fight."

Seifer stared at the sorcerer for his response, surprise stealing away his voice.  While it had never been a spoken matter, Seifer had assumed with confidence that Squall would want revenge for the destruction of his family and country.  And in his certainty, he had envisioned fighting side by side with the Sorcerer Prince, their blades being the final blow against the Emperor and Empress.  To hear that Squall wanted nothing to do with the downfall of the corrupt Empire, Seifer felt disheartened and mystified.

Looking to the window, Squall continued, "Since I won't be there, they won't accept my word.  I will plead your case, but there is still the matter of you adhering to their rituals and surviving their trials."

"Wait, there are trials, too?  What kind of trials?"

"Nothing you can't handle," Squall stated without further clarification.

Seifer gazed at the dark-haired beauty, a slow smirk forming as he stepped forward and brushed aside long bangs to better see blue-gray eyes.  "Do you really have that much faith in my abilities?"

Squall looked to the taller man, the calm gleam to his eyes suggesting that it wasn't a matter of faith, but knowledge.  "If you wish for the help of the Shumi, then we need to leave within the next couple of months."

The blond lord breathed a laugh.  "You've been looking out that window all morning - did you not see that white fluff on the ground?  That snow isn't going anywhere until spring."

"We can still travel.  And Leander will come with us."

Humor lost at the sorcerer's serious tone, Seifer demanded, "Are you insane?  It's risky enough to travel in the snow and you're asking me to bring Ander along for the ride?  And to subject him to a horde of beasties, nonetheless?  He's too young for such harsh conditions."

"Leander can learn many important things from the Shumi."

Seifer continued to glare at the brunet.  "Even if that were true, why do we have to travel during the winter?  If we leave at the first hint of spring--"

"I'm not negotiating, Seifer.  You have eight weeks to plan and that's all the time we can afford to waste."

Green eyes hard and resistant, the blond lord studied the lithe man before him, unable to discern any emotion from the former prince.  Frustrated at the aloof nature of the brunet, Seifer frowned as he forced the words from his mouth - "I'll discuss the matter with Cid.  If he decides it's too risky to travel, then we aren't going.  I won't endanger Ander's life."

"I know," Squall stated with a weak smile.  Pulling the heavy quilt tighter around his body, he glanced to the door.  "Leander will wake soon.  I should go."

Seifer wanted to deny the servant his leave, but knew that he couldn't keep Squall forever in his presence.  Moving his arm around the brunet's lower back, Seifer pulled the man close and savored the lack of resistance from the cautious prince.  His lips set into a pleased smirk, the taller man bent down to claim a kiss in payment for allowing Squall to leave.  Soft lips responded with clear hesitance, but responded all the same to the touch of the insistent lord before Squall was forced to place a hand at the broad chest and push him back.

"I should go," Squall repeated, his eyes bearing a muted glow.

"As long as you come back," Seifer stated with a careful smile.

Squall gazed silently at the blond for a long minute, then turning his back to the lord without another word as he began gathering fallen clothes.

Seifer's smile widened at the man's actions, quick to learn that the lack of rejection was closest he'd receive to Squall accepting their current affair.  Though the area near the window was cold against his naked back, Seifer stood silently as he watched the servant dress in wrinkled clothes.  Squall never glanced in the lord's direction during that time, even placing the quilt back onto the messed bed without meeting interested green eyes.  A pale hand straighten sleep-ruffled hair as best it could just before Squall stepped through the bedroom door and walked out of sight.

Seifer didn't move until he heard the open and close of the main door, and though he had plenty to plan given the sorcerer's sudden demands, he laid down on his mattress and rolled onto his side such that he could look at the place where Squall had slept.  Various thoughts came and went as green eyes focused on cooled sheets, but mostly, Seifer wanted to enjoy the numerous emotions the difficult brunet had stirred up.  It was surreal to believe that he had gained the attention of the former prince, though Seifer knew he was still on shaky ground.  He felt there was one last thing he needed to say that would take the last hints of shame from stormy eyes.  It was an arrogant thought, but Seifer sensed that the sorcerer was off balance and that one right word could push the man into his favor.  Unfortunately, it also seemed that a single wrong word could drive Squall away forever.

A deep sigh turning into a yawn, the blond lord placed a spread hand onto the cooled sheets at his side.  Green eyes focused on that empty space, Seifer cursed his deep hunger to love the dark-haired sorcerer, it being an essentially simple desire that was made convoluted by the complexities of a man scarred by life.  He didn't remember his mother ever mentioning love to be quite that difficult, and yet, it was the words of his father that made Seifer smile with lazy determination - 'Never trust an easy love, boy.  Someone you can love with ease is someone you can hate with ease.  But a hard-fought love... Once you gain that type of love, you've found the last person you'll ever want to love again'.

Chapter Text

Frozen breaths visible in the air, the sorcerer of dark chestnut hair and pale blue-gray eyes leaned against the trunk of an aged tree, its far-reaching branches shielding him from the light afternoon snowfall.  Winter had attacked the Almasy Estate in the past week, dropping over a foot of snow onto the vast property and freezing every drop of water that had been left exposed to the elements.  The weather was chilling and the terrain rather hazardous, and as he suffered from those conditions, Squall came to the bothersome conclusion that no amount of snow or even the icy sting of wind could keep idiots from enjoying their fun.

His smile vague with an incredulous curl, Squall focused on the entertainment that was proceeding a short distance away from the sheltering tree.  Dressed in a dark wool coat that hung low enough to flutter behind his knees, Seifer wielded his favorite blade while sparring against two of his subordinates - Raijin, a large man with a fairly large skull for a man of little intelligence, and the other Fuujin, a petite woman with one red eye and an ironic knack of seeing more than others.  Against his careful nature, Squall was curious about the mismatched pair, mostly because of Leander's praise-filled words about them and partly because of his hazy memory of the large brute from the day the Ravages had attacked.  But with their current visit being the first in months after a string of important missions, Squall hadn't been able to make any attempt to learn more about the two soldiers.

Critical eyes of frozen blue followed every moment of the sparring session, each misstep in snow and the occasional interesting move observed by the silent sorcerer.  While the twosome were fairly skilled and worked well together, their lack of varied techniques left them predictable and ineffective against an experienced swordsman.  And as Squall continued to watch the demonstration, he became amused by the somewhat musical rhythm as sword met spear and metal discs in repeated patterns, the sound reminding the sorcerer of a clumsy waltz that Leander was learning to play on the piano.  While the brunet couldn't imagine that Seifer enjoyed the easy fight, Squall also knew that the man didn't have many other options during the winter months.

A subtle change in the metallic rhythm made Squall straighten in readiness for the conclusion of the sparring match.  A different angle of the wide blade had caused the change in tone, the new position allowing Seifer a better range of movement as he knocked his larger and less skillful opponent off balance with a hard push of Hyperion.  Stepping into that action, Seifer anticipated and smoothly dodged Fuujin's lunging attack, and with Raijin still flailing to maintain a type of defense, the blond lord had plenty of time to use his free arm to elbow the woman in the back of the neck.  A hurt breath left her as she dropped helplessly to the snowy ground, but Seifer had already placed his attention elsewhere.  The dark eyes of the large soldier widened in the moment before Seifer swung his sword in a upward arc, the harsh clang of metal signaling the moment Raijin was disarmed, and before the spear touched the ground, Hyperion rested victoriously against the brute's thick neck.

"Not bad," Seifer commented in an easy tone, his body showing few signs of exertion after the long session.  His sword lowered and sheathed, the lord turned to offer a hand to the woman lying in the snow.  "You two have been practicing lately, haven't you?"

Fuujin huffed at the offer of help and tossed wet snow at her former captain.

Dodging the unfriendly refusal of his hand, the grinning blond moved back several steps to avoid further attacks from the volatile woman.  "Hyne, don't be a poor sport there, Fuu.  You know that I'm only rough with the people I respect the most."

With a breath of irritation, the woman pushed up onto her knees before pointing in the direction of the silent brunet.  "Waiting?"

Seifer jerked straight at the question, his eyes wide and confused in the moment before recognition.  Pale lips slid into a pleased smirk, and without answering the woman's question, Seifer stepped into the deeper snow that hadn't been effected by their spar.

Squall couldn't help the tightened hold of his arms around his body, the approach of the blond igniting a range of emotions that he didn't understand.  More than anything, he wanted to hate the green-eyed man who had torn his life to shreds yet again.  But unlike the other times Seifer had disrupted his life, Squall wasn't given the chance to carefully piece his life together and mend his ragged tears.  Instead, Squall found himself a victim of the blond lord who was forcing the shreds into a pattern that wasn't right and recklessly tying impossible knots.  All of his senses were telling Squall to escape Seifer before more damage could be done, but the sorcerer knew it was too late.  Too many important pieces had been placed incorrectly and Squall feared that he would never be the same again.

"Well now, I didn't expect to find you standing out here in the snow," Seifer stated as he stepped beneath the branches of the old tree.  "Why didn't you say something?"

Squall shrugged.  "I didn't want to disrupt your concentration."

"Hn, if that's truly the case, then it's safe to assume that you weren't sent to fetch me for some reason.  And Ander isn't with you?"

"He's resting from his morning lesson."

Seifer grinned at the response.  "In other words, instead of finding something better to do with your rare moment of free time, you decided to come out here to stand in the icy cold and freeze while watching me spar."

Squall held his tongue, wary that any response he could give would only encourage the lord and his foolish desires.  In truth, he had originally stepped outside to enjoy some fresh air and to clear his head, but the sound of metal against metal had quickly drawn the sorcerer to the back fields of the large manor.  Once setting eyes on the former soldier and the worn blade named Hyperion in his hand, Squall had found himself unable to look away.  After several weeks of sleeping with the persistent blond, Squall knew Seifer's body better than he would willingly admit.  To see that toned and trained body move with the refinement of a master swordsman, Squall was reluctantly impressed by the nobleman's skill and form.

With a shift in his stance, Seifer leaned in close to the sorcerer and asked, "Did it excite you to watch me fight?"

Glaring at the man for the crude assumption, Squall commented, "I was merely surprised that you managed to learn something since the last time we fought."

"Is that a challenge?" Seifer asked, his green eyes intense with anticipation.

The sorcerer nearly forgot himself with a spoken word of agreement, but then glanced over the lord's shoulder to watch the antics of the mismatched pair as Raijin attempted to help the petite woman from the cold ground.  The large man nearly landed on top of Fuujin when he slipped on packed snow, the sight of which solidifying Squall's recent opinion that the man must have gained his army rank due to his loyalty to the sharp-minded woman and not from some hidden skill.

"You can trust them," Seifer assured quietly.  "More importantly, it's been far too long since we have crossed blades.  You might even be a challenge this time since you've managed to gain a little bit of weight this winter."

Blue-gray eyes narrowed in harsh disbelief.  "You may trust them, but I have no reason to do so.  Not with my life."

"Your life isn't in danger, lovely.  Fuujin once told me that she owes her life to a sorcerer and Raijin would never act against her wishes.  You're safe here and I will make certain of that."

Squall continued to glare at the man, a silent belittlement that he wasn't going to expose his greatest secret just so Seifer could have the spar he wanted.

Seifer chuckled at the threatening edge to blue-gray eyes.  "Then what about the fact that I'm blocking their view if you were to summon your blade at this very moment?"

"Are you insane?"

"Only when you're around," the blond lord purred as brushed a gloved hand along the brunet's cold-reddened cheek.  "Play with me, princeling.  I'm bored with this easy prey."

Squall remained focused on verdant eyes, a poor choice as he felt his resolve corrode when faced against Seifer's overpowering desire.  Stormy eyes flicked in the direction of the twosome who were waiting for the return of their leader.  "I can't use magic with those two as spectators."

His grin transforming into something wolfish, Seifer commented, "And you think that's something I haven't considered?"

The sorcerer couldn't hold back a breath of bitter laughter, the brunet frustrated with the knowledge that he couldn't win against Seifer whenever the man truly wanted something.  Squall let his arm fall to his side, the movement instantly brightening green eyes as the lord pressed closer in the effort to better block the view of the summoned staff.  The sorcerer's core shimmered briefly into existence before being forced into the form of the deadly azure blade.  Squall schooled his expression when he was assaulted by unexpected pain as his staff announced its reluctance to take the shape that represented destruction and murder, but the brunet's resolve was too strong to allow his core to refuse his demands.

Distracted by that required effort, Squall started when a large hand covered his and squeezed lightly around the hilt of his sword.

"Thank you, my Prince," Seifer whispered before he abruptly stepped back several paces, and with a nod of his head, he encouraged the brunet to leave his hiding spot beneath the branches of the old tree.

Raijin stiffened at the sight of the dark-haired sorcerer.  "Hey boss, isn't that the guy who messed up those Ravages?"

"That he is," the blond lord replied with a proud smirk.  "Raijin, Fuujin, I'd like to officially introduce you to an important servant of mine - Squall.  Treat him nicely or I'll make you suffer for any trouble you cause him."

Squall sighed at the impassioned words that brought a gleam of interest to the watchful woman's single red eye.  Quite certain that all of his secrets would be revealed if he allowed Seifer to continue speaking, Squall bowed his head slightly and stated, "Introductions aren't necessary.  I've heard many stories from the young master about you both."

"Ander did that?  Well, he's a good kid, ya know," Raijin commented awkwardly as he scratched the back of his head.

Meanwhile, Fuujin crossed her arms over her chest and frowned slightly.  "Leander's Squall?"

After a confused moment, Squall remembered how the woman didn't care to speak in full sentences for some unknown reason.  Assuming the implied question, he replied, "Yes, ma'am, I have been the young master's personal servant for several months now."

Raijin immediately started to snicker.  "You hear that, Fuu?  He called you 'ma'am' as if you were a lady or somethin'."

With no emotion showing on her pale face, Fuujin turned smoothly on packed snow and proceeded to kick the brute in the shin.  Raijin yelped from the pain and hopped back in retreat from the petite woman, the unbalanced move eventually landing the large man in deep snow.  Seifer laughed deeply at the soldier's defeat to a woman nearly a third his size, the unrestrained laughter making Squall gaze up at the blond nobleman.  Too easily he found himself distracted by warm golden skin as Seifer had his head thrown back in absolute delight.  Horribly aware of his heartbeats, Squall silently cursed his inability to ignore the more attractive features of the arrogant lord.

In an effort to fight his irrational desires, Squall interrupted coolly, "Do you want your spar or not?"

His humor controlled to the point of halting his laughter, Seifer grinned at the smaller man.  "Impatient for a beating, are we?"

Squall chose not to reply as he adjusted the fur collar of his coat and stepped toward the proper position for them to begin their duel.

"Huh, he knows how to use a blade?" Raijin asked in surprise.

"Of course he does, dumbass.  How else would he have enough skill to survive a pack of Ravages jumping at his throat?"

Squall turned at the remark and scowled at Seifer for the thoughtless words.  While the dark-eyed brute wasn't of much concern, the sorcerer could feel the inquisitive gaze of the white-haired woman.  Reluctantly glancing in her direction, Squall decided that he didn't like the way Fuujin was fiddling with the strap of her black eye patch.

His hand tight on the hilt of his blade, Squall glared at the tall man of blond hair spiked from sweat and melted snow.  "Are we doing this or not?"

Seifer looked over to the brunet.  "Don't you need to warm up and stretch first?  I'd hate for you to pull something and not be able to perform your other duties to the best of your ability," he added with an unsubtle wink.

"I would worry about yourself first, m'lord," Squall stated coldly as he moved into a loose stance.  Meanwhile, the unseen flames of the fire element stirred in his blood, anxious for the taste of battle after too many years of hiding.  Their last fight had been far from satisfying, and while the occasional hard night of sex helped to relieve some tension, Squall couldn't deny his desire to make the arrogant bastard bleed.

Seifer smirked at the comment, and though he appeared amused and relaxed as he stepped into position across from the smaller man, his gloved hand on the hilt of Hyperion was tense in readiness.  The wide blade lifted with an extended arm, Seifer said nothing more as he tilted his head in a condescending sign that he was ready.

Not a man of games and words, Squall didn't hesitate to accept the lord's offer.  He stepped fast over packed snow, and with both hands on the hilt of his sword, he positioned the weapon low at his side.  Swiftly closing the distance between them, Squall planted a foot into the snow and slid several inches while using the momentum of his sudden stop to swing his blade forward.  Seifer easily met the hard slash with the flat of his blade, but was promptly forced back a step when the sorcerer turned with the rebound of his sword and spun around with another wide slash of blue metal.  Again the obvious strike was blocked, though Seifer changed his tactic and parried the blade to allow himself the opportunity to squeeze in his own lunging attack, one that Squall easily avoided with a sway of his hips.

The harsh clang of metal rang over the field of snow and ice, the two men immersed in their dance as they traveled over slick ground.  Each measurable gain was promptly lost by minute mistakes that would give the other the opportunity for a fierce counterattack.  While no strike ultimately connected with its intended target, winter clothing gained new holes and icy air licked at fresh blood.  Squall wasn't surprised to find himself enjoying the evenly balanced fight, but with every cheap shot from the blond, he grew increasingly frustrated with his inability to use his true powers against the former solder.  More than once he had been forced to jerk away his hand from the vulnerable body, the sorcerer very aware of the eyes watching the battle between lord and servant.  Worse were the cat-like eyes of the blond, Seifer appearing far too pleased with his apparent skill to match blades with the so-called 'Sorcerer Prince'.  Squall sneered with the determination to make the man bleed for his crude assumptions.

After a long exchange of rhythmic strikes, the two swords abruptly clashed and scrapped against each other as both men pressed forward in the attempt to force the other to surrender first.  While Squall knew he wouldn't be able to win the battle of strength, he couldn't back down against the blatant challenge as Seifer grinned down at him from over the cross of blades.

"Hyne, you're gorgeous."

Squall jerked back at the purred comment, the next second realizing that he had been tricked.  Jumping back several paces with a defensive swing of his blade, the sorcerer stared at the green-eyed lord who hadn't taken advantage of the brunet's slip in concentration.  Instead, Seifer stood in place with his blade lowered to his side, the man's stance wholly harmless except for the intense gaze of hunger that Squall recognized well enough from the young lord.

Irritated at Seifer's senseless nature to be aroused by swordplay, Squall moved his blade back and to side with the fanciful thought of ridding the man of his affliction.  But before he moved, a cool breeze caressed his skin in a subtle warning.  Glancing in the direction of the distant manor, blue-gray eyes noted the approach of a dark lumbering form, but once identifying the large man as Ward, Squall realized that the wind would not have concerned itself with the old friend.  Squinting his eyes from the glare of snow, the sorcerer looked for the second man that he knew should also be there.

Focused on that distant sight, Squall realized too late that he had forgotten about his sparring partner, something that was a dangerous and stupid mistake.  The sound of boots on icy snow and a blade cutting through cold air surprised the sorcerer as he attempted a retreat, but the tip of Hyperion still reached the fleeing man.

"Where did you think you were looking, princeling?" Seifer asked lowly, his tone oddly jealous in nature.

Squall didn't reply, his attention directed lower as he stared down at his torn jacket.  He could feel the freezing air of winter against his exposed midsection, but worse was the trail of warmth that crossed his skin and slipped beneath the waistline of his pants.  Wrapping an arm around his waist, Squall knew that the injury was minor, but nonetheless, his body began to shake from unnamed emotions.

"Sorry about that, but I suggest not ignoring me while we're playing," Seifer commented with Hyperion resting innocently on his shoulder.

The world seemed to shift in that moment for Squall, the shakes of his body vanishing as he took his blade into two hands and charged at the arrogant blond.  Green eyes went wide at the sudden attack from the typically reserved sorcerer, Seifer managing at the last second to lower his weapon and parry aside the hard lunge.  The blocked strike didn't slow the brunet, Squall reversing the momentum of his weapon to jab the hilt of his sword into the lord's side.  Seifer grunted at the blow, his lost breath wasting a precious moment as Squall jumped back from the man's feeble attempt of a counterstrike.  And once the wide blade swung past, Squall stepped close with yet another attack.

Sparks flew as swords met in hard and fast strikes, Seifer slowly forced backward as the sorcerer fought with wild ferocity.  Squall couldn't remember the last time he had felt the rage of fire burning through his veins, but he welcomed the aid while throwing attack after attack at the bewildered nobleman.  In short time, Seifer found himself without solid ground to walk on, his last step of retreat promptly sinking into the soft depths of untouched snow.  Piercing blue-gray eyes gleamed with victory as Squall used the prime opportunity to drive forward with a hard lunge of his blade.  Seifer's attempt to dodge and parry left him stumbling in the uneven drifts of snow.  Squall ran after the flailing blond, and with his sword held limply at his side, the sorcerer balled his freed hand and punched the large man in the face.

The assault unexpected and unblocked, Seifer dropped back into the depth of fresh snow, his large body causing the renewed flight of snowflakes.  Rolling in that icy white powder, the former soldier instinctively attempted to rise, but he was silently encouraged to stay on his back when the sword of blue metal rested against his neck.

His skin split and bleeding from the hard punch, Seifer eyed the blade warily before a coughing laugh left chapped lips.  "Damn, now I know why they say that you should never poke a sleeping lion."

Squall scowled at the supine blond, trying to remember if such a saying even existed.  Distracted by his thoughts, the sorcerer didn't noticed the movement of a gloved hand until Seifer gently grabbed onto the etched weapon.  Flames ignited as if waiting for the proper spark and promptly engulfed the large hand in vibrant sapphire and crimson.  Squall bit out a curse as he jerked his weapon away, angry at his idiocy for not anticipating Seifer's desire to touch the magically created blade.

"Well, that's a bit bigger than I remembered," Seifer stated in soft surprise as he examined his fire-covered hand, his glove already destroyed to ash.  Green eyes shone with the light of calming blue and heated red, the lord seemingly entranced by the flames that burned without harming his skin.

"... What in Hyne's name...?"

The dark-haired man turned at the stunned question, Squall unsurprised to see Ward standing a short distance away with an overly serious expression darkening his face.  But it wasn't until he noticed the lanky healer at the steward's side that Squall felt his energy fade and fail as his sword shattered into inexistence.  His knees buckling beneath him, Squall dropped to the snow with his arms wrapped around his midsection and his eyes closed to shield himself from the glare of snow that irritated his sudden headache.

"Hey, are you alright?" Seifer asked as he immediately sat up and reached out with his bare hand, now free from the flames of crimson and sapphire.

"Don't touch me," Squall growled at the man, minutely satisfied when the large blond flinched and obediently lowered his arm.  "Why is Lord Kinneas here?"

"What, have you forgotten that he is a good friend of mine?" Seifer replied defensively.

The dark-haired man breathed a scoff of disbelief.  "If that's the case, then I should take my leave so that you may entertain your 'friend'," Squall suggested coolly as he stood from the snow-covered ground.  But before a step could be taken, his arm was grabbed by a strong and unforgiving hand, the forceful move nearly landing the brunet back into the snow.

"Let him look at that wound," Seifer demanded from his kneeling position, his green eyes hard and eager.

"It's nothing serious."

"But it's hurting you, right?"

Squall glared down at the blond, certain that Seifer intentions weren't as innocent as they sounded.  "I'm fine, m'lord."

Anger flared in emerald eyes at the causal honorific.  "You are certainly not 'fine'," Seifer declared as he used his hold on the slender arm to help himself in standing.  "You've been lethargic for weeks and don't think that I haven't noticed you hiding in your rooms while losing whatever food I managed to force down your throat.  And that's not to mention how much Ander is worried about you.  He says that your magic feels different than usual.  Hell, even I have noticed that something is wrong.  Tell me, sorcerer, when has it taken that much effort to call upon your lovely sword?"

At the condemning words spoken in thoughtless anger, stormy eyes flicked in the direction of the lord's subordinates.  When Fuujin and Raijin didn't appear overtly surprised, Squall abruptly realized that the flames and vanishing sword would have already revealed everything to the pair of spectators.  Returning his attention to the blond, he asked accusingly, "So instead of asking me about anything, you sent Ward to fetch Lord Kinneas in secret?"

Despite the trickle of blood that teased the corner his eye, Seifer met the hard glare of the sorcerer, his lips twisting in visible restraint to avoid further upsetting the proud man.  Silence prevailed in that tense moment, eyes of raw emerald meeting those of pure ice in a lasting stalemate that neither man could break.  Then a stray snowflake fluttered and landed on dark eyelashes, forcing Squall to blink despite his instinct to never surrender.  Irritated at the unintentional loss, the brunet raised a hand to rub away the nuisance, but Seifer was just slightly faster.

Once the thumb had removed the melted flake from thick lashes, Squall was fully prepared to continue the wordless argument, but he instead stared up into softened green eyes that were unusually fragile in their gaze.

"Can you blame me for my deceit?" Seifer asked as he brushed his fingertips along chilled skin.  "One word of a visiting healer and I feared that you would have vanished into the night."

Squall had no words in reply, the man not entirely certain what he would have done if he had known the healer would be arriving on the estate.  As it were, the urge for flight was foremost in his mind and only the lord's restraining grip on his arm had prevented Squall from an earlier escape.

"If you are truly healthy and fine, then what does it matter if Irvine examines you?  If nothing else, it'd be the chance to prove me wrong," Seifer reasoned with a failing smile.

Without the lord's anger to feed his own, Squall felt exhaustion in the face of Seifer's honest and bothersome concern.  Frosty eyes closed in surrender, he nodded slightly in acceptance of being examined by the somewhat trustworthy healer.  "But more important matters must come first," Squall argued with a tilt of his head in the direction of their spectators.

Seifer made a noise of agreement.  "I'll speak with Rai and Fuu, but I swear on my life that they won't betray your secret.  Meanwhile, I want you to go with--"

Before the lord could finish his sentence, he was interrupted by the biting sound of footsteps in snow.  The sorcerer tensed at the unexpected approach of the white-haired woman, her stiff posture and serious gaze making Squall doubt the nobleman's word that there was nothing to fear from the odd pair.  Fuujin walked directly before the lord and servant, but her single crimson eye focused solely on the man of dark hair.  Silent and unsmiling, the female warrior stared unflinchingly into the depths of cold blue-gray eyes.  With no excuse or lie to offer, Squall held the odd gaze of crimson and a dark eye patch and waited for the woman's accusation or threat.

Apparently uncomfortable by that wordless pause, Seifer placed a protective arm around the sorcerer's side and inched closer to the man.  Needing his attention for more important matters, Squall decided to humor the overbearing lord.

Fuujin glanced down at the arm placed between her and the dark-haired servant, but said nothing of the matter.  Instead, she pointed a finger in Squall's direction and asked, "Sorcerer?"

Squall sighed at the unavoidable question.  "I am."

No surprise lighted her crimson eye, the observant woman already knowing the answer to her question.  "Protect Seifer and Leander?"

"With my life," Squall stated, silently disappointed in himself for the easy response.  While the sacrifice for his son was obvious, it should have taken more thought to decide if he would risk everything for the arrogant blond.

"Good," Fuujin replied with a slight, but honest smile.  Finished with her inquiry, she turned sharply on snow and headed back in the direction of her confused partner, the dark-eyed brute scratching the back of his head with a large hand.

Squall watched the woman's retreat in disbelief.  "What was that?"

"Fuujin's way of saying that she likes you," Seifer said with a quiet chuckle.  "That girl is a great judge of character and she hates it when people talk too much about how 'trustworthy' they are.  She appreciates a person who can speak with your type of frank honesty, not to mention someone who can meet her gaze.  You two are fairly alike in that regard."

"Whatever," Squall muttered as he continued to watch the odd pair of soldiers.  "What will he do about this?"

"I wouldn't worry about it.  Rai can't function without Fuu telling him what to do and that includes when he's allowed to go to the bathroom.  Trust me for once - they won't do anything to threaten your safety here."

Squall huffed in unwilling acceptance that the blond lord was correct in his assumption, but he knew that Seifer's rationale was wrong.  Fuujin had graced him with a temporary trust, a trust that would last only as long as she held the belief that Squall was a benefit to her former captain.  Until the day she changed her opinion, Fuujin would keep the secrets of the sorcerer, and by default, her thickheaded partner would also hold his tongue.  It was a risky situation, one that could destroy Squall the moment he lost Seifer's favor, but given the arm secure at his waist, the brunet felt resigned that the lord's obsession wouldn't simply fade away.

Leaning in close, Seifer asked expectantly, "So, you'd protect me with your life?"

Squall thought to remind the man that he had already risked his life for the reckless idiot, but it wasn't worth the breath.  Glancing at the large steward and the healer standing at his side, Squall brushed aside the lord's arm.  "We are wasting Lord Kinneas' time."

As if reminded of the other men, Seifer straightened and looked in their direction.  "Hn, I suppose you are right.  Shall we go to my study, then?"

"I would rather your private chambers," Squall mentioned softly, embarrassedly.  Something told him that the next hour was going to exhaust him, and though his own bedchamber would be best, he had no intention of disturbing Leander in the connecting room.

With his left eye vaguely swollen and red, Seifer peered down at the brunet as if trying to see into the sorcerer's mind, but he quickly gave up on the impossible endeavor.  "You ask and I obey, princeling.  Now, shall we go inside before you get any colder?"

Squall scowled at the man's teasing tone, rather certain that Seifer wasn't referring to the weather with his statement.  The large blond grinned despite the withering glare, but then the lord foolishly attempted a wink with his bruised eye.  Seifer's resulting flinch and whispered curse lightened Squall's mood for a fleeting moment, a moment that couldn't survive against the knowledge that things were about to become very difficult.

~ > < ~

Still wearing his torn coat to ward off the chill that refused to leave his body, Squall sat stiffly on the single sofa of the lord's chambers.  In contrast, the other men had shed their winter clothing upon entering the mansion and remained standing with their focus on the silent sorcerer.  Seifer hovered closest to the brunet, but stood at the back of the couch to ensure that Kinneas had plenty of room for his examination.  The healer, however, stood at the doorway with his arms crossed loosely over his chest and showed no intention of approaching the seated man.

"Squall," Kinneas scolded in a irritable tone.  "You know damn well that I can't help you if you don't want this.  So if you're going to be difficult, I can better spend my time in the kitchens coaxing some dessert from the lovely Matron."

The brunet closed his eyes at the words, sympathetic to the healer's annoyance with the situation.  During their first meeting, Squall had wholly rejected the man's healing powers, much to Kinneas' disbelief.  Even though he had been losing his life drop by drop of blood, Squall had feared the chance of survival more than his imminent death.  The visitation by the healer had nearly broken the sorcerer, but he had enough strength remaining to shield himself from the curative magic.  Despite his resolve to die in peace, Squall had foolishly listened to Kinneas when the violet-eyed man had taken it upon himself to save the brunet's life, and with a single mention of Leander's tears, Squall reluctantly allowed the man to revive his dying body.

Reopening his eyes, Squall looked to the waiting healer and pledged, "As long as you are tactful about it, I won't interfere with your healing."

An eyebrow lifted in a curious tilt, Kinneas stepped to the sofa and sat on the cushions beside the tense brunet.  He meticulously rolled up the sleeves of his uniform, clearly stalling to offer Squall a last opportunity to change his mind.  In refusal of that offer, Squall opened his fur-lined jacket to reveal the torn and blood-stained shirt beneath.  Kinneas inched closer at the invitation and placed a warm hand against the ragged hole.  The caress of healing energy drew a sigh from the sorcerer, the pleasure induced noise dropping to a soft groan when Kinneas jerked back his hand in shock.

Cold blue-gray eyes gazed at Kinneas, the healer's expression one of dumbfounded surprise as he stared down at the exposed stomach that still oozed thick blood from the minor injury.  Tentatively, violet eyes shifted upward until meeting the brunet's gaze.  Lips parted and moved, but no sound came from the startled healer.  Squall frowned at his overestimation of the nobleman's ability to be tactful.

"Irvine," Seifer prodded in a hoarse voice.  "What's wrong?  I know he's been sick, but... You can do something, right?"

Kinneas blinked at the question, a slight smile appearing as he continued to meet Squall's gaze.  "He thinks you're sick."

The sorcerer exhaled a shaky breath before admitting, "I didn't realize that he had noticed anything.  He's usually more dense than this."

"And when exactly were you going to tell him the truth?"

"... ..."

With a loud clearing of his throat, Seifer reminded the pair, "I'm standing right here, y'know."

Kinneas ignored the lord's plea for attention.  "He won't want to hear this from me."

"... I know."

"Then tell him already," the healer stated as he stood from the sofa.  "That injury of yours can wait until you've explained everything to him.  Call it your punishment."

Squall watched as Kinneas crossed the room, the lanky man forcefully encouraging Ward to leave with him.  The air in the room seemed to escape with the opening and closing of the door, the sorcerer not breathing until a large hand settled on his shoulder.  Looking over the back of the sofa, Squall stared up into somber green eyes that held the rare touch of blue in the vibrant depths.  His heart burned at the open expression made more pitiful by his lightly swollen eye and Squall hated the man for causing that sensation of guilt.

Seifer must have seen something in his servant's look since he sighed tiredly before removing his hand from Squall's shoulder.  Moving around the sofa, the blond lord knelt in front of smaller man and gazed up into blue-gray eyes.  "I don't know what is happening here, Squall, but I can't stand aside while you are clearly suffering.  I understand that you don't care to unburden your soul to others, but you've experienced so much pain in your past, some of which caused by my hand alone.  I beg of you, let me help you now.  Let me make things right."

Squall gazed down at the handsome man, once again confused by the proud lord who should not be on his knees before a servant and begging with a troubled expression.  The sorcerer reached out and raked his fingers back through golden hair, the strands still damp from snow and sweat.  Seifer closed his eyes as he leaned into that hand, the man openly savoring the rare touch of the skittish brunet.

"Squall..." the blond purred before opening his eyes, the green pools widening further when he focused on the sorcerer's face.

Uncaring of the single tear that slid down his cheek, Squall said plainly, "I'm pregnant."

Seifer blinked at the announcement, his expression almost childlike in the attempt to comprehend what had been said.  "I don't understand.  You told me that you... you wouldn't..."

"I underestimated you," Squall stated quietly, his voice reluctant to sound.  "I remembered the past and how my body reacted, so I had prepared myself for pain and blood.  But instead, you gave me pleasure.  It was something I never expected, nor did I anticipate how much more damage it could cause.  My body opened to your caresses and there was nothing I could do to stop it."

The blond lord stared up with a dull look to his eyes, whether from surprise or horror, Squall couldn't guess.  He considered removing his hand from the comforting touch of soft hair, but that choice was taken away from him.

Launching from the ground, Seifer stood and turned toward the doorway.  "Irvine!  Irvine, get your ass back in here!"

Startled by outburst, Squall watched dumbly as the large nobleman rushed to the opening door.  The healer wasn't allowed a questioning word before his arm was grabbed and he was forced inside the room.

"Irvine, you have to do something.  Squall's been sick - vomiting, exhaustion, and fuck knows what else.  And Hyne, I've hurt him.  I didn't know he was..."  The blond choked slightly before growling out, "I've hurt him and I might have... I might have hurt..."

"Seifer," Kinneas said soothingly as he placed a hand over the one clamped onto his arm.  "You have to calm down.  Take a few deep breaths and--"

"Deep breaths?!" Seifer interrupted with a fierce glare directed at the healer.  "Don't mock me, you fucking moron.  Squall needs you and you're rattling on about deep breaths?"

Unbothered by the lord's anger and the undoubtedly painful grip on his arm, Kinneas returned the heated glare.  "And you aren't helping him right now.  Hyne, look at him.  Have you said one encouraging word to him before you started yelling for me?"

Seifer jerked back as if slapped, the blond then glancing over his shoulder at the seated sorcerer.  Squall couldn't be certain what expression he was showing, but Seifer immediately released his grip on the healer and rushed to the sofa to sit at the brunet's side.  He didn't touch the other man at first, his green eyes lowered to the obvious point of interest.  Leaning close, Seifer placed one arm around Squall's backside and lifted a shaky hand to hover above the torn and blood-stained shirt.  The large hand flexed with indecision as the lord breathed hurried, shallow breaths.

With a roll of stormy eyes, Squall muttered a quiet 'idiot' before grabbing the hesitant hand and pressing it against his stomach.  "I'm fine," he assured the volatile man, and then added an awkward, "We're both fine."

Seifer shook his head.  "No, you've been sick.  And your magic has weakened to nothing..."

"Perfectly normal," Kinneas interjected as he stepped to the other side of the couch.  "While it was smart thing you summoned me, Squall isn't currently in any danger."

Worry and disbelief lingered in the verdant gaze, but Seifer's guilt became the least of Squall's concern when the pad of heavy footfalls came close.  The sorcerer glanced up to meet pale eyes narrowed in confusion, Ward towering well above the two seated men.  A deep frown lengthened the scar that cut from his forehead down to his chin, and not for the first time, Squall felt like he had disappointed the kindhearted man who had treated him like a son.

"Am I to assume that you are with child?"

Squall continued to meet the piercing gaze, willing to accept any reprimand for his thoughtless actions.  "I am."

"How long?" Ward asked, sounding much like an army officer demanding an account of a recent battle.

