Warden
August 2008

by Proanon

 

smoke and fire and screams and steel and darkness

"Put me down!"

darkness and steel and screams and don't go that way the fires are spreading

"Put me down, Ward! I have to find Father!"

screams and fire and smoke and that way is blocked and must not fail my friend

"Your father told me to get you out of here!"

pounding on his back because even now the boy would never use his powers on a friend and he's exhausted his magics anyway from fighting and screams and corpses

"Shiva will melt before I leave them behind!"

ice-cold voice only an idiot wouldn't listen but this isn't the time and the screams are closer now

"I daresay we could…" wry humor dodge falling stone shield the boy from the blast of heat can't go that way "…use the extra water right about now."

where is everyone the bodies all have Laguna's face except that it's Squall's as well and the boy is safe and yelling at him except he's not safe because where is the exit he should know this place better than his own hand so why is he lost and the screams just keep getting closer but everyone's dead

and then darkness and horror and twin screams of pain and that wasn't right it didn't happen this way

"Father! Uncle Leander!"

and the boy is gone he's running and the floor has swallowed his feet and he can't run after him and now there are people between him as Squall disappears into fire and smoke and killing darkness and they're all laughing and something rolls to his feet from the ashes and guardians Shiva Ifrit Bahumut it's Laguna's head and the eyes are dead and the laughing face is torn and disappointed and looking straight at him and says

"Traitor."

Something slammed into the wall and a jolt of pain pulled him into darkness and moonlight streaming through his window. Gasping, he looked over and realized that at some point, he'd flailed and hit the wall. His knuckles were throbbing painfully, but not enough to indicate broken bones. The plaster wall had suffered nearly as much as his hand; one new dent had joined the many other relics of troubled nights.

Ignoring the pain in the left, his massive hands closed into fists as he forcefully slowed his breathing. But when he opened his eyes, a hint of movement drew them to the dark glass of his window, reflecting the faintest edges of his heavy features and the massive scar that cut down along his face.

And the voices echoed back from his dream again: Traitor.

Ward sighed in resignation. It was going to be a sleepless night.

~W~A~R~D~E~N~

The steward looked down at the copy of the decree in his hand and groaned. No wonder he'd been having nightmares last night. But somehow he doubted nightmares would be enough of an excuse to get the Almasy household out of holding the festivities decreed by the Emperor for this "historic" evening.

Historic, Ward thought with a great deal of bitterness. That's one word for it.

But most of the people of the Empire didn't understand the truth of what Emperor Deling had done, and the Emperor had a vested interest in continuing that state of affairs. The decree itself was overflowing with phrases like, "fall of an ancient evil" and "salvation from sorcery." If you were to believe the Emperor, he had taken at most a horribly outnumbered band of heroes against impossible odds and led them personally to cut down the demonic sorcerers that had been looming over the people of the world, emerging victorious just in the nick of time. And the decree made it clear that he expected everyone to celebrate his "great victory" – with dire hints of what would happen were his inspectors not convinced of the celebrants' sincerity.

It made him sick to read.

"Ward? Someone is… oh."

He looked up in surprise. "Matro… Ah, Mrs. Kramer. Is something wrong?"

"You might as well call me Matron. Goodness knows the rest of the household does." Edea Kramer directed a searing scowl at the paper in Ward's hand that, had the universe been fair, would have scarcely left ashes in its wake. "Well, that does answer why you didn't come to breakfast this morning. That would turn anyone's stomach."

Ward put the paper aside. "Matron…" he said, not quite certain of how he should be responding but aware that a response was necessary.

The head of the servants and unofficial ruler of the household sighed, for a rare moment showing that she was indeed in her fifties, despite the slender figure, almost unlined face and dark hair. Meeting his eyes squarely, she said, "That night was an atrocity. It was wrong. The old Lord Almasy, rest his soul, knew that, and his son learned it. No one would blame you if…"

"If I what?" Ward carefully spread his hands so that he did not crumple something important. "This decree is a test. The Emperor knows that certain people hold reservations regarding the Massacre. He will be watching them – and myself, in particular. He has never forgotten that I was once aide to the Sorcerer King. If he suspects me of being disloyal, the consequences will fall on more than myself."

They would fall on people like Matron. Like her husband Cid. People like Seifer Almasy, a young nobleman who had seen the truth too late to escape the blood on his hands, and who had spared a broken steward only to lose himself in a haze of alcohol for years. And Seifer's son, little Leander, with his precious, deadly secret.

Ward drew in a deep breath. "I have managed every year," he said with a wry and not particularly amused smile. "I will manage this year. And I hope you will forgive me if the walls have a few new dents in them when it is over."

Matron huffed with the signature frustration of a woman who had to humor the foolish males who thought they had authority on her turf. "They survived Seifer, the silly boy, I imagine they'll survive you. But that reminds me, I have another silly boy who simply had to talk to you before he would eat his breakfast." At her words, a tousled mop of blond-streaked dark hair over huge green eyes peered around the door frame.

Ward couldn't help smiling. "Well, Master Leander, you are up remarkably early." He put the papers down and stood up from his desk.

Matron stepped back. "Send him back to the dining room when you've had your talk," she said with amused resignation. "And come eat something yourself. Don't think that I don't know you've been here since the dark hours."

As the door closed behind her, Ward winced. He should have known better than to think that the housekeeper would have overlooked his working through the night after the nightmare awakened him.

"I think I'm in trouble," he whispered to Leander. The little boy laughed, green sparkling with the mischief that only a little child conspiring with an adult in "twubble" could show. But the laughter faded unusually fast behind a sheen of thoughtful silvery grey, and he held out his hands in a wordless demand to be picked up that Ward didn't hesitate to obey.

Leander uncharacteristically did not yell in delight at being lifted to Ward's full towering height, which was more than sign enough for Ward that something serious was on the boy's mind. He sat the boy down on the edge of the desk and then took his chair again, so that they were effectively seeing each other eye-to-eye.

"What is troubling you, young master?"

Leander frowned faintly, but after that brief pause went straight to the heart of the matter with a child's directness. "Where's Daddy?"

Internally, Ward sighed. He should be grateful that Leander was so close to his father, and he was – particularly when he remembered how touch-and-go that first year had been, with Seifer deep in his cups and utterly unwilling to assume responsibility for his unexpected and unwanted child. But Leander had asked the same question at least twice each day ever since Ward had returned from the capitol.

"He is in the big city," Ward said gravely, keeping his thoughts off his face. "Now that Grandfather is gone, he is very busy, but he will be coming home as soon as he can."

Despite his patient cover, however, the silvery shadow in Leander's eyes seemed to see right through his words and to his thoughts, because the boy's frown deepened. "I just wanna see Da. 'm not a baby."

And for a frozen moment Ward couldn't find the air in his lungs, because the eyes in front of him were silvery blue rather than grey-green, and watching him from a gap of almost two decades.

"I just want to see Sis. I'm not a baby."

