For Nothing, For Everything
Frozen breaths visible in the air, the sorcerer of dark chestnut hair and pale blue-gray eyes leaned against the trunk of an aged tree, its far-reaching branches shielding him from the light afternoon snowfall. Winter had attacked the Almasy Estate in the past week, dropping over a foot of snow onto the vast property and freezing every drop of water that had been left exposed to the elements. The weather was chilling and the terrain rather hazardous, and as he suffered from those conditions, Squall came to the bothersome conclusion that no amount of snow or even the icy sting of wind could keep idiots from enjoying their fun.
His smile vague with an incredulous curl, Squall focused on the entertainment that was proceeding a short distance away from the sheltering tree. Dressed in a dark wool coat that hung low enough to flutter behind his knees, Seifer wielded his favorite blade while sparring against two of his subordinates - Raijin, a large man with a fairly large skull for a man of little intelligence, and the other Fuujin, a petite woman with one red eye and an ironic knack of seeing more than others. Against his careful nature, Squall was curious about the mismatched pair, mostly because of Leander's praise-filled words about them and partly because of his hazy memory of the large brute from the day the Ravages had attacked. But with their current visit being the first in months after a string of important missions, Squall hadn't been able to make any attempt to learn more about the two soldiers.
Critical eyes of frozen blue followed every moment of the sparring session, each misstep in snow and the occasional interesting move observed by the silent sorcerer. While the twosome were fairly skilled and worked well together, their lack of varied techniques left them predictable and ineffective against an experienced swordsman. And as Squall continued to watch the demonstration, he became amused by the somewhat musical rhythm as sword met spear and metal discs in repeated patterns, the sound reminding the sorcerer of a clumsy waltz that Leander was learning to play on the piano. While the brunet couldn't imagine that Seifer enjoyed the easy fight, Squall also knew that the man didn't have many other options during the winter months.
A subtle change in the metallic rhythm made Squall straighten in readiness for the conclusion of the sparring match. A different angle of the wide blade had caused the change in tone, the new position allowing Seifer a better range of movement as he knocked his larger and less skillful opponent off balance with a hard push of Hyperion. Stepping into that action, Seifer anticipated and smoothly dodged Fuujin's lunging attack, and with Raijin still flailing to maintain a type of defense, the blond lord had plenty of time to use his free arm to elbow the woman in the back of the neck. A hurt breath left her as she dropped helplessly to the snowy ground, but Seifer had already placed his attention elsewhere. The dark eyes of the large soldier widened in the moment before Seifer swung his sword in a upward arc, the harsh clang of metal signaling the moment Raijin was disarmed, and before the spear touched the ground, Hyperion rested victoriously against the brute's thick neck.
"Not bad," Seifer commented in an easy tone, his body showing few signs of exertion after the long session. His sword lowered and sheathed, the lord turned to offer a hand to the woman lying in the snow. "You two have been practicing lately, haven't you?"
Fuujin huffed at the offer of help and tossed wet snow at her former captain.
Dodging the unfriendly refusal of his hand, the grinning blond moved back several steps to avoid further attacks from the volatile woman. "Hyne, don't be a poor sport there, Fuu. You know that I'm only rough with the people I respect the most."
With a breath of irritation, the woman pushed up onto her knees before pointing in the direction of the silent brunet. "Waiting?"
Seifer jerked straight at the question, his eyes wide and confused in the moment before recognition. Pale lips slid into a pleased smirk, and without answering the woman's question, Seifer stepped into the deeper snow that hadn't been effected by their spar.
Squall couldn't help the tightened hold of his arms around his body, the approach of the blond igniting a range of emotions that he didn't understand. More than anything, he wanted to hate the green-eyed man who had torn his life to shreds yet again. But unlike the other times Seifer had disrupted his life, Squall wasn't given the chance to carefully piece his life together and mend his ragged tears. Instead, Squall found himself a victim of the blond lord who was forcing the shreds into a pattern that wasn't right and recklessly tying impossible knots. All of his senses were telling Squall to escape Seifer before more damage could be done, but the sorcerer knew it was too late. Too many important pieces had been placed incorrectly and Squall feared that he would never be the same again.
"Well now, I didn't expect to find you standing out here in the snow," Seifer stated as he stepped beneath the branches of the old tree. "Why didn't you say something?"
Squall shrugged. "I didn't want to disrupt your concentration."
"Hn, if that's truly the case, then it's safe to assume that you weren't sent to fetch me for some reason. And Ander isn't with you?"
"He's resting from his morning lesson."
Seifer grinned at the response. "In other words, instead of finding something better to do with your rare moment of free time, you decided to come out here to stand in the icy cold and freeze while watching me spar."
Squall held his tongue, wary that any response he could give would only encourage the lord and his foolish desires. In truth, he had originally stepped outside to enjoy some fresh air and to clear his head, but the sound of metal against metal had quickly drawn the sorcerer to the back fields of the large manor. Once setting eyes on the former soldier and the worn blade named Hyperion in his hand, Squall had found himself unable to look away. After several weeks of sleeping with the persistent blond, Squall knew Seifer's body better than he would willingly admit. To see that toned and trained body move with the refinement of a master swordsman, Squall was reluctantly impressed by the nobleman's skill and form.
With a shift in his stance, Seifer leaned in close to the sorcerer and asked, "Did it excite you to watch me fight?"
Glaring at the man for the crude assumption, Squall commented, "I was merely surprised that you managed to learn something since the last time we fought."
"Is that a challenge?" Seifer asked, his green eyes intense with anticipation.
The sorcerer nearly forgot himself with a spoken word of agreement, but then glanced over the lord's shoulder to watch the antics of the mismatched pair as Raijin attempted to help the petite woman from the cold ground. The large man nearly landed on top of Fuujin when he slipped on packed snow, the sight of which solidifying Squall's recent opinion that the man must have gained his army rank due to his loyalty to the sharp-minded woman and not from some hidden skill.
"You can trust them," Seifer assured quietly. "More importantly, it's been far too long since we have crossed blades. You might even be a challenge this time since you've managed to gain a little bit of weight this winter."
Blue-gray eyes narrowed in harsh disbelief. "You may trust them, but I have no reason to do so. Not with my life."
"Your life isn't in danger, lovely. Fuujin once told me that she owes her life to a sorcerer and Raijin would never act against her wishes. You're safe here and I will make certain of that."
Squall continued to glare at the man, a silent belittlement that he wasn't going to expose his greatest secret just so Seifer could have the spar he wanted.
Seifer chuckled at the threatening edge to blue-gray eyes. "Then what about the fact that I'm blocking their view if you were to summon your blade at this very moment?"
"Are you insane?"
"Only when you're around," the blond lord purred as brushed a gloved hand along the brunet's cold-reddened cheek. "Play with me, princeling. I'm bored with this easy prey."