"Shortly after the solstice."  The sorcerer felt Seifer flinch at the reply, the man's strong fingers then digging painfully into the minor injury along his stomach.

Silence reigned as Ward gazed down at his former prince, the glare of crystalline blue eyes harsh and cold in the moments before the man sighed deeply and rubbed the palm of his hand against his cropped hair.  "Hyne above, I wanted you to give Master Seifer a chance to prove his worth, but I never expected that he'd trick you into his bed.  At least not this soon."

"It wasn't like that," Squall argued when Seifer didn't show any initiative to defend himself.  "This is my fault and mine alone."

"No," Seifer finally spoke out, his eyes firm on the sorcerer.  "I could have turned you away."

"I didn't give you that choice," Squall stated with a hard glint to stormy eyes.  "If it hadn't happened that night, I would have convinced you another time."

"And what, I'm a sex-crazed fool who can't keep his dick tucked in his pants?"

His smile fading, the sorcerer squeezed the hand resting on his stomach.  "I needed answers, Seifer, and there was no other way to find them."

"There should have been," Seifer said in a low voice, the blond then pulling his hand away from Squall's as he stood from the sofa.  Without another word, the lord walked away at a slow and distracted pace.  Kinneas attempted to follow the retreating man, but Seifer brushed aside his friend with a muttered declaration that he needed air and then exited the room with a quiet click of the door.

"I don't know why I bother," Kinneas sighed out as he returned to Squall's side.  "Don't worry about that idiot - he doesn't know how to handle a stressful situation that can't be solved by stabbing someone with a sword.  It's probably for the better that he walked away.  Now, shall we heal that injury of yours and check on the little one growing inside of you?"

While acknowledging the man's rationale with a nod, Squall eyed the healer with growing suspicion.  "You seem awfully comfortable with this situation."

Kinneas grinned at the accusing tone.  "You forget that I took care of you both when Seifer nearly died from that poison months ago.  For someone who constantly complains about that man's worse qualities, you certainly looked cozy resting at his side."

Squall scowled at the healer's assumptions, no matter how valid they may have been.

"While it's impressive that he managed to gain your trust to this extent, I have to wonder - do you realize that you hold his very heart in your hand?"

"You're exaggerating," the sorcerer argued, but his words rang of a lie.  Every night they had shared a bed in the past month, Squall couldn't escape the look of adoration in the green eyes that glowed from firelight, and when their business was done, strong arms were reluctant to release him even in sleep.  There was a possessiveness to the man's words and actions, a volatile desire that visibly conflicted with the amount of respect that Seifer held for his 'Prince'.  And with every shared kiss and the occasional long night, Squall wasn't certain who would be destroyed first by the man's insatiable desires.

Ward huffed lightly as he sat in the cushioned chair across from the sofa.  "Hyne's hips, it's no wonder those flames had appeared when he touched your core.  He's full of reckless passion while you won't admit your love for him."

"I didn't ask for this," Squall said tightly, tense from pain as Kinneas used his curative powers to mend sliced flesh.

"A man doesn't ask for love.  Instead, love finds him and attacks when he least expects it."

With a light scoff, the brunet commented, "Kiros would be disappointed at how soft you've become."

"Actually, that was one of your father's favorite sayings.  He claimed that he had learned it from your uncle."

It was a simple matter for Squall to recognize the chance he was being offered, one he could hardly refuse.  "Ward, do you know why... Did Uncle Leander ever tell you why he refused an abortion?"

The older man hummed in thought.  "Well, whenever I asked him that very question, he had only one response - he loved his child."

"But he knew he carried a sorceress within him."

"I don't think that ever mattered to him.  As you can imagine, Leander didn't hold the same beliefs as most other sorcerers.  He held controversial theories about love and life in general, and even if he hadn't been exiled after his pregnancy, I imagine that Leander would have still surrendered his birth right to your father.  He had no interest in blindly following the laws of sorcerers."

Squall closed his eyes, wishing for the unfaltering guidance of his uncle.  It was easy enough to say that Leander had loved his child, but Squall knew the reality that love alone wasn't enough.  He had loved his own child despite his pain and suffering, but love couldn't replace warm milk and blankets.  There had to have been something more to give his uncle strength, some certainty that made him decide to give a sorceress life, but only one man had ever known that truth.  And Leander was dead.

Breaking the silence that fallen, Kinneas tsked lightly as he removed his hand.  "You still haven't been eating enough."

Squall groaned at the accusation.  "Don't start.  Seifer has already made it his mission to make me fat and slow, but I can't keep down half of the food he forces on me."

"I can give you something for that."

"It doesn't help," the sorcerer muttered bitterly, remembering the failed attempts and wasted money on potions that only worsened his nausea.

"Hn, I suppose that isn't too surprising," Kinneas said as he placed a hand beneath the brunet's chin.  Violet eyes examined the man's face, the tingle of healing energy slipping through long fingers.  "Your loss of magic worries me, though.  Did it happen the last time?"

"Yes," Squall replied quietly.  "And from what I can assume, my uncle suffered the same consequences.  He wasn't the type of man to be imprisoned without a fight."

The healer hummed in agreement.  "Leander wasn't a man to be angered, that's for certain.  I once watched him kill nearly a dozen men without moving a single step."  Lowering his hand, Kinneas smiled at the dark-haired sorcerer.  "Well, aside from your weight, you seem healthy enough.  Everything else is normal for a person in your condition."

"... And the child...?"

"Also healthy," the violet-eyed man replied in a gentle tone.  "Though I'm afraid I can't say much more than that.  The little one is too young and has yet to decide what he or she wants from this life."

Though nodding his understanding, Squall felt heavy with the weight of not knowing what life grew within him.  It wasn't a new sensation, his first pregnancy starting with months of terror and shame before he ultimately felt the aura of his son, of his Leander.  The relief and love that had followed was surprising to the young sorcerer, and though the stains of his sin wouldn't wash clean, Squall discovered that he couldn't regret the life of his son, no matter the circumstances that had led to that spark of life.

"You're exhausted," Kinneas commented with certainty as he pushed up from the sofa.  "While I should lecture you about the idiocy of sparring when you're weeks pregnant and without magic, I hate wasting my breath on people who won't listen to reason.  Get some rest and we will talk later about the months ahead of you."

Squall considered arguing for the sake of being stubborn, but there was no denying the truth.  He stood up with a frustrated sigh, and then promptly jerked his arm from a hand that had settled at his elbow.  Glaring at the large steward for his attempt of aid, Squall asked coolly, "Do I look helpless to you?"

Ward frowned at the rebuke.  "Not particularly, but you did collapse earlier, and as Master Seifer isn't here to support you--"

"Stop," Squall demanded as he placed a hand against his forehead, uncertain when he had gained a headache.  "I don't care what that idiot would do.  He isn't here and you should know better."

"He'd have my neck if you were to get hurt."

Breathing a laugh, Squall commented, "I was nearly gutted by Seifer and you're worried about me getting a bruise or two from falling?"  He shook his head in silent frustration.  "My room is across the hall.  I can make that distance by my own power."

"I believe Master Seifer wouldn't mind you using his--"

"My bed is fine enough," Squall argued, not about to admit that stealing the lord's bed had been his original intention.

Wrapping his torn coat closer to his body, the dark-haired sorcerer stepped away from the sofa, somewhat surprised when neither Ward nor Lord Kinneas spoke a word of argument or followed at his heels.  Squall entered his room without further incident, and with his door closed behind him, he hesitated before deciding to avoid his bed for a moment longer.  Moving to his dresser, he placed a hand on the box of burnt wood and silently asked for the earth element to release its hold.  The box unlocking without resistance, Squall opened the lid and ran his fingertips over the sealed parchment resting on top, briefly thinking of his son before setting the item aside.  Blue-gray eyes settled on the collection of carved chess pieces, the scent of pipe smoke increasing the pangs of his headache.  The pain motivating him to make a decision, Squall reached inside and selected one of the scarred bishops before putting the letter back into place and resealing the box with earth magic.

Squall moved slowly to the bed, and then collapsed onto the mattress without removing his coat or boots.  Curling slightly for warmth, he held the ruined image of his uncle close to his chest and silently begged for the man's ghost to speak to him.  He needed to know where his uncle had found the strength to protect the child growing inside of him and somehow love the sorceress who had been born.  He wanted to understand how it was possible and why old Leander had sacrificed his title and life to the daughter who had ultimately killed him.  If nothing else, he needed to hear his uncle's voice telling him that it wasn't wrong to have strange feelings for a man and to love the children they shared.

But ultimately, only silence reached the exhausted sorcerer.  His eyelids heavy and uncooperative, Squall couldn't help the bitter thought that his uncle had always managed the impossible in life.  It was sorely disappointing that the same wasn't truth in death.

~ > < ~

Pulled from dreams of golden fire that warmed a body without burning flesh, Squall opened his eyes to focus blearily on the tapestry that hung between his and Leander's bedroom.  The sorcerer felt calmed and soothed despite being wakened from sleep, an oddity that teased the failing part of his consciousness.  But then hot breath caressed the back of his ear, making him very aware that he wasn't alone and that a warm hand had slipped beneath his shirt to press against his stomach.

Growling lowly at his inattentiveness when it came to the presence of the large blond, Squall commented, "I didn't invite you into my bed."

"Please don't," Seifer begged hoarsely as he rubbed his thumb along newly healed skin.  "I can't fight you right now."

Silenced by the honest words, Squall chose to indulge the lord and relaxed within the demanding hold of muscular arms.  He glanced down at his hand and forced his fingers to unclench from around the dark chess piece.  Angry red lines emerged from pale skin and formed a vague image of the bishop, including the deep cuts into stone.  Unable to cope with that sight, Squall refolded his hand around the chess piece, ignoring the sore complaints of his fingers.

Eventually done with silence, Seifer pressed his forehead against dark stands of hair and asked sullenly, "Why didn't you say anything?"

"... I was embarrassed."

"You were 'embarrassed'?"

Irritated by the disbelieving tone, Squall replied sharply, "I was young and inexperienced the first time I was impregnated.  To have this happen a second time when I begged you to fuck me... It's beyond humiliating."

Seifer strengthened his hold around the smaller man.  "Then it wasn't because of me?"

"Because of you?" the sorcerer asked as he attempted to face the blond, but wasn't able to move within the constricting hold.  "What are you talking about?"

"Were you afraid that I would turn you away?  Or reject the child you carry?" Seifer asked as his hand stroked the warm stomach, the rough skin drawing a stifled gasp from the brunet.

"I... I never really considered it," Squall stated in startled confusion.  In the past weeks of overly quiet afternoons and the occasional sleepless night, the sorcerer had agonized over his pregnancy - the eventual necessity of telling the blond lord, the future months of nausea, the uncomfortable weight gain, and the imminent mortification under the care of Ward and potentially Matron.  But it had never come to mind that Seifer would make him leave or blame him for the inconvenient pregnancy.  No, it was only the man's overprotective nature that Squall had been most concerned about.

Seifer's hold loosened as he laughed gently into dark hair.  "Hyne above, what am I supposed to do with you?  Whenever you lay at my side, you continue to show your shame and reluctance, but on rare occasion you say the most careless things, cruel words that give me hope despite the reality that I know is true."

Squall felt his chest tighten at the bitter words, and when the soothing hand left his stomach to rest on his arm, he weakly resisted the lord's attempt to roll him onto his back.  But ultimately, there was no escaping the presence of the dominating man or the gaze of intense green eyes made more dangerous with the darkening bruise around his left eye.  Seifer rested on a bent elbow while looking down at the silent sorcerer, and once it was obvious Squall wouldn't move, the heated hand drifted back down to the torn shirt.

Rough fingers slipped through that opening and lightly massaged the soft skin.  "Does it hurt?"

"It's not painful, no.  But later on, the weight will be bothersome."

Green eyes brightened vaguely at the comment, a small smirk not far from his face.  "Hyne, I'm a damn fool.  I thought I had finally gotten some meat onto these bones of yours, but that isn't the real reason you've grown soft here, is it?"

Lips tight in annoyance, Squall warned, "If you're going to mock me--"

His sentence left unfinished, the sorcerer tensed at the firm press of lips that literary stole away his breath.  Despite that initial reluctance from the stoic man, Seifer was tenacious and experienced when it came to the object of his desire, and for that reason, Squall found himself slowly coaxed into the play of tongues as one rough hand caressed his cheek and the other remained at his stomach.  The brunet couldn't swallow back his groans and grew irritated at the wanton nature of his body that hadn't existed before Seifer's meddling.  It was a dangerous and irrational lust that had thrown the sorcerer into his current predicament, and yet his body didn't care.  Worse, his heart was starting to believe that his sensitized body had an interesting point and it didn't matter how loudly his mind protested that insanity.

The kiss broke abruptly, Seifer inhaling ragged breaths as he rested his forehead against Squall's.  "Tell me, my Prince - am I any closer in gaining your love?"

Equally breathless, the sorcerer took the moment to think of an appropriate reply, but the extra seconds of thought were of no use, especially considering the previous weeks that were wasted while attempting to understand his relationship with the lord.  Eventually acknowledging his inability to make a decision concerning Seifer, the dark-haired man quietly replied, "I can't answer that."

"Hmmm, what an interesting reply - no harsh rejection, no stumbling words of denial... I'm curious what your next answer may be."

Squall glared up at the overconfident lord.  "My intention wasn't to encourage you."

"If you truly wanted to discourage me, it would only take a few words at most," Seifer stated in a serious tone.

Full lips parted as some of those words came to mind, but Squall wouldn't dare speak them, not when the lie would have been too obvious.

A slow smirk formed, the large man leaning back as he gazed down at the brunet.  "I'm going to spoil you, princeling."

Instantly scowling at the lord, Squall knocked aside the hand that rested on his stomach.  "I'm not a noblewoman to be pampered and restrained to a bed.  I've done and seen more during my first pregnancy than you could even imagine and I won't be coddled by an idiot like you."

An interested gleam entered verdant eyes, but Seifer didn't approach the elusive topic concerning the past.  "In case you don't remember, I was pleasuring your cock most of last night, so yes, I think I realize that you aren't a woman.  As for spoiling you, I meant with chocolate and the other rare foods that you enjoy.  Irvine mentioned the obvious that you haven't gained enough weight since the last time he's seen you."

"I'll be fat enough in another few months," Squall muttered to himself.

The blond lord chuckled at the angry murmur, his hand drifting back to softer flesh.  "I know I can't make this right, but I will do everything in my power to make this easier for you."

While fearing the nobleman's protective urges, the sorcerer wanted to make one thing very clear - "We are still traveling to meet with the Shumi."

Seifer didn't react immediately to the demand, his attention directed to his unmoving hand.  "... You bastard, you knew from the beginning, didn't you?  When you mentioned meeting with the Shumi, you said that there wasn't time to spare, but it wasn't my plans that you had in mind.  You were accounting for your pregnancy..."

"The Shumi will help you in your cause," was the only reply offered, the only information Squall felt was important.

Serious green met the sorcerer's gaze, and though reluctant, Seifer nodded once in agreement.  "I can't afford to refuse their support at this stage, but I want Irvine to examine you and give his opinion about your ability to travel.  I won't allow you or our child to be harmed.  If it means waiting for another opportunity to dethrone the Emperor, then so be it."

At any other time, Squall would have fought the lord's condition, but he was still exhausted and his interrupted nap had done nothing to revive him.  Deciding to speak some sense to the man after some rest, Squall rested a hand on Seifer's and closed his eyes while savoring that touch of warmth.  Of all his memories concerning his first pregnancy, Squall most strongly remembered the cold nights and freezing winter when he had laid on stone and dirt.  It was uniquely comforting to have the large body close, an all-important relief that Squall would never confess out loud.

"You shouldn't worry about it."

Reopening his eyes, the brunet glanced questioningly at Seifer.

With a reassuring smile, the large blond reached between them and lightly pried open clenched fingers to reveal the chess piece Squall had been holding.  "Your fate won't be the same as your uncle's.  I won't abandon you, and son or daughter, I will love our child."

"A daughter would mean a sorceress," Squall reminded in a fearful voice.

"A daughter would mean a daughter.  And before you begin to explain how I'm wrong, I will tell you now that I'm not able to believe in the legends of sorcerers.  You have told me that love between two men is impossible, but these past several weeks have shown me differently.  You have told me that a child born from a sorcerer is cursed and feared, but Ander is an amazing child who is loved by everyone in this household."  Wrapping his hand around Squall's and the bishop within, Seifer said gently, "I'm sorry, princeling, but when none of your other talk has proven true, how can I possibly believe your words about a sorceress who hasn't even been born?"

The edges of the chess piece sharp in his hand, Squall looked away from sharp green eyes.  "Are Ultimecia's sins not enough proof for you?"

"No, they aren't.  In fact, I find it very difficult to believe that there has never been a sane sorceress in the history of this world."

"You're being naive."

"That's an interesting comment coming from a grown man who treats folklore as absolute truth."

Eyes icy and hard, Squall glared in the direction of the tapestry as he continued to avoid the lord's gaze.  "You don't understand."

"And I never will," Seifer agreed softly as he lowered himself onto the mattress and pressed against the lithe body.  "But I don't think I'm the only one who needs to admit that mere mortals cannot understand the greater working of Hyne and Shiva."

Teeth biting into his lower lip, the sorcerer could think of no reply beyond an insult at the man's simpleminded arrogance.  Recognizing that offending the lord would do nothing to defend his pride, Squall said nothing as he allowed Seifer to keep his hand in place, a gentle guard over their new child.  The large man dropped to sleep first, his slow breaths felt against the back of Squall's ear.  Despite his anger toward the blond and the words that had been spoken, Squall didn't last much longer given the heated body curled around him and the steady rhythm of soft breaths.

His last thought was one of disappointment - when the opportunity had presented itself at the end of their spar, he should have done something more damaging, more lasting than giving Seifer a mere black eye.  In a drowsy murmur, he complained, "Should've used my damn blade..."

~ > < ~

Squall jerked awake at the odd sense of distress, his stormy eyes searching his immediate area in confusion before settling on the mop of dark hair that peeked over the edge of the mattress.  With a sigh, the sorcerer attempted to sit up, but Seifer groaned loudly in protest and wrapped his strong arms around the smaller man.  Knowing from past experiences that there was no escape from the sleeping man, Squall relaxed back onto the thick sheets.

"I know you're there, Leander."

The dark chestnut hair flinched at the statement, but the child remained mostly hidden beyond the foot of the bed.

"I can see you, cub," Squall said softly, somewhat amused that the boy thought he was well hidden.

With small hands appearing first, Leander slowly pulled himself up.  "I'm sorry.  I tried to be quiet and not wake you.  Really, I did."

"I don't doubt that you tried," the brunet said before patting the space next to him.  "Come here and tell me why you were sneaking into my room."

Soft green eyes downcast with guilt, the young boy climbed reluctantly onto the mattress.  Squall smiled with some sadness, remembering a time when the boy had to be helped onto the bed that was too tall for him.  But now Leander managed the one-time obstacle with ease and crawled next to Squall, the heavy chain around the boy's neck jingling quietly.  Sitting back onto his heels instead of lying next to the sorcerer, Leander continued to avoid the gaze of blue-gray eyes while absentmindedly playing with the lion pendant that hung low on the small body.

With his child close, Squall could easily feel the waves of distress coming from the boy, the sensation that had traveled through their bond and wakened him from peaceful sleep.  For an irritated moment, Squall abruptly realized how his father had always managed to guess his moods when Laguna had been oblivious about everything else in connection with his son's life.  It was unfair in a way, but Squall forced himself to stop thinking about it.  That bond was lost for all time; meanwhile, his current connection with his own precious son demanded that something was troubling the boy.

"Leander, why won't you look at me?"

The boy pouted before, after two failed attempts, he shyly looked at his mentor.

"That's better.  Now why are you in my room?"

Pink lips quivered in hesitation before Leander blurted out, "Why do you feel funny?!"

Stunned, Squall blinked at the question that was loud enough to make Seifer stir and grumble as he drearily woke from his nap.  The large blond placed his chin at the sorcerer's shoulder and peered at the boy who hadn't been there when he was last awake.

"Ander, what the Hell--"

Squall lifted his hand to quiet the clueless man.  "What do you mean by 'funny'?"

Leander shrugged while palming at moist eyes.  "You don't do magic no more and the elements keep telling me to be careful around you, that I can't play with you right now.  And... and there's something in you!" he announced while pointing a shaky finger in the direction of the sorcerer's stomach.

A cough of laughter came from Seifer, the man obviously trying to cover his amusement when his son was seriously worried.  Squall, meanwhile, had the urge to hide beneath the bed sheets for the next several months.  While knowing the boy had inherited his taint, he never imagined that Leander had enough healer blood in his little body to feel the existence of new life.  It should have been impossible, but there was no denying the truth that had been spoken by a child.

Leander promptly grabbed the brunet's arm and tugged hard.  "Squa-all, why're you sick?  Can't Irvine help you?  I saw him come here before, but you still feel funny.  Why didn't he make you better?"

"Calm down, lion cub," Squall soothed while placing his hand on a small shoulder.  "There's nothing wrong with me.  Just... something is different."

Young green eyes glared at the older sorcerer, Leander upset at not being given a satisfying answer.  It seemed the child had yet another trait which he shared with his father.

Frustrated and frightened, Squall realized that he could no longer hide from the boy who had grown too much in the past year.  With a final squeeze of the chess piece in his hand, the sorcerer placed the bishop into the pocket on his jacket.  His hand sore and stiff, he brushed aside dark strands of hair from innocent eyes and then lowered his hand to brush his fingers along the boy's necklace, the aura of its previous owner lingering within the chain of silver.

"Leander, reveal your core for me."

The boy scowled at the sudden request.  "I don't wanna do lessons now.  I wanna know what's wrong."

"And you'll get your answer once you bring out your core."

Leander continued to pout, but when no compromise was to be made, he huffed and closed his eyes while holding out his hands.  The pale staff appeared without much effort, proof of the child's progress in such a short time.  Only an inch longer than the size during its first appearance, the white wood was adorned with dozens of spells that favored the wind element, but all three elements were represented in the mix.  Squall was proud of the hard work the youth had placed into his studies and was impatient for the day Leander could coax Laguna's songs from the beautifully crafted silver flute that Seifer had given to his son for the child's birthday earlier that week.

Reopening his eyes, Leander wrapped his hands around his precious staff and shoved it forward in an irritable display that he had done as requested.

Squall continued to stare at the young core, his body frozen from all action despite his previous resolve.  He had forgotten how pure, how delicate the slim staff appeared compared to his own gnarled and stained core.  The difference in their lives assaulted Squall in that moment and he wasn't certain if it was right or fair to take Leander from his innocent and blissful existence.  Then the arm at his chest tightened, and though the dark-haired man greatly doubted that Seifer knew what was happening, Squall appreciated that silent support.

Lifting his hand, Squall exhaled in quiet surrender to his fate before reaching out.  He barely noticed the widening of soft green eyes, the sorcerer's attention instead focused on the innocent staff that was about to be stained with his touch.  The instant his fingers brushed against pale wood, Squall closed his eyes as he was overpowered by the fully opened bond between parent and child.  There were no words to describe that connection which Squall had forcefully muted throughout the years to protect his son.  To have it reopened after years of neglect, the sorcerer dumbly thought that he had been insane and incredibly stubborn to ignore it for so long.

"... Mommy...?"

The tearful voice encouraged Squall to open his eyes and gaze up at the boy's face.  Leander's expression hopeful and fragile, the sorcerer didn't have the heart to correct the child's classification.  Instead, Squall willed his body to move and replied with a jerky nod.

Leander launched forward, his young staff vanishing in the moment before impact.  Surprisingly strong hands clutched onto the winter jacket Squall still wore and Leander buried his face into the fur collar while sputtering nonsensical words along with calls for 'mommy'.  In that moment, the sorcerer felt like the fire element was playing with his heart, burning the life-giving organ and threatening to kill him with its heated touch.  It was an amazing sensation.

"I told you that he wouldn't hate you," Seifer murmured into an ear.

Not interested in the playing the game of who was right, Squall jabbed an elbow back into the man's side.

Before the blond could retaliate, Leander abruptly pushed up and focused moist eyes on the brunet.  "I knew you were my mommy, but I didn't tell no one 'cause it was a secret.  That's why you didn't tell me, right?  Because it was a big secret?"

"That's right, cub.  It's a very important secret, one you can't share with anyone," Squall said as he wiped the tears from flushed cheeks.

"No one?" the boy asked in disappointment.

"No one, Ander," was the stern reply as Seifer spoke out from behind the sorcerer.  "The moment you start telling people that Squall is your birth mother, it will put him in a lot of danger, not to mention putting yourself in danger."

"But why?"

Squall sighed, exhausted at being forced to revisit the topic that tormented him.  "Give me your hand."

Reacting without question, Leander obeyed the demand while staring curiously at the dark-haired man.  Squall held the small hand gently as he directed it to his stomach.  The young boy frowned and shifted uncomfortably once his heated hand touched skin through the wide tear of Squall's shirt.

"What do you feel right now?"

"Something's in you," Leander stated worriedly.

"But can you tell what is growing inside of me?"

Soft green eyes blinked in surprise, the boy calming down with the realization that Squall knew all along that something was inside of him.  The small hand flexed lightly against the brunet's skin before Leander cautiously replied, "It kinda feels like you and me."

"That's right, because this is a new life.  A baby who has yet to be born.  And once he... or she decides on the future, you'll have a baby brother or sister to look after."

Eyes and mouth opened wide in shock, Leander eventually choked out, "Really?"

"Can't you feel your connection to this life?"

The young boy shook his head wildly, strands of chocolate-colored hair flying in the exaggerated sign that Leander wasn't experienced enough to identify the soul of his sibling.  With hidden disappointment, Squall blamed himself for blinding Leander to the importance of blood.  After all, he had spent years shielding the boy from the bond of parent and child.  Leander had never experienced the wholeness that could be found with the ties of blood, and from that neglect, the child never knew to search for that loss.

"Well then, you can take my word for it."

Leander smiled in acceptance of the man's words, but that momentary excitement vanished when pink lips fell into a frown and dark eyebrows scrunched in deep thought.  "Is the baby making you sick?"

"A little, but it's nothing terrible," Squall replied before squeezing the boy's hand.  "Leander, I have to tell you the truth - it's not normal for a man to carry a child like this.  I've told you this secret because you deserve to know, but if you tell anyone else about how you or your sibling were brought into this world... Well, most people wouldn't believe you," Squall said with a strained laugh.  "But it would only take one person to believe your words and realize that I am a sorcerer, a dangerous man who would be executed without trial by the Empire.  And as my son... you would follow me in death."

Eyes of soft green widened slightly, Leander too young to hear such words, but the necessity was still there.  He blinked several times, trying to rid his eyes of building moisture, but it was a lost cause.  Jerking his hand from Squall's, the youth laid down and pressed his face against the fur collar that had yet to dry from his previous tears.

"Why do they hate us?"

"There are many reasons, but foremost is that they are frightened of our magic."

"But.. but Daddy doesn't care and he's not scared of us."

Squall hummed in light amusement.  "While that's true, your father doesn't fear everything he should."

The large blond huffed behind him, but didn't interrupt with his full opinion about the matter.

Leander pressed closer as he burrowed partly into the sorcerer's ruined coat.  "I won't tell no one, Mommy, so don't go away again."

With a hand buried in thick hair, Squall placed his lips against the child's brow.  "Upon the source of my power and the core of my life, I swear to be here whenever you need me.  But Leander, you can't continue to call me... 'mommy'," he scolded, trying to disguise the annoyance from his voice.

The young boy whined in peevish determination, no real words forming as he clutched harder onto soft leather.

"You can't keep my secret safe by announcing to the world that I'm your 'mother'.  You're old enough to realize that."

With a reluctant slowness, Leander leaned back far enough to ask, "Can I call you 'mommy' when it's just you and me and Father?"

"I'm sorry, cub, but you would develop bad habits that way.  I can't allow it."

"But... I don't wanna call you 'Squall' no more.  It'd feel wrong."

The pale-eyed sorcerer held back a deep sigh from the pain that laced his very soul.  He couldn't remember the amount of years he had yearned to hear those words, to know that his son saw him as something more than a servant named 'Squall'.  But the former prince had grown accustomed to rejecting his dreams for the sake of surviving reality, especially when it meant protecting his son.

His cheek pressed against dark hair, Squall forced his voice to sound.  "Thank you, my son, but on occasion, we must all do things that are against our nature.  For the sake of your life and mine, I need you to do this."

"I don't wanna," Leander whined, but when the sorcerer offered no bargain to satisfy the boy, the youth eventually muttered in a pitiful tone, "But I will.  'Cause you said so."

Hugging his child close, Squall whispered hoarsely, "Thank you.  And I'm sorry."

Leander grunted that he had heard, but was going to prove his displeasure to the older sorcerer by not replying with words.  And though the boy curled comfortably against his chest, Squall doubted that he would hear a full sentence from the spoiled child in the next couple of days.

Hardly a silent moment passed before the blond lord decide to make his presence known.  Large hands slipped beneath the ruined shirt as Seifer wrapped his calloused fingers around the man's waist and pulled him close in a position that was hardly innocent and utterly inappropriate given the presence of their son.  But before Squall could react, the caress of warm lips at the back of his ear paralyzed him as a pleasurable chill ran down his spine.

"I'm disappointed, princeling," Seifer said softly, the ever-present smirk clear in his tone of voice.  "Don't you know that you shouldn't apologize when you've done nothing wrong?"

Unable to respond to the lord's impossible logic, Squall moved an arm from around his son and grabbed one of the hands at his waist.  Forcing the heated hand onto his stomach, the sorcerer told the man, "Enjoy the moment while it lasts, idiot.  You may not get another chance."

Seifer chuckled lightly as he rubbed the soft flesh.  "That's what you think."


Kneeling in the corner of his room, Squall glared into the bucket that held the dinner which he had rather enjoyed earlier in the evening.  True to his word from the previous day, Seifer had already convinced the difficult Matron to prepare some of the more unique foods that appealed a sorcerer's taste.  She had been obviously displeased when serving the dish of pig's heart and apples, but the moment Squall dug into the plate with clear hunger, her golden eyes had softened in motherly surrender.  And then only three hours later, that meal was wasted in a bucket stained from weeks of use.

The knock at his door drew a tired sigh from the sorcerer before he forced himself onto his feet and called for the person to enter.  Anticipating the sight of golden hair and emerald eyes, Squall straightened with interest when the doorway was filled by someone entirely unexpected.

His grin light and playful, Ward asked, "You seem disappointed.  Were you hoping for someone else?"

Squall crossed his arms over his chest and frowned in a sign that the joke wasn't appreciated.

His grin widening to the point of curling his long scar, Ward pushed the door closed behind him and stepped further into the room.  "Master Seifer is busy while planning the final details of your trip, so he sent me to check on you.  He also wanted me to mention that you left your dessert half-eaten and that he convinced Matron to save it for you."

"Idiot, as if I'd want to eat something right now."

"I told him as much, but I thought you may appreciate the courtesy."

"... You don't need to convince me that Seifer intends to treat me well."

Ward cocked his head slightly, intelligence lighting his pale blue eyes.  "I suppose you're right.  After all, you didn't seem very surprised when Master Seifer held the Cuor nie Fluam," the former soldier said with a heavy accent, the man fluent in the language of sorcerers', but unable to properly speak the melodic words.

Squall exhaled a tired breath.  "I was wondering why you didn't mention something sooner."

"There wasn't much of an opportunity when our excitable lord held your attention all of yesterday and most of today."  Ward moved to the bed and sat down, his heavy frame making the wood groan in protest.  "So, when did he first hold that flame?"

"At the solstice.  He asked to see my core and I let him touch the blade," Squall admitted tightly, making certain to add, "But it means nothing.  It's a ridiculous legend that has no basis in reality."

The large man chuckled at the hurried refusal.  "Then the honor of creating the flames of Shiva and her lover means nothing, but the pain of following the prejudice words of an old book means everything?"

Before the sorcerer could reply, he was distracted by the creak of an opening door.  Dumbly realizing that he never saw the door fully close, Squall turned and glared at the uninvited man.  His hand on the doorknob, Seifer had the grace to look vaguely apologetic for eavesdropping and entering without permission, but that moment quickly passed when he looked to his faithful steward.

"Ward, were you talking about those odd flames that appear whenever I touch his core?"

The steward smiled in anticipation to answer, but Squall beat the elder man.  "Why are you here, Seifer?"

"I forgot to remind Ward to help you pack for the trip.  Knowing your ways, you'd bring two sets of clothing along with a single coat and think that you over packed."

Dark eyebrows furrowed, Squall asked, "We're visiting the Shumi to solicit their help.  More clothing won't help in that endeavor."

"You seem to be forgetting the hundreds of miles between here and there, not to mention the horrid weather.  Since you are adamant about leaving before spring arrives, we're going to do this my way."

"Which means?"

"We will be visiting select families along the way.  I've already sent letters about our impending visits and I intend to gain more support for my cause.  More importantly, they will be able to give us shelter from the ice and snow for a few days."

Blue-gray eyes widened in disbelief.  "We can't waste that amount of time."

"I disagree.  I don't know when you've last traveled in winter, but the horses can only take so much abuse, the carriages are bound to crack and fail, and Hyne knows what else.  It's better to divide the trip into more manageable pieces, and given that necessity, we might as well put those delays to good use.  By the way, that includes you looking presentable at our son's side."

Lips tightened into a thin line of displeasure, Squall glared at the lord while refusing to admit that the man had a reasonable reply for once.  The games of nobility would always be distasteful to the former prince, but he could acknowledge the necessity of gaining further support for Seifer's dreams of the future.  Once the Emperor fell, there would be instant chaos across the vast lands of the Empire.  By soliciting the nobility in key regions before that fall, Seifer hoped to maintain some semblance of stability.  It was a tricky game to play as any one of the families could turn their back on him, but none knew enough details to destroy the plans in their entirety.  Even if Seifer were to be assassinated for his traitorous tactics, enough of his men were already in place to complete their mission.

The lord smirked when he recognized that no other argument would come from the difficult brunet.  "Now that we are clear about that matter..."  Seifer returned his attention to the seated steward and asked, "What do you know about those flames?"

"Why are you asking him?" Squall demanded before he could stop himself.

"Because I don't trust you to give me the full answer."

Deep laughter erupted from Ward.  "Hyne in Heaven, the two of you must have been created for each other."

While Seifer looked very satisfied with that assumption, Squall growled lightly at the interfering man.  "Don't put ideas in his head."

"Much too late for that, I imagine," Ward commented with a pleased grin.

"Then don't give him any more ideas.  It's merely a reaction of elements between two bodies that produces the fire and it has nothing to do with Shiva or her supposed lover."

"You may want to believe that, but I think we both know otherwise."

Squall glared at the elder man, but wasn't able to continue the argument.  The truth remained that when he had first seen the flames of crimson and sapphire, the sorcerer had immediately thought that Shiva was insane to mark Seifer as someone who was his opposite, someone who was everything that could complete him.  Since that fateful night, Squall had tried to convince himself that the fire meant nothing beyond the reactivity of souls and conflicting elements, but seeing those flames again at the end of their duel, he wasn't quite certain about his hopeful theories.

"Well?" Seifer asked impatiently.

Pale blue eyes remained focused on the dark-haired man, and after a brief pause, Ward shook his head.  "Forgive me, my Lord, but I think this is something that you must hear from Squall, something he can't do until he believes it himself."

Squall straightened in surprise, his eyes silently questioning the former soldier.  Ward shrugged in reply before he stood up from the bed and brushed nonexistent dust from his pants.  With an excuse that he should help Leander to pack, the large man walked to the outer door, only pausing with a bow of his head to his lord and master.

Once alone, Seifer stepped toward the sorcerer.  "You know, I saved that bastard's life and he still favors you.  I'm a little bit hurt."

Squall refrained from commenting that the lord didn't sound hurt in the least.

Reaching the smaller man, Seifer brushed his fingers through thick locks of hair.  "How are you feeling?"

"Don't patronize me.  I know you want your answers."

"That is obvious enough, but I trust that old man.  If he says it's something I need to hear from you, then I'll wait until you decide to tell me."

Unfolding his arms, Squall placed a hand at the broad chest before him.  "It's only a legend."

"Most legends are born from grains of truth," Seifer countered as he leaned in close, but then jerked back in surprise.  After a moment of confusion along with a deeply wrinkled nose, green eyes flicked to the corner of the room and a hum of realization left the blond.

"It's normal," Squall argued before the lord could make an excuse for delaying their trip.  "Even women get sick during pregnancies, some worse than others according to Lord Kinneas."

"Hey now, let me say something stupid before you start attacking me for it," Seifer said with a light grin.  "And for your information, I was only thinking that it was a pity that you lost your dinner.  It was the first meal that I've seen you enjoy in weeks."

Releasing a relieved breath, the sorcerer leaned into the lord's lingering hand and commented, "Ward said that you were busy with last minute details."

"Hn, I was hoping to avoid those responsibilities for something more enjoyable."

"Not tonight.  Leander has asked to sleep with me."

"Spoiled brat," Seifer growled as he leaned in to place a hard kiss against the brunet's pale throat.  "It's not like you appeared out of nowhere and announced that you were his mother."