"…Ward?" Leander asked in a small voice, and Ward shook himself fiercely.

"It's nothing," he said with a smile. "Just… remembering."

It had been years since he had searched that young face for some shadow, some hint of the other parent, the survivor. Ultimately he had given the search up as too painful, the shadows all too fleeting and reminding him only of the dead, the way Leander's name reminded him of another, older, harder Leander he had once known. But with the nightmare of last night fresh in his mind, he couldn't help but see the ghost of the beloved child of another lord and friend looking back at him, even though the youth had been in his teens when darkness and fire consumed him and the rest of his people.

And that thought abruptly made Ward laugh. Because if he actually thought about it, it was beyond ironic that he would see the ghost of Squall in the eyes of Seifer's son.

Leander was frowning fiercely now, eyes very green and annoyed – no doubt thinking that Ward was laughing at him. Unable to explain himself to the child, Ward simply shook his head and offered his hand. "Now, let's go and have some breakfast, shall we? Before Matron's wrath comes down on us both. And when your father returns we will make him regret making us wait and worry so."

I will protect him, he swore silently. Whoever you were or are, I will protect your son, Seifer's son – and as I could not protect your King, your Lord and your Prince, I will protect one of the last, precious children of their people

~W~A~R~D~E~N~ 

Matron often scolded the men of the household on the importance of a good, solid meal – the poor woman was cursed to deal with menfolk who often forgot that food existed when stressed or tired, and stress had been a constant in the household since Lord Almasy the Elder passed away. The coming celebration of the Massacre had done nothing to improve the atmosphere.

But for his part, Ward considered himself properly and thoroughly rebuked – because, indeed, once he had something in his stomach, he found facing the preparations for the festivities to be considerably easier to face. In fact, so long as he didn't think too hard about it, there was almost something appropriate about it.

Laguna always did enjoy a good bit of well-timed foolishness. Come to think of it, throwing a party on the anniversary of his death sounded exactly like the sort of stunt Laguna would have loved.

Although celebrating his own murder

Still… a few touches to minimize the emphasis on why they were celebrating, and he could tell himself it was just another chance for the estate to relax and enjoy themselves for once, now that the months of official mourning for the old lord had ended.

"Ward?"

Startled, Ward looked up from his conversation with the groundskeeper. "Matron? Is there a problem?" He thought they had enough in the larder to support a proper feast, particularly as they'd had a week to prepare. (Not long enough for a proper spread, for which a spiteful corner of his heart was glad. If the Emperor meant to prevent his subjects from weaseling out of his self-aggrandizing declaration that this year's celebration must feature a great feast by making it at such short notice, he could live with a sub-standard result.) "I can send extra staff to the kitchens…"

"No, it's not the feast," she said, shaking her head. "Have you seen Leander?"

Ward frowned, then nodded to the groundskeeper to indicate that they would finish their discussion at a later time. "Shouldn't he be with his nursemaid?"

"I haven't seen her since before breakfast," Matron said, voice heavy with the ironic hint that she had a good hunch as to why the girl had been making herself scarce.

Ward frowned. "He didn't come to lunch?"

"No – and Cid hasn't seen him all day, either."

The frown deepened. For Leander to wander off on his own was not all that uncommon – he had all the willfulness of his father and a positive gift for hiding. But every morning, without fail, he would show up at the stables when the stablemaster and Matron's husband, Cid, let the hounds run about in the yard. Especially now that a pair of puppies had been born – Ward would have been ready to bet that Leander couldn't have been kept from the pups with a crowbar. For him to miss them…

"He's probably sulking," he said, more for his benefit than Matron's. "He's been very disappointed that Seifer didn't return from the capitol with me."

"He's not the only one," Matron said softly. "I'll be glad when this foolishness is done and you can go back. I don't like him being there alone – and honestly! Do the two of you think that this household cannot run a simple feast without you to tell us what to do?"

Ward laughed at her mock-crossness, but privately, he suspected that Seifer's sending him back to see to the Estate affairs had less to do with lack of faith in Matron and everything to do with Ward himself. The Estate could gloss over the fact that this feast was decreed by the Emperor to celebrate the massacre of the sorcerers, but that small mercy would be nowhere to be found in the capitol. And Seifer, although he would never admit it, had too much compassion under his crass exterior to ask Ward to remain while the world celebrated the destruction of everything he'd loved.

Aloud, all he said was, "He has Irvine and his old soldier friends to support him. So long as they can keep him from being too much a fool, he will be fine."

"So long… well. At least Irvine will be able to heal the worst of the damage." Edea shook her head. "But, Leander. I've looked for him, but I can't seem to take ten steps without…"

There was a dull thwomp sound from the kitchens and, for just a moment, Edea lost her composure enough to throw her hands up in frustration.

"Oh, that did it! I should know better than to tempt fate, and still…" Catching herself, she cleared her throat and smoothed her apron self-consciously. "Ah… I need to go back. But could you look for Leander, Ward? I don't know how you do it, but I don't know half of the places he hides here. And to think, I've been here longer than you!"

Ward chuckled. "Of course. Go back and defend your domain, Matron – I will find our errant young master."

After a moment's thought, he decided to start with the most unlikely places first. Matron would not have come to him without searching every hiding place that she could think of first. But Matron did not know that Leander had… ways… of getting places that no normal three-year-old could reach. Particularly when he was upset. And with his adored father nowhere to be seen for weeks, the child was undoubtedly upset.

But Leander was not tucked away in the attic rafters, nor hiding in his father's locked wardrobe, nor in any of the other strange places where Ward had learned to look for the child. Ward was frowning deeply by the time he returned to the main hall. The boy might be hiding out on the estate lands, but away from the grounds of the manor itself. And that was more than potentially dangerous.

Although… Leander was barely three and far from being ready for martial training, but he was an Almasy through and through, complete with an unhealthy fascination with sharp and pointy things. He had never been to the practice yard without Seifer, but perhaps…

Action followed on the heels of the thought, as Ward veered off his course sharply and took the shortest path possible towards the practice yard of the armory.

Ward had not known Seifer Almasy as a child, but he had been told that before the Massacre had shattered his illusions of glory, the young lord had spent hours of every day at the yard, often brushing off or frightening away other tutors who sought to take him to task. Even after the Massacre, Seifer had practiced regularly, until his father's illness became severe enough that he was obligated to take over the running of the Almasy estate. Of the entire estate, the practice yard was most clearly Seifer's place, and now Ward felt foolish for not going there first. Of course a young boy who missed his father would gravitate towards the place his father loved most.

"Klutz," a silver-haired woman was saying with what might be taken for scorn rather than affection, if one didn't know her, when Ward arrived. The comment was directed at a dark-skinned man who was picking himself up out of the dust with a frustrated look on his face.

"Oh, c'mon, I just wanna get that move down. I swear, I can do it!" He picked up a spear from the dust and spotted Ward as he straightened. "Hey, it's the big guy."