Squall remained focused on verdant eyes, a poor choice as he felt his resolve corrode when faced against Seifer's overpowering desire. Stormy eyes flicked in the direction of the twosome who were waiting for the return of their leader. "I can't use magic with those two as spectators."
His grin transforming into something wolfish, Seifer commented, "And you think that's something I haven't considered?"
The sorcerer couldn't hold back a breath of bitter laughter, the brunet frustrated with the knowledge that he couldn't win against Seifer whenever the man truly wanted something. Squall let his arm fall to his side, the movement instantly brightening green eyes as the lord pressed closer in the effort to better block the view of the summoned staff. The sorcerer's core shimmered briefly into existence before being forced into the form of the deadly azure blade. Squall schooled his expression when he was assaulted by unexpected pain as his staff announced its reluctance to take the shape that represented destruction and murder, but the brunet's resolve was too strong to allow his core to refuse his demands.
Distracted by that required effort, Squall started when a large hand covered his and squeezed lightly around the hilt of his sword.
"Thank you, my Prince," Seifer whispered before he abruptly stepped back several paces, and with a nod of his head, he encouraged the brunet to leave his hiding spot beneath the branches of the old tree.
Raijin stiffened at the sight of the dark-haired sorcerer. "Hey boss, isn't that the guy who messed up those Ravages?"
"That he is," the blond lord replied with a proud smirk. "Raijin, Fuujin, I'd like to officially introduce you to an important servant of mine - Squall. Treat him nicely or I'll make you suffer for any trouble you cause him."
Squall sighed at the impassioned words that brought a gleam of interest to the watchful woman's single red eye. Quite certain that all of his secrets would be revealed if he allowed Seifer to continue speaking, Squall bowed his head slightly and stated, "Introductions aren't necessary. I've heard many stories from the young master about you both."
"Ander did that? Well, he's a good kid, ya know," Raijin commented awkwardly as he scratched the back of his head.
Meanwhile, Fuujin crossed her arms over her chest and frowned slightly. "Leander's Squall?"
After a confused moment, Squall remembered how the woman didn't care to speak in full sentences for some unknown reason. Assuming the implied question, he replied, "Yes, ma'am, I have been the young master's personal servant for several months now."
Raijin immediately started to snicker. "You hear that, Fuu? He called you 'ma'am' as if you were a lady or somethin'."
With no emotion showing on her pale face, Fuujin turned smoothly on packed snow and proceeded to kick the brute in the shin. Raijin yelped from the pain and hopped back in retreat from the petite woman, the unbalanced move eventually landing the large man in deep snow. Seifer laughed deeply at the soldier's defeat to a woman nearly a third his size, the unrestrained laughter making Squall gaze up at the blond nobleman. Too easily he found himself distracted by warm golden skin as Seifer had his head thrown back in absolute delight. Horribly aware of his heartbeats, Squall silently cursed his inability to ignore the more attractive features of the arrogant lord.
In an effort to fight his irrational desires, Squall interrupted coolly, "Do you want your spar or not?"
His humor controlled to the point of halting his laughter, Seifer grinned at the smaller man. "Impatient for a beating, are we?"
Squall chose not to reply as he adjusted the fur collar of his coat and stepped toward the proper position for them to begin their duel.
"Huh, he knows how to use a blade?" Raijin asked in surprise.
"Of course he does, dumbass. How else would he have enough skill to survive a pack of Ravages jumping at his throat?"
Squall turned at the remark and scowled at Seifer for the thoughtless words. While the dark-eyed brute wasn't of much concern, the sorcerer could feel the inquisitive gaze of the white-haired woman. Reluctantly glancing in her direction, Squall decided that he didn't like the way Fuujin was fiddling with the strap of her black eye patch.
His hand tight on the hilt of his blade, Squall glared at the tall man of blond hair spiked from sweat and melted snow. "Are we doing this or not?"
Seifer looked over to the brunet. "Don't you need to warm up and stretch first? I'd hate for you to pull something and not be able to perform your other duties to the best of your ability," he added with an unsubtle wink.
"I would worry about yourself first, m'lord," Squall stated coldly as he moved into a loose stance. Meanwhile, the unseen flames of the fire element stirred in his blood, anxious for the taste of battle after too many years of hiding. Their last fight had been far from satisfying, and while the occasional hard night of sex helped to relieve some tension, Squall couldn't deny his desire to make the arrogant bastard bleed.
Seifer smirked at the comment, and though he appeared amused and relaxed as he stepped into position across from the smaller man, his gloved hand on the hilt of Hyperion was tense in readiness. The wide blade lifted with an extended arm, Seifer said nothing more as he tilted his head in a condescending sign that he was ready.
Not a man of games and words, Squall didn't hesitate to accept the lord's offer. He stepped fast over packed snow, and with both hands on the hilt of his sword, he positioned the weapon low at his side. Swiftly closing the distance between them, Squall planted a foot into the snow and slid several inches while using the momentum of his sudden stop to swing his blade forward. Seifer easily met the hard slash with the flat of his blade, but was promptly forced back a step when the sorcerer turned with the rebound of his sword and spun around with another wide slash of blue metal. Again the obvious strike was blocked, though Seifer changed his tactic and parried the blade to allow himself the opportunity to squeeze in his own lunging attack, one that Squall easily avoided with a sway of his hips.
The harsh clang of metal rang over the field of snow and ice, the two men immersed in their dance as they traveled over slick ground. Each measurable gain was promptly lost by minute mistakes that would give the other the opportunity for a fierce counterattack. While no strike ultimately connected with its intended target, winter clothing gained new holes and icy air licked at fresh blood. Squall wasn't surprised to find himself enjoying the evenly balanced fight, but with every cheap shot from the blond, he grew increasingly frustrated with his inability to use his true powers against the former solder. More than once he had been forced to jerk away his hand from the vulnerable body, the sorcerer very aware of the eyes watching the battle between lord and servant. Worse were the cat-like eyes of the blond, Seifer appearing far too pleased with his apparent skill to match blades with the so-called 'Sorcerer Prince'. Squall sneered with the determination to make the man bleed for his crude assumptions.
After a long exchange of rhythmic strikes, the two swords abruptly clashed and scrapped against each other as both men pressed forward in the attempt to force the other to surrender first. While Squall knew he wouldn't be able to win the battle of strength, he couldn't back down against the blatant challenge as Seifer grinned down at him from over the cross of blades.
"Hyne, you're gorgeous."
Squall jerked back at the purred comment, the next second realizing that he had been tricked. Jumping back several paces with a defensive swing of his blade, the sorcerer stared at the green-eyed lord who hadn't taken advantage of the brunet's slip in concentration. Instead, Seifer stood in place with his blade lowered to his side, the man's stance wholly harmless except for the intense gaze of hunger that Squall recognized well enough from the young lord.