"He's a child."

"And you constantly say that I have a mind of a child, so why can't I share you?"

Squall swallowed back a groan when the blond nipped at a particularly sensitive region along his neck.  "Because you don't share nicely and I want to sleep tonight.  One of you in my bed is hard enough - I can't imagine you both."

"How cruel, princeling," Seifer said as he pulled back and attempted a hurt expression.  "I always knew that you loved Ander more than me, but I didn't think that you'd be so mean about it."

A dark eyebrow lifted in a disbelieving arch.  "Why would you think otherwise?"

"What can I say - I'm a man who believes in his dreams and fantasies," the former soldier replied while resting his hands at the lean waist, his long fingers massaging the brunet's lower back.  "Though I have to say that it's quite pathetic how I've already lost to our next child.  I've had months to gain your love and this one captures your heart in a few brief weeks."

"... What are you... Don't be an idiot."

"Come now, princeling.  I nearly lost my head and other essential body parts when I threatened that life within you.  It was a lucky thing that you love me or I would be a worse mess than those Ravages you killed for touching Ander."

Squall stared dumbly at the towering lord, and while unable to cope with the man's primary message, the sorcerer automatically replied, "I don't love you."

Seifer grinned at the dully spoken words, his green eyes bright with mirth.  "Keep lying to yourself, sorcerer, but your heart isn't going to stay silent forever."

"You're being a fool."

"If that's true, then you're a greater fool for not believing me," Seifer said as he quickly bent down to brush a kiss at the corner of parted lips, interrupting whatever the brunet meant to say.  "Unfortunately, I don't have the time to continue our talk, but there's long road ahead of us.  Don't expect to escape me with ease the next time, my Prince.  For now, enjoy your night with your son and I will see you both in the morning."

Befuddled and feeling like he was repeating the night Seifer had stolen him away from Lady Rinoa, Squall could only watch silently as the lord turned and walked away while stretching his long body.  The sight of flexing muscles was addicting as ever, and before he had the mind to hold back his words, Squall said abruptly, "I will tell you one of these days.  I'll answer all of your questions."

Seifer stopped in his exit, but didn't turn around.  "Hn, I know that.  But first, I think I still have something to prove before you can show me that amount of trust."

With no encouraging words to offer, the sorcerer wrapped his arms around waist and simply bowed his head in a silent apology that the lord wouldn't see.

"Good night and sleep well, lovely.  The next month is going to be a long one."

Squall whispered a 'good night' in return, uncertain if the man had heard it before closing the door behind him.  Standing in place, the dark-haired man wondered what was left for Seifer to prove - he had raised and loved their son despite his origins, he had shown true remorse for the events of the Massacre, and he had ignited passion in the sorcerer when Squall had believed the life within him was near dead.  But Seifer had spoken true, that something was preventing Squall from fully trusting the man, something that stole his voice before he could share every secret of his past and present.  Something...

His arms tight around his midsection, Squall questioned out loud, "What if there is nothing left for him to prove...?"

Chapter Text

The night sky stretched high above, but none of its stars could be viewed from the city below.  Instead, the streets were lit with the harsh brilliance of fire that held no mercy and no understanding of the buildings that it slowly devoured to satisfy its hunger.  Deeper into the city and into the heart of the destructive flames stood a towering palace made of stone and glass, the unique structure carved directly into the face of the cliffside.  Beautiful and strong, the palace wouldn't bend or break from the attack of the unending flames, but nothing was destined to survive within its sculpted walls.

Standing on a bridge between towers, Seifer glanced up at the black sky, a void that suited the Massacre that had taken place.  He smirked at the uncaring universe before continuing with his previous path across the bridge.  Broken glass crunched beneath his feet, the sound surprisingly loud despite the roar of flames raging below the narrow archway.  And though the smoke and heat should have overwhelmed him, Seifer felt loose and calm as he stepped toward the larger of the two towers.

Burnt doors fell apart at his touch and the blond soldier walked across charcoal and ash, the white fabric of his uniform darkening with every step further into the expansive throne room.  Green eyes glowed with fire as Seifer gazed upon the carnage before him - royal guardsmen were missing arms and legs, young maids had been split in two, and common soldiers stood frozen in unnatural ice.

And amongst the dead was the surprising sight of a living person, a dark-haired youth bent over an older man drenched in dark blood.

Lips twisting into an excited smirk, Seifer wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword and purposefully let the blade ring against the metal rim of its sheath.  The brunet stilled at the sound, hesitating before he slowly lifted to his feet and turned to face the intruder.  Blood covered the young man, a boy of no more than fourteen years.  Seifer felt disappointment at the recognition of boring prey, but his orders had been absolute - no sorcerer or supporter of the sorcerer clans could live.  Lifting his blade to the side, the soldier took a single step toward the silent brunet, but was unexpectedly halted by a weight against his leg.

"Don't hurt Mommy!"

Seifer stared down at the child wrapped around his leg, surprised by the boy's appearance.

"Don't... Leander--"

Though curious at the desperate tone from the teen, Seifer became more interested in the eyes of the child as the green pools shimmered with a soft white light.  Certain the boy was the child of a sorcerer, the Imperial soldier didn't think twice as he lifted his sword and kicked his leg forward.  The sharp movement succeeded in knocking the small form backward, far enough such that Seifer didn't injure himself when he drove the point of his blade down into the vulnerable chest.

The boy didn't make a sound at the assault, his innocent eyes wide and unbelieving as his body went limp and a dribble of blood slipped from parted lips.

"No...  Goddess, please no..."

Seifer looked over at the whispered plea and grinned at the stunned expression of the sorcerer.  "Is this yours?" he mocked as he attempted to free his sword.  When the edge caught on bone, Seifer was forced to use his foot to release the wide blade, the required effort mildly embarrassing.  The small body landed on the ground with a slight bounce, and with a final show of annoyance, Seifer kicked the boy in the direction of the unmoving sorcerer.

With an odd noise, the dark-haired teen dropped to the ground and cradled the child sorcerer into his arms.  "What have you done?"

"Rid this world of another sorcerer," Seifer replied coolly.  "I'm protecting my own kind."

"Protecting your own kind?" the brunet asked incredulously, his voice and body changing, aging as he spoke.  He abruptly looked up, blue-gray eyes intense with white light.  "You just killed your own son!"

After a moment of surprise, Seifer coughed out a laugh.  "My son?  I don't have--"

"You do," the dark-haired sorcerer insisted as he leaned back and placed a hand on his bloody and suddenly swollen stomach.  "And you will."

Green eyes widened in surprise and fear.  "No... That's impossible."

"But you know it's true."

Seifer slid a foot back, uncertainty and disbelief clouding his mind as he stared at the pale hand spread across the curve of stomach.  He refused to accept the man's words as truth, shaking his head as he watched the sorcerer bend down and place a soft kiss against the forehead of the lost child.  Seifer tightened his hand around the hilt of his sword, gradually coming to the decision that, truth or not, something was inside of the pale-eyed sorcerer.  Something that could not be allowed to live.

His decision made, the soldier acted without the chance of second thought.  Sprinting with his blade held in two hands, Seifer covered the distance between them in no time.  Metal slid into flesh without resistance, the sorcerer simply grunting in pain.  Forced to a stop, Seifer stared down at his sword and watched as bright crimson flowed from the man's abdomen and dripped from the edge of the silver blade.

"I knew..."

The man's words cut off by a choked cough, Seifer looked up at the sorcerer's face to stare into pained eyes.  It was wrong.  Something was wrong with the situation and the soldier felt sick by the foreign thought.  Sorcerers were a danger to the world.  The Emperor himself had told his army those very words, but still, something was very wrong.  Pain did not belong to those eyes of metallic blue.

Regaining his breath, the sorcerer palmed blood from his lips and laughed quietly.  "I knew my death would be by your hands."

"How...?"

Before Seifer could form the words he wanted to ask, life faded from stormy eyes and the sorcerer slumped to the side, but was held upright from the sword pierced through his body.  Meanwhile, lifeless arms released their hold on the child and the small body fell to the ground with a dull thump.  Seifer jumped at that sound and unconsciously removed his hands from Hyperion.  No longer supported, the sorcerer's body fell onto its side as if to lie down with the lost child.

"No..." Seifer whispered as the man's name suddenly came to mind.  "Squall... Hyne, what have I done?"

Kneeling next to the fallen sorcerer, Seifer stroked his hand through thick locks of dark chestnut and kissed a pale cheek.  He placed his other hand at the man's swollen stomach and could feel the heartbeats of life still pounding within the rapidly cooling body.  Seifer breathed a relieved laugh within a sob, but far too quickly, that heartbeat slowed and faltered in a last attempt to survive.

"No, please no," he begged as the first drop of wetness slid down his cheeks, but before Seifer could think of how his child could be saved, the heartbeat faded into silence.

Pressing his face against Squall's throat, Seifer choked on the sobs that wanted to escape his chest, but that wasn't enough for the pain to escape his body.  His eyes blinded by tears and his hand soaked in the blood of two lives, Seifer began to scream...


A scream of despair caught in his throat, Seifer woke into darkness and found it impossible to breathe.  Panicked and uncoordinated, the large blond fought against clinging sheets and fumbled his way into a sitting position before promptly placing his head between bent knees as nausea threatened to get the better of him.  Digging his hands into sweat-dampened hair, Seifer forced deep breaths in an attempt to calm his racing heart and only partly noticed the sluggish movement from the corner of his eye.

"Seifer..." Squall complained drowsily.  "What are you doing?"

The blond lord lifted his head at the question, but couldn't find his voice as he looked at the sorcerer's face.  Chestnut hair was messed from sleep, blue-gray eyes were dark with dilated pupils, and full lips were soft in contrast to the typical tight line of displeasure...  Seifer couldn't remember another time when Squall had looked so beautiful.  He reached over and grabbed a slim wrist to encourage the man into sitting, and when Squall resisted, Seifer whispered a broken 'please' that made the dark-haired man frown before cautiously pushing himself up from the mattress.  The larger man promptly wrapped his arms around the living and breathing sorcerer, but as he buried his face into the long neck, Seifer swore he could still detect the smell of ash and blood on the former prince.

After a startled moment, Squall sighed deeply as he placed a careful hand at the lord's back.  "What did you dream, Seifer?"

A sound escaped the blond, something between a laugh and a sob as he held the sorcerer tighter.  "Hyne, how can you know everything?"

"It's impossible to know everything, but I do know what it's like to be caught in a nightmare."

Seifer frowned as he considered the types of dreams that could have plagued the already tormented prince, but that line of thought quickly brought back the images of Squall cradling their murdered son.  "Hyne, I need to see Ander," he said as he pulled away from the smaller man, but Squall held the blond in place.

"Do you realize what time of night it is?  You know that all of this traveling has left Leander overexcited.  Tonight alone it nearly took me an hour to help him to sleep and now you want to wake him?"

"I won't wake him, I promise.  I just... Can I please see my son?"

A skeptical eyebrow raised, Squall stared at the blond for a long moment before releasing a deep sigh of surrender.  "All right, but I'm going with you."

Seifer grinned weakly at being given permission to be with his own son, but as the dark-haired sorcerer removed the sheets from his body, the lord's smile fell away at the sight of the small curve to the man's stomach that was visible beneath the warm nightshirt.  Leaning forward before the brunet could escape, Seifer wrapped his arms around the smaller man and placed a hand at the noticeable lump.  His skin rough against the soft fabric of the brunet's sleepwear, the lord pressed his forehead against the sorcerer's shoulder and whispered an apology under his breath.

A chilled hand rested on top of his, Squall's voice uniquely calming when he said, "Don't apologize for your dreams."

Seifer shook his head lightly.  "Dream or not, I did horrible things."

"... I'm too tired for this.  Do you want to see your son or not?"

With a bitter smile, the blond lord released his hold despite his hunger for an offer of comfort from the icy-eyed sorcerer.  He knew it was asking too much from the pragmatic man, but Seifer couldn't prevent the envy he felt towards his son, Leander being the constant focus of the sorcerer's doting attention.  It was proof that Squall was capable of love in his own quiet fashion and the lord desperately wanted that love.  Silently watching the brunet slip off the mattress and stretch sore muscles, Seifer reminded himself that patience had thus far brought the difficult man into his arms.  The heart couldn't be too far behind.

Squall turned slightly, his blue-gray eyes cold in the moonlight as a dark eyebrow rose in question.

Acknowledging the brunet with a nod, Seifer moved from the mattress and his mind too quickly drifted back to the images of his dream.  His chest tightened as he remembered the smell of young blood and the sight of Leander's limp body, and with thoughts of Squall momentarily pushed aside, Seifer walked passed the silent sorcerer.  Forced to keep his steps quiet, the large blond couldn't move with the speed he desired, but fortunately their hosts had provided them with a large suite that included a connecting room for the young lord.

Seifer entered the room silently, but slowed his step once he set his eyes on the dark-haired boy curled at the edge of the bed, sleeping as close as possible to the fireplace lit with red coals.  Beneath a thick quilt, Leander appeared small and fragile as he slept with the innocence reserved for children.  The lord's lips twitched into a loving smile, an expression that was quick to fade as he knelt next to the bed and placed his scarred hand on top of his son's loose fist.  He lightly squeezed the heated hand and pressed a gentle kiss against the fingertips that peaked out from his hold.

"He's beautiful, isn't he?" Seifer said softly as he felt the presence of the sorcerer behind him without ever hearing the man's steps.  "It's hard to believe that I had anything to do with creating him."

"Do you question it?" Squall asked in an unreadable tone.

"No, I can see myself in his eyes and sometimes I like to think that I can feel that parent-child bond you've told me about.  But after all of these years, even if I were to learn that my blood doesn't run through his veins, Leander is still my son and no one will take him from me without a fight.  Not even you," Seifer declared in a quiet but firm voice, and then barely caught himself as his hand fisted too strongly around small fingers.  Leander whined irritably, but didn't wake as he rolled onto his back and return to deeper sleep.

Squall sighed in annoyance, a silent reminder that he didn't want the boy wakened.  "Leander loves you.  He never wanted to leave you."

"He's a child and doesn't know any better," Seifer said as he lifted his free hand to brush aside thick strands of hair from the boy's forehead.  Lightly cupping his hand at the side of the young face, the lord stared down at a faded scar line that could hardly be seen in the dim lighting of the room.  There were terrible memories associated with that scar, a past he wanted more than anything to keep from the child's birth parent, but with the aftereffects of his dream taunting him with dark images of his bleeding son and lover, Seifer had the sadistic need to reveal his darker secrets to the soft-spoken servant.  "Did Ward ever tell you how Leander got this scar?"

"The one at his hairline?" Squall asked with mild curiosity.  "Should I assume that it's not one of his normal scrapes and bumps?"

Seifer didn't reply directly, his eyes the color of dull jade as he thought about the past.  "He was young when he got it, maybe a few months after his first birthday, and it's my fault that he got hurt.  It's my fault that he has this scar."

"... Perhaps this is something we should discuss elsewhere."

The tall lord closed his eyes in silent pain at the low voice.  The quiet tenor sounded too much like the desperate man who had lain broken and bleeding on his bed, demanding that no healer was to be summoned.  Months of coaxing the dark-haired beauty into his bed and into his arms had gone to waste with a few short words, but Seifer didn't regret speaking the truth.  Reopening his eyes, he gazed down at his sleeping son and smiled fondly before pressing a light kiss against the pale scar.

With a lingering touch, Seifer pulled back his hand from soft skin and reluctantly pushed himself up from the ground.  Once he managed to step away from the bed and turn around, Seifer met the hard gaze of the sorcerer and motioned a hand forward in a sign that Squall should go first.  The brunet crossed his arms over his chest before exiting the small room, Seifer then following the man's silent footsteps across the hard stone floor.

Returning to their shared room, Seifer couldn't bring himself to move further than the closed door.  His hand still wrapped around the chilled doorknob, he leaned back against the heavy wood and watched with wary eyes as Squall moved to the foot of the bed.  Arms still crossed, the dark-haired sorcerer sat on the edge of the plush mattress before meeting Seifer's gaze.  Without a spoken word, Squall made it very clear to the lord that he wanted to know every detail about the scar that was somehow different from the numerous other cuts and bruises Leander had gained in his short lifespan.

"I don't want you to hate me again," Seifer eventually said in a soft tone, resisting the instinct to look away from eyes of sharp sapphire.  "But tonight I dreamed... something terrible and it made me remember the past, a past I would much rather keep from you.  And yet, you already know what I was.  I don't know why I bother trying to pretend that the past can be forgotten."

"People who forget the past without learning from it are cowards," Squall said tiredly, his head bowed and eyes hidden beneath dark chestnut.  "And you are no coward."

Startled by the plainly worded praise, Seifer stared at his difficult lover for a lasting moment and tried to convince himself that he wasn't silently saying his goodbye to the man.  "I was drunk," the lord began, his eyes never leaving the face of the dark-haired sorcerer.  "I don't remember the exact reason why, but I had managed to drink myself to a dangerous state and was unceremoniously kicked out of the last tavern that would have me.  Irritated and drunk, I returned home and somehow stumbled to my chambers without waking the entire household, but once I tried to go to bed, I found him..."

Seifer breathed a laugh before continuing, "You would've been proud - Ander was maybe a year and half old and not only had he managed to escape his crib, but he had crawled the entire way to my room and sat there for probably hours waiting for me.  At least, the smell of his diapers made it obvious that he had been there a long time.  I remember being so mad that he had soiled himself, and when he set eyes on me, of course he began crying.  I yelled at him, but my agitation only made him cry louder.  And before I knew what I was doing... I hit him."

Squall lifted his head, his eyes wide open and his lips parted in a rare display of shock.

His hands fisted at his sides, Seifer resumed the story with forced words.  "I've never heard silence like I did after that moment.  I had hit Leander so hard that he had bounced and I don't think he was breathing for those silent seconds, but when he could find the air, he screamed...  It wasn't long before Ward barged into my room.  I don't know what he was expecting to see, but he went directly to Leander and gathered the boy into his arms.  Leander was so tiny compared to that barbarian and I could see the blood sliding down his face and I... I did nothing while Ward took him away from me," Seifer ended in a voice no louder than a whisper.

The pale-eyed sorcerer stared at the large man, the wide-eyed expression of surprise already faded to a stoic facade that the lord feared more than the outrage he had anticipated.  Unable to detect a twitch of emotion in the brunet's face, Seifer couldn't guess the progress of the man's inner thoughts.  Squall could have been planning a slow, torturous execution for the blond as easily as he could have been considering a midnight snack, and the inability to prepare for his immediate fate put Seifer on edge.  He wanted to apologize and to say that he never deserved Leander, but in the end, Squall knew that truth and it would have been a waste of words.

Eventually done with his silent thoughts, Squall let his arms slip out from their crossed hold and fall such that one arm rested loosely around his waist.  In a pensive tone, the sorcerer asked simply, "Is that what convinced you to stop drinking?"

"Huh...?" Seifer replied distractedly, uncertain how to handle the pragmatic question from the brunet, the same man who had nearly killed him weeks earlier for slicing his stomach and endangering their unborn child during their last spar.

"It's a simple question, Seifer."

"I... I never intentionally made that choice," the lord admitted as he ran a rough hand back through short strands of golden hair.  "I couldn't look at alcohol without remembering his crying face and the sound of his scream.  Unable to drink anything intoxicating and being sober for a change, I eventually realized that I had been treating Leander like a stray dog taken off the streets and that I had never held the boy as my son.  I don't know how I did it, but I managed to convince Ward and Matron to let me see Ander and to hold him.  It must have been a good hour before Matron made me hand him back to her and I got my first lesson about diapers... Hyne, I don't know how those tiny things can make such foul-smelling shit."

Without offering his own ideas about the difficulties of caring for infants, Squall glanced downward in pensive consideration, his thoughts guarded behind the shine of metallic blue eyes.

"I'm not asking for anything here, Squall," the large blond eventually stated with a weak smile, unable to stay quiet in his anxious state.  "The only reason that I'm telling you this is because I've seen you watching Ander and me and I know what you're thinking, that I make a decent father.  But I can't live with the lie that I've always been a good father to him.  In fact, I wouldn't say that I was Ander's father until the day I first held him and I... I wanted you to know the truth from me before someone else decided to warn you, especially when our second child is on the way."

"I appreciate that," Squall stated slowly as he lifted his head, but didn't look at the lord.  "It's disappointing to hear, but I knew what type of man you were before I left Leander in your care.  More than anything else, I knew what you could become when you drink too much."

Pressing back against the door, Seifer couldn't prevent the small shivers that coursed through his body.  He still had no memory of the night he had taken the dark-haired sorcerer, which meant that he had probably indulged in even more alcohol than the night when he had hurt his son and heir, a night that continued to plague his occasional nightmares.

"Do you know when I first spoke to Leander?"

Surprised by the question, Seifer looked up to find the sorcerer's gaze focused on him.  "I... Sorry, but all I know is that you started working here when Ander was about three.  Ward mentioned how you kept Ander from running away around then."

Squall smiled lightly, his eyes unusually warm.  "That was the time.  Your father had died and you were forced to spend time in the capitol while settling the arrangements of your inherited estate.  You were gone for months and Leander was heartsick for the only parent he knew, so he decided to look for you.  It was by chance that I saw him leaving the manor with a little bag filled with his necessities - a stuffed toy, a piece of cake wrapped in a napkin, and, of all the things, a small silver flask filled with water."

With a slight wince, Seifer admitted, "I gave him that flask.  When I stopped drinking, I didn't have a use for it and he seemed to like how shiny it was."

"Hn, I can imagine.  In any case, I decided to follow him and make certain that he would be safe.  I was surprised when he walked a good three miles before he tired out and he would've gone farther if his little body would have allowed it.  He wanted to see you, he wanted his father that badly."  Squall leaned back against the bed in a relaxed pose.  "He loves you, Seifer.  Obviously you've done something right despite your wrongs."

His chest sore with relief, Seifer moved away from the door and stepped closer to the former prince.  With each step forward, he feared that Squall's expression would change to something cold and unforgiving, or worse, that the sorcerer would abruptly disappear like he had the year previous.  But the servant patiently waited for the lord to approach, his eyes as calm as twin ponds recently freed of winter ice.

Standing directly in front of the smaller man, Seifer reached out and brushed aside dark locks of hair from Squall's forehead.  "Why...?  You should hate me right now."

"I'm the one who left him and didn't return for three years.  I ran away, and for that crime, I have no right to blame you for those years when I had deserted my son.  But if I had returned and found Leander unhappy, I was prepared to take him from you."

"You still could have taken him.  You sacrificed so much more for his chance at life."

"I considered it more than once," Squall admitted as leaned into the lord's warm hand.  "But Leander would have hated me if I chose to steal him from you and his hate would have destroyed me."

"Hyne, Squall, don't say that," Seifer stated hoarsely as he pressed his lips against the man's temple.  "That kid could never hate you, especially now that he knows who you are."

Squall said nothing, the brunet's silence encouraging the lord to continue placing light kisses against pale skin in an attempt to soothe the sorcerer.  With each kiss a little lower, a little harder, Seifer trailed down the side of the lovely face until reaching the corner of full lips.  Silent to that point, Squall startled the blond when he asked a simple question -

"What did you dream?"

Seifer leaned back sharply, but didn't move very far given the unrealized fact that his arms were wrapped around the brunet's waist.  He stared deep into pale eyes that were too old, too wise for a man in his twenties, and found that he couldn't speak a single word.

Squall placed a chilled hand the back of the lord's neck and squeezed lightly.  "You don't have to tell me anything, but when I woke and saw the fear in your eyes... I want to help you, but there's nothing I can do without understanding what you dreamed."

Green eyes widened further in disbelief.  "You want to... comfort me?"

"Is that so strange?"

Pale lips twitched into an almost smile, Seifer immediately hiding his face against the sorcerer's long neck before Squall could see his expression become something completely ridiculous.  "You're an impossible man, Squall Leonhart.  Am I ever going to be able to predict what you'll do next?"

"If you don't want my help--"

"It was about the Massacre," Seifer interrupted before the brunet could withdraw his offer.  "I don't want to go into detail, not tonight, but I... Without hesitation or thought, I murdered you and Leander for being sorcerers."

Squall tensed at the admission, but didn't retreat from the former soldier.

"I'm so sorry, Squall.  I don't know why I did it.  You were even pregnant, but I didn't believe you when you said it was mine.  I had to kill you and I didn't realize until afterward that I was wrong.  I had been so wrong."

Using his hand on the thick neck, Squall forced the taller man to lean back and meet his serious gaze.  "It was a dream born from tension and anxiety, nothing more and nothing less.  And I imagine that with us moving further east and closer to the coast, you have spent too much time remembering the days of the Massacre."

"But I had your blood on my hands."

"I know," the dark-haired man said soothingly as he strengthened the grip of his hand.  "But you have to realize that the blood in your dreams isn't real.  While it has the same color and the same smell, it will never have the warmth of life like true blood."

Seifer stared down at the brunet, stunned by the words of advice.

"Don't be so surprised.  For many years, I dreamt that I was the one to behead my father and rip the heart out from my uncle's chest.  It took me a long time to learn the difference between reality and my nightmares."

"Fucking Hyne," Seifer said as he pressed his forehead against Squall's.  "How can you possibly be sane after everything you've lived through?"

"I succumbed to madness once.  It did nothing except to tear new wounds in my soul."

There were no words to offer as Seifer stood in place, thinking about their spar over a month back when the life of their unborn child had been threatened.  Blue-gray eyes had glimmered with the shine of promised death, an expression void of humanity that Seifer hadn't seen in his lifetime, let alone from the mother of their son.  Recalling that moment, it was no surprise to learn that madness lurked beneath the surface of the former prince, insanity controlled by nothing more than an unbreakable will.  And as he pressed closer, Seifer was overcome by the respect he felt for the incredibly dangerous man in his arms.

"Thank you," Seifer whispered as he kissed a dark brow.  "Thank you for everything."

"Whatever," Squall stated with a vague shrug.

The lord couldn't hold back a smile at the lack of absolute coldness toward the expression of gratitude, but words were never enough for the blond.  He kissed the scar that cut between eyes of pale sapphire, and then dipped lower to take plush lips into a chaste kiss, one promptly ruined by a yawn from the shorter man.

Laughing lightly, Seifer pulled back with a fond smile.  "Hyne, I'm hopeless.  First I wake you and then I prevent you from going back to sleep.  Why do you put up with me?"

"Because you won't leave me alone," Squall replied in a dull tone as he pushed the larger man aside.

Seifer released his hold at the silent demand and watched as the dark-haired beauty stepped around the bed before crawling onto his side of the mattress.  The blond lord followed suit and slid under the sheets that had cooled in the short period they had spent out of bed.  Ignoring the likely chance of irritating the servant, Seifer reached out and pulled the smaller man close such that he could comfortably press his nose against dark chestnut hair.

Though initially growling at the selfish move, Squall sighed deeply and settled against the hard body.  "Will you be able to sleep tonight?"

"Doubt it," Seifer replied honestly, and as his hand drifted to the sorcerer's stomach, he added, "Would you mind if I held you like this tonight?"

"Better me than Leander," was the muttered reply.

The intuitive response brought a soft smile to the lord's lips, Seifer fairly certain that he would have indeed snuck into Leander's room if Squall had denied him the contact he sorely needed.

In short time, the exhausted sorcerer fell directly asleep, leaving Seifer to his thoughts and memories.  Too afraid to close his eyes for longer than a few heartbeats, Seifer gazed at the fireplace and the embers that glowed bright red.  It reminded him of the burning city during the Massacre, but the haunting memories of that night felt hollow compared to the silent suffering of the man held in his arms.  He had promised to spoil the former prince and make things better, but Seifer felt daunted by the realization that he had made an impossible pledge.  There was too much pain, too much loss.  And despite all of that, Squall had the strength to console Seifer over a single nightmare compared the sorcerer's years of unforgiving dreams.

A soft sigh abruptly sounded as Squall stretched back against the larger man and placed a hand on top of Seifer's.

The unconscious act made Seifer smile as he pressed a kiss against dark hair and whispered, "One day I'll have you figured out, my Prince.  But until then, you can continue surprising me like this."


Though late into the afternoon, the temperature hadn't warmed far above freezing in the northern forests that lined the foothills of daunting mountains.  Bundled in coats made of soft leather and lined with fur, Seifer and Squall walked side by side with their son leading the way, Leander professing that he wasn't tired enough to be carried.  The warmth and comfort of the last city had been left behind along with the entire entourage that had been essential during their visits with several families of high status.  Seifer didn't like the fact that they were forced to travel alone, but he also understood the necessity.  The Shumi were private creatures and the sight of too many humans would lead them to attack or hide, neither option helpful in the mission of gaining their aid.  Unfortunately, horses were also out of the question, the animals overly skittish when it came to the sight and smell of Shumi.  But with every mile covered, Seifer felt increasingly irritated that his young son and pregnant lover were forced to walk through snow and ice, especially when there was no guarantee that the Shumi would fight against the Emperor.

"You're growling again," Squall commented lightly.

"Can you blame me?  Ander has never walked this far before and I know perfectly well that you won't admit to feeling tired or sore.  I don't know why I let you talk me into traveling during the winter," Seifer complained as he adjusted his pack, the bag heavy with all of Leander's items in addition to his own.

"Because we both couldn't afford to wait any longer.  Your alliances won't be loyal forever and Ultimecia will eventually decide to be serious with her attempts to destroy you and your family name."

Seifer sneered with annoyance, not in the mood to follow logic and reasoning.  "It's been a decade since the Massacre.  This could have waited another year."

"You're wrong," Squall said plainly, his hand then moving to rub his stomach, the lump poorly hidden beneath his winter coat.  "And I would prefer this child being born into a world that was a little bit safer."

The blond lord stared at the sorcerer, mildly surprised that the man had considered their child when choosing to visit the Shumi sooner than later.  Seifer had assumed the burdens of pregnancy was the only factor in Squall's decision, something that was logical considering the pride of the skilled swordsman.  But to hear the words that the man was concerned for their second child, Seifer felt great relief that the unborn one was indeed loved by its mother, not only by blind instinct, but in considerate thought as well.

"Daddy, Daddy, what's that?"

Seifer fixed his gaze on his curious son, surprised by how far the boy had traveled ahead.  Green eyes then drifted in the direction where Leander was pointing, focusing on the center of a large tree where a patch of bark had been ripped free, the deep groves in wood suggestive of unforgiving claws.  More worrisome, however, was the rust-colored stain visible against the pale innards of the darkly colored tree.

"Leander, stay close," Squall scolded as he walked up to the young boy and placed a hand at his shoulder.

"Is there something to be concerned about?" Seifer asked as his hand settled on the hilt of Hyperion.

"We're entering the Shumi's territory.  While we will be safe within their village, we have to arrive there first."

The former soldier grunted out his understanding while examining the faded streaks of blood against pale wood.  "Is it human?"

Squall glanced over his shoulder and smiled lightly in reply, the dark gleam to stormy eyes reminding Seifer of another time when the sorcerer had mentioned that the Shumi believed the blood of an enemy was sweetest when fresh.

After directing a final glance to the scarred tree, Seifer joined the two dark-haired sorcerers as Squall ushered their son forward into Shumi territory.  As if unconcerned about his own warnings, Squall spoke in a calm voice to Leander while describing the storytelling nature of the wind.  While no longer deaf to the elements, the young sorcerer had trouble understanding the words of the air and fire.  The earth had its own words as well, but according to Squall, the aged element could spend a year finishing a single sentence.  Remembering a lesson weeks past, Seifer couldn't prevent a smile at the memory of the brunet describing in a bored tone that the earth had nothing of interest to say to make it worth a patient sorcerer's time.

The afternoon grew later as they traveled deeper into uncharted territory, Seifer silently hoping that the former prince knew where he was going whenever the man would change their direction further north and occasionally east.  Given the decreasing amount of light, they would be forced to find a place to camp at some point, a reality that irritated the blond since he hadn't wanted his young son to sleep on snow.  A growl rumbling in his throat, Seifer struggled to silence his complaints, many of which Squall had already heard and declared nonsense since they first set out that morning.

Then Squall flinched.  Without a spoken word of question, Seifer dropped his pack and unsheathed his blade in the same moment that the dark-haired servant jerked Leander close and used his free arm to shield the young boy.  Seifer eyed the forest around them, seeing nothing for the length of several quick heartbeats until shadows took the shape of beasts that should not have been able to hide in the sparse covering of trees and snow covered bushes.

Fur colored with the same intense hues of fire stood out from the winter landscape as four cat-like creatures walked soundlessly on hind legs and approached without concern for the wide blade pointed in their direction.  Holding his ground, Seifer studied the infamous monsters known as the 'Shumi', surprised to discover that the felines wore various bits of leather belts and metal decorations on their bodies.  All of the beasts carried blades of some design, some small knifes while one wore a curved blade at his back.  The need for those blades, however, appeared unwarranted given the dark claws that stood out from immense paw-like hands.

"You saw the warning sign."

Green eyes widened in shock at the language of humans being spoken in the rumbling voice of the Shumi, but then the meaning of those words promptly wiped away that surprise and Seifer tightened his grip on Hyperion.  As implied by the cat, they had continued walking despite the warning of the scarred tree and it appeared that the Shumi were very prepared to deal with trespassers.

"Of course we saw it," Squall unexpectedly spoke out with a scoff.  "But it loses its meaning when you use rabbit's blood."

While surprised by that revelation, Seifer resisted the urge to look back at the sorcerer.  His lips twisting into a disbelieving smirk, the lord was impressed that the stern man had effortlessly tricked him into believing that human blood had been smeared on the tree.  But even more interesting was Squall's tone toward the dangerous beasts.  It was oddly similar to the teaching voice the sorcerer would use during the lessons Leander didn't particularly want to learn no matter their importance.

The largest Shumi and the apparent leader of the group took a step forward while focusing narrowed yellow eyes on Squall.  "Should we use your blood, human?"

"Don't make threats beyond your abilities, cub," Squall countered in a bored tone.  "All I want is for you to fetch Kasir for me.  And I suggest that you do it quickly."

The other Shumi immediately whispered amongst themselves, halting once the leader snapped its teeth in their direction.  Returning his attention to the brunet, the large feline asked lowly, "Who are you to ask for our H'rugur?"

Irritated by the condescending tone of the overgrown cat, Seifer replied for his lover.  "Don't you know the face of Squall Leonhart, the Sorcerer Prince?"

Silence fell for a few short seconds before roaring laughter nearly deafened the blond lord.  Three of the large beasts had their mouths opened wide in amusement, long teeth appearing white and sharp compared to their dark lulling tongues.  The remaining Shumi standing behind the others grinned with some humor, but it didn't take part in the open laughter of the other felines.  Instead, amber eyes shifted to the silent brunet and remained there in unspoken thought.

"Squall Leonhart?" the leader asked with a lingering chuckle and a stubby finger pointed in the man's direction.  "You say he is the Leonhart our tribe trained and named?"

Seifer scowled at the cocky feline without answering, bewildered as to why the Shumi wouldn't recognize the former prince.

The smallest of the group decided to speak up, its words heavily accented compared to his leader.  "Leonhart is war'er tall like H'rugur and magic'er who kill wit finger.  That h'man is small like youn' and made of sticks and fat belly.  His death not good when Leonhart gets 'im."

With a breathed laugh, Seifer glanced over his shoulder and commented, "They don't think you're Leonhart."

Squall frowned in his typical irritated fashion and muttered a curse toward useless myths and gossiping females.  To the group of Shumi, he then said, "I don't care what you believe.  I have asked for Kasir and you must honor my request.  If I'm the impostor you think I am, I will die by his hands."

A shadow of uncertainty crossed the furry face of the leader, a low growl emitting from its mouth instead of words.  Eventually the feline furthest back pushed up from its position and turned its back to the confrontation between human and Shumi.  It made noises between roars and almost understandable words to its partners, only the mention of 'Kasir' assuring the blond lord that the Shumi Squall wanted to meet was about to be fetched.  However, by the gleam in the leader's yellow eyes, Seifer wasn't too certain if the remaining three cats had the patience to wait quietly.

Seifer stepped back a pace to stand closer to the sorcerer and asked quietly, "Why don't they recognize you?"

"I'll explain later.  Just know that they are young and reckless," Squall replied as he bent down and placed a hand on top of his son's head.  "Leander, it's time for you to perform that barrier spell I taught you.  Close your eyes and stay here until your father or I approach you.  Do you understand?"

The inexperienced boy nodded shakily before kneeling down onto the snowy ground.  "Will they hurt us?"

"No, lion cub.  They just don't know who we are yet."

While not wholly appeased by that assurance, Leander didn't argue before holding out his mitten-covered hands.  Seifer watched proudly as the seven-year-old child summoned his pale staff despite the tense situation.  Small hands wrapped tightly around the young core and Leander closed his eyes before he muttered something under his breath.  A few of the symbols glowed with a greenish-yellow light and Seifer could feel the air stir as the invisible element surrounded the child sorcerer.

"He'll be safe," Squall commented, his words followed by the ring of an unsheathed blade.