Ward could all but see Fujin consider a solid kick at her partner's unguarded flank before she sighed and nodded a greeting to him. Something of his mood must have shown on his face, however, because in the next moment she frowned. "Trouble?"

What did it say, that the first thing anyone asked when someone sought them out was whether there had been some trouble? "I hope not. Have either of you two seen Leander recently?"

The question immediately brought a serious look to Raijin's face – the dark-skinned warrior might present himself as a buffoon, but he was intensely loyal to his friend Seifer, and by extension to Seifer's young son and heir. "He was hangin' about yesterday, but I haven't seen him since." Glancing at his partner, he prompted, "Fu?"

After a moment, the woman shook her head.

Damn. So much for that idea.

"Trouble?" Fujin pressed again, in a tone of voice that added a nuance of, Who needs to die?

Ward hesitated, but finally said, "Matron's looking for him, but it seems like no one has seen him since breakfast this morning."

The pair looked at each other sharply. Then Fujin turned on her heel and stalked off with the air of a hunting cat on a rabbit's trail, while Raijin turned back to Ward. "I'll check the fields," the man said, not even bothering to ask if Ward had searched the keep yet. "I know he's not supposed to be let out there, but with everything up in the air with the feast, you just don't see the little guys so much, ya know?"

Yes, Ward knew. Ward knew very well. It was what he was afraid of.

While Raijin was gone, Ward searched the outer courtyards, hoping against hope that Leander had just gotten distracted by the preparations. But there was no sign of the boy, and soon Raijin returned to report that there was no sign of Leander in the fields, nor any sign that he had ever been there. The man was a skilled tracker; if Leander had wandered in that direction, he would have found the trail.

Growing desperate, Ward returned to the house, and began searching the rooms again, this time methodically, room by room, looking anywhere that a three-year-old boy might hide. He was going through the offices when Matron found him.

"He's still missing?" she asked, unnecessarily – she would have been the first person Ward would have notified if Leander had been found.

Ward had to stop and pass a hand over his eyes. "Seifer will kill me," he said bleakly.

Matron gave him a sharp look that then softened slightly. "He will do no such thing," she said tartly, "if he wants this household to be anything resembling functional. Ward, this is not your fault. And I'm certain that Leander is fine. He was sulky this morning; I'm sure he's simply found a new cubby to hide in until he gets over his mood." A slight smile tugged at her face. "I don't know where he gets it from, but put the boy in a temper and he starts believing he can live on air."

Ward smiled faintly as well; the Loire family had been much the same. But the thought reminded him of the real reason he was fast approaching very real panic – the ghost of another child he had been charged to save, and failed.

Traitor…

"Ow! You stupid slut! What are you – let go of me! Ow! Don't pull!"

The racket in the hallway shocked Ward out of his downward spiral of self-recrimination. Before he could react, Fujin appeared in the doorway, all but dragging a protesting young woman with her by an iron grip on shining golden curls.

A rather disheveled young woman, with an untied blouse that only stayed on thanks to the sheer expanse of her rather generous bosom. And from the marks, she'd been having a quite good time getting that way.

Single eye gleaming with the implied threat of untold horrors if the girl didn't comply, Fujin shoved her forward to face Ward and Matron. "TALK," the woman said shortly, in a tone of voice that matched her eye.

"Mina," Matron said, voice ice-cold. "And where have you been, young lady?"

Eyes up, Ward reminded himself, as Mina huffed indignantly, which made her chest do… many interesting things that he had no intention of observing. He appreciated a fine female figure, but he preferred women with a bit more class about how they presented their… attributes. Not to mention a proper sense of decorum, priorities, and preferably a certain level of overall intelligence. And decency. Mina was clever enough, in a slippery way, and if she caught any male paying attention to her… well, she was not above using her assets to advantage.

Which is how she got her job, I don't doubt, Ward thought, not for the first time. Seifer, sometimes you are an idiot.

"Laundry. Locke," Fujin said simply, and Ward sighed. Well, that answered the mystery of where the nursemaid had been. With everyone reassigned from their normal chores to help with the preparations, the laundry was full of soft, comfortable sheets that were due to be washed anyway and no one to disturb a bit of friendly necking – or other activities. And Locke was a attractive young footman who would hardly be opposed to said friendliness from a rather attractive and saucy young maid.

Matron crossed her arms. "Where is Master Leander?" she asked pointedly.

Mina pouted. "How should I know?" she asked, cross. "It's my off hour!"

"Your off hour," Matron said, "begins when you have delivered the young Master to his tutors after luncheon. Which he did not eat today. I would like an explanation, young lady."

Mina blinked at her in honest confusion. "I thought he was with you," she said. "Since he never showed up after breakfast." She sniffed a little. "Honestly, I was glad that you'd taken him off my hands for a bit. Really! Whining about wanting his Daddy so much! I was at my wits' end!"

"They've never been separated for an extended time," Matron said in her determined-to-be-reasonable voice. "It's natural for Leander to miss his father…"

"Day in and day out, daddy-daddy-daddy!" Mina said. "He won't play, he ignores his toys, he fusses, he cries, and it's like the only words he remembers are When is Daddy coming home!" She rolled her eyes. "Honestly, if he misses m'lord so much, then he should just go and find him himself and stop whining already!"

Ward groaned and rubbed at his temples, trying to convince himself that he wasn't really coming down with a headache. Mina wasn't a bad worker; her habit of blowing off work when she had an excuse was balanced by the fact that she was faster and did a better job than the other maids; she had not made her way into the household purely on the power of her bosom. But ultimately, Mina simply did not understand children. She did care for Leander after her own fashion, but she treated him more along the lines of a pet – cute, sweet, affectionate, and ultimately a functional creature that could survive on his own if she was not in the mood to deal with him…

A sudden chill hit him. "Did you say that to him?"

Mina hesitated. "…maybe," she admitted, at least having the grace to look a bit bashful. "I was so frustrated with him last night…"

Ward exchanged a wide-eyed look with Matron – then relaxed. "The gates are guarded," he pointed out in relief. "And Raijin checked the side entrances. He would have been seen if he tried to leave." Shoulders relaxing, he sighed…

Fujin bit her lip. "Festival."

Matron went white. "The gates have been open all day – with all sorts of people coming and going…"

Shiva.

Ward was running down the hall before the thought even registered in his mind. Out of the offices, down the hall, to the courtyard, and… yes, there were the gates, standing wide open to allow the wagons to come and go as they needed, and…

…why wasn't anyone actually going through them?

"Well, well, well. If this is the enthusiastic sort of welcome we can expect every time, then I'd say we need to come here more often – eh, Wedge?"

Ward stopped cold, staring at the two men in finely enameled plate armor who sat atop fine horses that were fidgeting impatiently about being held in the middle of the gateway, blocking any traffic that might come through. And no one dared to take the two men to task for it -  not with the Emperor's sigil  in clear display on their ornately decorated breastplates.

'The inspectors,' Ward realized, his fists clenching. 'Here to make certain that everyone in the realm is celebrating according to the Emperor's decree. Of course they would come now. And of course it would be them.