Irritated at Seifer's senseless nature to be aroused by swordplay, Squall moved his blade back and to side with the fanciful thought of ridding the man of his affliction. But before he moved, a cool breeze caressed his skin in a subtle warning. Glancing in the direction of the distant manor, blue-gray eyes noted the approach of a dark lumbering form, but once identifying the large man as Ward, Squall realized that the wind would not have concerned itself with the old friend. Squinting his eyes from the glare of snow, the sorcerer looked for the second man that he knew should also be there.
Focused on that distant sight, Squall realized too late that he had forgotten about his sparring partner, something that was a dangerous and stupid mistake. The sound of boots on icy snow and a blade cutting through cold air surprised the sorcerer as he attempted a retreat, but the tip of Hyperion still reached the fleeing man.
"Where did you think you were looking, princeling?" Seifer asked lowly, his tone oddly jealous in nature.
Squall didn't reply, his attention directed lower as he stared down at his torn jacket. He could feel the freezing air of winter against his exposed midsection, but worse was the trail of warmth that crossed his skin and slipped beneath the waistline of his pants. Wrapping an arm around his waist, Squall knew that the injury was minor, but nonetheless, his body began to shake from unnamed emotions.
"Sorry about that, but I suggest not ignoring me while we're playing," Seifer commented with Hyperion resting innocently on his shoulder.
The world seemed to shift in that moment for Squall, the shakes of his body vanishing as he took his blade into two hands and charged at the arrogant blond. Green eyes went wide at the sudden attack from the typically reserved sorcerer, Seifer managing at the last second to lower his weapon and parry aside the hard lunge. The blocked strike didn't slow the brunet, Squall reversing the momentum of his weapon to jab the hilt of his sword into the lord's side. Seifer grunted at the blow, his lost breath wasting a precious moment as Squall jumped back from the man's feeble attempt of a counterstrike. And once the wide blade swung past, Squall stepped close with yet another attack.
Sparks flew as swords met in hard and fast strikes, Seifer slowly forced backward as the sorcerer fought with wild ferocity. Squall couldn't remember the last time he had felt the rage of fire burning through his veins, but he welcomed the aid while throwing attack after attack at the bewildered nobleman. In short time, Seifer found himself without solid ground to walk on, his last step of retreat promptly sinking into the soft depths of untouched snow. Piercing blue-gray eyes gleamed with victory as Squall used the prime opportunity to drive forward with a hard lunge of his blade. Seifer's attempt to dodge and parry left him stumbling in the uneven drifts of snow. Squall ran after the flailing blond, and with his sword held limply at his side, the sorcerer balled his freed hand and punched the large man in the face.
The assault unexpected and unblocked, Seifer dropped back into the depth of fresh snow, his large body causing the renewed flight of snowflakes. Rolling in that icy white powder, the former soldier instinctively attempted to rise, but he was silently encouraged to stay on his back when the sword of blue metal rested against his neck.
His skin split and bleeding from the hard punch, Seifer eyed the blade warily before a coughing laugh left chapped lips. "Damn, now I know why they say that you should never poke a sleeping lion."
Squall scowled at the supine blond, trying to remember if such a saying even existed. Distracted by his thoughts, the sorcerer didn't noticed the movement of a gloved hand until Seifer gently grabbed onto the etched weapon. Flames ignited as if waiting for the proper spark and promptly engulfed the large hand in vibrant sapphire and crimson. Squall bit out a curse as he jerked his weapon away, angry at his idiocy for not anticipating Seifer's desire to touch the magically created blade.
"Well, that's a bit bigger than I remembered," Seifer stated in soft surprise as he examined his fire-covered hand, his glove already destroyed to ash. Green eyes shone with the light of calming blue and heated red, the lord seemingly entranced by the flames that burned without harming his skin.
"... What in Hyne's name...?"
The dark-haired man turned at the stunned question, Squall unsurprised to see Ward standing a short distance away with an overly serious expression darkening his face. But it wasn't until he noticed the lanky healer at the steward's side that Squall felt his energy fade and fail as his sword shattered into inexistence. His knees buckling beneath him, Squall dropped to the snow with his arms wrapped around his midsection and his eyes closed to shield himself from the glare of snow that irritated his sudden headache.
"Hey, are you alright?" Seifer asked as he immediately sat up and reached out with his bare hand, now free from the flames of crimson and sapphire.
"Don't touch me," Squall growled at the man, minutely satisfied when the large blond flinched and obediently lowered his arm. "Why is Lord Kinneas here?"
"What, have you forgotten that he is a good friend of mine?" Seifer replied defensively.
The dark-haired man breathed a scoff of disbelief. "If that's the case, then I should take my leave so that you may entertain your 'friend'," Squall suggested coolly as he stood from the snow-covered ground. But before a step could be taken, his arm was grabbed by a strong and unforgiving hand, the forceful move nearly landing the brunet back into the snow.
"Let him look at that wound," Seifer demanded from his kneeling position, his green eyes hard and eager.
"It's nothing serious."
"But it's hurting you, right?"
Squall glared down at the blond, certain that Seifer intentions weren't as innocent as they sounded. "I'm fine, m'lord."
Anger flared in emerald eyes at the causal honorific. "You are certainly not 'fine'," Seifer declared as he used his hold on the slender arm to help himself in standing. "You've been lethargic for weeks and don't think that I haven't noticed you hiding in your rooms while losing whatever food I managed to force down your throat. And that's not to mention how much Ander is worried about you. He says that your magic feels different than usual. Hell, even I have noticed that something is wrong. Tell me, sorcerer, when has it taken that much effort to call upon your lovely sword?"
At the condemning words spoken in thoughtless anger, stormy eyes flicked in the direction of the lord's subordinates. When Fuujin and Raijin didn't appear overtly surprised, Squall abruptly realized that the flames and vanishing sword would have already revealed everything to the pair of spectators. Returning his attention to the blond, he asked accusingly, "So instead of asking me about anything, you sent Ward to fetch Lord Kinneas in secret?"
Despite the trickle of blood that teased the corner his eye, Seifer met the hard glare of the sorcerer, his lips twisting in visible restraint to avoid further upsetting the proud man. Silence prevailed in that tense moment, eyes of raw emerald meeting those of pure ice in a lasting stalemate that neither man could break. Then a stray snowflake fluttered and landed on dark eyelashes, forcing Squall to blink despite his instinct to never surrender. Irritated at the unintentional loss, the brunet raised a hand to rub away the nuisance, but Seifer was just slightly faster.
Once the thumb had removed the melted flake from thick lashes, Squall was fully prepared to continue the wordless argument, but he instead stared up into softened green eyes that were unusually fragile in their gaze.
"Can you blame me for my deceit?" Seifer asked as he brushed his fingertips along chilled skin. "One word of a visiting healer and I feared that you would have vanished into the night."