Green eyes narrowed on the dark-haired servant, Seifer not pleased at the sight of the blade that he had purchased for the sorcerer given the man's difficulty in summoning his own blade.  "What do you think you're doing?"

"They insulted me," he replied, his cold azure eyes glancing at the lord in a silent challenge to keep him from taking his revenge.

With a sigh of surrender, Seifer commented hopefully, "They haven't attacked yet."

"They will.  And I would appreciate it if you wouldn't kill any of them."

The large blond smirked as he redirected his attention to the overgrown cats and noted the way their long tails flicked with anticipation as bright eyes watched movement of raised swords.  "I'll try to hold back, but I won't make any promises if one of them hurts you or Ander."

"I wouldn't expect anything less."

The leader of the small group of Shumi stepped forward, its voice underlined with a purr when saying, "Put down your blades, humans.  We could get the wrong idea."

"I know your games and we won't stand here defenseless," Squall replied as he settled into a fighting stance.  "If you want to prove yourself to Kasir, I suggest making your move before he arrives."

Sharp teeth bared in anger, the Shumi's purr changed into a low growl.  "You ask for death, we will give you death."

The leader barked something back at its partners, the cats flashing their teeth in excited grins that reminded Seifer of hungry Ravages.  The smallest of the group stepped in Squall's direction while the other two walked toward larger prey.  Seifer nearly laughed at the Shumi's assumption that the dark-haired man would be the easier kill, but the lord was grateful for the chance to fight without fearing for the life of his lover.  Hyperion pulled back to his side, Seifer lifted a gloved hand and coaxed his furry opponents closer.

It was no surprise that the leader was the first to lunge forward, Seifer easily dodging the paw of a hand that swiped at his face and throat.  However, the speed of the second Shumi that followed its leader's attack was unexpected and Seifer failed to knock aside the arm of slender muscles before he had gained the first hole in his winter coat.  Knowing better than to let anger overcome his actions too early in a battle, the blond lord fell into a defensive rhythm as he dodged and parried the long-reaching attacks of the large felines.  While accustomed to his fights with Fuujin and Raijin, Seifer immediately recognized that his friends' ability to attack together would never compare to the seamless grace of the two Shumi who managed to strike within seconds of each other and never tangled in between.  More so, the agile cats didn't limit their attacks with their large paws, but used their entire body in the fight, something Seifer had encountered only once before against a tribe in the far south.

Despite the skill of his opponents, Seifer was able to match the graceful dance of the Shumi with something rather clumsy, but effective against the thrashing of teeth and long reach of thick claws.  Green eyes were hard and bright after every blocked attack, the former soldier looking for any opening that he could use in an attempt of a successful offense.  Nothing seemed obvious at first, but the initial skill of the Shumi slowly gave away to inexperience.  Once graceful maneuvers gave away to more desperate and less coordinated attacks as they grew frustrated with the length of the fight against a 'mere' human.  Smirking at his own memories of being a kid unable to defeat his elderly instructors, Seifer jumped back several paces and lowered Hyperion to give an opening that the felines desired.  Again, the leader was the first to move, the lunging cat too anxious for the kill as its feet didn't gain the proper purchase on slick snow.  Prepared for the expected mistake, Seifer dashed toward the unbalanced feline and swung Hyperion forward with its hilt in the lead.  The heavy pommel landed square at the underside of the Shumi's small snout and the shatter of bone could be heard just before the feline yowled in pain.

Dodging the blind swipe of a heavy paw, Seifer raised Hyperion to chest level and grinned at the other feline that had gained a stunned expression as it watched its leader collapse onto the ground.  Paw-like hands flexed in a display of dark claws, but the standing Shumi didn't immediately attack as it studied his prey with a cautious light to yellow eyes.  Unbothered with his remaining opponent, Seifer glanced in Squall's direction and smiled lightly at the utterly befuddled expression of the Shumi who had blood-matted fur in all areas, but no serious injury that Seifer could identify.  It was obvious that Squall was making the cat pay for commenting on his 'fat belly'.

Though looking at his lover, Seifer's attention was hardly diverted, a fact his opponent didn't consider as the Shumi took the opportunity to catch the blond unaware.  Seifer didn't bother to shift his eyes while dodging the overly cautious attack, but as the furry arm pulled back, the swordsman flicked his wrist such that Hyperion sliced the top of a stubby finger and efficiently removed a dark claw.  The Shumi barked in pain, but the wounding served to reignite the feline's desire to fight.  Attacking with paws spread wide, the beast pressed forward against the slightly shorter human.  Seifer laughed at the rage of the overgrown cat, and though he gained a few additional holes in his coat for some careless mocking of the Shumi, the former soldier gained easy control over their fight and manage to lead his opponent toward tall trees.

With a few slow dodges to coax his cat into thinking he was tiring, Seifer stepped back and lowered his blade just enough to goad the beast into lunging.  Amber eyes bright and teeth bared, the Shumi pounced with its full attention on the human and the thought of victory.  Seifer smirked as he used the snow underfoot to slide and turn out of the way, allowing the Shumi to head face first into the trunk of a dark tree.  While the feline barely caught itself from real damage, Seifer promptly grabbed onto the lengthy red fur at the Shumi's head and proceeded to pound its face against the unforgiving bark.

Once the cat went limp in his hold, Seifer dumped the unconscious creature to the side before turning around to see how his lover was fairing.  The lord's easy smile immediately fell the moment green eyes took in the sight of the injured leader, the Shumi unexpectedly standing and stumbling toward the sorcerer who was busy tormenting his opponent.  As Hyperion was dropped in thoughtless surprise, Seifer sprinted toward the slinking feline, and though the Shumi got within a step of the oblivious brunet, its paw spread wide and dark claws exposed, Seifer tackled the beast before it touched the lithe body.

The two large forms crashed into snow, but with the Shumi caught unprepared, Seifer easily gained the dominate position and promptly raised to his knees before landing his first punch against the side of the feline's face.  Uncaring of the teeth that cut against his knuckles, Seifer threw punch after punch, only pausing in the assault when the Shumi blindly clawed at the face of the blond.  With only a minor scratch scored against his cheek, Seifer pinned the arm against the cold-hardened ground and punched directly at the underside of the exposed elbow, succeeding in breaking the joint.  Satisfied at preventing future interruptions, Seifer returned to pummeling the cat's already abused face.

"Seifer..."

Hearing his name, but choosing to ignore the voice of the only person who could stop him, Seifer continued his assault until a strong hand wrapped around his wrist and interrupted his rhythm in such a fashion that the blond lord nearly fell onto his side.

"Enough, Seifer.  He's not worth killing."

Green eyes bright in feverish rage, Seifer stared up at the serious expression of the sorcerer and couldn't comprehend why Squall wouldn't let him destroy the creature that had wanted their death.  "He was going to hurt you."

Full lips curled into a slight smirk.  "I know," he replied with a nod of his head in the direction behind Seifer.

Turning as best he could, the lord looked downward and was startled to notice that frost almost completely covered the Shumi's leg.  That surprise slowly faded, however, as Seifer breathed a laugh at himself for thinking that anyone, human or otherwise, could have succeeded with a sneak attack against the infamous Sorcerer Prince.  Worse, by tackling the Shumi and lifting him off the ground, Seifer had broken the freezing spell and had probably saved the beast's worthless life.

"Sorry for ruining your kill," Seifer apologized with a smirk and his eyes still focused on ice-covered fur.  "But I thought that you couldn't use magic in your current state."

"I'm not helpless, idiot.  It's just harder than usual to connect with the elements."

Lifting his gaze back to the dark-haired beauty, Seifer noticed how his entrapped hand was torn and bleeding through his dark glove, not to mention the mess left from his assault on the Shumi.  Not wanting to get his blood on the brunet, he attempted to pull away, but Squall didn't allow the arm to slip through his fingers.  Instead, the servant tightened his hold and bent down to place a gentle kiss against the hand wet with blood.  Seifer instantly felt the cold energy that caressed his wounds, and though he knew Irvine had forbidden the sorcerer from using healing magic, the lord couldn't bring himself to forcefully take back his hand.  He could only hope that the strict healer wouldn't blame him for being weak under the spell of his lover.

"See?  Not helpless," Squall stated softly, his eyes of blue-gray bright beneath dark lashes.

"Not in the least," Seifer agreed, and then dully remembered that Squall had been in the middle of his own fight only moments earlier.  Glancing behind the slender man, the blond smirked with pride when he saw state of the smaller Shumi: semi-conscious and pinned to the ground with Squall's sword pierced through his shoulder, the feline had learned its lesson about insulting the former prince.  "Well, that looks familiar.  Taking lessons from me?"

Scoffing, Squall let the healed hand slip out from his hold.  "You were lucky I didn't kill you that night.  You were wide open."

"I'm not the only one who was lucky that you let me live."

Though a dark eyebrow lifted in an incredulous arc, Squall didn't argue the point that many things had happened since the night when Seifer had learned the servant's true identity.  However, he also didn't comment on whether or not those events had anything to do with good fortune, but judging by the slight smirk of full lips, Squall was of the opinion that the blond lord wasn't quite the curse he first believed.

Matching that smirk, Seifer pushed up from the unconscious Shumi he had been sitting on, but before he regained his balance, Squall had already turned and walked off in the direction of Leander.  The boy still had his eyes squeezed tightly shut, his pale staff held between mitten-covered hands.  At the first touch of Squall's hand against the invisible shield, Leander snapped open his eyelids and stared up with an anxious expression.  Squall smiled down at the boy, the calming sight causing Leander to smile weakly in return before he released the barrier of wind.  Snow flew up at the abrupt ending of the spell, Leander promptly standing and wrapping his arms around the sorcerer's waist.

"You did very well, lion cub," Squall murmured as he brushed snow from dark hair.

Leander didn't respond, his face buried in the heavy coat that bore spots of fresh blood.

Seifer smiled at the sight of his lover comforting the boy who had seen a few too many teeth in his young life.  Over the past month, Squall had lost much of his awkward tension around the boy whenever Leander treated the man more like a parent instead of a trusted friend.  And though Seifer knew a few weeks meant nothing compared to years of living in the shadows, he hoped that the tormented spirit of the sorcerer was slowly healing with the attention of their son.

"Hrekka gie Ifurit, are any of these fools still breathing?"

Startled by the baritone voice, Seifer immediately reached downward in the reflex to retrieve his sword, but touching his empty scabbard, the lord dully remembered that he had dropped his faithful blade several yards away.  His defenseless state, however, didn't seem to matter when he noticed the fond smile of the stoic brunet.

"Kasir.  I hope you weren't the one to train these cubs."

At the name of the one Squall had wanted to see, Seifer turned to see the approach of a single, very large Shumi that had a surprisingly light step in the snow-crusted forest.  Over a head taller than the other felines they had dealt with, 'Kasir' was obviously a creature born to kill - its entire body was firm with slender muscle, it exuded a quiet confidence with its white fangs slipping over smirking dark lips, and its thick coat of fur was the bright color of fresh blood.  And as Seifer gazed up into the poisonous green eyes that shone in the late afternoon light, he felt his chest constrict as he realized that Kasir fit the image of the monster in his childhood nightmares, a demon that his father had described in many dark tales about the infamous Shumi, beasts who snacked on the bones of misbehaving children and idiot soldiers.

Before Seifer could gather his wits, Squall gently pulled Leander aside and approached the looming form of the impressive Shumi.  Undeterred by the smile of far too many pointed teeth and the flex of biceps that could easily snap the thin sorcerer in two, Squall stepped directly in front of the large beast.  A heavy paw reached out for the brunet, the sight of thick claws prompting Seifer to step forward, but the lord didn't get far when he saw how Squall leaned into the feline's touch and lifted his own hand to stroke red fur.

"Rya prahtr," the Shumi murmured, and with its darkly-colored pads pressed against a pale cheek, the creature bent down to rub its face against the sorcerer's other cheek.  Tangled braids of long fur jingled with colored beads as the beast purred and moved further to bury its nose at the crook of the brunet's long neck, Squall unbothered by the intimate touch of the overly large Shumi.

Stunned by his difficult lover allowing the Shumi's caress, Seifer stood in place while unable to think or move despite the burning necessity to break apart the lasting hold.  But then there was the crunch of snow followed by the thump of a small body crashing into something bigger and suddenly Leander had efficiently wrapped himself around Squall's leg.

"Don't hurt Mommy!"

Seifer nearly collapsed in that moment, his knees abruptly weakening at the cry that echoed the one in his nightmare from over a week previous, a dream that still haunted him.  But while tentatively holding his stance, the lord couldn't bring himself to approach the others, silently grateful that his son had interrupted the awkward moment.

"It's alright," Squall soothed as he drew back from the Shumi, unaware of the lord's unbalanced state a short distance away.  His smile warm and stormy eyes glowing in the dim light, the sorcerer placed a hand into Leander's dark hair.  "This is how the Shumi greet each other.  When they have been apart for too long, they like to be reminded of the other's scent."

Young green eyes stared up at the brunet, Leander's expression one of plain disbelief, an expression that Seifer mirrored from his position several yards behind the sorcerer.

"Don't assume too much, Leander.  Those other Shumi didn't know us and that is why they attacked.  They were afraid and nothing more."

His eyes wavering with uncertainty, the boy glanced up at the immense feline before them.  "Is he afraid, too?"

"I don't fear the Lion, cub," the Shumi answered before Squall could form a reply, "But I have learned to respect his fangs."  The tall feline then knelt down into the snow and curled its dark lips into a relatively friendly grin that hid the teeth beneath.  "Brave and curious - you must be Leonhart's cub."

Shaking his head, Leander argued, "Squall and Father made me.  I don't know who 'Leonhart' is."

His grin widening, the Shumi didn't correct the boy's misunderstanding and instead held out a large paw-like hand.  "May I know your scent, young sorcerer, so that I will always remember you?"

Leander glanced up at Squall, his silent question answered with a shrug of shoulders.  Small teeth bit into chapped lips as the boy wavered with indecision, green eyes watching the motionless paw as the Shumi waited patiently.  Eventually, Leander unclenched his fingers from Squall's pants and very slowly placed a mitten-covered hand on top of dark pads of skin.  Stubby fingers curled slightly around the small hand as the Shumi bent down and brushed its black nose against thin leather and breathed deeply while moving upward, gradually pushing the edge of the coat sleeve up and revealing pale skin.

The tenseness in narrow shoulders evaporated as the boy giggled and complained, "That tickles."

Golden-green eyes glanced up before a dark tongue peaked out from dark lips and the Shumi proceeded to lick the arm beneath the coat sleeve, the move prompting Leander to jerk away his hand with a laughing yelp.  The feline grinned softly as it bowed its head.  "I knew we would meet some day, young prince.  I am glad it was today."

His smile one of enjoyment, Leander argued, "I'm not a prince."

The large cat didn't argue as its bright eyes studied the child standing with one arm still wrapped around the sorcerer's leg.

"Kasir," Squall interjected quietly, gaining the feline's attention.  "There's is another I want to introduce to you - Seifer Almasy."

The slender brunet turned and blue-gray eyes settled on the blond lord for the first time since the large Shumi's arrival.  Instantly dark eyebrows furrowed at the sight before him, concern dulling the glow of stormy eyes as Squall attempted a step forward and nearly tripped from the forgotten child clamped onto his leg.

Meanwhile, without waiting for a more formal introduction, the Shumi stepped pass the two sorcerers and approached the lord.  The beast's smile was soon lost as the distance closed between them and the Shumi stopped a few short feet in front of the silent nobleman.  Golden-green eyes narrowed harshly as heart-shaped nostrils flared and its long ears perked slightly, the movement causing a faint jingle of the beads in its fur.

"You are Leonhart's kri'sange?" the Shumi asked the blond in open surprise.

"No," Squall quickly replied for the lord.  "My blood was needed to save his life some time ago and that is what you smell."

Seifer stared at the dark-haired sorcerer, curious at the man's urgent need to clear up the feline's apparent misunderstanding.

The Shumi purred a soft chuckle as he glanced back over his shoulder.  "His scent covers you, rya prahtr.  Why hide your bond?"

"We are not bonded," Squall stated with a cold gleam to his eyes, but Seifer was more interested in the man's tone of voice.  He knew he had heard the inflection once before, but couldn't remember the particular circumstance.  His gaze drifting in thought, Seifer glanced down at the man's midsection and smiled at the sight of a hand gloved in soft leather resting there, a more common happenstance in the past couple of weeks.

The Shumi smirked and returned its luminescent gaze to the lord.  "Do you have a tongue, golden one, or does Leonhart speak for you?"

"I didn't wish to interrupt," Seifer replied with forced courtesy.

The feline cocked its head in a curious tilt that didn't suit the immense beast.  "You are angry."

Though the blond had the suspicion the Shumi had already sensed his possessiveness towards the sorcerer, Seifer shrugged indifferently.  "We were attacked by your people.  It has left me on edge."

Intelligent eyes narrowed in thought, moments before the large beast began to laugh in a roar filled tone.  "Ifurit, you think I will steal your mate from you."

"Kasir..." Squall warned from behind, but Seifer chose to respond despite the brunet's obvious desire to avoid the topic.

"Forgive me for those assumptions, but Squall is... particular about those who are allowed to touch him."

As Squall growled out Seifer's name, the Shumi smiled with a broad flash of teeth.  "Words of truth.  That is rare from a human."  The feline then placed a large paw at its chest and announced, "I am Kasir, golden one, H'rugur to my tribe and prahtr to Leonhart."

Though clueless what the words meant, Seifer mimicked the Shumi's gesture.  "I am Seifer Almasy, Lord of the Almasy Estate and former Captain in the Imperial Army."

Kasir nodded and reached out with a paw-like hand.  "May I know your scent, Seifer-Almasy?"

Without a vocal reply, Seifer purposefully removed the shredded glove from his unhealed hand and placed the exposed hand onto the dark pads of rough skin.  Schooling his expression, he tried to ignore the feel of claws brushing against his arm when the large paw closed over his.  Kasir then bent down and pressed its cold nose against skin, uncaring of the mess of blood and cut flesh.  The feline breathed deeply, its ears twitching several times before its paw closed more tightly around the offered hand.

"You are the other father."

Seifer stared down at the head of the Shumi, mildly concerned for the safety of his entrapped hand.  "If you mean Leander, then yes, I'm his father."

Feral green eyes glanced up at the lord, the threat of death visible in the poisonous depths in the moment before the cat straightened and glanced back over his shoulder.  "Why have you brought this man here?"

Squall met the feline's glare with one of his own.  "Seifer isn't the same man he was in the past."

"He destroyed you," Kasir hissed in return, the harsh emotion making Seifer scowl at the thought of what the Shumi had seen when the dark-haired sorcerer had returned after Leander's birth.

"Muro-kas prahtr, you know very well that I was already in ruins before Seifer laid a hand on me."

Seifer didn't pay attention to the Shumi's response, something mostly spoken in its rumbling language.  Instead, he studied the brunet's guarded expression and noted the familiar grayness to stormy eyes.  Seifer immediately recognized the sign that Squall was done with the topic at hand and would only grow less responsive with further pressure.  The blond lord then glanced downward and noticed the half-lidded gaze of his young son, Leander's exhaustion not yet apparent to the protective servant despite the child clinging onto dark pants.

"Forgive me for interrupting," Seifer said during a pause within growled words, "But I would appreciate having my arm returned to me."

Bewilderment shining in its eyes, Kasir glared down at the blond-haired man for the dully spoken words.  "I should kill you for the pain you caused Leonhart and you want me to release you?"

Seifer chuckled at the beast.  "'Leonhart' isn't some damsel to be avenged.  If he had wished me dead, then I wouldn't have been spared a last breath to beg for mercy."

The Shumi's gaze shifted vaguely to Squall, a man with a small body, cold eyes, and deadly skill.  After a gruff sound of agreement, Kasir then commented, "But that does not explain why he would want you."

"I wouldn't assume that he 'wants' me around.  At this point, I imagine that he see me as something akin to a necessary evil in his unfortunate life."

Long pointed ears perked at the response, Kasir showing its curiosity as its large head tilted to the right.  But instead of more words, the feline nodded as it slowly released the hand in its hold, making certain that its claws tore into the lord's coat sleeve before Kasir stepped aside.

Seifer breathed a sigh in quiet frustration at the games of cats, but paid little mind to the Shumi.  Instead, he stepped directly to his son and lover, and without a word of intent, Seifer bent down to take Leander into his arms.  The growing boy didn't fuss at the hold, that being Seifer's final proof that the young sorcerer had exhausted himself with too much walking and the extended use of magic.  Though his son was heavier than he last remembered, the blond encouraged Leander to rest his head at a broad shoulder and hoped that the boy could find some rest in that position.

"It's been a long day," Squall murmured as he brushed his fingers through the boy's dark hair.

Seifer smiled at the comment, hearing the brunet's hidden apology for not noticing Leander's fatigue.  "We've all been through enough today.  Is there any chance that this 'prather' of yours will invite us into their village or will my presence make things too difficult?"

Fine dark eyebrows lowered with irritation as the sorcerer glared at the cat, but Squall wasn't given the chance to speak when another called out in a whistling language that Seifer couldn't decipher except for the mention of 'Kasir'.  Squall, however, seemed to brighten at the voice and turned in the direction of the call.  From the shadows of the forest, a tall figure stepped into the fading light of late afternoon as the younger Shumi from before trailed behind.  The newcomer was nothing like the crimson-furred Shumi, the creature bearing grayish wrinkled skin, a small face with a very long and fat chin, dark bug-like eyes, and large hands with lengthy fingers that reminded Seifer of tentacles.  The creature was also dressed in a long robe of indigo and silver, giving it an impression of reason compared to Kasir's air of brutality.

Slowing to a stop, the creature managed an odd smile and lifted its arms in Squall's direction.  "It isss you, Heart of the Lion.  Kasssir wasss to tell usss if you were indeed... you."

The dark-haired sorcerer didn't hesitate in approaching the tall creature and even allowed its long arms to wrap around his body.  Returning the hold with a single hand resting on top of a stooped shoulder, Squall said, "Dzieden, it is good to see you."

"We are alwaysss here.  But you, we feared that we would not sssee you again."  The creature pulled back and focused dark eyes on the brunet.  "And now, you are here, giving me work yet again."

"They attacked first," Squall clarified with a small smile.  "And I wasn't alone in teaching those reckless cubs their place."

The tall creature straightened at the comment, its shadowed gaze shifting to the lord and the burden in his arms.  Though without eyebrows, it still managed to show confusion as wrinkled skin above its eyes furrowed in thought.  Eventually returning its attention to the sorcerer, the creature stared for a long moment while its long fingers shifted over narrow shoulders, and then abruptly, its small eyes widened in surprise.  "Ifurit, you are--"

"Dzieden," Squall chided quietly.  "I didn't ask you to use your healing abilities on me."

Though stunned to hear that the Shumi also had healers, Seifer asked without thought, "Squall, are you injured?"

As the brunet groaned, the tall creature chuckled with a whispering edge.

"Dzieden," Kasir growled, showing his anxiousness concerning the sorcerer.  "Do not listen to him if he needs healing."

Its laughter ending, the creature replied, "Heart of the Lion isss fine, but thossse cubsss will be embarrassssed to learn they were defeated by a magic ussser burdened with life."

Dumbfounded, Kasir looked to Squall in an obvious plea for the man to deny the healer's claim.  Squall, however, merely sighed and placed an arm around his waist before glaring at the dark-eyed creature for revealing the hated secret.  With the sorcerer's lacking denial, Kasir then looked to the lord and promptly snarled once seeing the man's pleased smirk.

"You forced him to--"

"Kasir," Squall threatened lowly.  "If you dare say that Seifer raped me, I swear that you'll be joining those cubs in the snow and mud."

Seifer held back a laugh at the expressive wince of the large feline, knowing well what it felt like to be the object of the sorcerer's ire.  But the blond lord became quickly distracted when Leander shifted in his arms and a cold nose pressed against his neck as the boy shivered lightly.  Tightening his hold, Seifer interjected, "It may not be my place, but the day isn't getting any longer and Ander certainly isn't getting any lighter.  A warm meal and a bed for the night would be appreciated."

"More than a night," Squall corrected as he looked between the gray-skinned creature and the furry beast.  "Seifer has plans in place to destroy the current Empire.  More importantly, he aspires to assassinate the Emperor and Ultimecia, but these plans cannot succeed without the aid of the Moombas.  We have come to ask for their skill and lives."

Dzieden hummed gravely at the declaration.  "Yesss, more than a night indeed.  Kasssir, take Heart of the Lion and hisss loved onesss home.  In the morning, the Eldersss will gather and lisssten to your plea."

Kasir growled something under its breath, earning a harsh glare from the healer.  The hierarchy of the Shumi became apparent when the feline couldn't match the creature's gaze and bowed its head in consent despite a paw-like hand fisted in frustration.  "Understood, Eahler.  You will take care of the cubs?"

"Of courssse.  They have sssuffered long enough for attacking Heart of the Lion," the creature replied with a slight smile, acting much like the other healers Seifer had known in his lifetime.  Apparently anyone who had gotten hurt from acting on pure stupidity deserved to suffer in his 'stupidity'.  "Sssekre will guard me in your ssstead," Dzieden added, referring to the silent Shumi that had initially left to fetch Kasir and was currently silent behind the tall healer.

The more experienced feline huffed at the option.  "I will return once I show Leonhart the new entrance.  Stay here until then."

The healer waved off the Shumi's demand, Dzieden already walking toward the most injured cat, the one that had foolishly decided to attack Squall from behind.

With a rumbling breath, Kasir gave up on the creature and stepped toward the forest while motioning for the others to follow him.  Squall glanced back at the lord and smiled vaguely in a wordless comfort that they had been accepted thus far.  Seifer forced a smile in return, but the expression fell away once the brunet had turned and stepped quickly to keep pace with the large cat.  The blond looked down at the small body pressed against his chest, Leander managing to fall asleep despite the awkward position.  Not for the first time, Seifer was concerned that taking the young boy into the Shumi's world would strip away most of the child's innocence.  Any other son of a respected nobleman wouldn't be exposed to blood and death until they served their years in the Imperial Army, but Seifer had reluctantly accepted the fact that Leander had been born into a world that didn't want him around.  Brushing dark bangs from the boy's face, Seifer tried to imagine Squall around the same age and asking his father to let him train with the Shumi.  It was beyond ridiculous, but an apparent necessity for a child with sorcerer blood.  And no matter how much Seifer wished more for his son, he wasn't going to leave Leander defenseless against the Empire.

After placing a kiss against the forehead of the sleeping boy, Seifer followed behind the large feline and the dark-haired sorcerer, his green eyes quiet as he watched from a distance and hoped to Hyne that he was suffering from paranoia whenever he noticed the furry beast brushing too close to Squall.

~ > < ~

With one arm pressed against stone and the other holding back a thick curtain, Seifer stood at the entrance of a small house that had clearly been created by the unique abilities of a sorcerer.  Staring out across a forest of lush green leaves and bright unusual flowers, the green-eyed lord found it difficult to believe what he was seeing.  From the snow-covered ground and frosty mountain air, Kasir had led them to a hidden cavern that promptly became a maze of dark tunnels that only the cat could navigate through.  When the darkness of caverns had finally opened to night skies, Seifer had been thankful and then amazed at the sight of a virtual jungle bathed in moonlight.  Squall had tried to explain that the heat from the earth element kept the land warm and melted the snow before it could reach the village, but Seifer was still awed by the valley of the Shumi.

"Aren't you tired?"

Without moving from his position, the lord replied, "Exhausted."

"Then why are you standing there like an idiot?"

Seifer shrugged.  "My head is filled with too many thoughts for me to sleep."

A knowing hum sounded before Squall stepped close and placed a hand on the raised arm holding back the curtain.  The brunet was careful in forcing the arm to lower and release the old rug that served as a door, darkness promptly settling in the room sparse of all furniture except a mattress of feathers in the back corner.  Seifer didn't particularly care for the lack of light and attempted to reach out for the curtain once again, but Squall prevented the move.

"Come to bed, Seifer, and you can tell me all about these supposed thoughts of yours."

Unable to deny the sorcerer's request, the lord allowed the smaller man to lead him towards the meager bed in the main room of the home.  There was only one other room to the building, a tiny room where Leander had been put to bed.  Aside from the entrance, the only other openings in the wide room were two small windows that let in faded moonlight and created deep shadows on stone.  Overall it was a cold place, something Squall had admitted guiltily and then promptly excused by saying it was difficult for a lone sorcerer to force the earth to form walls and ceilings that would keep away the rain.  But Seifer held the suspicion that there was another reason for the coldness that drove away the warmth of the valley.

Slumping down onto the mattress of soft sheets and rolling onto his back, Seifer watched as Squall lowered with a little more grace and settle onto his side to better face the lord.  Even though the sorcerer said nothing as he focused stormy eyes on the blond, Squall was a master of saying everything with his silence and Seifer couldn't last against the shadow-darkened gaze.

"What does 'prather' mean?"

Eyes narrowing with amusement, Squall replied.  "It's pronounced prahtr and it means 'brother'."

His entire body relaxing at the response, Seifer breathed out a chuckle.  "Fuck, is that all?"

"Why, what did you think it meant?"

"Don't give me that, princeling.  What else am I supposed to think when a Hyne-damned overgrown kitten comes out of nowhere and you let him rub his body against yours?"

"You're supposed to remember that I come from a background that disapproves of two men being together, let alone a sorcerer mixing with nonhumans."

"Yeah, well altogether, I was expecting a better welcome than what we received.  I thought these Shumi knew and trusted you."

With a familiar sigh of annoyance at needing to speak in length, Squall began into his explanation.  "The last time I came here, it was shortly after Leander was born and I only stayed for a few months.  Since then, I traveled for almost two years and eventually found my way back to the Almasy Estate, which means it has been almost six years since I've stayed in this village."

"And what, they forgot you after only six years?"

"In a sense," the sorcerer replied.  "What you don't understand is the Shumi tribe.  When we walked through the village, did you notice that the ones who look like Dzieden outnumber the Shumi we fought?"

"Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.  What are those creatures?"

With a small laugh, Squall said, "Dzieden and the 'creatures' like him are the true Shumi.  Male and female, they are born with the same features that resemble some sea animals that I've seen in the past.  But once the male Shumi mature and reach an age when they can reproduce, they are given a choice - to stay as they are and live a long life filled with wisdom, or to evolve and become a Moomba who protects the village with his body."

"Then... Those cats and Kasir are Moomba?"

Squall nodded once.  "Kasir's change occurred almost two decades ago.  He is one of the oldest Moomba in this tribe and is well respected, thus he is their H'rugur or war leader.  Those other Moomba we met, however, are mere cubs who evolved maybe three or four years ago at the most."

"And it's been six years since you were here... But then I still don't understand - wouldn't they have known you before they changed?"

"When a Shumi evolves, the past is almost entirely left behind.  Walking, talking, and general social skills all have to be relearned within their first two years of rebirth before they can begin their training as a warrior.  The only thing they will remember from their Shumi life is the mate who helped them to complete the change and guarded them when they first began their life as a Moomba.  With that being the case, the only 'Squall Leonhart' those cubs know are from tall tales that the females enjoy spreading to their mates who have forgotten everything."

Seifer stared up at the darkened ceiling and the deep shadows created from the faded light through a small window.  Thinking of what he had been told, the lord believed every word, but still found his creativity lacking when he tried to imagine the life of the odd creatures that his lover called friends.

Squall yawned softly before placing a chilled hand on the lord's chest.  "Kasir told me that his youngest son has chosen to take the path of the Moomba next week.  Maybe then you can better understand what it means to be a Shumi."

Though curious what such an event would entail, Seifer didn't want to waste his questions while the sorcerer was in a talkative mood.  Needing to speak what was truly on his mind, the lord said, "That overgrown feline... Kasir said that I had destroyed you."

The brunet stilled at the comment, either unable or unwilling to answer the implied question.

With a hard swallow, Seifer rolled onto his side and leaned up on an elbow to stare down at the smaller man.  "I need to know, Squall.  What happened?"

Eyes pale blue in the sparse moonlight, Squall met the lord's gaze.  "You didn't know who I was.  It wasn't like you meant to ruin me."

"And that excuses what I did?"

"No..."

Seifer waited as patiently as he could, but when it became obvious that the sorcerer wasn't about to embellish, the lord growled out, "Fucking Hyne, you still aren't going to tell me anything, are you?  You even promised that one day I'll know the truth, and because of that promise, I've tired to prove myself to you, but damn it, princeling, what else am I supposed to do?  What else can I do to earn your trust, because I have to be honest, at this point I am completely out of ideas."

Blue-gray eyes shifted before Squall admitted distractedly, "I've asked myself that very question time and time again."

Dully shocked that the brunet had spent many of his precious thoughts on the issue, Seifer asked warily, "And did you come up with any answers?"

The man nodded vaguely, the shift of dark bangs hiding pale eyes.

Darkened green eyes studied the face of the sorcerer, troubled by the apprehension he saw there.  "Were you going to share those answers with me?  Because Hyne knows that I need the help."

"... First, I have a different question for you - what will you do when I tell you everything?  You can't change what has happened and you have already done your best to make this life easier for me to bear."

"Squall," Seifer whispered, resisting the urge to reach out and touch the sorcerer.  "While it's true that I can't do anything to fix the past, I also can't make proper amends for crimes that I'm unable to remember."

"It's not that simple," Squall argued while glancing away from the pleading gaze.  "The moment I tell you about that night, everything will change.  You will either be disgusted with me or with yourself and I... Against my beliefs otherwise, I've grown comfortable with you by my side."

Brief shock fading away to an incredulous smile, Seifer placed a hand beneath the brunet's chin and encouraged Squall to lift his eyes.  "That's why you haven't told me?  Because you think I would desert you?"

Pale eyes narrowing into an impressive glare, the sorcerer corrected the man's assumptions.  "Before last month, you didn't deserve to know.  You were arrogant and had no understanding of what you were demanding from me.  But then out of nowhere, despite the risk of losing me, you told me the truth about what happened between you and Leander when he was an infant.  You were honest and respectful and... I'm afraid that you've gained a ridiculous sense of honor that will prompt you to do something incredibly stupid once you know about our past."

"Hyne above, I never thought... But if I remember correctly, weren't you the one who told me that a person who forgets the past without learning from it is a coward?"  Cupping his hand at a soft cheek, the lord brushed his thumb beneath a bright eye of metallic blue.  "I'm tired of being a coward in your eyes, Squall.  Please, tell me."

The servant briefly closed his eyes, dark lashes a strong contrast to pale cheeks as they fluttered in silent thought.  Once coming to his final decision, Squall reopened his eyelids to reveal irises of dull silver that Seifer hadn't seen in months, not since after their first night together and the piano lesson with Leander, the first day the sorcerer had come to terms that he was pregnant for a second time.  Squall lifted his hand and pulled away the heated touch of the lord, but then he continued to hold the calloused hand as he pressed it against the mattress.

"After the Massacre, I wasn't well," he began in a somber, disconnected tone.  "The death of my father and uncle tore at my heart and left a bleeding wound that became infected with grief and rage.  Kiros, the Dark-Eyed Shaman as you know him, found me in the ruins of the palace and helped me to the safety of the Shumi village, but the moment I was able to walk under my own strength, I left with naive plans to assassinate Ultimecia."

With a weak imitation of a smile, Squall continued, "I was an arrogant fool who never considered that the outside world was nothing like our small country.  I was the Sorcerer Prince, a child who could walk through the market and take whatever fruit I desired without a single payment.  I never abused that privilege, but then again, I had never gone a day without a meal whether in the palace or while living with the Shumi.

"By the time I had reached the Imperial capitol, it was a year later and madness had darkened my heart.  With no true skill beyond the ability to fight, I lived on the streets and worked meager jobs to earn enough money to survive while planning my revenge.  After months of observing the palace between jobs, I located a weakness in their defenses and I made my way into that cursed castle.  I don't know how many men I killed, and I imagine that there were a few unfortunate maids as well, but when I came face-to-face with Ultimecia... I failed.  My connection with the elements had faded with my madness and I couldn't match the absolute power of the sorceress.  After a lengthy fight, she defeated me with a spear made of ice through my chest and I fell through a tower window to the ground below."

Stunned that the slender man had made his way into the palace and survived the magic of the sorceress, all at the age of fifteen nonetheless, Seifer asked in a hoarse voice, "How did she not kill you?"

Squall replied with a vague smile, "As you've seen before, I'm skilled at making myself dead to Ultimecia's spells.  I managed to crawl away and hide in the shadows while the Imperial guards and her magic searched for me.  By Shiva's blessing alone, I wasn't found that night, but I was badly injured.  All of the scraps of money I had saved in the previous year were quickly spent on a shady surgeon who wouldn't ask questions."

Seifer glanced down at the sorcerer's chest, but when he attempted to move his hand to look for the scar from that night, Squall tightened his hold and shook his head in a silent sign that he didn't want to stop speaking.  Understanding that he may never know the truth if he stopped the brunet at that moment, Seifer nodded in an encouragement for Squall to continue.