'Shiva's mercy… if they find Leander, or even realize he's missing and out of our protection…'

Ward kept his thoughts off his face by sheer will – and by bowing low, as only appropriate of a lowly steward to Imperial appointees, until he was certain his expression was back under his control. "Captain Biggs. Sergeant Wedge. Your early arrival is… unexpected."

The mercenary captain grinned nastily. "Well, we were sure you'd have a mighty spread for such an auspicious occasion. We wanted to make certain we'd have the time to see everything."

And his tone left no doubt that they expected their tour to be personally conducted by the steward himself.

A small mercy: they expected him to be angry. They'd have been disappointed if he were not.

And so when Ward spoke through gritted teeth, he was able to show enough frustrated venom that, even having deliberately roused it, the mercenaries stepped back. "It would be my pleasure." 

~W~A~R~D~E~N~

"…the grains of the eastern fields have taken on a dusty cast. The farmers assure me that it is nothing, but given the droughts in Dollet, I am sure you understand our concern…"

'You wanted to see everything,' Ward thought vindictively as the glazed look in the soldiers' eyes became a bit more glassy. 'Very well, then, and may you choke on it!'

A small vengeance, barely more than a bit of petty spite. But Ward had very few options available, save to hope that Raijin, Fujin aand Matron would somehow locate Leander and bring him home safely, while he attended to the Emperor's 'emissaries.'

"Crops and chickens – a plague on them all!" Wedge burst out suddenly, his temper giving out with an all but audible snap. "We are warriors! What do we care about the fodder in the fields?"

'If you care about your stomach, a great deal,' Ward carefully did not say. Instead, he said in his most patiently helpful tone, "I simply wished to assure you that the harvest this season has been successful…"

Wedge's hand dropped to the pommel of his sword, but Biggs put a hand out to stay him. "The Emperor's coffers will appreciate the Almasy bounty, I am quite sure… but come. We three are men of the sword – well, of weapons, at any rate." The statement was punctuated by a pointed smile at Ward.

Ward did not react; he kept his own expression one of blankly courteous helpfulness. "I am but a steward, good sir."

Wedge snorted loudly. "Hah! What's the matter – lost your mighty anchor when you decided to abandon ship?"

Even knowing they would see it, knowing that it was exactly the reaction they wanted, Ward couldn't keep his hands from clenching into tight fists.

"Ah, but even the most greedy sailor must abandon his toys when his ship burns," Biggs said, mockingly reasonable. But there was a predatory edge as he added, "And oh, but it burned. Did it not… loyal steward?"

Wedge, never a man to use a subtle dagger when a sword was available, grabbed his Captain's statement up and ran with it. "Not so loyal in the end, were you? Pity the change of heart didn't come any sooner. You would have been a welcome addition, to be sure. And the reward if we'd been able to offer that boy to the Emperor…!"

Never in his life. Never in his life had Ward's hands ached so with the absence of the great harpoon left behind in the ashes of his old life. Oh, for the power of a sorcerer, to call his soul to hand and wield it as a weapon! To feel the familiar teak and iron, the massive weight to lift up and crush down on the mocking victors before him…

His thoughts must have shown in his eyes. But Biggs simply smiled knowingly and leaned closer, as though they were sharing confidences. "And it didn't even matter, did it? Even your best failed him, and the Sorcerer Prince died in flames and steel and darkness, and you left to eke out a miserable life under your masters' enemies."

"Hear that even the Dark Shaman himself spits at your name," Wedge added gleefully. "How's it feel, being thought a traitor even by the treacherous? Hope that Almasy boy realizes what he invited under his roof…"

"Ah, yes – Almasy," Biggs said, although he'd forgotten. Ward didn't believe it for a moment. "Come to think of it, he has a son as well, does he not? Yes… the poor little bastard waif left at the doorstep. Such a shock for a fine young noble, though one supposes he should be grateful that his wild oats produced such a bounty. And where is the boy? Surely he must be beside himself with excitement at all these grand events!"

Shiva herself might have applauded the chill in Ward's voice. Perhaps she had even put it there herself. "He is out with his caretaker. Too much simulation can overload such a young mind." Somehow, he put enough iron force behind it that he felt as though part of he himself believed the lie…

Biggs inclined his head in what might have been praise, if not for the look in his eyes of a predator studying wounded prey. "Indeed. And of course, you must be careful of the boy. He is, after all, a… 'second chance.'"

Wedge snorted. "Don't see much point, myself. Second chances usually end up just like the first. A failure once is a failure twice." Clearly scenting a kill, he leaned in, "Pity you won't be throwing this one into the fires, too…"

"Norg, you heel right this minute! I said heel!"

Wedge suddenly pitched forward with an unmanfully high-pitched squawk of surprise as a massive hound set its forepaws in the small of his back. The mercenary, over-weighted by his armor, only managed to avoid sprawling on the ground like a beached turtle by latching onto his superior in a move that left the both of them staggering. The dog barked happily at this new game and was just lunging in to join the fun when a man in stable livery grabbed it by the ear and pulled it to a halt.

"Sit!" As the dog obediently dropped to its haunches – although still looking as though it would go springing up again at the first hint of opportunity – Cid Kramer, Edea's husband and the head of the Almasy stables, mopped at his sweating brow and sketched a distracted bow. "I'm terribly sorry, my lords, but he's just a puppy and with all the excitement, his training seems to have slipped his mind…"

"Just a puppy?" Biggs demanded, staring at the dog. "Empress's tits, man, that thing is as big as a Ravage!"

Even knowing the breed of Deep Plains Bandersnatch hounds from Cid's breeding project as he did, Ward was inclined to agree. True, Norg was in reality nowhere near the size of the Emperor's hybrid monsters, but even as a shaggy adolescent, the dog's shoulder was nearly level with Cid's waist. Friendly nature or not – and the Bandersnatch hounds were in fact quite friendly – having a dog that size come at you would rattle anyone.

Ward coughed. "Did you need something, Cid?" He tried not to let hope show too brightly in his eyes.

It would have been doused quickly enough anyway – Cid very subtly shook his head, indicating that they still had yet to find Leander. But verbally, the stable master simply said, "Dinner will be served soon. I fear, my lords, that it will be very simple fare; with the feast upcoming and my lord Almasy's absence, we are left to make do with what is available…"

Wedge sneered and looked as though he were about to lash out verbally at the interruption of his fun, but Biggs raised a hand lightly and the sergeant backed down. Ward could see the calculating satisfaction in Bigg's eyes, though. They'd had their fun and made their point. "We are but common soldiers," the captain said with a mocking gleam in his eyes. "Plain and simple fare will suit us." With a gesture that was mocking in its magnanimity – as though Biggs and Wedge were the lords and hosts here – he added, "We would, of course, be quite pleased if the household would join us."

Throwing the preparations off schedule even farther. Of course. With what seemed to be a small, petty gesture, the mercenaries demonstrated just how much power over the household they held, as representatives of the Emperor.