Squall had no words in reply, the man not entirely certain what he would have done if he had known the healer would be arriving on the estate. As it were, the urge for flight was foremost in his mind and only the lord's restraining grip on his arm had prevented Squall from an earlier escape.
"If you are truly healthy and fine, then what does it matter if Irvine examines you? If nothing else, it'd be the chance to prove me wrong," Seifer reasoned with a failing smile.
Without the lord's anger to feed his own, Squall felt exhaustion in the face of Seifer's honest and bothersome concern. Frosty eyes closed in surrender, he nodded slightly in acceptance of being examined by the somewhat trustworthy healer. "But more important matters must come first," Squall argued with a tilt of his head in the direction of their spectators.
Seifer made a noise of agreement. "I'll speak with Rai and Fuu, but I swear on my life that they won't betray your secret. Meanwhile, I want you to go with--"
Before the lord could finish his sentence, he was interrupted by the biting sound of footsteps in snow. The sorcerer tensed at the unexpected approach of the white-haired woman, her stiff posture and serious gaze making Squall doubt the nobleman's word that there was nothing to fear from the odd pair. Fuujin walked directly before the lord and servant, but her single crimson eye focused solely on the man of dark hair. Silent and unsmiling, the female warrior stared unflinchingly into the depths of cold blue-gray eyes. With no excuse or lie to offer, Squall held the odd gaze of crimson and a dark eye patch and waited for the woman's accusation or threat.
Apparently uncomfortable by that wordless pause, Seifer placed a protective arm around the sorcerer's side and inched closer to the man. Needing his attention for more important matters, Squall decided to humor the overbearing lord.
Fuujin glanced down at the arm placed between her and the dark-haired servant, but said nothing of the matter. Instead, she pointed a finger in Squall's direction and asked, "Sorcerer?"
Squall sighed at the unavoidable question. "I am."
No surprise lighted her crimson eye, the observant woman already knowing the answer to her question. "Protect Seifer and Leander?"
"With my life," Squall stated, silently disappointed in himself for the easy response. While the sacrifice for his son was obvious, it should have taken more thought to decide if he would risk everything for the arrogant blond.
"Good," Fuujin replied with a slight, but honest smile. Finished with her inquiry, she turned sharply on snow and headed back in the direction of her confused partner, the dark-eyed brute scratching the back of his head with a large hand.
Squall watched the woman's retreat in disbelief. "What was that?"
"Fuujin's way of saying that she likes you," Seifer said with a quiet chuckle. "That girl is a great judge of character and she hates it when people talk too much about how 'trustworthy' they are. She appreciates a person who can speak with your type of frank honesty, not to mention someone who can meet her gaze. You two are fairly alike in that regard."
"Whatever," Squall muttered as he continued to watch the odd pair of soldiers. "What will he do about this?"
"I wouldn't worry about it. Rai can't function without Fuu telling him what to do and that includes when he's allowed to go to the bathroom. Trust me for once - they won't do anything to threaten your safety here."
Squall huffed in unwilling acceptance that the blond lord was correct in his assumption, but he knew that Seifer's rationale was wrong. Fuujin had graced him with a temporary trust, a trust that would last only as long as she held the belief that Squall was a benefit to her former captain. Until the day she changed her opinion, Fuujin would keep the secrets of the sorcerer, and by default, her thickheaded partner would also hold his tongue. It was a risky situation, one that could destroy Squall the moment he lost Seifer's favor, but given the arm secure at his waist, the brunet felt resigned that the lord's obsession wouldn't simply fade away.
Leaning in close, Seifer asked expectantly, "So, you'd protect me with your life?"
Squall thought to remind the man that he had already risked his life for the reckless idiot, but it wasn't worth the breath. Glancing at the large steward and the healer standing at his side, Squall brushed aside the lord's arm. "We are wasting Lord Kinneas' time."
As if reminded of the other men, Seifer straightened and looked in their direction. "Hn, I suppose you are right. Shall we go to my study, then?"
"I would rather your private chambers," Squall mentioned softly, embarrassedly. Something told him that the next hour was going to exhaust him, and though his own bedchamber would be best, he had no intention of disturbing Leander in the connecting room.
With his left eye vaguely swollen and red, Seifer peered down at the brunet as if trying to see into the sorcerer's mind, but he quickly gave up on the impossible endeavor. "You ask and I obey, princeling. Now, shall we go inside before you get any colder?"
Squall scowled at the man's teasing tone, rather certain that Seifer wasn't referring to the weather with his statement. The large blond grinned despite the withering glare, but then the lord foolishly attempted a wink with his bruised eye. Seifer's resulting flinch and whispered curse lightened Squall's mood for a fleeting moment, a moment that couldn't survive against the knowledge that things were about to become very difficult.
~ > < ~
Still wearing his torn coat to ward off the chill that refused to leave his body, Squall sat stiffly on the single sofa of the lord's chambers. In contrast, the other men had shed their winter clothing upon entering the mansion and remained standing with their focus on the silent sorcerer. Seifer hovered closest to the brunet, but stood at the back of the couch to ensure that Kinneas had plenty of room for his examination. The healer, however, stood at the doorway with his arms crossed loosely over his chest and showed no intention of approaching the seated man.
"Squall," Kinneas scolded in a irritable tone. "You know damn well that I can't help you if you don't want this. So if you're going to be difficult, I can better spend my time in the kitchens coaxing some dessert from the lovely Matron."
The brunet closed his eyes at the words, sympathetic to the healer's annoyance with the situation. During their first meeting, Squall had wholly rejected the man's healing powers, much to Kinneas' disbelief. Even though he had been losing his life drop by drop of blood, Squall had feared the chance of survival more than his imminent death. The visitation by the healer had nearly broken the sorcerer, but he had enough strength remaining to shield himself from the curative magic. Despite his resolve to die in peace, Squall had foolishly listened to Kinneas when the violet-eyed man had taken it upon himself to save the brunet's life, and with a single mention of Leander's tears, Squall reluctantly allowed the man to revive his dying body.
Reopening his eyes, Squall looked to the waiting healer and pledged, "As long as you are tactful about it, I won't interfere with your healing."
An eyebrow lifted in a curious tilt, Kinneas stepped to the sofa and sat on the cushions beside the tense brunet. He meticulously rolled up the sleeves of his uniform, clearly stalling to offer Squall a last opportunity to change his mind. In refusal of that offer, Squall opened his fur-lined jacket to reveal the torn and blood-stained shirt beneath. Kinneas inched closer at the invitation and placed a warm hand against the ragged hole. The caress of healing energy drew a sigh from the sorcerer, the pleasure induced noise dropping to a soft groan when Kinneas jerked back his hand in shock.