"After that night, winter came far too quickly and harder than I knew up to that point.  My country was always cold during the winters, but I until that first winter in the capitol, I had never seen feet of snow landing on streets, merchants leaving for warming territories, and icicles hanging nearly two feet in length that would crash down...  When you stumbled upon me, I had survived five months of winter on the streets - unable to leave for fear of starvation in the wilderness and only able to scrape together enough food to live and hope for another chance against Ultimecia."

Noting the vague shivers of the sorcerer, Seifer forced himself to be still and not interrupt the man's story.  In his mind's eye, he could imagine the young brunet huddled in the corner of some alleyway, too proud to steal the food he could easily obtain, too stubborn to leave the capitol without achieving his revenge, and too young to realize that he was slowly destroying himself.  It was the very image of the obstinate man Seifer's had grown to love.

"You were drunk," Squall said simply, his expression unreadable as he recalled the infamous night.  "You stumbled into me and promptly vomited onto the only cloak I owned.  You were apologetic at first, called me 'miss' several times while using your handkerchief to clean off the vomit, and eventually after manhandling me for a good minute, you realized that I didn't have breasts.  You changed at that moment, almost sober when you offered me handful of coins in exchange for sex.  I refused and walked away, but you followed and kept increasing the price until... You offered four hundred gold for a single night."

Seifer blinked, impressed with himself to offer the rather ridiculous price for a peasant off the street, but knowing his tastes from back then, he had probably felt that Hyne was smiling down on him when he had found Squall, a man who had an elegant beauty that made most of the noblewomen in the Empire appear commonplace.

"Frankly, I couldn't refuse.  I was cold and hungry, the wound from the sorceress hadn't healed properly, and I still desired my revenge.  There was so much I could do with that gold and all it required was a night of satisfying a drunken idiot lord."  Squall paused in his tale, dark eyebrows drawing close together as his unfocused gaze receded into the past.  "It hurt.  That's mostly what I remember aside from your demands for me to hide my male features.  You were frustrated, hated that I made you hard when an equally beautiful woman would never do.  But when all was said and done, you paid me as promised and let me recover in the room you had paid for the night while you returned home."

"Wait," Seifer pleaded softly.  "I have to know - aside from the obvious, how did I hurt you?"

Lifting his eyes with a blinking gaze, Squall focused on the man in front of him and eventually replied, "Nothing that caused permanent damage.  You were rough, forced me to use my mouth on you, threw me on the bed and twisted my arms while positioning me as you liked...  You choked me once, blaming me for your inability with women, but that was the worse of it.  Ultimecia had caused far more damage than you."

With a frustrated growl, Seifer pressed his forehead against the hand still holding onto his.  "Fucking Hyne, don't belittle what I did to you, Squall.  I took advantage of your bad luck and I hurt you for nothing that was your fault.  And knowing your ways, I'm certain that you are holding back on the details you don't find important."

Squall didn't reply except for a light squeeze of his hand, a wordless statement that only he would know the exact details of that night years past.

Pushing up such that he could properly look at the brunet, Seifer asked urgently, "When did you know that I had... that you were pregnant?"

"The next morning."

Though curious by the short answer after lengthy explanations, the lord didn't press the point.  "What about the money?  Did that at least help you?"

"... It was stolen before I could use it."

"What?" Seifer asked loudly, then quieting when the servant directed a harsh glare at him for potentially waking their son.  When no sound came from the adjoining room, Seifer demanded, "How could anyone steal four hundred... no, how could anyone survive after robbing you?"

His free hand drifting to his stomach, Squall replied hesitantly, "When I woke the next morning, I was sore and tired... I never noticed that there was something else wrong with me.  I left the inn while lost in thoughts about what I could do with the gold, but a small group of thugs didn't let me get far.  Apparently where you found me was a popular place for some whores and I owed a 'merchant fee' for selling myself in that area.  I intended to fight, maybe kill them, but the elements didn't react like I expected and I couldn't summon my sword in time to defend myself.  Defeated, bleeding, and my money stolen, I realized that you had done far more damage than I was prepared to handle."

Seifer breathed a pained laugh.  "Then you were left in the same state as I found you, but now pregnant along with being hungry and cold."

Squall shrugged lightly.  "You had also tipped me four gold pieces.  I learned to make it stretch."

Temporary relief faded into bewilderment and the lord prodded, "But you said that they had stolen the gold I gave you."

The slender brunet said nothing for a long moment, his eyes gray and quiet as he considered his reply.  "The inn was old and questionable without any sort of bathing facility.  I had decided to wait and clean myself at a bath house where I could more easily... remove the tip you had given me."

Seifer was standing before he realized that he had moved, and as he stared down at the dark-haired beauty, he continued to back away until hitting the wall of molded stone.  Unable to handle the sight of eyes pale in the moonlight, Seifer turned and stepped to the small window that let in light and fresh air.  A hand buried into his golden hair, the nobleman stared out at the dark jungle and forced deep breaths while resisting the urge to knock his head against solid rock.

Squall shifted on the mattress behind the broad form of the lord.  "While it was crude of you to mock me by 'tipping' my ass, those four coins helped me to survive, not to mention giving Leander a chance at life."

Something resembling a laugh erupted from Seifer, his throat instantly hurting from the unnatural noise.  "You shouldn't have been on the edge of survival in the first place!  You should have been home with your father and your uncle and everyone else you loved, living warm and safe in the comfort of the palace that your ancestors created.  You should have had a child with a woman, a proper relationship that wouldn't have left you ashamed and confused...  You should have...  You should have..."  At a lost for further words, Seifer pounded his fist against the wall, hating that his apparent purpose in the world was to aggravate the wounds that had cut deeply into the sorcerer's soul.

Silence lasted for a long moment, only the cries of night creatures sounding in the small room before Squall decided to speak.  "Then is it as I thought - has everything in my life been for nothing?"

Seifer turned sharply to face the seated brunet.  "How can you say that?  Everything good in my life is because of you.  Everything... but that shouldn't be a comfort for you," the blond said softly as he leaned back and knocked his head against the cold stone.

The rustle of sheets sounded, prompting Seifer to look at the dark-haired beauty and watch as the graceful man stepped close without hesitation.  The tall blond thought to stop the brunet and to prevent the touch of long fingers that were a great weakness of his, but Squall moved before Seifer could reach a noble decision.  Cold hands slipped beneath the edge of the lord's old shirt and slid across warm skin until settling at the man's lower back, the touch surprisingly calming and seductive in the same moment.

"It means more than you could know," Squall stated in a near whisper, his eyes glowing with a subtle white light.  "For too long I've lived in doubt and wondered why I bothered to continue the charade that any of this could be worth the pain.  And then you... You wouldn't leave me alone."

Breathing a weak chuckle at the comment, Seifer shook his head.  "You should have been more forceful in telling me to stay away."

"You assume that was possible.  After all, I left when you thought I molested Leander, I almost killed you when you learned who I was, and I otherwise did nothing to encourage your infatuation with me - what else should I have done?"

Seifer couldn't hold back a smile at the reality that Squall never stood a chance against his blind determination.  Reaching out with a careful hand, the blond lord brushed dark bangs aside to better reveal calm sapphire eyes.  There was no fear, no indecision in the clear depths, something that bewildered Seifer after everything he had heard that night.  "How can you stand being near me?"

"I don't really know, but... A single night doesn't compare to an entire year spent in your presence.  I've seen some of your best and worse traits, but more than that, I've finally noticed the change in myself.  It's been a long time since I've fought for my life, but every day I spend with you, I feel like I'm doing just that."

An eyebrow lifted in disbelief, Seifer asked, "Is that supposed to relieve my worries?"

Squall offered a slight smile in return before sliding his hands forward to rest on the waist of lean muscle.  "It's strange - your body is more firm than that night long past, and yet I don't feel afraid of surrendering myself to you."

"Blessed Hyne, you would do anything to defeat me," Seifer whispered in subtle amusement as he bent down and gently pressed his lips against Squall's.  The soft, testing kiss quickly deepened into a lasting twist of tongues that drew a pleased hum from the sorcerer.  That noise of delight, however, turned into a yawn that the brunet couldn't hold back.  Seifer chuckled into the broken kiss and focused jade eyes on his tired lover.  "And once again I have kept you up too long.  You should have said something."

"I'm pregnant, idiot, not a child.  I'm perfectly capable of knowing when I've pushed myself too hard."

Seifer smirked at the comment, fighting back the desire to point out that the sorcerer was positively the worse judge at recognizing when he was at his limit.  "Yes, my Prince, but it is late and we both know that Ander will happily wake us the moment the sun rises."

Squall hummed at that reality and drew back from the large blond before he took hold of the man's wrist and led him to the mattress resting on the ground.  It was a simple matter to stretch out onto the soft sheets and fit against each other in a familiar position with Seifer on his back and Squall pressed along his side with his head on a broad shoulder.  With a tired smile and slightly reddened eyes, Seifer brushed his fingers along the brunet's side in a soothing rhythm that wouldn't disturb the man's sleep.  Squall shifted once with an annoyed grumble at the lord's inability to rest quietly, but in short time, soft breaths settled into an easy cadence that Seifer recognized well.

Waiting as long as he could, Seifer moved his hand to the arm resting on his chest and carefully pulled back on the servant's sleeve to reveal pale skin.  Green eyes immediately focused on the sight of the long scar that still bore the distinctive imprints of stitch work.  It had been three months past and yet Seifer could still taste the poison that had been forced down his throat, a magically created potion that would have killed him if it weren't for Squall.  Hearing the sorcerer's tale and knowing of his pain, Seifer couldn't understand why he was allowed to live when his death would have made things so much easier for the former prince.

"I don't regret it."

Seifer jumped at the quiet voice, then surprised to notice that Squall had opened his eyes and was looking at the revealed scar.  "You... you were asleep," the lord accused before realizing what the brunet had said.  "Wait, what was that again?"

Squall smiled lazily, his eyes focused on the scar line along his arm.  "After Ward had taken us to safety, I had cut your arm and then my own before I recognized how desperate I was to save your life.  More than that, it didn't feel wrong to give my blood to the man I once hated and feared.  And while I thought your emotions for me were confused and temporary, I knew you respected what I was and that you would treasure my gift to you."

His hold tightening around the slim wrist, Seifer corrected, "I respect who you are, princeling.  I can't say that I knew who you were."

Squall hummed a noncommittal sound as he closed his eyes.  "You have my blood, my flame, and my body... what more do you want from me?"

"Do you really need to ask?"

"... You ask for the impossible."

"I wouldn't say that," Seifer said in a quiet purr.  "That kitten friend of yours didn't seem to care that my scent covered you... Well, at least until he figured out that I was Leander's other father."

Dark eyebrows furrowed together in troubled thought, the brunet appearing much like a child trapped in a bad dream.  "I will speak to Kasir about that."

"I'm certain you will," the blond lord murmured as he rested his cheek against dark chestnut hair and finally allowed his exhaustion to overwhelm his thoughts and worries.  There would always be questions, most without answers, but it seemed the skittish sorcerer wasn't about to vanish into the night and leave the lord with even more uncertainty.  There was time, and while not an overly patient man, Seifer knew a war could not be won from a single battle.  And while each battle had left a few scars and the rare light of hope, the real prize was barely visible on the horizon and an experienced officer knew when it was better to sleep and recover for another fight.  After all, one never could tell which battle would be the last and it was best to be prepared.

Chapter Text

Beyond the rocky foothills laced with frost, past the caverns of dark crystal, and within the jungle of wide leaves and thick vines laid the infamous Shumi village.  Contrary to the folklore that spoke of shelters built with dried bones and bloody mud, the village was simple in nature with numerous commonplace huts surrounding a huge domed structure.  The shrine honoring Ifrit had been built in the long past from a collection of lofty trees that were twisted and tied with their own vines, the trees then growing over time to form the living structure cherished by the Shumi.  Set far apart from that respected shrine and the large huts of white wood stood a single stone building, its dark color giving it the appearance of a misplaced cave instead of the home it served on rare occasion.

Seated inside that blemish within the peaceful jungle, Squall watched the stirring village beyond the window and dully wondered if the Shumi resented the magically created structure that couldn't be harmed by any normal weapon.  Dzieden had denied it once, claiming that the Shumi could feel the spirit of Shiva residing in the rock and they were pleased that she could rest near the shrine dedicated to her lover.  Squall knew it was a lie, but at the time, he could also recognized the effort by the Shumi clan to help him feel safe and to give him time to heal, time he had greatly needed after the unwanted pregnancy and leaving his child behind.

With an abrupt kick, the child within him stirred to life and encouraged Squall to adjust his position on a wide chair covered with soft furs and feather-stuffed pillows.  The piece of furniture was the latest addition to the small home, everything donated by the females of the village who had been horrified to learn of the sparse living conditions for the sorcerer burdened with life.  The bits and pieces of furniture made the place feel more like a true home, but Squall had only to touch the dark walls to know the truth.  Magic burned within the stone, his own energy that plainly reflected his state of mind from the time when he had created the small building.  It wasn't a pleasant reminder of the past and Squall feared the remembered emotions that had been buried deep in his soul.

"Mommy...?"

Squall looked at the thick rug separating the two rooms and smiled softly at the appearance of his son, Leander rubbing his eye with a fisted hand.  Choosing to ignore the boy's use of the hated parental term, Squall asked him gently, "Did you sleep well?"

Leander grumbled an irritated, "Yeah," as he stepped toward the seated brunet.  Without asking permission, he proceeded to climb onto the chair that wasn't quite big enough to seat the two of them.  With an amused sigh, Squall helped to move the boy such that Leander rested his legs on the sorcerer's lap, space that was beginning to decrease after almost four months of pregnancy.

Jade-colored eyes still moist after his lengthy nap, Leander complained, "My chest still hurts."

"It will fade," Squall replied with a knowing smile.  The lesson for the day had involved the movement of fire, an important concept required for numerous spells that included those to freeze a man in place and to destroy any obstacle, magical or otherwise.  Leander had attempted to control the fire with the intention to encase a small stone in frost, but the unstable element had rebelled and chilled the boy's lungs instead.  "Moving fire is a difficult skill and nearly every sorcerer is scorned by the element the first time they try.  But you're quite lucky, cub.  My father once told me that he nearly lost his hand to frostbite when he first attempted it."

His smile tentative, Leander asked, "What about you?"

"... I'm a rare sorcerer whose primary element is fire.  It has never fought against my desires."

"Oh," Leander said with a disappointed frown, and then fished the silver necklace out from beneath his rumbled shirt.  Thumbing the image of the roaring lion, the boy asked, "Did Grandfather become a great sorcerer?"

Squall breathed a laugh at the concept of Laguna Loire being a 'great sorcerer'.  "No one could compare to your grandfather.  But don't let this worry you, Leander.  You will grow stronger in time, I promise you."

Appearing far from assured, Leander rested his head against a narrow shoulder.  "But it's so hard and I want to help Father keep you safe."

Momentarily surprised by the admission, Squall didn't reply as he stared down at the young boy.  It was a strange reversal to be cared for and protected by the child he had guarded in secret for too many years, and though a part of him bristled at the idea that he needed protection, Squall felt an unrealized weight lift from his chest.  His blue-gray eyes shining soft silver, the brunet brushed his lips against Leander's worried brow and whispered his thanks to the small boy.

Interrupting the quiet moment, the heavy rug at the entrance of their home fluttered open without warning.  Seifer took one step inside before noticing the eyes focused on him, and with pale lips settling into a deep scowl, the lord commented, "I thought Dez told you to rest in bed, not on a wooden chair."

Squall shook his head at the lord's use of 'Dez' instead of the Shumi's true name.  "It was a suggestion, one you forced out from Dzieden when you didn't believe his word that I'm fine."

"You fainted."

"I tripped, you idiot.  Only you think I fainted."

Seifer opened his mouth in further argument, but instead surrendered with a growled insult toward sorcerers and their pets.  An unnoticed basket was set onto a nearby table, the sight promptly drawing the attention of the seated brunet.  "Kasir mentioned that the ceremony is taking place shortly before sunset.  We should probably get going."

Hardly hearing the man's words, Squall continued to stare at the basket covered by a gray cloth.  A faint fragrance teased his senses and stole away his focus until he realized what could be hidden within the basket.  "Treranja?"

"Hn?  Oh, you mean this weird fruit Sekre made me pick?" Seifer asked, referring to Kasir's second son.  He then removed a large red citrus from the basket and glared at it while grumbling, "I climbed a fucking thirty-foot tree for these things, so they better be as good as he swears."

Promptly averting his gaze from the sight of strong fingers digging into the fruit, Squall placed a hand on Leander's shoulder and encouraged the drowsy boy to move.  Freed from the heavy weight, the sorcerer pushed himself up from the wide chair.  "And what exactly did Sekre say when he described this fruit?"

"I don't know," the blond replied distractedly while pealing away the rind of the fruit and revealing the sweet pulp inside.  "Something about it being so good that even a wild beast would eat it out of your hand."

"Obviously Sekre needs to work on his vocabulary."

Confused, Seifer glanced up from his attempt to open the fruit, only then noticing the dark-haired sorcerer who had moved directly in front of him.  Before Seifer could voice a questioning word, Squall wrapped a firm hand around the lord's wrist and stole the Treranja from the loose hold.  Pale eyes were then drawn to the sight of thick crimson juice that coated callused fingers.  Only able to endure a moment of resistance, Squall leaned forward and used the very tip of his tongue to lap at the bittersweet juice.  Seifer inhaled sharply at the caress of the dexterous tongue, that turning into a low groan when a finger was drawn into the sorcerer's warm mouth.

"Shit, I guess that the kid meant 'lion' instead of 'beast'?"

Instead of a vocal reply, Squall chose to move onto the other two fingers covered in juice, unable to remember if the crimson fruit had always tasted so amazing.

"Father, Father, can I try some?"

Startled by his son's innocent request, Squall jerked back from his tasting and released his hold on Seifer's wrist, much to the disappointment of the large blond.  Heat burned within the sorcerer's chest, but Squall managed a normal expression when he tore apart a section of the Treranja and handed it to the curious youth.  Leander stuck out a careful tongue to taste the red citrus, and once discovering the flavor to his liking, he bit deeply into the juicy fruit.

Returning his attention to the lord, Squall hid a wince at the man's overly interested expression.  "We should go.  It would be rude to be late."

"And Hyne forbid we're rude to our hosts," Seifer agreed with a broad smirk.  "Though perhaps we should leave the fruit here for later, hmm?"

"That would be best," Squall commented as he placed the opened fruit back into the basket, and then hesitated before tearing apart a small section of the Treranja.  Avoiding the gaze of intense emerald, Squall slipped past the large man and exited the home without waiting for the others to follow.

They walked at a languid pace toward the heart of the village, Seifer using the opportunity to question his son about the day's lesson.  Once hearing how the fire element had rebelled and attacked the inexperienced sorcerer, Seifer voiced deep concern to Squall about pushing the boy too hard.  Squall didn't respond to the slight against his teaching methods, but instead finished the simple taste of the crimson citrus that he had craved during his first pregnancy, a small detail that Squall never expected Sekre to remember after so many years.  The additional fact that the Moomba had shared the information with Seifer was a both relieving and worrisome idea.  Kasir's family and Dzieden knew many things about the dark-haired sorcerer, things Squall had assumed would remain a secret within the village hidden away in dark mountains, but that assumption had never accounted for the existence of Seifer Almasy.

It took little time to reach the living structure that honored Ifrit, the shrine already surrounded by a large collection of grey-skinned Shumi and scarlet-colored Moomba.  Squall paused momentarily before choosing an empty place near an old hut that had seen many years of hot sunlight and unforgiving storms.  In an awkward slump, Squall managed to sit down on the mossy ground without soliciting Seifer's help, the action making the blond huff in annoyance.

Leander frowned as he looked over the crowd.  "Why are we back so far?"

"This isn't our ceremony to celebrate," Squall replied softly as he leaned back against the wall of straw and dried mud.  "Our human eyes may watch this event only because Kasir allows it.  In respect of his trust, we shouldn't interfere."

"Oh," Leander said in a child's response that he didn't truly understand what was happening around him, but he would still act as he was told.  "Can we still see everything from here?"

"Everything of importance, yes," Squall replied with a slight smile as he watched Leander lift up onto tiptoes, straining to see something that wasn't there.

With a low groan, Seifer sat next to his dark-haired lover.  "As long as we're invited to the feast afterward, I don't give a shit where we have to sit.  Hyne, you wouldn't believe the things they put me through while collecting food for tonight."

"Retrieving snared animals from thistle bushes, catching water snakes from a muddy pond, and of course, climbing very tall trees for a few pieces of fruit."

With open surprise, the nobleman stared speechlessly at the smaller man.

"Need I remind you that I trained here for five years when I was younger?  Though I suppose that I should have warned you - the Moomba are quite creative when it comes to tormenting newcomers."

Seifer blinked dumbly before shaking his head and muttering something about 'only eight-fucking-years-old', referring to the sorcerer's age when first introduced to the Shumi.

A quiet whistle sounded amongst the crowds, the barely audible noise catching on within the crowd as the Shumi breathed out whistling tones and the Moomba howled without reserve, the two sounds combining into a complex harmony that rang throughout the valley and returned with a complementary echo.  Seifer tensed at the unexpected nose while Leander watched the display with a slightly opened mouth, neither daring to ask what was happening.  Squall simply straightened and looked toward the entrance of the shrine, humming under his breath to add his additional blessing to the ceremony about to take place.

Thick vines decorated with beads and sticks parted in a clatter, the sight encouraging the crowd to increase their voices as Dzieden appeared from within the shrine.  Dressed in a bright purple robe, he smiled with a slight lift of his enormous chin before stepping aside and holding back the dark vines.  A pair of Shumi stepped out into the afternoon light, both at least half the size of the Shumi elder.  Their appearance caused a few whooping calls from the crowd, Squall easily assuming that Kasir and his sons were announcing their pleasure of the youngest son's choice in becoming a Moomba.

"Which one is that kitten's son?" Seifer murmured into Squall's ear, using the opportunity to slip an arm around the brunet's waist.

The sorcerer couldn't fault the man for his question - male or female, the Shumi had no identifying features to easily separate the two genders.  "The one in red is Kehrei. It symbolizes his choice to transform into a Moomba.  His partner, Peirra is dressed in brown to show her chosen role to become his earth and everything that supports him."

Seifer hummed lightly in a show of understanding, but his lingering hand at the brunet's waist made Squall suspicious about the lord's true intentions in asking the question.

The pair stepped in front of the crowd, shortly followed by Dzieden and another Shumi who held a collection of brightly colored vials within a dark wooden bowl.  Dzieden glanced across the crowd, his dark eyes briefly meeting the sorcerer's gaze in quiet acknowledgement, before he waved a large hand of tentacle-like fingers.  The high-pitched whistles and excited howls died down such that only echoes could be heard for many seconds.

Dzieden began the ritual with a version of the traditional speech Squall had heard several times before.  It was spoken in the Shumi's tongue, a language neither Seifer nor Leander could understand, but Squall knew it would be disrespectful and bad luck to translate for them after the elder had silenced his people's call.  In addition to that understanding, the sorcerer didn't believe the words held much importance in the ceremony and wasn't motivated to repeat the sugarcoated passages about trust, faith, and love.

Barely listening to the Shumi Elder, Squall instead watched as Kehrei was given the wooden bowl.  With the help of his partner, large fingers removed stoppers from the numerous vials and the contents only known by the elders were added to the bowl.  Every vial emptied, Kehrei waited until Dzieden's signal before he reached to his side and removed a polished dagger that Squall recognized from the transformation ceremonies of Kasir's older sons.  Kehrei placed the knife across the rim of the bowl and slowly lowered to his knees before presenting them to his chosen mate.  Peirra smiled a Shumi's smile as she took the knife without hesitation and proceeded to lift the sleeve of her robe to reveal the relatively small palm of her long-fingered hand.  First pressing the flat of the blade between her eyes, she whispered a short prayer to Ifrit, a prayer Kehrei echoed as he lifted the bowl higher.

Expecting the addition of blood, Squall smiled as Leander gasped in surprise when Peirra cut her hand and allowed the nearly black blood to flow freely.  Dzieden continued to speak as the thick blood dripped onto the mixture of powders, a mist of smoke appearing over the rim of the bowl.  Eventually Peirra's hand began to shake, but she wasn't required to suffer much longer as Dzieden stepped close and wrapped the sliced hand in a silken cloth that matched her robes.

Still kneeling, Kehrei pressed the bowl against his forehead and then against his chest before lifting the bowl to his mouth.  Squall detected only the barest hesitation from the Shumi, one for which the other Moomba wouldn't later mock him, and Kehrei drank the concoction in a rapid string of gulps.  Then there was a delay, as there was always a delay, before the potion took its effect.

A mere wisp of smoke from the Shumi's mouth was the only warning before Kehrei burst into flames.

As the Shumi's entire body was obscured by unnaturally crimson fire, the observing Moomba broke out into mournful howls, each remembering their own experience while torment by Ifrit's unforgiving touch.  Squall was thankful for that covering noise as Seifer cursed loudly and Leander cried out in shock, the outbursts typically frowned upon during the important ceremony.  The young boy then looked pleadingly at Squall, his moist green eyes worried for the life of the Shumi.  The sorcerer placed a silencing finger at his lips and nodded toward the shrine, encouraging Leander to keep watching.  Far from soothed, Leander bit his lower lip and reluctantly returned his attention to the ceremony.

Quickly losing its initial strength, the vibrant fire twisted and curled within itself, eventually revealing a dark form within the flames.  A high-pitched howl joined the others, a young voice that called out in pain and loneliness.  Unafraid of the flames, Peirra hurried forward and wrapped her arms around the burning figure, her presence acting much like dousing water as the fire twitched stubbornly before disappearing into the crimson fur of the newly born Moomba.

Nearly half the size of his original form, Kehrei stared with large amber eyes at the crowd of creatures he didn't know.  Large paws clung onto his mate, his vie'taos, and Peirra whispered gentle words to her frightened kri'sange despite the claws digging into her defenseless skin.  Dzieden concluded the ceremony with a blessing to Ifrit, and as everyone present understood the fear of the reborn child, the crowd dispersed quietly to a different location where the feast was to take place.  Only Kehrei's and Peirra's direct families remained to reintroduce themselves to the confused Moomba.

While Leander continued to stare with amazement at Kehrei's new form, Squall glanced down at the arm squeezing a touch too tightly around his waist.  He glared at Seifer with the intent to complain, but something in the man's stunned gaze kept Squall silent.  It was a familiar expression of fearful comprehension, an expression that Squall recognized well from the night when Ultimecia had visited the Almasy Estate and Seifer stumbled upon the sorcerer and Leander hidden within the dark shadows of death.  The concept of sorcerers and magic had been something innocent until that night, and though Seifer had experienced the magic involved with the Massacre, it meant something completely different to have that same magic threaten those he loved most, especially when he was powerless to fight against it.

Seeing that troubled expression for a second time, Squall wasn't certain what words could be said.

"Is that your idea of love?"

Startled, Squall drew back slightly.  "What?"

Continuing to watch the Moomba and his vie'taos, Seifer clarified, "That you must sacrifice everything you know, everything you are to be with the one person you trust more than any other... Is that what love means to you?"

"... No," Squall replied with small laugh.  "While I respect everything that the Shumi endure for love, I don't believe humans are capable of that same love."

Seifer turned to stare at the sorcerer, the nobleman's eyes dark green with an unnamed emotion.

"Be realistic, Seifer.  We can never experience this ritual, so how can we claim to experience their love?"  Shaking his head, Squall continued in a softer voice, "No, it's the same as someone claiming they know what it means to love a child, but you don't realize the intensity of that love until your own child is threatened."

Thinking through those words, Seifer eventually released a surrendering breath as he leaned forward and pressed his forehead against dark chestnut hair.  He placed his free hand at a smooth cheek and rubbed callused fingers across soft skin.  "I love you, but I fear you will never believe me."

Unable to see anything more than the lord's thick neck and a broad shoulder, Squall remained completely still within the heated hold.  At first confused by his shaken state, the sorcerer abruptly realized that he had never heard the direct words of love from Seifer.  The flirtatious lord always asked, 'have I earned your love,' or similar questions and never particularly commented on his own emotions toward the dark-haired man.  But while the words were never spoken, Squall didn't doubt the man's obsession and desire.  It was plain to see in the green-eyed gaze, and yet Squall was still surprised by the deeply toned voice telling him what he already knew.

Seifer exhaled softly and began to pull away with a barely audible apology.

Squall promptly grabbed the retreating hand and kept it in place at his cheek, but the reflexive action didn't provide the sorcerer with any words.  So he simply met the lord's confused gaze and continued to hold onto the sword-roughened hand.

Green eyes shifted as Seifer studied the face before him.  "Squall... I don't want to assume--"

"Daddy, Squall, everyone left and I'm hungry.  Can we go now?"

The interruption seemed to steal away the nobleman's strength and Seifer slumped forward while laughing bitterly under his breath.  "Hyne, who was supposed to teach him to be silent until spoken to?"

Squall commented lightly, "Leander trained hard this morning, so of course he's hungry."

"It doesn't help that you always take his side."  Sitting up straight, Seifer brushed dark hair away from blue-gray eyes.  "Will I ever get an answer from you?"

"... Not today."

Seifer gazed at the sorcerer, and despite what Squall expected at his reply, the lord smiled softly.  "Tomorrow, then."

Before Squall could argue, the large blond moved sharply to grab Leander in strong hold, the boy squealing in surprise while Seifer threatened to throw him into the closest pond if he ever interrupted an important conversation again.  By the boy's laughter, Squall was fairly certain that Leander wasn't learning his lesson at that moment, but he wasn't about to stop their play.  However, it was somewhat disconcerting when Seifer held Leander upside-down by the ankles and the boy could only giggle out his complaint.

With a tired sigh, the sorcerer used the wall to lift himself off the ground, and once standing, he placed a hand at his curved midsection.  In a faint murmur, he warned the unborn child, "It had better not be your fault that I'm losing to this fool."


Blond hair spiked with sweat and his face streaked with mud, Seifer licked the bloodied backside of his hand and grumbled at his sparring partner, "Hyne-damned kitten, stop using your fucking claws."

<"Stop moving and I won't have to grab you, sunshine,"> Kasir retorted in his natural language.

Squall smiled softly at the growled reply that Seifer wouldn't understand without a translator, but it didn't seem to matter to the blond lord.  The man's shirt removed and his hands balled into loose fists, Seifer was a mess of bloody cuts and sweat that shone in the late morning sun, an unsurprising outcome given the weaponless nature of their spar.  Kasir appeared to be in a far better state than his opponent, but Squall knew that the H'rugur was rarely driven to the point of heavy pants and matted fur.  It was an impressive display of skill that the unarmed human was giving the Moomba some trouble and Squall doubted that Seifer was aware what it meant to be standing after nearly an hour of fighting with Kasir.

Seated on a warm patch of grass, Squall watched the exchange of punches and words while he lazily toyed with the dark brown hair of his resting son.  Exhausted from both lessons and hard play, Leander dozed with half of his body curled on the lap of the sorcerer.  Meanwhile, at the boy's feet was a small and equally tired Kehrei, the Moomba only able to sway his tail while purring softly.  The ceremony taking place a week earlier, the reborn Moomba was clumsy on his feet and could only speak a few select words, but his bright amber eyes spoke of rare intelligence for a recently transformed Shumi.

<"My, my, how lovely.  I haven't seen our H'rugur this excited in years.">

With a slight smile at the whispered language of the Shumi, Squall replied in kind, <"Seifer appears to be enjoying himself as well.">

Dzieden chortled lightly as he stepped close and stood beside the seated man.  <"And what of you?  It's hard to imagine that you would be satisfied while watching others battle.">

<"I have learned that there are more battles in this life than those dealing with fists and weapons.">

<"A hard lesson, indeed,"> the Shumi commented as he glanced down and smiled at the sight of the new Moomba resting on top of Leander's feet.  <"So this is where young Kehrei has vanished to.  His vie'taos only mentioned that he went off to play.">

<"They literally ran into each other this morning, and after tending to their bumps and bruises, they haven't separated since,"> Squall explained with his own pleased smile.  The stress of traveling and their first meeting with the Shumi had left Leander on edge over the past weeks, but one afternoon of play with the curious Moomba had helped Leander to regain his excited smiles and free laughter.  And though Seifer had shown vocal concern over the young Moomba's claws, the blond lord was defeated the moment Leander began to laugh while wrestling with the feline.  Neither Seifer or Squall had realized that it had grown increasing rare to hear the carefree laughter from their son.

<"How interesting.  A newly born Moomba rarely wants to leave the side of his vie'taos.  Perhaps this is another play of destiny for these two to meet and form the same kinship you and Kasir share.">

<"Your old age has gotten the better of you, Dzieden.  Kasir hated me when I first came to this village.">

<"A hatred you returned in full, if I remember correctly, but obviously your sons are far wiser and simply decided to move directly into kinship.">

Squall chose not to argue, unable to deny that his initial rivalry with Kasir had been a little bit more than foolish.

<"But I'm afraid that I didn't come here to speak about the past,"> the Shumi Elder stated softly.  <"It has been many days since your arrival and I thought that you would like to have some insight about our discussions concerning your request to grant Seifer-Almasy the aid of the Shumi.">

The dark-haired sorcerer straightened at the offer of information.  <"The Elders still haven't reached a decision?">

<"Frankly, there is some confusion about your connection to this golden-haired human.">

Squall gazed at his sweating and bleeding lover, surprised when shame didn't fill his senses at their relationship being questioned by the Shumi he deeply respected.  <"Is it because we are both males?">

<"While that is the source of some curiosity, it is your son and coming child that is most bewildering to our people.  For our kind, the bond between vie'taos and kri'sange is an absolute necessity before a child can be born, but you and Seifer-Almasy do not share a bond despite himsmelling of your blood.  In addition to that confusion, there is the question about what role this human played in shattering your soul.">

<"Seifer was not to blame for that,"> Squall argued lowly, hating the necessity in repeating himself time and time again.

<"Perhaps not, but you are quite loved here.  And do not argue with me,"> Dzieden warned with a whistling breath when pale lips parted in mid-retort.  <"You may not speak much, but we all appreciate your knack of proving your worth without filling our ears with meaningless talk.  It's a rare and precious trait.">

Squall breathed out a defeated sigh, unable to understand why people continued to place him on an unreachable pedestal.  Looking down at his son, the sorcerer brushed a fallen leaf from rumbled and dirtied clothing.  <"It was chance that brought me to Seifer.  And even if I were to blame him for that single night, then I would also have to blame Leander for the months of sickness and shame he caused me.  Neither of them meant to cause me harm, but I was ruined all the same.">

<"... I believe I understand,"> the Shumi commented in a somber tone.  <"But that still does not answer the question concerning your... unusual connection with this Seifer-Almasy.  You seem enraptured by him, and yet you have not chained his soul to yours.  Why?">

Squall had no desire to answer the question, one he had asked himself numerous times since he had mysteriously landed in the lord's bed.  But Dzieden was a respected voice amongst the Elders and Squall knew that the ultimate decision to aid Seifer would come from Dzieden's understanding and support.  Eyes closed and a hand pressed against his chest, Squall explained, <"Even if we were to assume that Shiva would allow me to join with another man... My heart is full of holes, Dzieden - first my mother, and then my father and uncle were ripped from me.  There have been too many broken bonds and I fear that if I join with Seifer and he fails in front of Ultimecia... My heart doesn't have the chance to survive.">

A throaty hum of consideration left the Shumi.  <"I hear your words, but have you considered that Seifer-Almasy may fail because you refuse to bond with him?">

<"... You don't know that.">

<"I don't know many things, child, but even I can sense that Ifurit favors that human.">

Startled by the claim, Squall looked up and focused stormy eyes on the sparring blond.  "Ifrit...?  Why would he care about Seifer?"

Dzieden didn't comment on the sorcerer slipping back into the language of humans.  <"No mortal can know the intent of the gods.  However, amongst the Eahler, we find it interesting that you, who is loved by Shezva, has found someone who has gained the attention of our guardian spirit.  And between you both, a son and daughter have been created.  That cannot be a trick of Faet alone.">

Eyes wide but unseeing, Squall couldn't find the breath for anything more than a hoarse whisper.  "... a daughter...?"

<"Of course.  Have you not felt her energy for yourself?">

Hardly hearing the response to his half-formed question, the sorcerer could no longer recognize the warm rays of sunlight or the grunts of a spar for what they were.  Instead, he felt the burn of fire and heard the groans of fatally injured guardsmen as his eyes saw images of the past.  A woman of immortal beauty strode down the length of the Grand Chamber, her dress of pure white radiating a subtle glow as she stepped over headless bodies and severed limbs.  Darkly painted lips settled into a mockery of smile as she neared three men and a single woman.  There were words, but Squall couldn't understand them in the moment before the man of long hair and forest green eyes was torn apart by howling winds.  The two guards were instantly sealed in diamond-like ice, leaving a single man of spiky chocolate-brown hair and iron-gray eyes that shone with inner torment.  The woman stepped directly to the lone man, visibly unconcerned about any retaliation from her final prey.  A pale hand stroked his stubble-roughened cheek, her lengthy fingernails then trailing down his neck and to his vulnerable chest.  There was a purring whisper of 'Thank you, Daddy' before--

"Squall!"