~W~A~R~D~E~N~

dead everyone was dead why was he still alive but it shouldn't be long at least he'd taken as many of them with him as he could

"Stand back! This man's life is mine!"

why was he even bothering when he wanted to die and who would want to live when everything was gone anyway oh well one fool more or less wasn't going to make a difference so he opened his eyes

The boy before him couldn't have been much older than Squall was – had been – would have been

"Are you all right?"

throat hurts from breathing too much smoke and bloody all over but most of it isn't mine but it doesn't have to be because oh guardians they're all gone they're all dead

Squall Laguna Leander Kiros Ellone Squall he failed

"…why…?"

green eyes not Laguna's but  full of horror and regret and don't look at me like that what did we do to make you hate us so much that you came here and did this to us in the first place

"Because you're still alive and I want to see you stay that way." weary and angry and sick at heart and he felt the same so he couldn't hate this youth even if he wanted to and he'd never been able to make himself hate a child "Because I've seen too much death already. Because I want to save something, dammit!"

resignation go with the boy guardians so many dead and he can't hope that anyone survives and being ordered to go through the corpses and name the dead but even the missing faces

Squall Laguna Kiros Ellone Cecil Martine Auron Kadowaki Rosa

are no comfort because the fires ate so much and so many and the dead stare at him until he has to leave and find a quiet corner and there's the youth who saved him Seifer staring at trail food as though it were made of the corpses of babies that they'd stacked in a pile for burning

"All this for some damned lie." hate and he can't tell if it's self-hate or hate of the Emperor or hate for the army or hate for the sorcerers or maybe some of all of them "Enemies of the Empire, my ass. Gods, I'm never going to be able to sleep again."

neither will he and that's only right that's only justice for a man who agreed to serve an enemy however much that enemy regretted because in the end he's still a

Traitor.

"Ward?"

At least this time, when Ward jolted awake, his flailing arms didn't hit anything. Not that they needed to – as he suddenly sat upright, a bolt of pain shot through his lower back, his vision whited out briefly, and he ended up slumping right over the desk again, swearing vehemently. And Seifer made a habit of sleeping at his desk half the time these days? Ward was truly beginning to wonder about the man's sanity. Although that had always been somewhat in doubt…

It was at that point that he realized where the moisture on his face had come from.

'Two nightmares in as many nights. That's bad even for me.' Particularly when they weren't nightmares so much as… memories.

"…Oh."

Startled, Ward looked up to see Matron standing in the doorway, wringing her hands. Coughing to hide both his surprise and his still-ragged breathing, he hastily rubbed a hand over his face, ostensibly wiping the sleep out of his eyes. "Matron. I'm… sorry, I didn't see you."

He saw her opening her mouth with a look of concern and, guessing that she was about to ask if he was all right, shook his head faintly, wordlessly pleading with her to not ask. For a moment her lips thinned in a mulish line and he could almost hear her exasperated thoughts about the trials of trying to tend for a bunch of mule-headed and macho men, but then a different concern replaced it. He sat up – more carefully this time. "Come in, Matron. What time is it?"

Mrs. Kramer stepped inside, carefully closing the door behind her. "Well after midnight."

"Leander?"

He knew what her answer would be even before he asked; it was written in the dark marks developing under her eyes and the lines of stress and concern beginning to show on what was normally a brow comparable to that of a maid fifteen years her younger. "We still haven't found him. And he hasn't come back to his rooms, and no one has seen him since this morning – yesterday morning, rather." She sighed shakily. "The entire household has been searching, but…"

Ward stiffened. "Wedge and Biggs? The emissaries," he clarified. Matron was hardly in a position to know the names of two mercenaries.

"We've managed to keep it from them so far. Thank goodness they turned in so early." She sighed. "But if they stay much longer…"

"They won't," he said with assurance. "Emperor Deling has better uses for them than to plague me; this was simply an amusing detour for them."

Matron huffed angrily. "A fine concept of amusing they have! I do not look forward to catering to their whims tomorrow."

"You shouldn't have to. I suspect they'll be on their way at sunrise." At her look of surprise, he shrugged. "They are mercenaries, Matron; their lives often depends on traveling quickly. Sloth is not a trait rewarded in that profession."

Matron's scowl depended. "Sending mercenaries to harass his own people! I do not want to know what the Emperor is thinking!"

"He's thinking that there are several dangerous elements gathered at this estate," Ward said with a shrug. "With the old lord dead, there will be changes here, and the Emperor wants us to remember that he will be watching. And what he can do if he decides he does not like our results." He frowned suddenly, crossing his arms. "…I think I may be glad that Leander went missing this morning."

Edea started. "What?!" Then a thoughtful look crossed her face and she said, "…you think they would have threatened him?"

Remembering Biggs's pointed comments about Leander, Ward said grimly, "I'm almost certain they would have. The Emperor has a history of 'reminding' his nobles that they are not the only ones to pay if he is not pleased."

Matron bit at her lip. "…Leander disappearing is almost too well timed," she said softly. "You don't think that they…?"

Ward shook his head. "They would have boasted, said something… subtlety is not their strength."

Matron was regarding him thoughtfully. "…you seem to know them well."

Ward closed his eyes. "…I fought them in Esthar, briefly."

"Hate me if you like, Ward, but do this for me: get Squall out of here."

The memory was as fresh as if he'd just spoken with Laguna yesterday.

"He won't leave, Laguna. Noblesse oblige is as near and dear to his heart as it ever was to yours."

The long-haired man chuckled. "I know. Funny, isn't it? There's so much of Raine in him, and the rest is all Leander. Hard to think he and I are even related!"

"He's your son, Laguna – he loves you!" Don't do this to him. Don't do this to me.

As if he'd heard the thought, Laguna said, "And that's why I have to ask this of you, Ward. Get him out of here. Make sure my son is safe." His deep green eyes were almost sheepish. "Please?"

…Damn him. "What about you?" Even though he already knew the answer.

Laguna laughed and scratched the back of his head, glancing over at where Leander was waiting patiently at the doorway to the central throne room. "Well, I'm supposed to be King… I guess I'd better act like it and  be kingly. Look out for him, Ward – and look out for yourself, too." With a last, tired laugh, the Sorcerer King had turned on his heel and walked across the narrow bridge to meet his brother, infamous silly limp nowhere to be seen.

Ward never saw his friend alive again.

He'd kept his word. It had been hard; even at fourteen, Squall was a fierce and determined warrior and showing the seeds of being a great commander. The boy had been everywhere, slowing and holding off the invaders and organizing the evacuation, ignoring the roaring, unnatural fires that spread without anything flammable to guide them, and would leave an adult as ashes in just moments. He'd kept fighting, until the fires were everywhere, until the only living things were the invaders fighting themselves and the unnatural beasts that the Emperor had unleashed on the city, and the those who couldn't run anymore. He'd kept fighting, Ward by his side, praying for a miracle. But miracles were in short supply, and soon the boy was staggering, his magic drained nearly to nothing and still refusing to leave while his beloved father and uncle remained – then Ward had no choice, and had grabbed the boy and thrown him over his shoulder and ran while Squall shouted and raged and even pleaded…

And it had been for nothing. Most of the refugees had been killed by mercenaries waiting along the cliffsides, and one group in particular had been waiting for a special prize…

"Ward?"

