For Nothing, For Everything
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Author's Whining -- Well, I really wanted to move this story further and faster, but Squall just wouldn't play with me. Thus, the scene I wanted to end with is being placed into Seifer's capable hands. *grin* Since I still seem to be in the mood for this story, I'm going to go ahead and move straight to chap 11. Sorry for those waiting for other stories, but I really want to get this one part out of the way.