Light tinged with gold flooded the sorcerer's vision, freeing him from sights of the past as he blinked confusedly and eventually focused on the face directly in from of him.  "...Seifer...?"

The blond lord breathed out a relieved, "Thank Hyne," but didn't hold the sorcerer's attention for long when Squall heard the pitiful cries for 'Mommy'.  Recognizing that there was a heavy weight at his arm, Squall glanced to his side to find Leander clutching his forearm with unforgiving strength.  Though inwardly troubled by the fearful emotions radiating from the dark-haired boy, Squall couldn't make himself comfort his son, not when the Griever pendant Leander always wore hung outside of winter clothes in plain sight.  He could feel every hole in his heart and every crack in his battered soul, and with the knowledge that he was on the edge of ruins, Squall held onto his frozen facade that was his last shield against a complete breakdown.

"What in Hyne's name happened. Squall?  You weren't breathing and your eyes were completely gray... Fucking Hell, I thought you were dying.  You aren't supposed to do that me."

"... Do that to you?" Squall muttered numbly, his pale eyes shifting to the lord kneeling directly in front of him.  "Muro-kas soaler'ke, you're the one who did this to me."

With an uncertain breath of laughter, Seifer met the cold gaze and asked, "Is that so?  Then what crimes have I committed this time, princeling?"

Squall felt his lips tighten and curl into a false smile in the moment before his free hand lashed out and grabbed onto damp strands of golden hair, promptly using the hold to jerk Seifer's head into an awkward position.  The lord hissed out a pained complaint, but Squall voiced no concern when he demanded, "Why did you have to tempt Fate?  Why can't you be satisfied with the easy things in life?"

"What?  What are you-- ow, shit!  I got hit there earlier, y'know!"

"So I saw," Squall replied as he twisted blond hair into a tighter hold.  "Tell me, Seifer, when is it enough?  How much further must I be punished for being involved with you?"

"Punished...?"  A faint cerulean hue entered green eyes, the pained and confused expression fading into something more serious when Seifer placed a steady hand on Squall's.  While the brunet refused to release his hold, Seifer was able to relieve enough of the tension to straighten and properly face his lover.  "Is that what you think?  I know that ever since our first meeting, I've been a plague in your life, but... maybe you're right.  Maybe some vindictive god has decided to punish you for being associated to me, and if that's truly the case--"

"No..." Squall interrupted harshly, not wanting to hear the lord's obvious offer to part ways.  "That's not what I meant."

With a failing smile of relief, Seifer asked, "Then say what you mean, princeling."

Squall felt his hand tighten in golden strands, his voice suddenly not wanting to sound.  It was a ridiculous reaction, as if speaking the words was the key to making everything real.  But staring into verdant eyes and seeing the calm arrogance to the lord, Squall was overcome with the need to prove that Seifer was the one at fault yet again.

"Why did you have to say that a daughter would be a daughter?"

The blond stared dumbly at the shorter man, understanding slow to dawn in the mud-smeared face.  In that inevitable moment, Seifer breathed out a shaky laugh and his smile twitched as he attempted to tame his expression.  "Are we... a daughter?"

"Don't sound surprised and don't begin to pretend that you want another sorceress to plague humankind.  If this world comes to ruin, it'll be because you had the arrogant desire to prove me wrong."

Grinning with little restraint, Seifer pried the fingers from his hair and pressed the hand to his chest.  "Trust me, I know that it's a futile effort to prove you wrong.  No, instead I prefer to imagine the grown woman who would inherit your beauty and skill, a near goddess in the world of mortals."

Squall stared at the blond lord, seeing something in the adoring gaze that horrified him.  "You have a name for her."

Startled, Seifer leaned back and eyed the sorcerer.  "I... what?"

"Don't try to play stupid," Squall warned lowly, and then repeated in the same tone of voice, "You have a name for her."

Green eyes narrowed slightly, the blond rightfully wary of his lover's reaction.  "You can't know that."

Done with words, the sorcerer dug his fingernails into the Seifer's bare chest while continuing to focus cold eyes on the dangerous man.

"Ow, shit, I've already been clawed enough today, damn it.  Fine, you're right, but we don't have to decide now.  I was just thinking of ... Verena, for 'sacred wisdom'."

Defeated, Squall closed his eyes at the name spoken with paternal fondness and slumped forward against the broad chest that smelled of sweat and blood.  There was the urge to cry and scream, but Squall refused to show that weakness in front too many curious eyes.  With a cautious touch, a supporting arm wrapped around his shoulders and Squall grudgingly accepted the offer of strength.

After a time of silence, Kasir awkwardly cleared his throat before asking, "Is it a human belief to not like females?"

Seifer tried to hide a laugh at the question, but the shaky movements of his body were still clearly felt by the sorcerer.  Squall sighed out his reluctance to continue speaking about what he feared, but when he attempted to sit up, the arm at his back held him in place while Seifer decided to reply in his stead.

"Squall didn't want to bring another sorceress into the world.  He refuses to believe that she will become something better than that murdering whore of an empress."

With a deep scowl, Squall insisted, "Magic taints the minds of sorceresses.  History has proven it to be true."

"What hissstory do you ssspeak of, Heart of the Lion?"

Surprised by the question from the knowledgeable Shumi Elder, the sorcerer leaned back with more insistence and was relieved when Seifer reluctantly loosened his hold.  Meeting the dark-eyed gaze of the tall creature, Squall said, "You know the history, Dzieden.  In the past millennia, there has been Ultimecia, Jenova, Brahne... and what of Adel?  She attempted to enslave your people in the name of all magic users and created a rift between the Shumi and sorcerers.  Though few have been born, this world has suffered too many times under the control of a sorceress."

"Your wordsss are true, but not complete," Dzieden said softly.  "Have the magic usersss forgotten the sssacrifce of Aerisss?  Or worssse, the human life of Shezva?"

Dark eyebrows furrowed deeply in thought.  "No... Aeris was the daughter of a sorcerer and his wife, a normal human without powers."

Kasir grunted out a deep laugh and asked in his language, <"If that's true, then how did she help to build our temple to Ifurit?  Our legends do not speak of manure that made the trees grow tall.">

Eyes colored dull silver, Squall stared between the Shumi Elder and the Moomba leader, seeing neither as he thought about lessons from his youth.  Aeris Gainsborough was a loved heroine from the long past, a young woman who had saved all life from the destructive powers of Jenova.  The world's energy drained and the elements angry, Aeris had prayed to Hyne and offered her life in exchange for his power to soothe the tormented earth.  That was the story as Squall knew it, but no matter how much he forced his memories, he couldn't recall the identity of her parents even though they should have been honored as well.

"Shiva..." Squall whispered when he couldn't recall additional details about Aeris.  "What did you mean about her 'human life'?"

Dzieden didn't reply directly, his black eyes shining with deep concern.  "I fear there isss much hidden from you, Heart of the Lion.  Isss that why you fear a daughter?"

The sorcerer glanced downward and placed a hand on his vaguely protruding stomach.  "... Ultimecia became insane with her power and murdered my uncle for his role.  Even if what you say is true, I still don't see what may be done to prevent history from repeating itself."

"I won't let that happen," Seifer retorted sharply as he placed rough fingers at Squall's chin and forced pale eyes to meet his determined gaze.  "I will do everything in my power to raise her right and help her control her magic.  But if that isn't enough, if you can see the madness taking her mind... then I swear to kill her by your word."

Squall stared into the depth of poisonous green, unable to see deceit in the lord's eyes.  "You would take the life of your own daughter?"

"I prefer to believe it won't come to that, but if she threatens your life or Leander's, then I will do whatever is necessary."

A small whimper sounded at the promise declared in a rough voice.  Squall glanced at his child, Leander still clinging onto the sorcerer's arm with a determination inherited from his other father.  Eyes of fragile jade met the cooler gaze, the boy clearly worried and confused by the discussion happening around him.

"Why would she try to hurt us?" Leander asked with a shaky voice.

"I don't know," Squall replied softly as he thought of the hatred that shone in Ultimecia's eyes in the moment before she stole the heart of her father.  There had been no questions about his desertion, no hesitation in her decision to kill the man who had given her life.  It made little sense to the single surviving witness to the event.

"Don't pass your prejudice to our son," Seifer half-growled as he leaned down and placed a hand in sleep-messed hair, forcing his son to meet his gaze.  "Listen to me, Leander - this is going to be your little sister, someone who is going to depend on you to protect her and teach her the things big brothers teach their siblings.  Don't think of her as anything else, all right?"

A little wide-eyed, Leander nodded at his father's demand.

"That's my boy," Seifer said with a proud smile.

Squall gazed at the blond and announced in amazement, "You are beyond arrogant."

Cat-like green eyes shifted to the sorcerer and Seifer's smile slipped into a broad smirk.  "It's not arrogance that makes me believe a daughter between us is destined for better things than murder and chaos.  Power can twist anyone's mind, but you will teach her that coaxing a beautiful song from an old flute takes more power, more skill than creating a firestorm to destroy a city."

Stormy eyes widened in subtle surprise before the brunet averted his gaze and scoffed lightly.  "I didn't realize you were actually listening when I said that."

"I've been listening for a long time, my Prince."

When Squall said nothing more, Dzieden spoke out, "I would lisssten to your Ssseifer-Almasssy.  All of the Ealher believe that Ifurit and Shezva have a plan for both your ssson and daughter.  Their livesss may not be the missstakesss you believe."

Squall heard the words of the Shumi Elder, but couldn't think properly with all of the conflicting information and unforgiving emotions battling within his mind.  Returning his gaze to the blond lord, he allowed his eyes to follow the firm lines of Seifer's body while he considered the complete obstinacy of the man who had been both his tormentor and savior in the past years.  No matter what obstacle laid in his path, the nobleman seemed determined to atone for every sin in his past, whether it meant revenging the innocent lives lost in the Massacre or becoming the father he failed to be during Leander's early years.  While Squall found it somewhat tiring, he had to admit it was a rare trait to find someone who refused to surrender in the face of impossible goals.

Reaching out, Squall placed his hand on the solid bicep of the shirtless lord and smiled vaguely when the heated skin jumped at his cold touch.  "Have you ever failed at getting what you wanted?"

"Well, I wouldn't exactly say that it has been easy," Seifer replied with a curious grin.  "But I can't deny having a blessed life."

At the careless comment, Squall found it amazing that their existences were so incredibly different, and yet they had still managed to cross paths while one considered it a blessing and the other had initially considered it a curse.  There was nothing that should have brought them together, and with that thought, Squall began to wonder if the gods truly had a direct role in the creation of their children.

"... I can't do this alone," Squall eventually declared softly, tiredly.

"And you won't," Seifer asserted as he placed a rough hand at the brunet's cheek.  "How many more times do I have to pledge my life to you?"

"It's not your life I want," the sorcerer said bluntly, irritated by the promise that implied death.

"Very well, then what is it that you want?"

Squall didn't reply directly as he glanced downward and placed a hand on the curve of his stomach.  He thought of everything in that moment - the death of his family, the birth of his son, the words of the Shumi Elder - and knew that his soul no longer had the strength to handle everything Fate continued to throw at him.  It wasn't a reality he wanted to face and felt deep exhaustion when he realized there was only one solution that could help him survive the birth of a sorceress.

Squall returned his gaze to searching green eyes and knew everything was going too fast for his peace of mind, but there was no time left to waste.

"Hey, what's happening in that head of yours?" Seifer questioned, unafraid to show his anxiousness.

With no energy left to console the lord, the sorcerer simply said, "I think we should join our souls."

Seifer's quieter "What?" was drowned out by the growled <"With him?!"> from Kasir.

Dzieden attempted to silence the H'rugur, but Kasir had no intention to listen to his Ealher.  <"This is madness, rya prahtr.  If you do this, there is no breaking the chain you forge.  Are you certain this is the one you want in your life for all times?">

Squall didn't look at the Moomba while listening to his argument, and instead continued to lock eyes with the confused lord.  A part of him agreed with Kasir's reasoning, but the sorcerer found it more interesting that when Dzieden had asked why they weren't already bonded, Squall first thought was the outcome of Seifer's death rather than the obvious trouble the blond would be in life.

Ignoring the watchful gaze of onlookers, Squall stretched his body to brush his lips against Seifer's ear and asked in a whisper, "Will you give me what I want?"

Not retreating from that closeness, Seifer responded in a murmur, "Am I allowed to know what it means to 'join souls' before I answer you?"

"It's exactly what it sounds like."

"Then tell me why that kitten over there sounds angry about the idea."

"It's not his decision to make."

Pale lips curled into a disbelieving smirk.  "There is still a reason he's growling like a hungry tiger."

"It makes no difference.  He has yet to witness just how single-minded you can be and that I wouldn't be rid of you whether we joined souls or not."

Seifer hummed out in victory, knowing well that the sorcerer was in his arms only because of his determined nature.  "Even so, if there's one thing I know about you, it's that you hide the details you think no one else needs to know.  Tell me, princeling - what is the downfall to going through with this?"

Squall closed his eyes, not wanting to answer the lord, but also knowing that the man would refuse until given what he wanted.  With a reluctant sigh, the sorcerer said, "If you die, there is a greater chance that I wouldn't survive."

The nobleman glanced down at their son and paused in thought before asking, "Knowing that... knowing that Leander may be left alone if we do this, you still believe that this is something that should be done?"

"... You aren't that easy to kill," Squall replied with a faint light of silver to his eyes.

"Hyne knows you've tried," Seifer said as he leaned forward to kiss the brunet, but the lithe man was a touch too quick as Squall pulled away and used the support of broad shoulders to push up onto his feet.

Holding out both hands, the sorcerer was prepared to summon his staff when long fingers wrapped around his forearm.  Eyes of cold silver focused on the interfering Shumi, but the aged creature didn't release his hold.

<"I apologize, Heart of the Lion, but you know that the entire village should witness this blessed event.  It has been many centuries since the last sorcerer has joined with his cherished one in this valley.">

Squall frowned at the idea of an audience, but Dzieden's use of his own language suggested that there was no room for argument.  Folding his arms across his chest, the sorcerer looked to Kasir and said, "Help Seifer get cleaned up, and I'm trusting you that he will come back to me in one piece."

The Moomba huffed in irritation, but nodded in acceptance as he stepped forward and wrapped a clawed hand around Seifer's arm.

"Wait a moment here," the lord demanded when he was forced into standing.  "What exactly is happening?"

"Dzieden desires a 'proper' bonding ritual, which means you need to be more presentable."

Seifer scowled lightly.  "Since when have you been concerned about appearances?"

His smile soft and secretive, Squall replied, "Go with Kasir.  And I suggest cleaning... thoroughly."

The lord blinked once before catching the man's meaning, but before he could confirm his assumption, he was dragged away by the large feline.

After watching the disappearance of the blond, Squall looked to his son.  "Leander, how would you like to stay with Kehrei and his vie'taos for the next day or two?"

Hearing his name, the young Moomba lifted its long ears and barked, "A'der!"

Leander smiled and ruffled the cat's fluffy crimson fur.  "I don't mind, but why can't I stay with you and Father?"

"It might not be necessary," Squall assured.  "It all depends on what Seifer chooses."

His small nose crinkled in confusion, but the thoughtful moment was ruined when Kehrei attempted to stand and instead flopped onto Leander.  As the two children of different species began to renew their earlier play, Squall felt an odd sense of peace at the sight of something so normal and carefree.  For a brief moment he could envision the same type of play happening between Leander and his younger sister, but shortly after that thought came the vision of the grown sorceress stealing the boy's life.  Squall hated himself for his doubt and biased assumptions about his unborn daughter, but Seifer was different and Squall trusted the man to love her without reserve or second thought.

~ > < ~

There was a dull murmur as Squall stood alone in front of the temple dedicated to Ifrit.  Despite the short notice, all except a few hunters were present to witness the event that the Shumi had only heard in folklore, and as time dragged on, the sorcerer could hear the bits of their ridiculous tales.  One even questioned if Ifrit would grace the ceremony with his presence, a comment deemed possible by the others close by.  Eyes closed and arms crossed, Squall began to count the seconds, curious how far he could go before calling off the entire affair.

Eventually a higher pitch sounded within the crowd, the interested voice triggering a chain of louder whispers.  Squall opened his eyes at the change and immediately focused on the sight of the freshly cleaned lord followed by Kasir and Sekre.  His stride firm and long, Seifer walked with complete confidence despite his only clothing consisting of a loin cloth made of soft leather.  The lightly tanned body was otherwise decorated in metal and leather, the collection of armbands, necklace, and twin knives at his waist chiming softly as he stepped through the crowd.  And while Squall examined his lover, the sorcerer smiled when he recognized the formal dress of a Moomba leaving for his first solo hunt.  Clearly Kasir was having his fun with the clueless lord, but Squall wasn't about to scold the H'rugur for presenting Seifer in such a manner.

Once emerging from the crowd, Seifer stopped to eye the dark-haired sorcerer and immediately frowned in disappointment.  "Why weren't you forced to wear something more revealing?"

Squall shook his head.  "I only asked for you to be clean.  I didn't anticipate Kasir to go further."

His frown deepening, Seifer glared over his shoulder at the Moomba.  Far from innocent, Kasir smiled with a full show of teeth, a sight that made the blond lord grumble under his breath about the best ways to skin a cat.

Dzieden cleared his throat with a light whistle.  "How do we begin, Heart of the Lion?"

Squall breathed out a sigh, and though the words of the ritual came to mind, he knew they didn't matter.  "There are no words.  Just actions."

The Shumi Elder nodded in acceptance of the sorcerer's claim.  He then turned to the crowd and lifted a large hand to silence the various whispers, the sudden quiet in the village signaling the start of the ritual.

Ignoring the eyes upon them, Squall lifted his hands and summoned his reluctant staff onto his open palms.  Soft breaths and purrs of interest echoed through the crowd, many of the Shumi never before seeing the exposed core of the Sorcerer Prince.  Pale fingers curled around the red wood etched with black symbols, and though familiar with his staff, Squall felt a different heat from the solid core.  He glanced up to see bright green eyes focused on the dark wood, a predictable and comforting reaction from the blond lord.

"Do you trust me?"

Seifer jerked up straight at the question, not responding until Dzieden had already translated the words for the other Shumi.  "I suppose I could ask the same of you."

Squall smiled at the reply, pleased that the lord wasn't completely hopeless with his talk of love.  "Kneel down, Seifer, and prove your trust."

Though his eyes shone with momentary defiance, the proud lord smirked as he lowered to his knees and spread out his arms as if to say 'what next?'.

"And now I show my trust in you," Squall said softly while moving his staff to one side and slipping his foot back along loose dirt.  He released a long breath of readiness before, without a word of warning or assurance, the sorcerer darted forward with his speed aided by the wind.  Seifer had no opportunity to react as Squall lowered the tip of the staff to connect with the man's bare chest.  Initially met with the slightest amount of resistance, the sorcerer's core slid smoothly into the warm flesh and melted within Seifer's body, far more easily than Squall had been prepared to experience.  Losing his balance from leaning too far forward, he dropped hard to his knees and nearly fell against the lord's chest, all the while losing his core until only several inches of the physical staff remained.

"Holy... fucking Hyne," Seifer breathed as he wrapped one hand around the brunet's cold fingers and the other around the staff, the contact instantly creating flames of crimson and sapphire.  "Didn't know that... you still... wanted me dead."

"Idiot, it's because I trust you that you weren't injured," Squall said in a quiet voice, not wishing Dzieden to translate his words.  "My core now exists within your body, and to finish this, all you need to do is choose."

"Choose?"  The blond glanced down at his chest and stared at the staff impaled into his chest.  Vibrant fire of calming blue and harsh red danced around his fingers, but no blood flowed across golden skin.  Confusion burned in green eyes, and with a questioning word on his tongue, Seifer abruptly choked on his own breath.  Coughing, he pressed his forehead against Squall's shoulder and groaned in pain.

"Hurry, Seifer.  Choose whatever you want."

With a vague shake of his head, Seifer argued, "Can't think... Is this... this is your soul?"

"Don't waste time.  Please don't..."

A sudden inhale of breath sounded before the blond straightened and faced the dark-haired sorcerer, revealing shameless tears that slipped from verdant eyes softened by a cerulean hue.  "Is this what you feel?  ... Everyday, you feel this pain?"

"...No," Squall whispered, finding it difficult to meet Seifer's eyes.

"Liar... I feel the shards... the poison... everything..."

Angry at his most inner wounds being exposed, Squall demanded lowly, "If you feel that, then you know why I need to join with you."

Seifer blinked slowly, more tears released by the action.  "A-ah, you want... me to love her."

"And for her to know your love with complete certainty."

The lord stared dully at Squall, and after a long moment, he smiled gently.  "You'll love her, too."

"You can't know that," the sorcerer argued, but Seifer didn't seem to hear as he closed his eyes.  Squall felt the sudden shift of his core, the living energy disturbed by the man's clumsy endeavor to grasp onto a piece to make his own.  A part of the sorcerer wanted to retreat, to save himself from the one person who had the ability to ignite merciless emotions in the stoic man, but defying those baser instincts, Squall leaned forward and rested his head against a broad shoulder such that he could easily watch the play of fire between their hands.

Too much time passed, too much time wasted with his soul exposed to Seifer before the sorcerer felt a definite change in his core.  It was a subtle sensation, nothing like the pain of amputation that he had expected, but Squall still jerked backward with a startled gleam of silver to his eyes.  The selection had been made and there was no undoing the damage, and it was for that reason the sorcerer growled, "You conceited ass..."

As Seifer struggled with opening his eyes, Squall moved to the balls of his feet and began the task of retrieving his core and staff.  The blond lord groaned at the rough removal of the overpowering soul, but couldn't prevent the action as his hands fell away from the dark wood.  Unbothered by the sight of the grimacing nobleman, Squall tugged the last foot of the staff free from the man's body and reflexively gave the weapon a twirl before landing an end against the ground with a hard thump.

Immediate whispers and growls sounded at the two revealed sights.  One was the staff adorned with two white symbols amongst the black etchings, the lettering too small for the crowd to read, but a clear sign of the successful transfer of energy.  The other cause for talk took longer to appear, the flames of sapphire and crimson at Seifer's chest slowly fading to expose a fist-sized area of burnt flesh.  Within that dark oval was unharmed skin shaped in the clear design of the same symbols turned white on the sorcerer's staff.

"Sugenti Denynas... Do you have any idea how long it took me to learn that?" Squall demanded lowly, his eyes shining with a metallic edge.

Eyelids partly open, Seifer gazed forward without focusing on anything obvious.  "Su-jen-tee... I should know that one..."

Scoffing at the momentarily exhausted nobleman, Squall looked to Kasir and said, "I'd appreciate your help in getting this idiot home."

Golden-green eyes firm without the typical light of mischief, the H'rugur nodded with the jiggle of numerous beads, the only sound he made while approaching the kneeling blond.  The crowd parted far enough to allow passage for the Moomba and his burden, but no further as curious eyes were rapt on the symbols displayed on Seifer's bare chest.  Not appreciating the growing distance between them, Squall allowed his staff to vanish into non-existence and made to trail after the slowly moving pair.

"Squall...?"

Hearing the cautious call of his name, the sorcerer glanced over at his son and found Leander standing close with small hands folded at his chest and green eyes following his father.  Squall sighed with regret and told his son, "I'm sorry, but you can't be with us tonight.  Peirra will watch over you and Kehrei should enjoy your company."

Leander shook his head and made the physical effort to look away from Seifer.  "I don't mind that, but... Squall, is that really Father?"

"What do you mean?"

Fingers clutching his dirt-stained shirt, Leander explained, "It's like when he touches my core, but I feel it now.  Like how I can feel you."

Stormy eyes widened in brief surprise, the sorcerer not anticipating such immediate effects of his joining with the blond lord.  But once remembering that it was what he wanted for both children, Squall asked his son, "Is it a good feeling?"

"Uh-huh, but it's strange and smells like smoke."

"That should fade," Squall assured.  "But your bond will remain for all times."

His expression full of youthful pleasure, Leander smiled and wrapped his arms around his parent's waist.  "Thank you for making Father stronger."

"Well, we still have to see about that one," the sorcerer said lightly as he offered a brief, one-armed hug.  "Be good tonight and listen to Peirra."

Leander acknowledged the warning without a true word of agreement, but Squall had no chance to consider the potential damage before his son ran off to rejoin Kehrei and his vie'taos.  Though worried about leaving Leander alone, the brunet felt a stronger call as he turned and set eyes on the blond nobleman.  Seifer had gained some energy in the brief time separate, apparent by the lord struggling in Kasir's arms and forcing the large feline to tighten his hold around the uncooperative man.  Observing the display, Squall understood Seifer's need to remove the distance that had formed between them, but the sorcerer was a little disappointed by the man's inelegant attempt to escape the Moomba.

With his first step toward the crowd and the nobleman beyond, Squall watched as Seifer abruptly went limp, the action catching Kasir off his guard for a mere moment, more than enough time for the blond to slip out from arms covered in soft fur.  The sorcerer smiled at the basic trick to evade a captor, one that might have worked if the lord was at full strength.  As it were, Seifer covered four steps before stumbling on his own two feet and falling face first into the dirt.  The groan of embarrassment from the blond was hardly heard above the pleased whisperings of the crowd.  Squall smirked at the praise toward the lord, that it was honorable for Seifer to do anything to return to his bonded, even if meant defying their respected H'rugur.  The brunet could only think of the man as a hopeless idiot.

Leaving the crowd behind, Squall didn't move his eyes from Seifer's form no matter how much the man moved while attempting to escape Kasir's renewed hold on him.  It was somewhat cruel when Squall thought about it - the blond lord had no chance to understand the magic coursing through his body and no experience to help him control the newly formed bond.  But the sorcerer knew better than to get close to Seifer, not until they had the proper amount of privacy.

Kasir half-dragged, half-carried the large man into the stone house while Squall didn't travel further than the doorway.  Watching from there, he told the Moomba to help the blond to the bed.  At the request, Seifer immediately stopped fighting the feline and peered around Kasir's body, looking much like a child who had heard something of great interest and desperately wanted it repeated to verify it was true.

Kasir huffed at the abruptly docile human and used an unfriendly hand to shove the weakened blond onto the mattress of soft animal skins stuffed with feathers.  After directing a toothy smile to the confused man, Kasir grumbled to Squall, <"He had better be worth the trouble you've wasted on him.">

Squall offered a secretive smile in reply and no more.

<"... Hn, don't let him change you too much, rya prahtr,"> Kasir commented while squeezing past the dark-haired man.  <"It's strange to see your smiles.">

The Moomba gone and the twosome finally alone, Squall looked to Seifer and was pleased to find the man still resting on his back.  Strands of golden hair were messed from Seifer's struggles with the Moomba, giving the powerful nobleman a boyish air that Squall felt better suited the uncontrollable man.  Fresh cuts from his earlier spar with Kasir covered the well trained body, overlaying the aged scars obtained after years of serving as an officer in the Imperial army.  While always acknowledging the man's attractiveness and strength, Squall rarely wanted to admit his own desire for that body, but with Seifer momentarily unmoving and silent, the sorcerer decided to take the moment to appreciate what would be forever marked as his.

Seifer rubbed a large hand against his face and lifted it further to run his fingers through short hair.  "What's happening to me, Squall?  I feel sick and hungry, overheated and ice-cold... It's like my body is completely off balance and is about to fall apart."

"From what I've heard, it's common for you to feel those effects."

With a quiet scoff, Seifer turned his head and focused feverish green eyes on the brunet.  "I'm exhausted as shit, but I still feel like I want to grab you, throw you onto the ground, and never let you stand again."

A dark eyebrow lifted into a slight arc, Squall questioned, "And why do you think I arranged for Leander to sleep elsewhere tonight?"

Seifer pushed up onto an elbow, the sharp move causing a jingle of jewelry.  "You knew this would happen?"

"It was a simple assumption," the sorcerer commented as he moved from the doorway.  "That piece of soul within you is lost and fears its new shell.  If you had chosen earth, prolonged contact would have been enough to soothe it.  Air would have only needed conversation and close contact where the breath is exchanged.  But you have always craved fire.  Unlike the other elements, fire isn't easily controlled, let alone pacified, and you stupidly chose the strongest fire spell that I know.  It should take most of the night to appease its desire for heat."

"Shit, don't make it sound like I knew what I was doing," Seifer defended, the pout in his voice not quite reflected in his hungry expression.  "Your soul was alive within me, drowning me in pain, and you kept telling me to choose.... I didn't do anything except to tell that soul of yours to give me whatever it wanted."

Halting one step from the mattress, Squall gazed down at the prone man.  "Is that true?"

"I don't exactly have a reason to lie.  Hell, if I knew I was choosing a spell, I would've tried for Haete nie Tselan.  It's your favorite, after all."

The corner of his mouth curling into an interested smirk, the sorcerer asked, "And you'd want to steal that from me?"

Perplexed and alarmed, Seifer shifted to better look at the brunet.  "Are you telling me that I stole this Sugenti whatever spell from you?"

"In a sense.  Once we complete this, that piece of soul and the spell engraved onto it will no longer belong to me.  But if you aren't mistaken in your assumption, then it sounds like that I may have offered Sugenti Denynas to you rather than you stealing away that part of me."

Visibly frustrated with the idea that he had stolen yet another thing from the sorcerer, Seifer demanded, "Why did we do this, Squall?  It sounds like the same damned story of me taking advantage of your life and powers."

The dark-haired sorcerer didn't reply as he stared into vibrant green eyes with the slightest hint of blue.  Unmoving from that gaze, Squall lowered his hand and wrapped his fingers around the cloth laces of his pants.  With a gentle pull, the waistline loosened and slipped below the slight bulge that could be hardly seen beneath the brunet's favored large shirt.

Faster than his exhaustion should have allowed, Seifer moved up to his knees and placed his heated hands at the exposed skin.  Rough fingers lifted the edge of shirt, revealing everything for the blond lord as Seifer pressed moist kisses at the small mound of life.  In contrast to that loving attention, Seifer grumbled, "It's cold of you to distract me like this, especially when I'm in such a state."

Squall placed a hand at the man's neck and rubbed a thumb along the edge of his hairline.  "It's too soon right now, but eventually you should be able to feel her spirit."

Ceasing all motion for a long moment, Seifer eventually pulled back to better see the brunet's face.  "Is that the only reason we did this?  For the sake of our daughter, an innocent babe you claim you can't love?"

"For her, so that she knows she is truly wanted," Squall said in a soft voice, hating the necessity to constantly argue his inner thoughts to the persistent lord.  "This is also for Leander, who already cherishes his connection with his father.  And for you, to give you additional strength whenever you face Ultimecia."

"Is that to mean there is no benefit for you?" Seifer prodded as his callused hands slipped across scarred skin and encouraged the downward movement of pants.

"... I haven't decided yet."

Lips drew back into a wolfish smirk and Seifer released his tenuous hold on soft pants, the fabric dropping with a dull thud.  "Perhaps I can help you with that decision."

"I know what you want to do to me tonight and I'd hardly call that 'helpful'."

"Obviously your definition isn't broad enough."

Despite his doubtful scoff, Squall let himself be pulled down by the larger man.  Straddling strong thighs as Seifer sat back onto the mattress, Squall quickly found himself the object of an insistent kiss.  Just shy of being bitten by the sorcerer from surprise, a forceful tongue slipped past his lips and teeth to engage an intimate duel that mimicked the recklessness of their rare spars.  While Squall wanted to believe that he was above cardinal pleasures, it was the one battle he couldn't win against the unrelenting lord.  Worse, he could feel his severed soul within the swordsman's body and the friction of skin against skin only intensified their newly formed bond.  Moving his hand from the man's neck, Squall ran his long fingers down Seifer's chest and purposefully searched for the blackened skin.  With the first brush of fingertips against the edge of the dark oval, Squall smiled as the kiss was broken with Seifer's loud groan of pained pleasure.

"Have you figured it out yet?" Squall asked in a taunting tone, his storm-colored eyes focused completely on the symbols within darkened skin.

Seifer followed the brunet's gaze, obviously fighting other desires.  "The spell?  You called it Sugenti Denynas after you took back your core," he murmured in thought, the correct pronunciation momentarily surprising Squall.  "I recognize 'burning', but Denynas... it doesn't look like the other characters you've shown me."

"It means 'Burning Ocean'.  It's the same fire Ultimecia used to destroy our capitol," Squall said as he traced the lines of flesh with a careful finger.  "I tried to use it in revenge when I infiltrated the Emperor's palace, but the spell wouldn't work.  The madness had already spread too far."

Grasping cold fingers, Seifer held the hand close to his chest, but didn't say anything as he gazed down at the dark marking.

Squall saw the worry cloud green eyes, but he no longer felt that same uncertainty himself.  Bending down, he pressed a reverent kiss at the base of the small oval.  "I have no hatred or fear for this spell.  I only pray that this will help you to succeed where I failed."

"... No," Seifer whispered as he used his free hand to lift the brunet's face.  "If I succeed, it won't have anything to do with a spell."

Lips met in a brief, careful press that didn't last long as heated hands slipped around Squall's shoulders and lower back.  The sorcerer barely recognized the position of strong arms as something dangerous before he was landed onto his back and Seifer loomed over the smaller body.

"Idiot," Squall complained as he punched a shoulder.  "Are you trying to make me sick?"

"I thought you said that those Shumi females gave you something that made you feel better," Seifer commented while nipping lightly at the sorcerer's long neck.

"Better, not cured," Squall reminded as he stretched slightly, giving the lord better access to more sensitive regions.  "Being thrown around by an over-sexed nobleman doesn't help matters."

Seifer chuckled deeply, his teeth felt along soft skin before the blond lifted away and smirked delightfully at his lover.  "Then I shall apologize to the best of my ability."

With a slight smirk of his own, Squall said nothing more as he placed his fingers on the top button of his shirt, but a large hand abruptly covered his and prevented proper motion.  Blue-gray eyes glanced up at the lord, the icy depths showing clear confusion at being stopped from removing the final piece of clothing from his body.

"Leave it," Seifer said as he pried cold fingers from the wooden button.  "Let me do everything."

Interested by the command, Squall held the emerald gaze and let his arms fall casually at his sides.  "As you wish."

Eyes widening at the open-ended permission from the prudish man, Seifer didn't waste a second of the rare opportunity.  A large hand buried deep into lengthy strands of dark chestnut, the soft hairs twining around rough fingers as Seifer bent down and placed a light kiss against the corner of full lips.  Before a proper kiss could be initiated, the blond lord dipped lower and continued his previous taste of the sorcerer's neck.

Squall closed his eyes as the collar of his shirt was pulled aside, the brush of soft fabric followed by the moist press of kisses and a searching tongue.  Callused skin tugged lightly on the shirt as the first button was undone, exposing more skin for the blond.  Unable to remain still as heat was forced into his body, Squall placed a hand at the man's back and took pleasure at the shiver of warm flesh.  Seifer groaned at the icy touch, the pleasure-filled sound lowering a pitch as another button was freed and the soft fabric slipped over a thin shoulder.  It shouldn't have been a surprise when a heavy tongue lapped at discolored skin, forever scarred from the sting of Hyperion, but the light drag of teeth pulled a subtle moan from Squall as his hand clawed into bare flesh.

With a final taste and a loving kiss, Seifer lifted just far enough to move backward while Squall refused to lighten his hold, creating red trails that covered the man's shoulder blade.  The lord cursed under his breath and directed a scolding glare at the brunet, but the expression didn't last when it was obvious that Squall wasn't apologetic in the least.  Smirking in amusement, Seifer pushed up the edge of the large shirt and gazed down at the revealed arousal.  Squall had the fleeting urge to defend his eager response toward the nobleman's touches, but the excuses and lies had begun to taste stale with every repetition.

As a heated hand rested on a bare thigh, Seifer focused his catlike eyes on the brunet's face.  "Tell me what you want, princeling."

Squall frowned at the man's suggestive tone, not understanding why the blond wasn't being more productive with his mouth.

"Tell me that you want this," he insisted, his fingers stroking the sorcerer's vulnerable pelvic region.  "Let me know that you want me."

"Muro-kasre, what else must I do to satisfy you?"

Eyes sharp, Seifer simply stared into blue-gray eyes for a long moment before the corner of his mouth twitched into a smirk.  "Funny, you never used to curse like that before and certainly not in that language."

"Not that you heard," Squall commented as he shifted his body, trying to better position the teasing hand that traced faded stretch marks.  "And if you don't finish this soon, I'll do it myself."

Seifer purred at the comment.  "You shouldn't give me such ideas, my lovely Prince."

With a frustrated scoff, the dark-haired sorcerer pushed up onto one elbow and used his free hand to readjust his shirt to better cover the curve of his stomach.  Then lifting his eyes to meet curious green, Squall dragged the back of his fingernails along the top of his thigh and reached downward to wrap cold fingers around his neglected arousal.  As if he were the one being pleasured, Seifer inhaled sharply and jerked back, the movement of his body causing a quiet jingle of jewelry.  Without showing his satisfaction in that response, Squall stroked at a languid pace, wanting to push himself further into pleasure and heat, but only to the point of taunting the nobleman.