Dragged out of the past a second time by Matron's voice, he shook himself and forced a reassuring smile to his face in response to her look of concern. Then his mind returned to the present, and he closed his eyes and tried to think.

"No mercenary wants a reputation as a baby killer." At her look of disbelief, he added, "A reputation like that would frighten away good customers, and leave them with the sort of employers a smart man wouldn't care to work with." And while the Emperor would not particularly care and would certainly pay well, Deling would hardly care to keep the mercenaries in his employ when he had no active use for them.

"But kidnapping?" Matron asked darkly.

Ward swallowed hard. "It would be their style." And if Leander were frightened enough… he was barely three years old; he had little power, but even less control, and if he slipped, if they realized what they had…

"Oh, I am disappointed, steward. I'd so hoped to offer the Emperor a new pet. I'm sure even the Sorcerer Prince would have been trainable, once he was housebroken. But then you had to go and let him die. And not even a corpse for the bounty!"

He shook his head fiercely.

"…what do we do?"

He drew a deep breath. "I'll see them off. If they have Leander… they'll gloat. And then…" His hands clenched into fists. "Then, I will deal with them."

~W~A~R~D~E~N~

Ward and Edea were not the only ones showing signs of a sleepless night as the sun began peeking over the estate walls the next morning. Dark-rimmed eyes mixed with almost furtive yawns, as though the yawner felt guilty at betraying sleepiness in such a fraught situation. But for the most part, they all steered clear of the gate and the two well-armed men on horseback who were looking about with nasty smiles and well-rested demeanors.

"What – no invitation to stay?" Wedge sniggered, as Ward stood by in his role as steward, seeing such important "guests" off.

"You are emissaries of His Imperial Majesty," Ward said flatly. "I would not dream of delaying you."

Biggs chuckled. "Ah, a statesman to the bitter end. You are wasted on this estate, Master Zabac – as you were wasted before." He mockingly offered a hand to shake, and a taunting smile as he added, "I am quite pleased that you came to see the truth of those demonic sorcerers. The right side of the battle is a righteous place to be, is it not?"

Thin-lipped, Ward accepted the handshake – and then twisted ever so slightly, and watched the captain's face go white. Years ago, the mercenary had blocked a certain blow and completely shattered the bone in that arm. By paying an obscene amount for Healing fees, he had retained the use of the arm, but it would never be quite as strong. Or quite as flexible.

For his part, Ward simply wished – heartily – that the man hadn't gotten his arm up in time. He had never quite forgiven himself for missing the man's heart that night.

"'Right' and 'righteous,'" he said quietly, matching the man's furious glare for one of his own, "redefine themselves according to the situation, I've found."

He let go before the man could strike at him and stepped back, the very picture of the humble, unassuming steward. Biggs and Wedge both snarled at him, realizing that they did not quite have enough of an upper hand in the situation to strike back. But Wedge leaned forward and hissed, "Mind your step, steward – and your ward."

"Indeed. A pity the boy was gone last night. Perhaps he would have learned something of the world." Biggs met Ward's eyes squarely, a dangerous light in them, "And perhaps your lord Almasy would have learned something as well, about what he let into his household. How would a second failure taste, Steward?"

'They don't know,' Ward realized with a relief that almost made him lightheaded, and that he absolutely must not show on his face. He knew this answer – thwarted rage, the rage of one who had entertained unpleasant plans but was forced by circumstance to set them aside. They didn't know that Leander was missing, they thought the boy had been hidden away from them…

'Thank you, Shiva. Gods watch over fools and small children. May he have your protection as well, Laguna…'

Ward barely even saw as the men wheeled their horses and galloped away, and activity slowly resumed in the courtyard. He did glimpse Edea looking his way anxiously, and managed a smile to convey what he had realized, but for the most part, his thoughts were in the past.

He and Squall had fought back-to-back for what felt like hours, but the mercenaries were endless. They had just cut themselves some breathing space when Squall had suddenly screamed something, his father's name perhaps, and gone berserk, the small, slender youth cutting through the throng like one possessed. But he hadn't gone far when suddenly the black fire roared up around him. The men he'd been fighting had gone up in bonfires almost instantly…

Squall had barely had time for one brief cry – a scream, a shout, Ward's ears had been ringing so much that he could barely hear. Then the flames brought down the corridor around the dying prince, and his charge, his friend, his friend's son, was swallowed up in darkness and flames and smoke.

Ward had kept fighting, he didn't know why. Revenge, despair, the refusal to simply lie down and give up… and then, strangely, he did give in, to green eyes that were more emerald than Laguna's sea-green. But Seifer had demanded that he live, and he had, and gained a new lord, and become forever known as the treacherous steward who had saved his own life at the cost of his prince's.

And…

"Someday, Ward. I swear to you. Someday, Deling will pay every debt for that night in full. His tab will come up. And you'll be there, I swear it, to bear witness for those who can't…"

"I'd rather bear witness to you being sober for a change."

The Massacre had nearly shattered Seifer's soul, and Ward often feared he'd lost his new lord to the curse of the bottle. And then, one cold evening, completely unexpected, completely impossible…

"It's not every day you become a father, so I thought you'd want to know as soon as possible."

"…this boy has the energy of a sorcerer, Seifer."

Shocked emerald eyes. "He's my son?"

Second chances.

Ward refocused, seeing the men's horses disappearing on the horizon.

"I loved them," he whispered quietly, so quietly the words faded almost before leaving his mouth. "All of them. And someday, I swear, they will be avenged. Seifer and his son will see justice done. Leander will see his predecessor and people avenged.

"And I fully intend to be there to see it."

He turned away from the gates then, to see Edea and Cid looking at him in concern. He smiled faintly at them. "My apologies. Now, I need to organize another search…"

His stomach growled.

Edea sighed and rubbed at her forehead. "You," she informed him tartly, "need to eat. And get some real sleep, but that's not likely to happen."

He hung his head slightly. "I'll stop by the kitchens on my way."

"I think everyone is busy elsewhere right now. Wait a few minutes, and I'll come with you. I could use some breakfast myself." Neither of them had been able to stomach anything with the mercenaries on the Estate.

A few minutes wasn't very long at all; soon they were walking down hallways that seemed eerily subdued and empty, with everyone outside and busy either preparing things for the festival or searching for Leander. So it was something of a surprise to arrive at the kitchen and find the door closed with the sounds of someone moving about behind it. Ward and Edea shared a glance, and then Ward sighed and gripped the handle of the door. Probably a servant thinking to sneak extra rations. No matter that the general pantry was open to all (well-fed servants were productive ones) – some people simply believed that filched food tasted better. He wasn't particularly in the mood to yell at anyone right now, though…

Then he saw who was inside, and stopped cold.