Cold blue-gray eyes gazed at Kinneas, the healer's expression one of dumbfounded surprise as he stared down at the exposed stomach that still oozed thick blood from the minor injury. Tentatively, violet eyes shifted upward until meeting the brunet's gaze. Lips parted and moved, but no sound came from the startled healer. Squall frowned at his overestimation of the nobleman's ability to be tactful.
"Irvine," Seifer prodded in a hoarse voice. "What's wrong? I know he's been sick, but... You can do something, right?"
Kinneas blinked at the question, a slight smile appearing as he continued to meet Squall's gaze. "He thinks you're sick."
The sorcerer exhaled a shaky breath before admitting, "I didn't realize that he had noticed anything. He's usually more dense than this."
"And when exactly were you going to tell him the truth?"
With a loud clearing of his throat, Seifer reminded the pair, "I'm standing right here, y'know."
Kinneas ignored the lord's plea for attention. "He won't want to hear this from me."
"... I know."
"Then tell him already," the healer stated as he stood from the sofa. "That injury of yours can wait until you've explained everything to him. Call it your punishment."
Squall watched as Kinneas crossed the room, the lanky man forcefully encouraging Ward to leave with him. The air in the room seemed to escape with the opening and closing of the door, the sorcerer not breathing until a large hand settled on his shoulder. Looking over the back of the sofa, Squall stared up into somber green eyes that held the rare touch of blue in the vibrant depths. His heart burned at the open expression made more pitiful by his lightly swollen eye and Squall hated the man for causing that sensation of guilt.
Seifer must have seen something in his servant's look since he sighed tiredly before removing his hand from Squall's shoulder. Moving around the sofa, the blond lord knelt in front of smaller man and gazed up into blue-gray eyes. "I don't know what is happening here, Squall, but I can't stand aside while you are clearly suffering. I understand that you don't care to unburden your soul to others, but you've experienced so much pain in your past, some of which caused by my hand alone. I beg of you, let me help you now. Let me make things right."
Squall gazed down at the handsome man, once again confused by the proud lord who should not be on his knees before a servant and begging with a troubled expression. The sorcerer reached out and raked his fingers back through golden hair, the strands still damp from snow and sweat. Seifer closed his eyes as he leaned into that hand, the man openly savoring the rare touch of the skittish brunet.
"Squall..." the blond purred before opening his eyes, the green pools widening further when he focused on the sorcerer's face.
Uncaring of the single tear that slid down his cheek, Squall said plainly, "I'm pregnant."
Seifer blinked at the announcement, his expression almost childlike in the attempt to comprehend what had been said. "I don't understand. You told me that you... you wouldn't..."
"I underestimated you," Squall stated quietly, his voice reluctant to sound. "I remembered the past and how my body reacted, so I had prepared myself for pain and blood. But instead, you gave me pleasure. It was something I never expected, nor did I anticipate how much more damage it could cause. My body opened to your caresses and there was nothing I could do to stop it."
The blond lord stared up with a dull look to his eyes, whether from surprise or horror, Squall couldn't guess. He considered removing his hand from the comforting touch of soft hair, but that choice was taken away from him.
Launching from the ground, Seifer stood and turned toward the doorway. "Irvine! Irvine, get your ass back in here!"
Startled by outburst, Squall watched dumbly as the large nobleman rushed to the opening door. The healer wasn't allowed a questioning word before his arm was grabbed and he was forced inside the room.
"Irvine, you have to do something. Squall's been sick - vomiting, exhaustion, and fuck knows what else. And Hyne, I've hurt him. I didn't know he was..." The blond choked slightly before growling out, "I've hurt him and I might have... I might have hurt..."
"Seifer," Kinneas said soothingly as he placed a hand over the one clamped onto his arm. "You have to calm down. Take a few deep breaths and--"
"Deep breaths?!" Seifer interrupted with a fierce glare directed at the healer. "Don't mock me, you fucking moron. Squall needs you and you're rattling on about deep breaths?"
Unbothered by the lord's anger and the undoubtedly painful grip on his arm, Kinneas returned the heated glare. "And you aren't helping him right now. Hyne, look at him. Have you said one encouraging word to him before you started yelling for me?"
Seifer jerked back as if slapped, the blond then glancing over his shoulder at the seated sorcerer. Squall couldn't be certain what expression he was showing, but Seifer immediately released his grip on the healer and rushed to the sofa to sit at the brunet's side. He didn't touch the other man at first, his green eyes lowered to the obvious point of interest. Leaning close, Seifer placed one arm around Squall's backside and lifted a shaky hand to hover above the torn and blood-stained shirt. The large hand flexed with indecision as the lord breathed hurried, shallow breaths.
With a roll of stormy eyes, Squall muttered a quiet 'idiot' before grabbing the hesitant hand and pressing it against his stomach. "I'm fine," he assured the volatile man, and then added an awkward, "We're both fine."
Seifer shook his head. "No, you've been sick. And your magic has weakened to nothing..."
"Perfectly normal," Kinneas interjected as he stepped to the other side of the couch. "While it was smart thing you summoned me, Squall isn't currently in any danger."
Worry and disbelief lingered in the verdant gaze, but Seifer's guilt became the least of Squall's concern when the pad of heavy footfalls came close. The sorcerer glanced up to meet pale eyes narrowed in confusion, Ward towering well above the two seated men. A deep frown lengthened the scar that cut from his forehead down to his chin, and not for the first time, Squall felt like he had disappointed the kindhearted man who had treated him like a son.
"Am I to assume that you are with child?"
Squall continued to meet the piercing gaze, willing to accept any reprimand for his thoughtless actions. "I am."
"How long?" Ward asked, sounding much like an army officer demanding an account of a recent battle.
"Shortly after the solstice." The sorcerer felt Seifer flinch at the reply, the man's strong fingers then digging painfully into the minor injury along his stomach.
Silence reigned as Ward gazed down at his former prince, the glare of crystalline blue eyes harsh and cold in the moments before the man sighed deeply and rubbed the palm of his hand against his cropped hair. "Hyne above, I wanted you to give Master Seifer a chance to prove his worth, but I never expected that he'd trick you into his bed. At least not this soon."
"It wasn't like that," Squall argued when Seifer didn't show any initiative to defend himself. "This is my fault and mine alone."
"No," Seifer finally spoke out, his eyes firm on the sorcerer. "I could have turned you away."
"I didn't give you that choice," Squall stated with a hard glint to stormy eyes. "If it hadn't happened that night, I would have convinced you another time."
"And what, I'm a sex-crazed fool who can't keep his dick tucked in his pants?"
His smile fading, the sorcerer squeezed the hand resting on his stomach. "I needed answers, Seifer, and there was no other way to find them."
"There should have been," Seifer said in a low voice, the blond then pulling his hand away from Squall's as he stood from the sofa. Without another word, the lord walked away at a slow and distracted pace. Kinneas attempted to follow the retreating man, but Seifer brushed aside his friend with a muttered declaration that he needed air and then exited the room with a quiet click of the door.