Little time passed before a heated hand rested on his, not restricting the motion of long fingers, but certainly preventing the choice to pull away.  Eyes half-lidded, Squall focused on the thicker fingers that wrapped around his and forcefully slowed in the pumping movement of his hand.  Seifer bent down, and without lifting his gaze, licked at a long finger such that his heavy tongue also stroked the entrapped member.  With every lick, the blond drew in a little bit of penis and finger into his mouth, eventually sucking at the hardening length and twitching finger.

Squall groaned at the warmth he had craved and laid back onto the mattress to more easily raise his hips, offering an additional suggestion to the lord at what other body parts required attention.  Ever the perceptive man when he so desired, Seifer cupped his free hand at a firm ass cheek and groped strongly before moving his hand forward to slip his thumb into the puckered anus.  Squall released a quiet cry at the probing sensation, a sound he wouldn't have dared voiced in the past months.

With a slight choke, Seifer leaned back and directed vibrant green eyes at the sorcerer's face.  "What was that again?"

"You won't know if you don't keep using that tongue of yours," Squall growled as he moved his hips, needing further sensations from the blond.

"Hyne, I know this is what I wanted, but... Isn't this too much too soon?"

"Worthless idiot," the brunet grumbled as he threw an arm over his eyes.  "Stop questioning my intentions and just do what you always do."

"Princeling," Seifer purred softly, breathing over the wet flesh of his arousal.  "You made the most agreeable sound at my molestations and you think that I can ignore it?"

It was an untimely realization and Squall hated the pulse that drummed throughout his body, a beat that was created by the closeness and touch of the handsome lord.  Forced to consider the question if he wanted Seifer to continue with his ministrations, the sorcerer was surprised by the answer that came directly to mind - "It worked."

"And what worked exactly?"

"Shiva didn't interfere.  She allowed my soul to transfer to your body."  Glancing from under his arm, Squall clarified further, "To your male body."

Straightening vaguely, the nobleman's brief surprise changed to a pleased expression of narrowed green eyes and a satisfied smile.  "That she did.  And now you're mine."

Squall wanted to warn the proud man to not assume too much, that it was the sorcerer's mark visible on bare skin and not the other way around, but Seifer moved sharply to lean over the smaller man.  The appearance of scented oil wasn't a great surprise, but Squall frowned as he tried to figure out where the expensive glass vial could have been hidden near the mattress.  Seifer didn't give the stoic man much opportunity to think, thick fingers slick with oil eagerly entering his anal passage in a manner that caused yet another embarrassing cry.  Seifer smiled in a taunting fashion, but with no words spoken, he proceeded to slide his free hand beneath a strong thigh and encouraged the leg to raise up onto a supportive shoulder.

Once Squall felt well-prepared and bored of the lord's restrained expression, he lifted his arms above his head and grasped onto the edge of the mattress.  With a firm squeeze around invading fingers and a deep purring sigh, Squall easily gained the attention of his lover.

Satisfied by the wordless command to move forward, Seifer positioned himself at the stretched entrance.  While the slow entry was obviously the lord's attempt to prevent pain, Squall felt overwhelmed by the hardness filling him whole and couldn't soften the keening breath that sounded from between clenched teeth.  Seifer whispered an apology and leaned forward to press a soft kiss at the brunet's throat.  The gentle touch provoked a rumbling growl from Squall, the sorcerer tired at being treated like fragile glass, especially by the one man who should have known better.

Chuckling at the threat-filled noise, Seifer tightened his hold on the leg at his shoulder and placed a supporting hand on the mattress just above the brunet's head.  He rocked several times in testing motions, gradually gaining strength and speed as sharp green eyes focused on the face of the sorcerer.  Squall closed his eyes to avoid that observant gaze, not wanting the man to stop if he saw something he didn't like.  While still a confusing situation, the former prince could no longer deny that he enjoyed the nights spent in the lord's arms.  There would always be some pain, but Seifer had the skilled touch to make the subsequent pleasure cloud all thoughts of that initial discomfort.

With every draw back and thrust forward, Squall felt a small spark in his body as if a fire was attempting to ignite and set his entire being ablaze.  He then began to regret the shirt that had never been discarded and was beginning to stick in the wrong places.  Knowing Seifer was at fault for all of it, Squall decided to take some control over situation.  A single hand lifted, the sorcerer blindly pressed long fingers against the darkened skin on the lord's chest, provoking a deep throaty groan from Seifer and forcing him to miss a beat with a hard thrust.

"Hyne's fucking dick," the blond cursed before taking a breath and continuing with smaller thrusts.  "Open your eyes, Squall."

With some effort, Squall forced his eyelids open and stared up into heated green eyes, finding himself surprised once again by the amount of emotion, by the amount of utterly naive love that could shine in the emerald depths.

Grinning brightly, Seifer leaned in closer and said huskily, "Don't close them again.  I want to see the magic dancing in your eyes."

Squall felt his typical irritation at being ordered around by the lord, but he was too close to care about the simple request to keep his eyes open.  The blond gained his previous fast rhythm, grunting and groaning as Squall dug his fingernails into the symbol of Sugenti Denynas.  More than ever before, the sorcerer felt the flames licking at his soul and examining the hole in his core that had been created from the binding ritual.  There was no disgust, no disappointment from the element, just a sense of mild curiosity at the extreme action that Squall had taken.  Breathing a laugh in frustrated confusion, Squall relaxed further into the motions of sex and prayed that he wasn't wrong in the strengthening theory that the gods and elements truly had no revulsion, no real care for a man finding love with another man.

One of too many sparks finally caught and Squall couldn't find his breath as his body went taut in overwhelming heat.  The distinctive fragrance of burning filled his senses and freed a lengthy groan from his throat, one that was echoed by Seifer as his thrusts became erratic and forceful.  Like additional fuel to the fire, Squall felt the large man's release deep within him and the sharp increase of heat that made him wonder if he would ever feel cold again.

In the aftermath, harsh breaths sounded in the confines of the stone house.  Seifer hung low over over the dark-haired man, both unmoving except for the rise and fall of the chests.  "Squall...?"

Squall grunted that he was listening.

"Do you smell something burning?"

Blinking, the sorcerer looked up at Seifer and wondered how the man could detect the presence of the fire element.  And then he saw the wisp of smoke that shouldn't have been present.  With an awkward bend, he glanced up and stared at the supportive hand located mere inches from his head, a hand that had small reddish flames dancing between spread fingers.

Following the brunet's gaze, Seifer abruptly cursed at the sight and jerked back his hand to reflexively and comically attempt to blow out the tiny flames on his fingertips.

"That won't work," Squall said with a small smile, one that was promptly lost to soreness when he slipped his leg from the lord's shoulder.

At first not believing the brunet, Seifer eventually realized that the flames weren't being harmed by his endeavors.  "What is...  No, why is my hand on fire?  It doesn't look like the flames from your core."

"Because that's not what it is," the sorcerer explained while reaching out and placing his hand beneath Seifer's.  "Close your hand and tell the fire to leave.  It might decide to obey you."

A suspicious look crossed the lord's face, but Seifer eventually followed the suggestion and closed his hand in a tight fist.  Teeth clenched, he murmured, "Go the fuck away."

Squall sighed and nearly told the blond that he may want to be more polite to the element that could set him ablaze.  But before the words could be spoken, a flash of crimson fire erupted from the fist, startling both of them in the moment before the flames vanished in a burst of smoke.

Seifer stared at his hand and slowly uncurled his fist to reveal slightly singed fingertips, but no further damage.  "Holy Hyne on a stick, what was that about?"

"A side effect of joining souls," Squall said causally, trusting the blond wasn't feeling overly observant after a bout of intercourse.  "Sometimes, the one bonding with a sorcerer will gain the limited ability to use the spell trapped within them.  I've heard it's most common when fire is involved."

Flexing his hand a few times, Seifer frowned lightly before glancing at the dark-haired man.  "You've 'heard'?  You aren't the type to hear things, princeling.  You either know or you think someone is a fool for believing in legends."

"... ..."

Seifer leaned forward and the shine to his eyes declared he knew full well the discomfort he was causing while still buried in the sorcerer.  "What aren't you telling me?"

Avoiding the man's gaze, Squall glanced downward at his raised stomach and the mess of fluid on pale skin.  "Everything thus far has been one impossibility after another, so why wouldn't this be yet another reality you shattered?  Though I suppose the fire that sparks whenever you touch my core should have been my first warning that this could happen."

"And what, I can do magic now?"

With a small laugh, Squall returned his gaze to interested green and lifted his hand to brush damp gold from the man's forehead.  "Ifrit favors you, and for that reason, fire has graced you with the ability to summon it.  Controlling it, however, will be something entirely different as you can't hear the words of the elements.  So, no, you aren't a sorcerer in any meaning of the word."

Slight disappointment darkened emerald eyes before Seifer shifted backward and removed himself from the smaller man.  Moving to Squall's side, the blond stretched out and placed a hand on the slight mound of life, uncaring of the sticky mess.  "When will I be able to feel her like you can?"

"I don't know.  Nothing happens like it should when you're involved."

The large blond chuckled softly and placed a kiss at the corner of full lips.  "Sorry to make your life difficult, my Prince, but I swear to make everything worth it."

Savoring the heat pressed along his body, Squall felt his lips form a small smile and let that be his only reply to the attention hungry man.  While his divided soul seemed content within the lord's body, the sorcerer knew their night had just begun and he preferred the option of saving his voice for later.  He wanted Seifer to earn the privilege of hearing the words that the blond lord desired with boundless intensity.  It was a reckless love, but as Squall savored the large hand hot against his stomach and deep breaths humid along his skin, the dark-haired sorcerer had to wonder who was more foolish - the man who loved with all of his being or the man who had captured that destructive love as his own.

Chapter Text

Green eyes were drowsy and unfocused against the early morning light, their owner fighting a defiant battle against the desire for restful sleep.  Settled beneath a tree of vivid red leaves, Seifer sat with his long legs stretched out and his arms folded behind his head as he distractedly watched his dark-haired lover tutor their young son.  A part of him recognized that the scene before him was something of a miracle, that Leander was able to practice his magic in open view without fear of retaliation, but Seifer had little awareness for anything beyond his drifting eyelids and the heat that simmered within his chest.

Less than two days had passed since joining souls with the sorcerer.  Two days and a lifetime ago, or so it seemed to Seifer, and his human mind was having a difficult time coming to terms with the magical event that had happened within the span of mere minutes.  He remembered only a few details of the joining ceremony, more specifically the gnarled staff pierced deep within his body, the flicker of flames between his hands, and the sight of iron-gray eyes as the sorcerer demanded for the lord to 'choose'.

It was a simple matter to remember the physical happenings of that evening, but the contact between their souls was a far harder concept to grasp.  As best Seifer could recall, Squall's core and soul had been cold, but not like the iciness of snow or winter winds that were generally associated to the Sorcerer Prince.  Instead, it was a coldness related more closely to a sword - lifeless metal used for no greater purpose than to injure and steal away another's life.  And yet, from that bitterly cold soul, fire had materialized from nowhere and grudgingly transferred to Seifer's chest.  The intense flame had been forever gifted to the blond lord, and in the same sense, forever removed from the sorcerer who had so little left to warm his battered spirit.

Seifer wasn't certain if he should feel honored for the gift or ashamed for his theft.

Lost in morose thoughts, Seifer jerked with surprise and his green eyes snapped wide open when the symbol of Sugenti Denynas abruptly flared to life at his chest and burned the air within his lungs.  The next moment Seifer heard a hoarse whisper that sounded with a forcefulness that resembled a scream, but the words were nonsensical, spoken in an unknown language.  Despite his confusion and the severe ache of his chest, Seifer felt the dire urgency of the broken voice and immediately trusted the sudden thought that he had to move.  Move very quickly.

Everything happening within the matter of seconds, Seifer lurched to the side and rolled away despite the arguments of his resting body and the painful press of Hyperion against his side, his action immediately followed by the sharp shatter of breaking wood.  Coming to a stop with his face down and arms above his head, Seifer waited patiently for the rain of bark and wood to end.

"Seifer!" Squall cried out as he ran close, and when Seifer peeked out from his defensive position, he watched as the panicked and unbalanced man nearly tripped amongst the broken bits of tree.

"Shit, be careful there," Seifer warned as he gingerly pushed up into a seated position, pleased to note that nothing felt dislodged or wet with blood.  "What the fuck hap--"  His mouth closed with a snap and green eyes went very wide when Seifer stared at the tree that had been his support only moments earlier.  A little over a foot remained of the trunk that Seifer had been resting against, and with a good two or three feet of the tree's trunk turned into splinters, the remainder of the tree laid on the ground several meters away.  Staring at the sight of destruction, Seifer identified the scattering of red leaves with the uncanny appearance of splattered blood.

Squall stepped close to the seated lord and placed a chilled hand on his shoulder.  "Are you injured?  Should I get Dzieden?"

Hearing the shaky edge of the typically firm voice, Seifer placed his hand over Squall's and squeezed.  "I may have a few splinters in my ass, but I'm otherwise in one piece.  What about you and Ander?" he asked while looking around Squall's leg to find Leander unmoved from his earlier position, the boy appearing in a state of shock.

"It's my fault," Squall said in a hushed voice.  "I thought he was ready to try magic without his staff, but..."

Surprised to learn that Leander had been the cause of the attack, Seifer glanced back at the tree in quiet awe before he pushed up to his feet and hurried to where his son stood.  His quick approach caused Leander to flinch back in part shame and part fear, something Seifer blissfully ignored as he scooped up the young boy into his arms and started to laugh from overwhelming pride.  Leander showed clear confusion at his father's reaction, the boy's soft green eyes vibrant with unshed tears and his cheeks flushed red.

"Oh Hyne," Seifer breathed as he gradually controlled his laughter.  "Look at what you did, Ander!  You could've taken out a whole squad of royal soldiers and they would've never known what hit them!"

Leander blinked slowly, his mouth gradually twisting into an anguished frown before the tears finally flowed.  "I didn't mean to, Daddy!  Squall told me to think about the boulder and only the boulder I was aiming at, but your eyes were closed and I wanted you to watch me, so I was thinking of you when I released the spell.  I didn't want it to go after you, b-but the wind... the wind was t-too fast for me to stop it!  And, and you c-could've... you could've..."

By the end of the explanation, Leander's words were hard to understand through hiccup-like sobs, an unsurprising reaction from a child of seven years.  Seifer held his boy tighter and spoke in a low, soothing tone.  "Yes, I could have been injured, but I wasn't.  You made an understandable mistake and now you're going to learn from it, right?"

"Uh-huh," Leander agreed as he rubbed his eyes and settled his head against a broad shoulder.  "I'm sorry, Daddy."

"Nothing to be sorry about, kid.  Just don't aim for me the next time," Seifer replied with a pleased smirk, his thoughts already drifting to ideas of how Leander would be able to practice such destructive power once they had returned to the Almasy Estate.  No matter the lord's wishes otherwise, Leander practicing his magic under the sun was a luxury limited to the safety of the Shumi village, but Seifer had no intention of letting that minor obstacle prevent his son from developing his skills.

A soft crack of wood made Seifer turn and notice the slow approach of the dark-haired sorcerer, his typically storm-colored eyes darkened to hard gray.  Concern for his lover replacing his excited state, Seifer asked, "Hey, is everything all right?  Are you feeling sick again?"

With a quiet scoff, Squall replied acridly, "Of course, because the only thing that could be possibly upsetting me at this moment is the urge to puke.  Idiot."

Seifer felt himself smile broadly at the man's words.  "Is that to say you were worried about me?"

"Worried," Squall repeated in a laughing breath, his expression anything but amused.  His hand settling against his swollen midsection, the sorcerer said, "I've being dreaming a lot lately, something that also haunted me during my first pregnancy.  But instead of reliving the Massacre as I did back then, my dreams have been filled with your death."  At the lord's startled look, Squall continued, "Oh yes, almost every night, I watch you fall from either Ultimecia's magic or from the blade of an Imperial Soldier, and on special occasions, you die by my own hands.  But even after seeing all of that, I have never, never imagined Leander accidentally--"

"Don't say it," Seifer interrupted sharply, hating the way the previously calmed boy was shaking in his arms.  Placing a large hand on top of Leander's head, he shushed quietly and assured his son that everything was fine.  Meanwhile, sharp green eyes glared at the sorcerer for the thoughtless words that shouldn't have been shared with their child nearby.

Squall sighed softly while rubbing the bridge of his nose.  "Sorry, I don't know what came over me."

"Hn, we'll talk about that and your dreams at a later time," Seifer said, his voice edged with anger at the important secret being withheld from him.  "In any case, it doesn't matter what could have happened just now.  You gave me enough warning to protect myself and nothing more has to be said."

"... Warn you?"

"Yeah, whatever you did to make this thing come to life," Seifer explained as he vaguely pointed at the symbol of Sugenti Denynas hidden beneath his shirt.  "But just so you know, while I'm extremely grateful to be alive, I'd appreciate you doing something a little less painful the next time I need to duck."

Silent as he considered the man's words, Squall stepped in close and placed only his fingertips against Seifer's chest, instantly igniting a variety of sensations that shouldn't have been caused by such a casual touch.  "Tell me what happened in exact details."

Seifer fidgeted against the searing contact, not certain if he wanted to pull away or if he wanted even more.  "Why?  Shouldn't you know?"

"Tell me," Squall insisted, his fingers pressing harder against the marked skin beneath soft fabric.

"Well, there isn't much to say, princeling.  Your symbol burned like fire beneath my skin, and then I heard someone speaking to me.  It was strange - a broken voice that spoke in a manner beyond my understanding, but somehow, I still knew to move.  So, I moved.  Nothing more than that."

The sorcerer frowned at the explanation, his stormy eyes shifting in quick thought.  "You trusted that voice enough to act without questioning it?"

Startled by the observation, Seifer stared at the shorter man and realized that obeying a disembodied voice did sound a touch unbelievable for a paranoid soul like himself.  Thinking back to that moment, he tried to recall the voice and the words it might have said to remove any doubt from his mind, but things had happened too quickly for that to be the answer.  His lips drawing into a small frown, Seifer felt growing irritation at the idea that someone or something had commanded him with such ease, and though it had saved his life, he wasn't excited to consider the next time the voice would control his actions.

"I guess that was pretty stupid of me," Seifer eventually replied.

Squall said nothing as he cocked his head slightly, his thick hair swaying away from his face to fully reveal the metallic shine of blue-gray eyes.  Entranced by the sight of magic in the storm-colored irises, Seifer almost groaned in disappointment when the sorcerer closed his eyes.  He waited patiently for Squall to speak the thoughts running through his head, but after nearly a minute of nothing, Seifer grew bored of the little game.  Lips parted with a half-formed question in mind, Seifer was unexpectedly and harshly shushed by the shorter man.  Somewhat surprised, and then offended by being silenced like a child, Seifer opened his mouth to vocalize his irritation, but was again silenced when the sorcerer's hand went flat against his chest and ignited a dull flame beneath his skin.  Inhaling sharply at the heated contact, Seifer was surprised by his body's instinct to lean into the man's hand and not recoil from the thing causing it harm.

And then he heard it.  It wasn't as loud as the whispers that had saved his life, but Seifer recognized the broken voice that spoke in a strange language mixed with words of the common human language.  Given the time to listen and focus on the perplexing arrangement of words, the blond lord held his breath to better hear the quiet message.  Leander moved against him, the brush of their clothing smothering some of the voice, but Seifer still managed to hear a collection of words he somehow understood before the voice faded away.

Opening eyes he never knew he had closed, Seifer stared down into cold blue-gray eyes, amazed that his stubborn lover could continue to show such shields when they had little worth.  With his free hand, he reached out and pulled Squall into a partial hug, Leander doing his part to keep the man close by fisting his hand into the available fabric of Squall's shirt.  The sorcerer showed an interesting expression at being held by his son and bonded lover, something between terror at having what could be easily lost and bitter gratefulness that he had anything left in his cursed life.

His chin on the shorter man's shoulder, Seifer asked quietly, "How is it that I know what 'Haete ria igavenise rraegre' means?"  Once realizing what he had said, the lord breathed out a hard laugh of surprise before adding, "Fuck, and how can I even speak it when I don't know what the hell language it is?"

"That's... interesting," Squall said with his own amount of surprise.  "It isn't one language."

"But you know what it means."

Squall hummed the affirmative.  "You say you understand it, as well."

With a soft smile against the sorcerer's ear, Seifer said proudly, "You promised me your heart for all of eternity."

The lithe man shivered at the words, pressing closer to the larger body while also placing a hand at Leander's head.  "All I wanted was for you to feel the connection between you and our children.  I never planned for our souls to be so intertwined that you could hear its voice under the right conditions."

Verdant eyes widened at the declaration and Seifer briefly considered what it meant for the voice of Squall's soul to sound torn and tired, but he pushed aside the thought for another time.  "Well, at least you know what is happening.  Am I to assume that this is another unexpected side effect?"

"No, it shouldn't have been a surprise.  Your passion runs too strong, too deep for me to believe that my soul would be safe from you."

"Why do I feel like you're trying to insult me?" Seifer commented as he placed a kiss against dark hair.  Savoring that softness against his cheek, he hesitated before requesting, "Tell me that this is something good and not something you'll regret."

Instead of replying directly, Squall pushed back a short distance and took a moment to study the lord's face.  Full lips quirked into a vague smile when he finally said, "You won't let me regret it."

Dumbfounded by the statement made in a confident tone, Seifer found his mind drifting to thoughts about depositing his son with Kehrei and his vie'taos, Peirra, for the rest of the day and about how best to convince Squall to submit to more sex after the previous two days of little more than sleep, sex, and food.  As if hearing those thoughts, a feat Seifer abruptly realized could be possible, Squall lifted a dark eyebrow in a scolding manner.  Feigning an innocent expression, the large blond considered his luck with blaming the excitable piece of soul trapped within his body and suggesting that it required more 'heat' before it could settle down, but Seifer didn't have the opportunity to try the excuse.

A small hand fisted at his shirt collar and pulled in a near choking manner, causing Seifer to look at his son.  Soft green eyes were wide with fear, a sight Seifer felt too common in the past year.  Moving his own gaze in the direction of Leander's stare, Seifer whispered a stunned curse when he set eyes on an injured Moomba stumbling into trees a short distance away.  Nearly dropping Leander in his rush to set the child on the ground, Seifer followed behind Squall as the sorcerer was able to react faster to the boy's stunned expression.

The Moomba turned sharply and snarled at their approach, but then quieted once recognizing the dark-haired man.  "Leonhart..."

Squall moved in close and helped to steady the large feline covered in dark mud, bits of ice, and fresh blood.  The sorcerer spoke to the Moomba in the Shumi's language, human vocal cords unable to form the growled words that the Moomba would respond with.  As the two exchanged words, Seifer eyed the injured cat and eventually recognized him as one of the Moomba that had first 'greeted' them over a month past.  The line of white fur at his shoulder suggested that he was the cocky feline that had described Squall as having a 'fat belly'.  Seifer hid his smirk at the idea that he hadn't seen the Moomba since that fateful day, the cat most likely afraid of further punishment from the violent sorcerer.

Seifer jumped slightly at the unexpected feel of a small body pressing against the back of his leg.  Reaching back, he pulled Leander to his side and placed his fingers in dark hair.

"What's wrong with him, Father?"

"Don't know, kiddo.  Looks like he got on the wrong side of a sword again."

Overhearing the words between father and son, Squall added, "It's worse than that.  His scouting group was ambushed by a fair number of humans.  One of them is severely hurt and can't move.  The other two of their group are protecting the fallen one while Mureh escaped in search of help."

Seifer placed a hand on the hilt of Hyperion as he considered the information.  "His group... Wasn't Sekre in this pussy cat's same group when we first arrived here?"

Blue-gray eyes were quiet as they looked at the blond swordsman.  "Sekre was the one to tell Mureh to leave and find Kasir."

His hand tightening around cold metal, Seifer felt a dull burn in his chest at the news that Sekre, Kasir's second son, was in a life threatening situation.  Compared to the other felines he tolerated on a daily basis, Seifer had a soft spot for the relatively small Moomba who spoke very little, but used the human language as fluently as his sire.  In return, Sekre seemed to enjoy the lord's company during their frequent hunting trips, several of which becoming more eventful whenever the cat decided to have fun at the blond's expense.  Despite the numerous humiliating situations, Seifer was forever indebted to the beast for introducing him to the Treranja fruit and Squall's seductive love of its sweetness.

Seifer glanced over the battered Moomba and asked, "Hey, fleabag, are you strong enough to lead me to the fight?"

Mureh stared with open disbelief at the large human, perhaps thinking he misunderstood what Seifer wanted.  Meanwhile, Squall showed clear displeasure at the foolhardiness of the blond lord.  "Seifer, don't you think it would be wiser for you to wait and leave once Kasir is prepared?"

"It'd be a waste of time for me to return to the village and you know it.  You can relay the message just fine without us; meanwhile, minutes could mean everything for that idiot fur ball."

With a sigh of exasperation, Squall reluctantly nodded before looking to the injured Moomba and repeated the lord's question in the Shumi's language.  Mureh's eyes narrowed in reflexive distrust of humans, but at added words from the sorcerer, he directed an approving glance at the large blond and replied something in a grumbling mess of words that Seifer couldn't imagine understanding.

"He'll lead you there," Squall said as the Moomba moved back and struggled to remain standing without the sorcerer's support.

Seifer grabbed a furry arm and placed it around his shoulders, allowing no room of argument from the injured cat.  "Do you know where to direct Kasir?"

"Mureh gave me enough details," the brunet replied as he stepped close and pressed his fingers against Seifer's chest, causing the mark of Sugenti Denynas to burn softly.  "I want to join you."

With a knowing gleam to emerald eyes, Seifer moved his free hand to the man's curved stomach.  "And I wish you were the one fighting by my side, but we both know you have someone more important to protect right now."

"Bastard," Squall cursed in a breath.  "Why must you always remind me of my condition?"

"Because one day I'll convince you that us creating this life is a blessing and not a curse."

"That day is not today," the sorcerer replied with soft disappointment, whether from his inability to change his beliefs or from the lord's sacrilegious determination, Seifer couldn't be certain.  At the Moomba's impatient growl, Squall said, "We are wasting time.  Don't do anything stupid out there without me to protect you."

Seifer offered a smirk as his reply, a clear message that their definitions of 'stupid actions' differed greatly and Seifer wasn't about to limit himself to what the sorcerer considered safe for a powerless human.  That smirk widened when Squall huffed and muttered to himself about wasting his breath.  Adjusting his hold on the fur-covered arm, Seifer watched as Squall stepped to their son and automatically took Leander's raised hand into a firm hold.

Unable to help himself, Seifer called out, "Be good, Ander, and make certain your mother doesn't get too lonely without me."

While the boy agreed despite his confusion about the overall situation, Squall glared at the blond and made a subtle gesture with his free hand, a sign for Seifer that his manhood was in serious trouble the next time they were alone.  Suppressing a wince, Seifer found it pathetic that he hoped the coming fight would injure him to the point of earning the sorcerer's sympathy compared to his current ire.  Unfortunate for him, Seifer was fairly certain that he would have to be near death before Squall would show him any mercy.

Parting ways with the sorcerer and child, Seifer supported the Moomba as they walked to the nearby caverns.  Mureh struggled to prevent being a burden for the smaller human, but an injured leg and general exhaustion forced the cat to depend on the man's strength.  Silence held between them until stepping into the cooler air of the mountain caverns, magically formed such that only the Shumi could navigate safely to the hidden valley.

His rumbling voice echoing off dark stone, the Moomba asked in a heavily accented voice, "Was Leonhart true?  You kill h'men for us?"

"I kill anyone who hurts family, and in Squall's eyes, the Shumi are family."

Yellow eyes glowed in the darkness of the caverns as Mureh stared down at the blond.  "You fear for Sekre, not others."

Seifer frowned at the comment that felt dangerous in some unknown fashion, as if siding with the H'rugur's son meant opposing another nameless faction within the group of Shumi.  Choosing his words, Seifer said, "I am merely doing what Kasir would do if my son were in danger."

After a silent moment, the feline snorted in disbelief, but didn't press the matter.

Despite the Moomba's injured state, they made decent time through the maze of dark stone and didn't slow their pace over the snow-covered ground that greatly clashed with the warmer climate of the secret valley.  Even so, Seifer hardly felt the change in temperature, his attention more focused on strategizing for the several possibilities that laid before him.  In all accounts, there was no information as to why the humans decided to attack the group of Shumi.  It was by Mureh's word that it was an ambush, but Seifer held little trust in the human-hating Moomba.  For all Seifer knew, the humans could have been the ones threatened by the cocky group of cats, only Sekre smart enough to enjoy the tentative peace between the local human villages and the Shumi.  Seifer would fight as needed, but he had long ago outgrown the need to attack first and ask questions later.

Several miles from the mountain slope, Mureh was the first to hear the yells of the fight, his low growl warning Seifer of their approach.  After a brief and heated argument, Seifer managed to convince the injured Moomba to stay in place and hide amongst some bushes covered in snow.  Alone, the blond lord walked toward the sounds of loud yelling and he carefully stepped past a clump of leafless trees to observe the battle scene.

With a scattering of bodies in the snowy clearing, at least nine men stood in a disorganized knot at the back of the clearing, most bearing a variety of injuries that colored their clothing in blood.  Their choice of weapons ranged from scythes to battered swords, visibly identifying each man as either a simple farmer or a former soldier in the Emperor's army.  Curious at their rising chants of 'kill the beast,' Seifer moved further to witness Sekre in mid-fight with an oversized brute who wielded an ax that was more suited for felling a tree than beheading a cat.  While holding his own, Sekre was far from peak strength with his crimson fur matted from unseen injuries.  Even so, his curved blade kept the heavy ax from his neck, the feline patiently waiting for the best opening to dispose of his grunting opponent.

Seifer briefly shifted his gaze to the far end of the clearing and scowled at the sight of Sekre's companions, neither appearing battle worthy as one sat limply against a tree trunk and the other knelt in front of the possibly unconscious feline.  Seifer recognized the kneeling cat as the supposed leader of the small group and he felt mild respect for the Moomba who couldn't stand, but still held a blade steady in front of his chest.  He was prepared to attack anyone who dared to come close, and judging by the two bodies slumped at his side, at least a couple humans had thought the injured cat was easy game.

A roaring yell drew Seifer's attention back to the fight, just in time to witness the bald brute attempting a wide swing of his ax with the intention to slice through the feline's midsection.  At the foolhardy move, shadows flickered within Sekre's amber eyes and the tip of his tongue licked dark lips in anticipation of a kill.  When the ax held in two hands swung close, he arched back with the impossible flexibility of cats, something the brute did not expect judging by his questioning grunt.  Immediately taking advantage of that confusion, Sekre raised his curved blade behind his shoulder and then stepped forward with his attack, the sword slicing cleanly through one meaty forearm and burying partway into the other.

The brute screamed and twisted in his agony, the spray of blood from his mortal wound forcing Sekre to reflexively close his eyes.  Recognizing the moment of weakness, Seifer reacted immediately when he saw movement from the corner of his eye.  His legs stretched out into a fast sprint across trampled snow as Seifer focused on the two men who were bright enough to take advantage of Sekre's momentary blindness.  Hyperion removed from its sheath, Seifer targeted the faster of the two men, recklessly moving in front of the scythe-wielding farmer with the hope that his sudden appearance would startle the inexperienced man into inaction.

Hyperion held to his side, Seifer waited until the last second before skidding to a halt and use the full weight of his momentum to swing the blade forward and up.  The heavy blade connected with the unsuspecting man in the throat and decapitated him with such force that the body and head landed in opposite directions.  Spinning on slick ground, Seifer held Hyperion in front of his chest to defend himself from the second man, but found the farmer ridiculously flat on his ass and staring dumbly at the intruding blond.  Seifer silently thanked Hyne for protecting him in the maneuver that wouldn't have worked against trained soldiers.

The dark-haired farmer, more of a boy than a man, stared up from his fallen position, frozen as his young eyes focused on the sharp blade dripping blood.  Those eyes then darted upward to gaze behind Seifer and at the approaching Shumi that had several inches on the tall blond, and with a choke of fear, the farmboy rolled onto his hands and knees in the effort to scurry away.  Seifer scoffed at the youth's gutless nature, the farmboy ready to kill when someone had charged ahead of him, but unable to move when he was on his own.

"It is surprising you are the first to arrive," Sekre said softly, a near purr compared to the deeper rumbles of his sire.

Looking over his shoulder, Seifer retorted, "Isn't it more of a surprise that I'm here at all?"

Sekre seemed confused by the statement, the odd tilt of his head better suited to small kittens that weren't covered with blood.  "You came.  That says enough."

With a shake of his head, Seifer wondered what he had done to convince the feline that he was the least bit trustworthy.  Returning his attention to the cluster of armed men, the blond fighter snickered at their gaping expressions, as if a human standing next to a Shumi was the first sign that the end of the world was near.  "Who was the first to attack?"

"They set a trap and Rekir did not see it," Sekre replied, nodding toward the unmoving Moomba guarded by their leader.  "He breathes, but needs Dzieden's help.  They attacked after Rekir fell."

Seifer scowled at the information, irritated at the humans' treatment of the Shumi, as if they were wild animals to be hunted.  Worse, he could imagine his younger self joining that group, not understanding the intelligence of the supposed monsters and childishly wanting to be a hero who rid the world of a dangerous evil.  His grip tight on Hyperion, Seifer told the Moomba, "Leave one alive."

A growling purr sounded from the large cat, Sekre then barking something over his shoulder to his companions.  Their leader grunted in return, the last word on the matter before Sekre launched forward without waiting for his human partner.  Forced to chase behind, Seifer cursed the inconsiderate nature of cats, tempted to take a swipe at the feline's defenseless tail.

Surprised by the offensive attack from the Shumi that had been forced to defend his companions, the group of men wasted several seconds from hesitation.  With Hyperion's first bite into the flesh of an older man, Seifer felt his body take control as his thoughts wandered to memories of similar battles that had involved heavily trained soldiers crushing the occasional peasant uprising.  As a young soldier, he had reveled in the easy defeat of those who had no reason to learn how to handle a weapon, let alone defend themselves from an aggressive attack.  It was with a bitter taste in his mouth that Seifer realized how little had changed for Hyperion to still be soaked in the blood of those weaker, but he hoped that Hyne would understand the difference between his intentions.

Claws and blades made short work of the disorganized cluster of men, and though a disloyal pair made for a fearful escape, the limits had been set that only one was to live.  Two knives flew through the air - one with a silver handle landing at the base of a thick neck, and the other formed of a single piece of dark metal sliding deeply into the lower back of the second man.  Standing side by side, Seifer glanced at the feline that stood taller than him by several inches, and yet was still small compared to the average Moomba.  Sekre met that gaze, the darker shade to amber eyes giving the cat a dangerous look that Seifer feared on an instinctual level, but his trust for the Shumi outweighed that simpleminded fear toward something with claws and fangs.

A whimpered sob drew Seifer's attention, his smile anything but friendly as he turned and looked at the farmboy who had attempted to attack Sekre earlier.  His right hand missing three fingers, the youth knelt in muddy snow while he cradled his arm to his chest and eyed the smirking blond.  Fear and resignation dulled the farmboy's eyes, a sight that didn't earn any pity from the former soldier.

Navigating his way past fresh corpses, Seifer knelt next to the young man and flashed a wide smile.  "What's your name, boy?"

"...N-N-Nida."

"Well, N-N-Nida, it's your lucky day.  Care to guess why?"

"... Will you... let me live?"

"Hey, look at that, Sekre.  We picked a smart one here," Seifer said with false excitement.  For his part, Sekre appeared uninterested while watching the two humans, but the faint twitching of long ears suggested otherwise to the observant lord.  Seifer leaned in closer to the brown-haired man.  "Now, tell me why you were attacking my friends here."

Wincing at the demand, the farmboy replied shakily, "They... they kill our livestock... and stole land that should be ours... and... other things."

Seifer snorted with irritation.  "Don't blame the Shumi whenever wolves attack your stray sheep.  As for 'stealing your land', why do you need this scrap of mountain territory?  It's not like you can grow crops or do anything else productive on this rocky soil."

Dark eyes wide, the young man appeared dumbfounded by the concepts Seifer tried to push on him.  "But... but they don't deserve it.  They eat babies," Nida added in a serious whisper, as if the simple statement would answer every argument the blond could put forth.

Seifer burst out laughing at the declaration.  "Hyne's fucking cock, do you actually believe that something this big can survive on a diet of babies?" he asked with a thumb jerked back in Sekre's direction.

For his part, the young man glanced at the looming Moomba before muttering with uncertainty, "But everyone says it's true..."

"Too many bones, not enough meat," Sekre commented dryly, only the rapid swish of his long tail revealing his amusement in the matter.

"You're not helping," Seifer said while he barely smothered the desire to laugh at the farmboy's horrified expression.  "Now to your fate, Nida.  Usually the Shumi kill all trespassers, but you're going to be our special little messenger.  I want you to go back to your village and tell everyone that the pathetic lot of you couldn't handle a handful of young Shumi and that the only reason you're alive right now is because we allowed you to live.  Understood?"