"Ward!"

Leander jumped away from the table and ran up to Ward in the signature constantly-almost-falling-and-yet-never-quite run typical of a small child who was still unfamiliar with things like coordination. He latched onto the stunned steward's knees, grinning up at him cheerfully.

"Gods…" Edea dropped down to her knees beside the boy and gathered him up in a huge, sweeping hug. "Leander. Leander. Where have you been?" The woman was almost near tears.

Even with a reaction like that, Leander probably realized he was in trouble, because he suddenly looked slightly awkward and far too sneaky. "Um. Out?"

That seemed to break Ward's frozen state at long last, because he was suddenly breathing again. "Master Leander," he rumbled sternly, and that was all it took to make the boy flush in embarrassment and look at his toes.

"Looking for Daddy," he mumbled. "I walked all day," he added with an expression somewhere between pouting and pride.

"All day! How did you get back?" Matron asked, clearly aghast.

It was a question to which Ward wouldn't mind hearing an answer, either. But Leander simply squirmed about in Matron's arms and pointed back into the kitchen. "He said maybe I should. That lotsa people would miss me like I miss Daddy. But I was too tired, so he bringed me back."

Startled, Ward looked up to see a thin young man standing uncertainly in the kitchen, where he'd been… washing dishes? A quick glance at the table showed that Leander had been eating when they'd arrived. Although there were only the dishes for one person, and no sign that the young man had eaten anything. And you didn't get that thin voluntarily.

'He must not have wanted to over-assume his welcome,' he thought, studying the young man. Thick chestnut-brown hair that needed cutting, poor but sturdy clothes – he was probably an itinerant worker, loosed from his latest employer's estate after the recent first harvest. Or perhaps having been rejected as too thin and fragile to be a good worker.

'Hard on his luck, most likely, and brought Leander back in the hopes of being rewarded. Or simply because he didn't want to leave a child on his own.' Ward felt almost dizzy. To think that the one person Leander met on the road would be someone honest and honorable enough to bring the child back safely…

Ward stepped forward, pausing when the boy tensed. Well, it was perhaps to be expected; the steward was tall and heavily muscled. He could probably pick the young man up and break him like a twig. "Thank you," he said with heart-felt sincerity. "If there is anything we can do to repay you…"

Still looking at the ground with his bangs covering his face, the young man shook his head slightly. Ward frowned faintly. Something was very odd about the young man's body language – proud and frightened and resigned at one and the same time. And the way he was refusing to look up… a runaway himself, perhaps? Although he looked to be twenty or so, fully old enough to be legitimately on his own.

"Are you okay?" Leander asked behind him with a child's artless directness, and Ward was surprised to see the young man startle, then shift slightly, betraying an almost-smile.

"I'm fine, cub."

Edea looked up, one eyebrow raised at the odd nick-name, then said, "Are you looking for work?"

The young man hesitated, then nodded.

"Then you'll have it," Ward said without hesitating. "We owe you a great deal." He arched an eyebrow. "Assuming, of course, you can actually look at me."

The young man drew a deep breath, and then steady silver-blue eyes were staring levelly into Ward's.

He had been reaching for a chair, meaning to reduce his height and put the boy more at ease. That was lucky, because he had somewhere a little more comfortable to land than the floor when his legs gave out. His mouth moved, working, but no sound came out for the first several tries. And when he did manage to get the name out, it was in a voice very small and very uncertain from such a large man.

"…Squall?" 

~W~A~R~D~E~N~

Ward had never been afraid of his own office door before.

"Leander is back in his room," Edea said. It was fortunate that the kitchen help were all occupied outside with the business of preparing for the festivities, because seeing the unshakable Matron slumped against the wall with the look of a puppet with her strings cut would probably have caused a panic. Even if the cause of her exhaustion was a good one. "Goodness knows how long he'll stay."

"He does have a knack for sneaking out." Ward made himself focus on her.

Matron sighed. "You know… he needs a real caretaker. You and I and young Seifer are simply too busy to watch him all the time, and that Mina…"

"Seifer… does not always make the best decisions with his nursemaids, no." Something that had frustrated Ward to no end in the past. He focused on Edea again.

She hadn't missed the way his eyes kept drifting to the door. But she simply smiled. "Well, it's not a problem we'll solve today. And hopefully his adventure will have tired him enough that he'll sit tight for a while. Go on, Ward. That young man… he's someone you know?"

Ward bit his lip. "He was… the son of a friend. A good friend."

"From… before?"

Ward didn't try to deny it. "I… I thought he was dead," he said hoarsely. "Everyone else died – I thought I saw him die…"

Edea lightly touched his arm, her face sympathetic. "…I'm sorry for your lost friend," she said quietly. "The whole Massacre was horrible. Even killing the servants and their families… but at least this Squall is alive, right? Go on, Ward. Talk to him." Turning to go, she hesitated and glanced over her shoulder, spark back in her eyes. "And for goodness sakes, send him down to the kitchens when you're done! I've never seen a boy so skinny! He'd fit through a keyhole!"

Ward laughed weakly and waved her off. When Edea had gone and the hallway was quiet again, he drew in a deep breath, braced himself mentally, and opened the door.

The too-slender figure who had been standing at the window gazing out at the festivities turned sharply to face him. Ward closed the door, ensuring privacy, but the young man didn't relax. Unable to make himself meet the too-sharp, too-wary eyes, Ward found himself staring at the rather cluttered desk in between them as he groped blindly for something to say.

"…well. Leander is grounded, of course, and will be for a while," he said at last, settling on the conversation he'd had just a minute before with Edea. "Hopefully by the time that's done, we'll have a better person to keep an eye on him. Or Seif… Lord Al… his father will be home."

He stammered over the nobleman's name, not certain how to say it, clueless as to what Squall thought about him, his betrayal, his failure. The way the young man tensed at the name certainly did not help. Not knowing what else to say, he plowed on. "Thank you – for finding him and bringing him back, I mean. We thought… if the Emperor's men had found him…" Remembered fear clogged his throat for a moment; he swallowed it down, then said, hoarsely and very, very quietly, "…you know. What he is."

After a moment's pause, he saw Squall nod out of the corner of his eye. "…when he left, early yesterday, the wind tried to stop him. When he ignored it, it alerted me."

Ward couldn't help a shaky breath of laughter. Fools and small children… they were in the Guardians' care, indeed. If another sorcerer had not been nearby to be alerted to Leander's danger…

Then he blinked and glanced at Squall. "You were nearby?"

Squall looked away, out the window. "…a hired hand on one of the wagon trains. They'd just released us when I saw him sneak out." He shrugged. "I followed him until he stopped, talked to him, we spent the night in the woods, and then came back this morning. We came through the servants entrance while everyone was busy in the main courtyard."

"You didn't stop him as he left?"

"He would just have left again later." Squall's lips twitched ever so faintly. "I always did."