"I don't know why I bother," Kinneas sighed out as he returned to Squall's side. "Don't worry about that idiot - he doesn't know how to handle a stressful situation that can't be solved by stabbing someone with a sword. It's probably for the better that he walked away. Now, shall we heal that injury of yours and check on the little one growing inside of you?"
While acknowledging the man's rationale with a nod, Squall eyed the healer with growing suspicion. "You seem awfully comfortable with this situation."
Kinneas grinned at the accusing tone. "You forget that I took care of you both when Seifer nearly died from that poison months ago. For someone who constantly complains about that man's worse qualities, you certainly looked cozy resting at his side."
Squall scowled at the healer's assumptions, no matter how valid they may have been.
"While it's impressive that he managed to gain your trust to this extent, I have to wonder - do you realize that you hold his very heart in your hand?"
"You're exaggerating," the sorcerer argued, but his words rang of a lie. Every night they had shared a bed in the past month, Squall couldn't escape the look of adoration in the green eyes that glowed from firelight, and when their business was done, strong arms were reluctant to release him even in sleep. There was a possessiveness to the man's words and actions, a volatile desire that visibly conflicted with the amount of respect that Seifer held for his 'Prince'. And with every shared kiss and the occasional long night, Squall wasn't certain who would be destroyed first by the man's insatiable desires.
Ward huffed lightly as he sat in the cushioned chair across from the sofa. "Hyne's hips, it's no wonder those flames had appeared when he touched your core. He's full of reckless passion while you won't admit your love for him."
"I didn't ask for this," Squall said tightly, tense from pain as Kinneas used his curative powers to mend sliced flesh.
"A man doesn't ask for love. Instead, love finds him and attacks when he least expects it."
With a light scoff, the brunet commented, "Kiros would be disappointed at how soft you've become."
"Actually, that was one of your father's favorite sayings. He claimed that he had learned it from your uncle."
It was a simple matter for Squall to recognize the chance he was being offered, one he could hardly refuse. "Ward, do you know why... Did Uncle Leander ever tell you why he refused an abortion?"
The older man hummed in thought. "Well, whenever I asked him that very question, he had only one response - he loved his child."
"But he knew he carried a sorceress within him."
"I don't think that ever mattered to him. As you can imagine, Leander didn't hold the same beliefs as most other sorcerers. He held controversial theories about love and life in general, and even if he hadn't been exiled after his pregnancy, I imagine that Leander would have still surrendered his birth right to your father. He had no interest in blindly following the laws of sorcerers."
Squall closed his eyes, wishing for the unfaltering guidance of his uncle. It was easy enough to say that Leander had loved his child, but Squall knew the reality that love alone wasn't enough. He had loved his own child despite his pain and suffering, but love couldn't replace warm milk and blankets. There had to have been something more to give his uncle strength, some certainty that made him decide to give a sorceress life, but only one man had ever known that truth. And Leander was dead.
Breaking the silence that fallen, Kinneas tsked lightly as he removed his hand. "You still haven't been eating enough."
Squall groaned at the accusation. "Don't start. Seifer has already made it his mission to make me fat and slow, but I can't keep down half of the food he forces on me."
"I can give you something for that."
"It doesn't help," the sorcerer muttered bitterly, remembering the failed attempts and wasted money on potions that only worsened his nausea.
"Hn, I suppose that isn't too surprising," Kinneas said as he placed a hand beneath the brunet's chin. Violet eyes examined the man's face, the tingle of healing energy slipping through long fingers. "Your loss of magic worries me, though. Did it happen the last time?"
"Yes," Squall replied quietly. "And from what I can assume, my uncle suffered the same consequences. He wasn't the type of man to be imprisoned without a fight."
The healer hummed in agreement. "Leander wasn't a man to be angered, that's for certain. I once watched him kill nearly a dozen men without moving a single step." Lowering his hand, Kinneas smiled at the dark-haired sorcerer. "Well, aside from your weight, you seem healthy enough. Everything else is normal for a person in your condition."
"... And the child...?"
"Also healthy," the violet-eyed man replied in a gentle tone. "Though I'm afraid I can't say much more than that. The little one is too young and has yet to decide what he or she wants from this life."
Though nodding his understanding, Squall felt heavy with the weight of not knowing what life grew within him. It wasn't a new sensation, his first pregnancy starting with months of terror and shame before he ultimately felt the aura of his son, of his Leander. The relief and love that had followed was surprising to the young sorcerer, and though the stains of his sin wouldn't wash clean, Squall discovered that he couldn't regret the life of his son, no matter the circumstances that had led to that spark of life.
"You're exhausted," Kinneas commented with certainty as he pushed up from the sofa. "While I should lecture you about the idiocy of sparring when you're weeks pregnant and without magic, I hate wasting my breath on people who won't listen to reason. Get some rest and we will talk later about the months ahead of you."
Squall considered arguing for the sake of being stubborn, but there was no denying the truth. He stood up with a frustrated sigh, and then promptly jerked his arm from a hand that had settled at his elbow. Glaring at the large steward for his attempt of aid, Squall asked coolly, "Do I look helpless to you?"
Ward frowned at the rebuke. "Not particularly, but you did collapse earlier, and as Master Seifer isn't here to support you--"
"Stop," Squall demanded as he placed a hand against his forehead, uncertain when he had gained a headache. "I don't care what that idiot would do. He isn't here and you should know better."
"He'd have my neck if you were to get hurt."
Breathing a laugh, Squall commented, "I was nearly gutted by Seifer and you're worried about me getting a bruise or two from falling?" He shook his head in silent frustration. "My room is across the hall. I can make that distance by my own power."
"I believe Master Seifer wouldn't mind you using his--"
"My bed is fine enough," Squall argued, not about to admit that stealing the lord's bed had been his original intention.
Wrapping his torn coat closer to his body, the dark-haired sorcerer stepped away from the sofa, somewhat surprised when neither Ward nor Lord Kinneas spoke a word of argument or followed at his heels. Squall entered his room without further incident, and with his door closed behind him, he hesitated before deciding to avoid his bed for a moment longer. Moving to his dresser, he placed a hand on the box of burnt wood and silently asked for the earth element to release its hold. The box unlocking without resistance, Squall opened the lid and ran his fingertips over the sealed parchment resting on top, briefly thinking of his son before setting the item aside. Blue-gray eyes settled on the collection of carved chess pieces, the scent of pipe smoke increasing the pangs of his headache. The pain motivating him to make a decision, Squall reached inside and selected one of the scarred bishops before putting the letter back into place and resealing the box with earth magic.