The farmboy nodded his head in a jerky manner.

"Good, because as you can see, the Shumi have human friends, and if one of them hears you spreading lies about how the Shumi attacked you first, or that they had stepped beyond their territory, or that they had stolen a Hyne-damned baby, I will personally kill you piece by piece, starting with your remaining fingers."

Nida shook in fear as he held his injured hand closer to his chest, nearly hiding it beneath an armpit.

Seifer grinned as he lifted from the snowy ground.  "Get going and hope that we don't meet again."

Not wasting the lord's patience, the farmboy struggled to his feet, a task made more difficult without use of his bad arm and with the apparent fear of turning his back to the human and Shumi.  Stumbling back several feet, Nida didn't move too far before he incredibly matched gazes with the blond fighter.  "S-s-sir, the b-b-bodies... c-can we... I mean..."

While understanding the implied request, Seifer knew he had no authority to release the Shumi's trophies for the sake of a proper burial.  He looked to Sekre, the large feline staring back with a half-lidded gaze of disinterest.  "Well, kitten?  Will Kasir allow them to collect their dead?"

Sekre glanced at the bodies in snow, his nostrils flaring as if assaulted by a foul smell.  "There is nothing to learn from their flesh."

The green-eyed lord smiled at the composed reply, something that seemed against the animalistic nature of the Moomba.  But by the look of dark eyes, Seifer was certain that the farmboy wasn't of the same opinion.  "You heard him - these bodies are tainting Shumi land.  If your people want proper burials, collect them by sundown tomorrow.  Otherwise, I'll have myself a little bonfire."

Nida looked warily between the cat and human, his voice reluctant to sound when he asked, "I-is it a t-trap to k-kill more of us?"

"Come now, boy, if the Shumi hungered for the taste of human flesh, they know exactly where to find your village."

Dark eyes wide, the farmboy looked about ready to faint or cry, but instead clutched harder onto his injured arm.  He muttered a hasty 'thank you' and stumbled back several steps before gaining the courage to turn his back to the watching Shumi and hurried off in a limping run.  Seifer wasn't too certain that the young man was meant to last long in the world.

With the fight finished, Seifer returned to Mureh's hiding spot and helped the injured Moomba to the scene of the bloody massacre.  The large cat purred in brief approval before he pushed aside Seifer's aid and hobbled on his own power to the unconscious Moomba.  Keeping respectful distance from the four cats, Seifer watched silently as the warriors licked at each other's wounds.

A loud roar sounded from the surrounding forest, the call answered by the three conscious Moomba as they stared to the east with their long ears lifted high.  In short time, Kasir immerged from the cluster trees, the beast's expression causing Seifer to instinctively place a hand on Hyperion's hilt.  Golden-green eyes immediately took in the sight of carnage before he looked to the wounded group of cats.  His expression hardening at the sight, the H'rugur then howled with a sharp edge to the almost musical note.

After an echoing howl sounded in the near distance, the leader of the small group began a growled tirade to Kasir, his stubby fingers pointing at the bodies of humans and then at Sekre.  Unable to understand the feline's language, Seifer scowled as he made easy assumptions about the discussion at hand.  When Kasir turned to his son and Sekre withstood a harsh reprimand from the H'rugur, Seifer decided to make his presence known.

"Hey now, kittens, what are you talking about?" he asked with a sneer.

Without looking in the lord's direction, Kasir replied, "Not your business, human."

"So, it's going to be like that," Seifer murmured to himself before saying, "If that bastard is talking about the decision to let the humans gather their dead, Sekre only allowed it because I asked."

Kasir turned sharply and directed a harsh glare at the blond.  "You had no right."

Sekre interjected, "He asked, but it was my choice.  Most of the bodies are diseased and none of their flesh holds knowledge.  Eating these bodies would only sicken us."

The H'rugur glanced at his son in a moment of hesitation before he stood and moved to the scattering of human bodies.  After a brief examination of the corpses, the large cat said lowly, "While your words are true, you still allowed a trespasser to live and gave free passage to the humans who would take these bodies.  I cannot save you from this offense."

Seifer felt cold at the rumbled words, afraid for what the implications meant for the young Moomba.  "He did it with good reason, Kasir.  To kill all of these men would have only sent more in their wake.  To allow one to live and have him tell his people about the horror that took place, it'll make them think twice about invading your territory."

"Even so," the H'rugur maintained, "He defied our laws."

"Fuck your laws!  Surely you understand--"  The nobleman's argument was halted by a large and bloody paw-like hand placed against his chest.  He stared at Sekre for the interruption, but when the feline shook his head in resignation, Seifer realized that his words had little worth in the world of the Shumi.

Kasir snorted with irritation before he grumbled something to Sekre.  The younger Moomba wasn't allowed a response when several cats appeared from the surrounding forest, protecting the two Shumi who struggled to maintain pace with the large felines.  Dzieden was the first to hurry to the unconscious Moomba, his long fingers examining every inch of bloodied fur while the other gray-skinned creature moved to the kneeling leader.

Sekre stepped in front of Seifer and pushed gently with his paw-like hand.  "Come, I will guide you back to the village."

Refusing to be moved, Seifer argued, "You're injured.  Let Dzieden examine you first."

"My wounds are not serious.  And H'rugur wishes for us to leave."

Angered at the games that were being played around him, Seifer glared at the young Moomba with the silent message that he did not appreciate being treated like a bystander.

Dark lips pulled back into a slight smile.  "Come, Leonhart waits for you."

Seifer growled under his breath, irritated at the cat knowing the one thing that would lure him back to the hidden village without much resistance.  Sensing his victory, Sekre chuckled with a sharp swish of his tail, and then turned to lead the way out of the forest.  A hand tight on Hyperion's hilt, Seifer followed behind the feline of crimson fur darkened with deep stains of blood.  Eyeing the matted fur, Seifer silently asked Hyne what he had done to deserve such troublesome allies.  When his mind offered suggestions in terms of his role in the Massacre and Squall's worse events in life, the green-eyed lord sighed and realized that he didn't have much right to be selective with his friends.

~ > < ~

"How does that feel?"

Seifer replied with a soft purr, unable to put to words how it felt to have his lover wash his wounds and warm his body.

During the trek back to the Shumi's village, Seifer's body had come to the unfortunate realization that it was the final weeks of winter outside of the protected valley.  Without coat or gloves, the lord had been shivering by the time he exited the dark caverns and was greeted by the unexpected sight of Squall waiting nearby with a thick blanket in hand.  Squall then ordered both the human and Moomba to the hot springs, neither warrior daring enough to disobey the pregnant sorcerer.  Unaffected by the winter cold, Sekre had been quick to rinse the blood from his fur and reluctantly allowed Squall to bandage the worse wounds, but left soon after with the excuse that he had no desire to intrude.

Still thawing from cooler temperatures, Seifer relaxed in the steaming water that lapped against his chest and he gazed with half-open eyes as Squall tended to the single wound of any real concern.  Several scratches and fresh bruises decorated the man's body from both the battle and the burden of carrying the injured Mureh, but only the cut that sliced into his shoulder required attention from a steady sewing hand.

"This isn't the best position to help you," Squall commented from his perched spot on Seifer's lap, managing to maintain his balance while threading a thick needle.

Pale lips curling into a hungry smirk, Seifer strengthened his one-armed hold around the man's waist, the same hold that had pulled the elusive sorcerer into his current position.  "You aren't going anywhere, lovely."

"Stubborn fool," Squall murmured as he grabbed a nearly empty bottle of alcohol and poured the liquid over the gapping wound.  His smile at the lord's pain-filled hiss didn't go unnoticed.

"Don't enjoy this too much," Seifer warned between clenched teeth.

Squall's response was to begin the first stitch, his smile unmoved by the lord's exaggerated grunts at each pull of the thread.

"Say, Squall," the lord prompted after the first several stitches.  At the brunet's questioning hum, Seifer continued to ask, "Is it a problem for Sekre that I get along with him compared to the others?"

"... Why do you ask?"

"It started with that bastard Mureh seeming annoyed by me wanting to help out Sekre, and then there was his supposed father who wouldn't give the kid a break.  During the walk back, I got to thinking... It may be my imagination, but I've noticed how the others keep a distance from the fur ball, like they don't know what to do with him.  This village is too close-knit for that to happen, so the only thing I can figure is that the beasts don't like one of their own getting friendly with a human who isn't a sorcerer."

Squall said nothing while finishing the last stitches, the thick thread cut with a small knife.  Turning his attention to green eyes, he told the blond, "It's not your fault they treat him like that."

"What, you knew?"

"I noticed it the first day when we arrived and Dzieden said that Sekre would guard him while Kasir led us to the caverns.  It was... unlike Kasir to doubt the abilities of a son he trained himself.  I asked Dzieden about it the next day."

Testing the limits of his shoulder, Seifer glanced up at the sorcerer's unfinished explanation.  "So, what's the story?"

Squall sighed in a manner that suggested a lengthy explanation was required.  "Sekre is... different.  When I knew him in the past, I assumed he would take the path of a future Eahler, but apparently he fell in love and wanted to share his life with her, which meant becoming a Moomba.  According to Dzieden, everything went wrong from the being.  She didn't embrace him from Ifrit's flames and she was easily frustrated by the needs of a young Moomba, the responsibility overwhelming her to the point of frequently abandoning Sekre in their home during the first important months."

"Wait, that doesn't make any sense.  I thought the transformation ceremony required complete love between the two Shumi."

"It's a rare occurrence, but Sekre's single-minded love was enough to prompt his change.  And for her part, the female thought she was in love, but she wasn't suited for the responsibility associated to the status of vie'taos.  For almost a year, she was haunted by her inability to support and love her kri'sange.  The other Shumi failed to recognize her depression until it was too late - under the cover of night, she left the safety of the village with the knowledge that she could not survive.  Kasir found her the next morning, her body torn to shreds by wolves."

Eyes wide and shining in the light reflected from the springs, Seifer could barely find his voice.  "Blessed Hyne, I didn't know... I mean, I never even noticed that he didn't have someone waiting for him at home.  But even so, what does that have to do with Sekre?  It wasn't his fault she was weak."

Somber blue softening his gaze, Squall placed two fingers at the symbol of Sugenti Denynas, tanned flesh shivering at the contact.  "They were bonded in life, which meant they should have been bonded in death.  Because Sekre lived, the Shumi consider him soulless and cursed."

Seifer stared at the sorcerer with an expression of sickened disbelief and heated anger.  "They blame him for living?"

"You don't understand - he shouldn't have survived without his other half.  It would be the same as a man walking down the streets with his heart torn from his chest."

Seifer shook his head, water dripping from his hair.  "In that case, they should be happy that he lived, not afraid."

"And you would embrace a man with a hole in his chest?  Let his blood stain your skin?"

Teeth clenched in anger, the lord argued, "That isn't the same thing as having a child, your child, beating certain death."

With a fond smile, Squall said, "I know, but you are a man who doesn't fear everything he should."

At the words once used to explain why he didn't fear his sorcerer child, Seifer felt some calm return to his mind.  It wasn't a peaceful calm, but a measure of resignation that he couldn't change the world to suit his ideology.  Green eyes gazed down at the sorcerer's curved stomach and a rough hand pressed against the wet skin, his thumb stroking softly near the man's navel.  "Will you blame her for living?"

Taking the large hand in his, Squall replied, "I suspect you won't let me."

Seifer smiled weakly at the answer that wasn't a declaration of love, but something closer to fearful acceptance of their daughter.  While disappointing, the lord was determined to prove that it was safe to love the unborn girl.

"Alright, you've been soaking long enough and Leander should be awake from his nap by now, so I'd appreciate you releasing me."

His smile shifting into a childlike frown, Seifer briefly debated the consequences of denying the sorcerer his freedom.  He let his hand at the man's back drift to lower regions, the action immediately causing a dark eyebrow to lift in a manner that asked, 'Are you that stupid?'.  Defeated before allowed his play, Seifer sighed while he helped Squall slide off his lap and exit the pool of heated water.  Following close behind his lover, Seifer watched with some disappointment as the body he adored was covered by a silk robe brought with them from the Almasy Estate.

With a second robe in his hands, Squall stepped to the taller man and draped the sleek material over broad shoulders.  The edges of the thin fabric clutched in his hands, the sorcerer pulled Seifer close and said with a smirk, "Stop looking so pitiful.  For two days straight, you had your way with my body.  What will it take to satisfy you?"

"More," Seifer murmured before stealing a chaste kiss.  "I'll always want more."

Squall hummed in reply, a vague invitation for a deeper kiss that the blond lord could not refuse.  His hands sneaking past the edges of Squall's robe, Seifer grabbed the brunet's bare waist and pulled the shorter man against his body.  Lips came together in a soft press that continued into a lasting kiss that didn't involve the typical sharpness of teeth or loss of breath.  Instead of rough passion, the kiss was filled with a sense of timelessness, as if they had all of the time in the world to enjoy each other's taste, touch, and heat.

It was for that reason Seifer growled loudly when their moment of eternity was interrupted by a gurgling sound, an attempt by a Shumi to clear his throat and gain their attention.

Squall pulled away as far as the large hands at his waist would allow, a few inches at most.  Eyes of bright silver directed a brief glare at the demanding blond, Squall not looking at the unwanted visitor when he asked, "Was there something you needed, Dzieden?"

A faint whistling chuckle sounded from the entrance to the hot springs.  "Forgive my intrusssion, but I am here to essscort you both to the temple."

Seifer frowned at the sudden tenseness in his lover's body.  Looking at the gray-skinned creature, the lord asked, "Does this have to happen now?  Leander should be waking soon."

"Do not worry - Peirra and Kehrei are with him.  Come, the Eahlersss are not made to wait."

"Dzieden," Squall spoke before Seifer could speak his mind about being made to hurry for the sake of others.  "What is this about?"

The Shumi smiled with an awkward curl of nonexistent lips.  "It isss time for you to learn if your travelsss here have been in vain," he replied, and then with a raised arm, Dzieden said, "We ssshould hurry.  It isss not wissse to offend the older onesss."

"We aren't properly dressed," Seifer pointed out.

"Unfortunately, promptness is valued more than appearance," Squall replied as he slipped from the lord's hold and readjusted his robe.

Reluctantly taking the silent suggestion from his lover, Seifer slipped his arms through the sleeves of his robe and tied the belt in a loose knot.  While proud of his body, the flimsy material of the robe made him feel exposed and vulnerable in the face of the coming challenge, and he held the suspicion that the Shumi had planned for just that effect.  Glaring at his robe, Seifer almost missed the movement of the sorcerer, Squall stepping close to pull apart the upper portion of the robe, revealing the dark symbols of Sugenti Denynas.

"Leave it open," Squall said while brushing a finger along the very edge of burnt skin.  "This will remind them that you are important to me."

"Is that so?" Seifer commented in a near purr.

With a light scoff to say that they didn't have time for games of seduction, the sorcerer pulled away from the larger man and stepped to the waiting Shumi.  Following behind, Seifer allowed himself a free moment to grin and savor the rare words from his reserved lover, but with every step closer to the temple built to honor Ifrit, the nobleman composed his expression and steadied his heart for the purpose of facing the Shumi elders.  He hadn't met with the collection of gray-skinned, black-eyed creatures since the day they had arrived over a month back and that had lasted no more than a matter of minutes.  Given the events that already taken place that day, Seifer felt rather certain that he wasn't about to be welcomed by the ones who had created the laws he disobeyed.

The late day sun slowly dipped behind the surrounding mountains, causing an orange-ish glow to cover the Shumi's temple in a manner that made it appear touched by Ifrit's fire.  Dzieden waved aside the guarding Moomba, the oversized felines eyeing the entrance of the humans with disinterest.  The inside of the temple was only lit by sparse candles, so it took some time for Seifer's eyes to focus on the gathering of Shumi.  Five ordinate chairs stood at the far end of the temple, four of the seats occupied by the oldest of the Shumi, the Eahlers.  After directing something like a wink to the lord and sorcerer, Dzieden took his place at the empty seat, the master healer not as tall as the other elders, but leaner with a sharper gleam to his dark eyes.  Next to the Shumi elders, Kasir knelt on the ground with perfect posture, and at his side was his second in command, a larger Moomba who couldn't match the poise of his H'rugur.

Standing in front of the court of Shumi leaders, Seifer became very aware of the silken touch of the flimsy robe against his skin and he cursed Squall's nature to be proper and politely follow the rules of their hosts.

Seated in the middle, the largest of the Shumi in both height and width began speaking in a slight wheeze, the words purposefully in his own language.

After a slight nod to the lead elder, Squall turned to Seifer and said, "While Eahler Reis fully understands the human language, he dislikes using it.  I will translate his words, but you are free to speak as normal."

The moment Squall had finished his explanation, the large Shumi started into the purpose of the meeting, the sorcerer supplying a prompt translation in a soft voice not meant to overwhelm the elder's words - "Seifer-Almasy, you stand before us as you did many days ago, requesting for the strength of our honored Moomba in your fight against your Emperor.  Since that day, you have lived with us, taken part in our meals, and aided in our hunts.  And now today, you shed the blood of humans in order to save the lives of our young warriors, for which we thank you.  However, you shamelessly coerced one of those young warriors to let a trespasser live and give that human permission to collect his dead.  This is against our laws, laws that--"

Squall broke off in his translation to stare incredulously at the blond lord.  "Did you really say that their laws are worthless?"

"I believe the actual quote was, 'Fuck your laws'," Seifer stated with complete seriousness.

The sorcerer sighed at the man's recklessness, but wasn't allowed further comment when the Shumi elder continued to speak - "You disregard our laws and disrespect our people, and yet you ask for our help.  How is this acceptable?"

Meeting the black eyes of the lead elder, Seifer replied, "What kind of monster do you think I am to murder witless humans for the sake of peopleI don't respect?"

Reis leaned back further into his chair at the rebuttal, his eyes unblinking in his surprise.

Seifer continued to say, "Those humans who attacked your sons were scared idiots.  Someone got it into their heads that everyone's life would be rainbows and sunshine if they killed off a few Shumi.  Over twenty men were made to believe this and they died from their stupidity.  Now, imagine if all of them had been killed without anyone to give an account of the battle.  Do you really believe they would give up and let over twenty husbands and sons die without reason or retaliation?"

"They have before," was the lead elder's reply, something the Shumi to his left seemed to argue and Reis was forced to admit, "But this is the first time we have killed so many humans at once."

Green eyes shining, Seifer insisted, "A hunter or two would go unnoticed as a matter of Fate or bad luck, but twenty murdered men means war.  The village would have sent pleads to their king, who would then in turn request help from the Emperor.  He and his bride have already rid this continent of sorcerers - do not think it beneath him to kill off some overgrown cats, too."

"And you believe that a single spared life will prevent this war of yours?"

The lord grinned darkly at the question.  "We did more than spare a life.  That boy has returned to his village and has already told his story about an entire group of men falling to a handful of Shumi, and worse, they were helped by a human.  Can you imagine their horror?  As of this morning, they had the noble intention to rid the world of man-eating monsters, but tonight they have the face the reality that a human can live and fight with the Shumi.  It may not be much, but it's a seed of doubt that will make them reluctant to seek help from others.  After all, they can never certain which humans became your allies."

The elders muttered amongst themselves at Seifer's words, the long minutes wearing at the lord's already thin patience.  While Squall's voice had been a soothing force during the translations, Seifer had never enjoyed the trouble associated to negotiations.  He was a soldier at heart, and faced with such opposition, his hand itched for the weight of his blade.

Eventually, Reis lifted a hand of long tentacle-like fingers, and once silence was regained, he asked, "We believe we understand some of the reasons for your actions, so it would be best to move on.  You have asked for the strength and lives of our sons - what is our gain in such a sacrifice?"

Unexpected anger swelled in Seifer's chest, an emotion he smothered as best he could.  "Laguna Loire requested for your protection, but his city and people were destroyed before any of you had the chance to save the sorcerers from their fate.  Three days.  That is all it took to remove a possible threat to the Empire, or so the story goes.  We, of course, know the truth that it was the Empress Ultimecia who wanted the sorcerers dead and her besotted husband obliged with a smile on his face.

"Now, what happens when the Empress decides she wants a pet Moomba for her birthday?  It's only a matter of time, so you have a choice - attack before you gain her interest, or else defend your home from the same fire that stole everything from the sorcerers."

Coal black eyes shifted to glance at the symbol of Sugenti Denynas, the same 'Burning Ocean' that had covered the sorcerers' capital for days and chased away the night with its brightness.  "It has been many years since those tragic days and we have been left in peace.  Why would that change?"

"I'm not one to question the mind of an insane sorceress.  Hell, she once had her minions feed me Lengen ni Werlogh for the single-minded purpose of revealing the sorcerer under my protection."

At the name of the poison, all eyes shifted to Squall in a tense moment of surprise, a scrutiny that the dark-haired sorcerer withstood with complete dignity despite his attire.  Eventually Kasir was the one to speak for all of them - "Is that why he smells of your blood?"

Eyes quiet and proud, Squall replied, "He didn't deserve death, and certainly not that death."

Seifer smiled at the words that were similar to the ones the sorcerer had said on that fateful day, and though Seifer knew he had tasted death in that moment, he preferred to focus his memories on the first kiss he had stolen from the man he once thought unobtainable.

While the elders conversed in whispered breaths, a mild commotion sounded at the entrance to the temple.  Curious, Seifer glanced over his shoulder to discover that the guarding Moomba were having a sharp discussion with an unmoved cat.  Eventually the others in the temple took notice of the interruption, forcing one of the guards to explain the problem.  The large feline grumbled out something in his own language, only Sekre's name apparent in the mess of growls.

With a lazy wave by the lead elder, Sekre was given entrance into the temple despite the apparent reluctance by the guards.  The bandaged Moomba stepped directly to Seifer's side, and without glancing at the lord or sorcerer, Sekre knelt down with pained grace before addressing the group of Shumi leaders.

"Eahler, H'rugur.  Forgive my intrusion," Sekre said in the human tongue, Seifer knowing he did so for his sake.  "But I just now learned of this meeting and I cannot allow this human accept the blame for my actions.  I knowingly spared the trespasser's life and I gave permission for him to collect his dead.  Almasy is not at fault."

With fondness and pity, Reis gazed at the kneeling Moomba and replied with a soft wheeze, "You are young and easily deceived."  When Sekre looked about to argue, the lead elder continued to say, "What other words you have prepared do not matter.  That discussion has come and gone and Seifer-Almasy did well to defend his motives."

Surprise brightened amber eyes, the feline glancing at Seifer with a questioning gaze.

"It's alright, fur ball," Seifer said with a conspiring wink.  "I've got us covered."

Sekre blinked once at the blond human, disbelief apparent in the open expression as if he couldn't understand someone defending him, but the Moomba wasted little time on the topic that the Shumi elders considered closed.  Instead, Sekre returned his attention to the other Shumi.  "It is said the other reason for this meeting is to make the humans leave."

Reis showed brief hesitation before his reply, Squall's voice showing some regret during his translation.  "Leonhart and Seifer-Almasy have come here for one purpose, and once our decision has been made, they will leave.  They are welcome to return in time of need, but their world is not ours and it would be best for our worlds to remain separate."

Seifer had no response for the classic situation between differing societies, whether divided by magic, religion, or race, but looking down at the battered Moomba, he was interested to note the faint sneer of dark lips.

"I owe Almasy my life," Sekre said in a low tone that wasn't common for the feline.  "When they leave, I want permission to leave with them."

The declaration caused an immediate reaction amongst the Shumi leaders, all of them speaking at once to the point of nonsense.  Dumbfounded, Seifer looked to his lover in search of council, the stormy-eyed man smiling faintly at the young Moomba.  When Squall recognized the bewildered gaze of the blond, he glanced up and arched an eyebrow with the unexpected statement, 'is there something wrong with his request?'.

"He's a Shumi who makes children run away screaming," Seifer whispered as quietly as possible, hoping Sekre wouldn't overhear.  "I already have to protect two sorcerers and a coming sorceress, not to mention my own ass, and at least magic-users look like ordinary humans.  What am I supposed to do with an overgrown cat?"

Squall shrugged with a bare lift of shoulders.  "You'll manage.  You always do."

In irritation, Seifer raked his fingers back through damp hair, the thoughts in his mind running too fast to put them to words.

"Don't play stupid.  Short of collaring one yourself, you would do anything to have a personal Moomba around to protect our family."

His fingers still in his spiked hair, Seifer stared at the faintly amused expression of his lover, surprised to discover that Squall was correct with the piece of information that the lord had yet to consider.  A skilled guard in the form of a fearsome 'monster' had an incredible appeal, especially when said guard could most probably snack on a Ravage for breakfast.  Eyes wide in that revelation, Seifer glanced at the kneeling Moomba who was already looking up with harsh golden eyes and his ears lifted in a sign that he had unavoidably heard every word.

Sighing, Seifer lowered his arm and asked, "Is this really what you want, kitten?"

Sekre nodded once with certainty.  "I considered it before today.  And Kehrei asked me to watch over your son."

"Kehrei?  I didn't realize the little monster could string together two words."

The Moomba smiled with a vague show of teeth.  "He could not say the words, but his actions were enough.  Leander seemed to like the idea."

"He would," Seifer muttered before returning his attention to the gathering of Shumi.  Their talk hadn't lessened since Sekre's request, but one set of black eyes were intently focused on the pair of humans and the young Moomba.  Apparently seeing something he liked, Dzieden smiled his awkward smile and pressed his hands together with a strange dance of long fingers.

"What great luck!" Dzieden abruptly announced in the human language, silencing the heated discussions around him.  "Not only do we have a volunteer to protect our honored Leonhart during thisss difficult period for him, we have a ssskilled warrior who can ussse the sssummoning ssstone for when we are needed in the fight againssst Ultimecia."

"Dzieden," the lead elder hissed in anger that turned his skin white, a fury that Dzieden disregarded with perfect calmness.

"Do not fool yourssself, Reis.  We all believe that Shezva lovesss our Leonhart.  And if he isss indeed her messsenger, then the children of Ifurit cannot deny him any request.  Unlesss, isss our H'rugur of a different mind?" Dzieden asked while leaning forward to look at the kneeling cat.

Golden-green eyes narrowed with thought, Kasir replied, "It would be dangerous to fight along side humans.  However, Almasy has shown me his strategy and he has offered us the freedom to act as we desire within his plans.  In the end, this would give us the best chance to avenge those we failed to protect."  Looking to Squall, the large feline added, "We owe it to the dead and I owe it to Leonhart, rya prahtr."

The lead elder huffed in annoyance at his lost control, but didn't dispute the Moomba's belief.  He muttered something that Squall didn't bother to translate, but at the subsequent raising of three long-fingered hands and the H'rugur's furry paw, Seifer realized that a vote was taking place.  Being one of the two Shumi to keep his hand lowered, Reis sighed at the decision that had been made.  He made a motion with his hand, an action that made both Sekre and Squall place a fisted hand to their chests, a movement Seifer mimicked before Squall subtly signaled that they were to leave.

Once outside the temple and walking toward their temporary home, Seifer asked, "Why exactly did we run out of there?"

Squall explained, "They voted to support your cause.  With the decision made, there was no need to talk any further, so it was proper etiquette to leave immediately in respect of their choice.  The same would have been true if they refused to help you."

Seifer scoffed quietly.  "Just as it was 'proper etiquette' to appear in robes?  It's a damned good thing their skill is worth the humiliation I endure every time I bother getting out of bed in this place."

A soft huff of laughter sounded behind them, Sekre following at a respectable distance.

"Well then," Squall prompted, "it should please you to know that we only have one morning left here."

Surprised, Seifer stared at the sorcerer.  "What?  When was that decided?"

"As Eahler Reis stated, with their choice to support you, we have no reason to stay here and disrupt their way of life."

"But... so abruptly?"

"That is why Sekre was forced to interrupt the meeting - he knew there wouldn't have been another chance to receive permission to leave with us.  It's nothing personal and we are welcomed to return, but we have been informally asked to leave as soon as possible."  Squall then sighed softly.  "Leander will be disappointed to leave Kehrei behind, but perhaps they'll meet in the future."

Reaching out, Seifer placed a hand a the man's long neck and squeezed firmly.  "I'm more worried about you.  Compared to the person I knew before coming here, you seem relaxed and at peace.  Would it... be better for you to stay?"

"Idiot," Squall breathed while enjoying the massaging touch.  "If you suggest that a second time, I will arrange it so that the last piece of clothing to your name is the robe you're wearing."

Unrealized tenseness evaporated at the response and Seifer flashed an unrestrained grin at the dark-haired beauty.  "Is that a proposition?"

The sorcerer growled quietly, and though no flame appeared, Seifer could feel the fire element stirring within the lean body.  While the lord felt fairly certain that he should fear that movement of volatile magic, he instead explored the sensation that suited the fearsome Sorcerer Prince.  It was awkward for Seifer to understand what he was doing when he search the bond between them, the experience akin to coming across a familiar smell without knowing the memory it was associated to.  But despite the required effort, he was determined to locate the small life that was hidden amongst the chaotic forces, the small flame that Squall swore Seifer would be able to feel in time.  Time, however, meant patience and the blond lord was never one who liked waiting for the things he wanted most.

"You're trying too hard."

Startled by the simple declaration that implied the sorcerer had felt his prodding, Seifer stuttered out, "Shit, sorry, I didn't mean to... I should've asked... Wait, what did you say?"

Squall slowed to a stop and took the befuddled lord's hands in his.  "You're acting like a bull rampaging through the city streets - completely unsubtle, lacking in direction, and terrifying small children into hiding."  The brunet placed the large hands at the curve of his midsection, an action that made Seifer lift an interested eyebrow given the man's typical annoyance with any attention being placed toward his pregnancy.  "What do you feel right now?"

Reluctantly closing his eyes for focus, Seifer replied, "Fire.  I always feel the fire within you."

"That is because you're searching too deep.  Imagine stepping back a pace and force your mind to see more."

Seifer frowned at the instruction that seemed beyond his experience, but after a few failed attempts, he gasped at the sudden difference when he felt himself figuratively pull back from the dark-haired beauty.  The heat of fire still filled his senses, but there were also hints of a swirling breeze that conflicted with a sense of sturdy ground, Seifer easily identifying them as the air and earth elements playing against each other.  Awed by the new sensations, Seifer almost missed the flicker of a flame that differed from the raging fire of his lover.

"Shhhh, don't move too fast," Squall whispered as his hands squeezed Seifer's.  "You're too different for her to accept easily."

Though bothered by the concept that his baby girl was terrified of him, Seifer took heed of the words and tried to imagine holding out a hand to the wisp of fire.  As Squall had predicted, the flame shied away with a small shiver.  Forcing himself to be patient, Seifer waited for his daughter to show the common curiosity of naive children.  After several loud heartbeats, the small blaze reluctantly shifted away from Squall's comforting fire and seemed to study the waiting 'hand'.  Seifer found himself humming a quiet lullaby, an instinctive desire to calm her fears and coax her closer.  Embarrassed by his break in composure, he was distracted and unprepared for when the tiny flame reached out and brushed against him.

With a harsh gasp, Seifer's eyes snapped open and he stared with wonderment at his lover.  "She's... She's beautiful."

Squall smiled faintly and attempted to remove the man's hands, an attempt that was immediately thwarted as Seifer wrapped his arms around the smaller man in a tight hug.  Sighing in surrender, Squall placed a hand on the man's bent head and stroked his fingers through golden hair.  "She knows you now.  It'll be easier in the future."

Seifer pressed his face against the sorcerer's neck and kissed the bare exposure of shoulder.  "Thank you.  Thank you for everything.  I can never repay you for everything you have given me."

"You can," Squall argued as he encouraged the blond to meet his eyes.  "Promise me that Verena will be everything you say she could be."

His stunned expression slowly turning into a pleased smile, Seifer pressed his forehead against Squall's.  "I swear to you that she will be an angel among mortals - beautiful in her strength, fearsome in her power, and wise in her compassion.  Our little Vera will make us proud, just like Ander does with every new spell and every new technique that he learns to make himself stronger.  And he'll love her and show her all of things we'd rather hide from our baby girl."  His smile wide and proud, Seifer finished with, "Together, Leander and Verena will have the power to dominate the world, but they will learn from you how to cherish life with all of their soul and being."

Squall said nothing for a long moment, completely lost in his thoughts in a way that Seifer found lonely.  When the sorcerer did speak, it was in a quiet voice that was almost stolen away by the wind.  "I want to believe you."

"You will, my love.  You just need time."  With a crooked smirk, Seifer added, "So don't move too fast or else you'll spook yourself into believing it's impossible."

The dark-haired man breathed a weak laugh and nothing more as he stood silently within the larger man's sheltering embrace.


A soft smile teasing his lips, Seifer was amused to find himself the only one awake in the small confines of his carriage despite the rattle of wooden wheels on dirt and the constant creaks of the coach while in motion.  Across from him, Sekre was dressed in a black robe and laid in a bent position that didn't seem comfortable in least, but given the flexibility of cats, Seifer assumed the Moomba was perfectly fine with his head tucked in a corner and his legs bent at odd angles.  Curled within his hold, Leander was kept in a precarious position on the padded bench, only the brace of a furry arm across his chest and the clawed paw at his shoulder preventing the child from landing on the wooden floor after a good bounce.  While at first bothered by the dangerous feline holding his child so close, Seifer had been quickly won over by Leander complaining that he missed Kehrei and that the Moomba's warmth kept him from feeling cold.  Squall's harsh glare had also been helpful in forcing Seifer to make the right decision.

At a quiet murmur, Seifer glanced down at the dark-haired beauty resting with his head on the lord's lap, a position the sorcerer fought against during every day of their travels until the nausea would become too bothersome to maintain a sense of pride.  Lying down helped some, but only so much could be done given the rough ride on poorly traveled roads.  Seifer brushed his hand through thick locks of chestnut before he replaced it at the small mound that was hidden beneath a heavy blanket to keep away the early spring cold.

Moving his glance to the dust smeared window, Seifer felt some relief at the familiar sights of barns and stables that belonged to the Almasy Estate.  There were still many miles to travel before reaching the manor and then further to the lake where a small summer house sat near the shoreline.  The building had been vacant since the death of his mother, Seifer somewhat fearful of her ghost residing in the place of her final breath, but the private nature of the house made it a necessity for Squall's safety during his pregnancy.  The addition of their unplanned guest made privacy even more important.  Seifer could only hope that their ruse of Leander catching a contagious disease and being forced into quarantine with Squall to watch over him would keep the more curious servants away.

Lost in disjointed thoughts about his mother and the safety of his lover, Seifer didn't notice the difference in time until a cold hand grabbed onto his and their fingers entwined.  Green eyes shifting down, he smiled at the sight of the drowsy brunet and wished that he could always keep the man in such a docile state.

"How much further?" Squall asked as he closed his eyes against the glare of sunlight.

"It can't be long now.  The other carriages will proceed to the main house and we'll continue to the summer house."

Squall hummed his understanding as his eyebrows scrunched in a fashion that Seifer recognized well as a sign of nausea.  With nothing he could do to help, Seifer squeezed the hand in his and rubbed his thumb across chilled skin, hoping to give Squall something else to focus on in the last minutes of the carriage ride.  Eventually, the gates to the Almasy Estate came and went, and the clatter of additional carriages from their entourage separated toward the main house while their coach headed toward the lake in the distance.  The surrounding trees gradually grew denser with the addition of budding bushes that were prepared for the good weather only weeks away.

Knowing they had nearly reached their destination, Seifer coaxed Leander and Sekre into wakefulness, careful to not startle the cat in order to avoid an accidental mauling of the young boy.  Once properly seated, the large feline adjusted his black robes to cover all of his features, including a heavy hood to hide his lengthy ears and overly long sleeves to cover his paw-like hands.  A metal mask in the guise of an ornamental wolf covered his face while comfortably accounting for his snout.  To a person who didn't know about the beast underneath, the complete outfit made him appear a tall human bodyguard with an odd interest in masks.

Once the carriage came to a halt, Leander jumped from his seat and opened the door to let in sunlight and dust, the eager boy rushing outside to smack full on against the solid form of the waiting steward.  Ward laughed deeply when he prevented the youth from falling to the ground and then lifted the boy into his muscular arms.

"Well now, young master, did you already forget it's my job to open the door?"

"Ward!"  Hugging his arms around the man's thick neck, Leander said excitedly, "So much happened.  It was boring at first with all of the stuffy people Father made us meet, but then we stayed a long time with the Shumi.  They tried to eat us at first, but they were just scared.  We gotta watch Kehrei become a Moomba and we played all of the time.  Oh, and Squall did something to Father so that I can feel him all of the time now!"

Ward chuckled at the rapid string of words, his split eyebrow lifting in interest at the final comment.  Meanwhile, Seifer helped the stubborn sorcerer out from the carriage, earning himself an icy glare for his aid.  Moving behind the smaller man, Seifer captured Squall in a one-armed hold before he could get too far and vanish within the two-storied summer house.  Last to exit,