Ward laughed again, a little stronger this time. Oh, he remembered. The Sorcerer Prince had an almost uncanny knack for unexpected exits…

And that brought the conversation back to the looming question. Ward hesitated, unsure of… how to ask, what to ask, what to say, but the unsaid words loomed heavier and heavier in the air between them. Finally, he couldn't hold it back anymore, and said in a cracking voice, "…I thought I saw you die."

Squall smiled humorlessly, eyes distant. "I thought I saw myself die, for a moment."

"How…"

Now the sorcerer looked at him briefly. "…I've always been most attuned to Fire, Ward," he said. "Even the fires of Sugenti Denynas can be… buffered, slightly. Long enough that I was able to ride the thermals rising from them and escape." He crossed his arms, doubtless aiming for matter-of-fact, but the gesture seemed more like he was hugging himself for comfort. "But the wind was stronger and more violent than I thought – they carried me all the way up into the upper Palace. I managed to hide in the hidden guardchamber of the throne room, but…"

Ward swallowed. "…you saw…?"

Squall looked away again. "…Father had been holding Ultimecia off, but… he was never a warrior. And Uncle Leander… I saw."

His voice was so weary with grief and fatigue that Ward took several long strides towards him, coming almost within arm's reach. But he stopped short, not certain what to do.

Squall was older – of course he was older. He'd been barely fourteen when the massacre had torn everything away from him, six years past. He was twenty now, or nearly so, and every one of those six years had been carved deeply into his too-thin frame, his build a little smaller than it should have been with enough to eat (although it was clear that he never would have reached Laguna's height; now that he was grown, it was obvious that he favored Raine in nearly every way), in the way he unconsciously drew back to put enough distance between them that he could still fight or flee if needed. He looked as though he might break if Ward touched him.

Or vanish like a dream.

"…Kiros found me," Squall said, as if pretending that he hadn't been relieving the death of his family. "He got me out of the city, and then I lived with the Shumi for a while. But… I couldn't stay there. I've… traveled, mostly, since."

"Working?" Ward asked.

"…when I can." Squall glanced at him briefly, then looked away. "I… heard about you. And when my wandering brought me here, I thought you… might be willing to take me on, for a time, as a kitchen hand, or…"

Now the paralysis broke, and Ward took two steps forward and hugged the slender man firmly – not hard, he probably could break bones if he used his full strength, but securely. Squall stiffened and Ward even felt a dangerous warning chill at his feet as the sorcerer reflexively called upon his favorite spell to defend himself – but the chill was banished a moment later, and after a minute or two of silence, Squall relaxed slightly.

"I'm sorry," Ward whispered.

Squall stiffened again, but this time it was in simple surprise. "Why?" he asked, sounding honestly confused.

"For failing you," Ward said hoarsely. "And Laguna. He told me to take care of you, to get you out of there. And instead, I lost you, and swore fealty to a noble of the Empire, and…"

Squall snorted. "You survived. I imagine that was half of Father's plan in telling you to drag me away. And…"

"…And Seifer?" Ward asked, heart in his throat.

Squall scowled. "…he was an idiot who believed what he was told. The fact that he kept you alive and is raising a sorcerer son… tells me that he wasn't one of the true killers." For a moment he seemed about to say something else, but apparently changed his mind, and all he said in conclusion was, "I'll make my own judgment about the man, but I can hardly blame you for surviving."

Ward blinked, then shook his head slowly. Strange; he'd forgotten how painfully pragmatic Squall was.

"Kiros never even hinted," he said after a moment, feeling a touch of hurt. More because he knew that Kiros did blame him.

"…I haven't seen him in years," Squall admitted, "and I was… not well, when we parted. He probably thinks I am dead." Squall looked away. "It's safer for him, that way. It would have been safer for you, but…"

"But you had to be sure Leander came back, and safely." And if Ward hadn't been utterly devoted to the young master before, he was now. Thanks to Leander's impulsiveness, Ward had been given a kind of absolution at long last.

…not that it was going to keep him from grounding the boy for a month.

Squall suddenly pushed against his arms. Startled, Ward let the young man go, and he quickly stepped away and turned to face the door a moment before it opened.

A small face peeked inside tentatively, the gray-green eyes widening when they saw Ward. "…uh-oh."

"Uh-oh is quite right, young master," Ward said sternly. "You are supposed to be in your room."

"But… everyone is mad at me."

Unexpectedly, Squall sighed ever so faintly and stepped around the desk. Leander's eyes brightened the minute he saw the young man, and the little boy moved to run at the sorcerer – but his legs, which probably felt like noodles after his adventures, gave out almost immediately. Before he could fall, though, Squall caught him and lifted him up.

"They are not mad at you," the sorcerer said quietly. "They were worried. You yell when you're upset, don't you?"

Leander fidgeted. "…sometimes," he admitted.

"Adults do the same. It doesn't mean they don't care, it means they were scared."

Leander stared at him in amazement. "Even Ward?"

To Ward's surprise, Squall looked over at him and smiled faintly. "…especially Ward," he said. "Ward has lost special people before, so he was even more scared of losing you."

Leander continued to stare at the young man for a moment, then turned his big, amazed eyes at Ward. "…I'm sorry," he said in a small voice, holding out one hand.

Ward couldn't help smiling himself. "I'm glad you're all right, little one. I am angry at you, but I am glad you came back." He stepped over and almost moved to take the boy, then reconsidered, and simply held the outstretched hand for a moment.

"And," he added, "as you have broken your rules again anyway, here is a new chore to keep you out of trouble." He watched Leander's face fall, and then said, "Take Squall here down to the kitchens and tell Matron that he'll be needing some lunch, and that he'll be working with her."

"You're gonna stay?" Leander asked, delighted.

"…so it seems."

Ward nodded when Squall glanced at him, smiling inwardly. Matron would certainly see to putting some flesh back on the young man's frame – and find him a good place to work, suited to the quiet man. Squall would be in good hands with her – and he would be close by, where Ward could keep an eye on him.

"Great! It's that way!" Leander pointed at the door, and then began chattering brightly. "Matron makes the bestest cakes, only she won't make them right now because she's busy, and…"

The door closed on Leander's rapid chatter and Squall's look of bemusement. Ward simply stood there in the office for a long moment, blinking, and then finally shook himself.

He'd never taken to keeping mirrors on his wall, but the window was highly polished, and when he glanced at it, he could dimly see his own reflection. For the first time in six years, he didn't cringe. Instead, he smiled wryly at the imagined shadow standing behind him.

"Well, old friend… perhaps I won't have failed you in the end, after all." He closed his eyes and pressed a fist over his heart, briefly. "I'll look after them, Laguna. Both of them."

~FINIS~

 

Proanon's Notes -- This was supposed to be a more comprehensive piece that covered what happened to Leander as well, but then Ward's side of the story took off running and ended up being much more interesting. I had fun trying to get into his head and figure out how he felt about Leander disappearing on him...

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