Squall moved slowly to the bed, and then collapsed onto the mattress without removing his coat or boots. Curling slightly for warmth, he held the ruined image of his uncle close to his chest and silently begged for the man's ghost to speak to him. He needed to know where his uncle had found the strength to protect the child growing inside of him and somehow love the sorceress who had been born. He wanted to understand how it was possible and why old Leander had sacrificed his title and life to the daughter who had ultimately killed him. If nothing else, he needed to hear his uncle's voice telling him that it wasn't wrong to have strange feelings for a man and to love the children they shared.
But ultimately, only silence reached the exhausted sorcerer. His eyelids heavy and uncooperative, Squall couldn't help the bitter thought that his uncle had always managed the impossible in life. It was sorely disappointing that the same wasn't truth in death.
~ > < ~
Pulled from dreams of golden fire that warmed a body without burning flesh, Squall opened his eyes to focus blearily on the tapestry that hung between his and Leander's bedroom. The sorcerer felt calmed and soothed despite being wakened from sleep, an oddity that teased the failing part of his consciousness. But then hot breath caressed the back of his ear, making him very aware that he wasn't alone and that a warm hand had slipped beneath his shirt to press against his stomach.
Growling lowly at his inattentiveness when it came to the presence of the large blond, Squall commented, "I didn't invite you into my bed."
"Please don't," Seifer begged hoarsely as he rubbed his thumb along newly healed skin. "I can't fight you right now."
Silenced by the honest words, Squall chose to indulge the lord and relaxed within the demanding hold of muscular arms. He glanced down at his hand and forced his fingers to unclench from around the dark chess piece. Angry red lines emerged from pale skin and formed a vague image of the bishop, including the deep cuts into stone. Unable to cope with that sight, Squall refolded his hand around the chess piece, ignoring the sore complaints of his fingers.
Eventually done with silence, Seifer pressed his forehead against dark stands of hair and asked sullenly, "Why didn't you say anything?"
"... I was embarrassed."
"You were 'embarrassed'?"
Irritated by the disbelieving tone, Squall replied sharply, "I was young and inexperienced the first time I was impregnated. To have this happen a second time when I begged you to fuck me... It's beyond humiliating."
Seifer strengthened his hold around the smaller man. "Then it wasn't because of me?"
"Because of you?" the sorcerer asked as he attempted to face the blond, but wasn't able to move within the constricting hold. "What are you talking about?"
"Were you afraid that I would turn you away? Or reject the child you carry?" Seifer asked as his hand stroked the warm stomach, the rough skin drawing a stifled gasp from the brunet.
"I... I never really considered it," Squall stated in startled confusion. In the past weeks of overly quiet afternoons and the occasional sleepless night, the sorcerer had agonized over his pregnancy - the eventual necessity of telling the blond lord, the future months of nausea, the uncomfortable weight gain, and the imminent mortification under the care of Ward and potentially Matron. But it had never come to mind that Seifer would make him leave or blame him for the inconvenient pregnancy. No, it was only the man's overprotective nature that Squall had been most concerned about.
Seifer's hold loosened as he laughed gently into dark hair. "Hyne above, what am I supposed to do with you? Whenever you lay at my side, you continue to show your shame and reluctance, but on rare occasion you say the most careless things, cruel words that give me hope despite the reality that I know is true."
Squall felt his chest tighten at the bitter words, and when the soothing hand left his stomach to rest on his arm, he weakly resisted the lord's attempt to roll him onto his back. But ultimately, there was no escaping the presence of the dominating man or the gaze of intense green eyes made more dangerous with the darkening bruise around his left eye. Seifer rested on a bent elbow while looking down at the silent sorcerer, and once it was obvious Squall wouldn't move, the heated hand drifted back down to the torn shirt.
Rough fingers slipped through that opening and lightly massaged the soft skin. "Does it hurt?"
"It's not painful, no. But later on, the weight will be bothersome."
Green eyes brightened vaguely at the comment, a small smirk not far from his face. "Hyne, I'm a damn fool. I thought I had finally gotten some meat onto these bones of yours, but that isn't the real reason you've grown soft here, is it?"
Lips tight in annoyance, Squall warned, "If you're going to mock me--"
His sentence left unfinished, the sorcerer tensed at the firm press of lips that literary stole away his breath. Despite that initial reluctance from the stoic man, Seifer was tenacious and experienced when it came to the object of his desire, and for that reason, Squall found himself slowly coaxed into the play of tongues as one rough hand caressed his cheek and the other remained at his stomach. The brunet couldn't swallow back his groans and grew irritated at the wanton nature of his body that hadn't existed before Seifer's meddling. It was a dangerous and irrational lust that had thrown the sorcerer into his current predicament, and yet his body didn't care. Worse, his heart was starting to believe that his sensitized body had an interesting point and it didn't matter how loudly his mind protested that insanity.
The kiss broke abruptly, Seifer inhaling ragged breaths as he rested his forehead against Squall's. "Tell me, my Prince - am I any closer in gaining your love?"
Equally breathless, the sorcerer took the moment to think of an appropriate reply, but the extra seconds of thought were of no use, especially considering the previous weeks that were wasted while attempting to understand his relationship with the lord. Eventually acknowledging his inability to make a decision concerning Seifer, the dark-haired man quietly replied, "I can't answer that."
"Hmmm, what an interesting reply - no harsh rejection, no stumbling words of denial... I'm curious what your next answer may be."
Squall glared up at the overconfident lord. "My intention wasn't to encourage you."
"If you truly wanted to discourage me, it would only take a few words at most," Seifer stated in a serious tone.
Full lips parted as some of those words came to mind, but Squall wouldn't dare speak them, not when the lie would have been too obvious.
A slow smirk formed, the large man leaning back as he gazed down at the brunet. "I'm going to spoil you, princeling."
Instantly scowling at the lord, Squall knocked aside the hand that rested on his stomach. "I'm not a noblewoman to be pampered and restrained to a bed. I've done and seen more during my first pregnancy than you could even imagine and I won't be coddled by an idiot like you."
An interested gleam entered verdant eyes, but Seifer didn't approach the elusive topic concerning the past. "In case you don't remember, I was pleasuring your cock most of last night, so yes, I think I realize that you aren't a woman. As for spoiling you, I meant with chocolate and the other rare foods that you enjoy. Irvine mentioned the obvious that you haven't gained enough weight since the last time he's seen you."
"I'll be fat enough in another few months," Squall muttered to himself.
The blond lord chuckled at the angry murmur, his hand drifting back to softer flesh. "I know I can't make this right, but I will do everything in my power to make this easier for you."
While fearing the nobleman's protective urges, the sorcerer wanted to make one thing very clear - "We are still traveling to meet with the Shumi."
Seifer didn't react immediately to the demand, his attention directed to his unmoving hand. "... You bastard, you knew from the beginning, didn't you? When you mentioned meeting with the Shumi, you said that there wasn't time to spare, but it wasn't my plans that you had in mind. You were accounting for your pregnancy..."
"The Shumi will help you in your cause," was the only reply offered, the only information Squall felt was important.
Serious green met the sorcerer's gaze, and though reluctant, Seifer nodded once in agreement. "I can't afford to refuse their support at this stage, but I want Irvine to examine you and give his opinion about your ability to travel. I won't allow you or our child to be harmed. If it means waiting for another opportunity to dethrone the Emperor, then so be it."
At any other time, Squall would have fought the lord's condition, but he was still exhausted and his interrupted nap had done nothing to revive him. Deciding to speak some sense to the man after some rest, Squall rested a hand on Seifer's and closed his eyes while savoring that touch of warmth. Of all his memories concerning his first pregnancy, Squall most strongly remembered the cold nights and freezing winter when he had laid on stone and dirt. It was uniquely comforting to have the large body close, an all-important relief that Squall would never confess out loud.
"You shouldn't worry about it."
Reopening his eyes, the brunet glanced questioningly at Seifer.
With a reassuring smile, the large blond reached between them and lightly pried open clenched fingers to reveal the chess piece Squall had been holding. "Your fate won't be the same as your uncle's. I won't abandon you, and son or daughter, I will love our child."
"A daughter would mean a sorceress," Squall reminded in a fearful voice.
"A daughter would mean a daughter. And before you begin to explain how I'm wrong, I will tell you now that I'm not able to believe in the legends of sorcerers. You have told me that love between two men is impossible, but these past several weeks have shown me differently. You have told me that a child born from a sorcerer is cursed and feared, but Ander is an amazing child who is loved by everyone in this household." Wrapping his hand around Squall's and the bishop within, Seifer said gently, "I'm sorry, princeling, but when none of your other talk has proven true, how can I possibly believe your words about a sorceress who hasn't even been born?"
The edges of the chess piece sharp in his hand, Squall looked away from sharp green eyes. "Are Ultimecia's sins not enough proof for you?"
"No, they aren't. In fact, I find it very difficult to believe that there has never been a sane sorceress in the history of this world."
"You're being naive."
"That's an interesting comment coming from a grown man who treats folklore as absolute truth."
Eyes icy and hard, Squall glared in the direction of the tapestry as he continued to avoid the lord's gaze. "You don't understand."
"And I never will," Seifer agreed softly as he lowered himself onto the mattress and pressed against the lithe body. "But I don't think I'm the only one who needs to admit that mere mortals cannot understand the greater working of Hyne and Shiva."
Teeth biting into his lower lip, the sorcerer could think of no reply beyond an insult at the man's simpleminded arrogance. Recognizing that offending the lord would do nothing to defend his pride, Squall said nothing as he allowed Seifer to keep his hand in place, a gentle guard over their new child. The large man dropped to sleep first, his slow breaths felt against the back of Squall's ear. Despite his anger toward the blond and the words that had been spoken, Squall didn't last much longer given the heated body curled around him and the steady rhythm of soft breaths.
His last thought was one of disappointment - when the opportunity had presented itself at the end of their spar, he should have done something more damaging, more lasting than giving Seifer a mere black eye. In a drowsy murmur, he complained, "Should've used my damn blade..."
~ > < ~
Squall jerked awake at the odd sense of distress, his stormy eyes searching his immediate area in confusion before settling on the mop of dark hair that peeked over the edge of the mattress. With a sigh, the sorcerer attempted to sit up, but Seifer groaned loudly in protest and wrapped his strong arms around the smaller man. Knowing from past experiences that there was no escape from the sleeping man, Squall relaxed back onto the thick sheets.
"I know you're there, Leander."
The dark chestnut hair flinched at the statement, but the child remained mostly hidden beyond the foot of the bed.
"I can see you, cub," Squall said softly, somewhat amused that the boy thought he was well hidden.
With small hands appearing first, Leander slowly pulled himself up. "I'm sorry. I tried to be quiet and not wake you. Really, I did."
"I don't doubt that you tried," the brunet said before patting the space next to him. "Come here and tell me why you were sneaking into my room."
Soft green eyes downcast with guilt, the young boy climbed reluctantly onto the mattress. Squall smiled with some sadness, remembering a time when the boy had to be helped onto the bed that was too tall for him. But now Leander managed the one-time obstacle with ease and crawled next to Squall, the heavy chain around the boy's neck jingling quietly. Sitting back onto his heels instead of lying next to the sorcerer, Leander continued to avoid the gaze of blue-gray eyes while absentmindedly playing with the lion pendant that hung low on the small body.
With his child close, Squall could easily feel the waves of distress coming from the boy, the sensation that had traveled through their bond and wakened him from peaceful sleep. For an irritated moment, Squall abruptly realized how his father had always managed to guess his moods when Laguna had been oblivious about everything else in connection with his son's life. It was unfair in a way, but Squall forced himself to stop thinking about it. That bond was lost for all time; meanwhile, his current connection with his own precious son demanded that something was troubling the boy.
"Leander, why won't you look at me?"
The boy pouted before, after two failed attempts, he shyly looked at his mentor.
"That's better. Now why are you in my room?"
Pink lips quivered in hesitation before Leander blurted out, "Why do you feel funny?!"
Stunned, Squall blinked at the question that was loud enough to make Seifer stir and grumble as he drearily woke from his nap. The large blond placed his chin at the sorcerer's shoulder and peered at the boy who hadn't been there when he was last awake.
"Ander, what the Hell--"
Squall lifted his hand to quiet the clueless man. "What do you mean by 'funny'?"
Leander shrugged while palming at moist eyes. "You don't do magic no more and the elements keep telling me to be careful around you, that I can't play with you right now. And... and there's something in you!" he announced while pointing a shaky finger in the direction of the sorcerer's stomach.
A cough of laughter came from Seifer, the man obviously trying to cover his amusement when his son was seriously worried. Squall, meanwhile, had the urge to hide beneath the bed sheets for the next several months. While knowing the boy had inherited his taint, he never imagined that Leander had enough healer blood in his little body to feel the existence of new life. It should have been impossible, but there was no denying the truth that had been spoken by a child.
Leander promptly grabbed the brunet's arm and tugged hard. "Squa-all, why're you sick? Can't Irvine help you? I saw him come here before, but you still feel funny. Why didn't he make you better?"
"Calm down, lion cub," Squall soothed while placing his hand on a small shoulder. "There's nothing wrong with me. Just... something is different."
Young green eyes glared at the older sorcerer, Leander upset at not being given a satisfying answer. It seemed the child had yet another trait which he shared with his father.
Frustrated and frightened, Squall realized that he could no longer hide from the boy who had grown too much in the past year. With a final squeeze of the chess piece in his hand, the sorcerer placed the bishop into the pocket on his jacket. His hand sore and stiff, he brushed aside dark strands of hair from innocent eyes and then lowered his hand to brush his fingers along the boy's necklace, the aura of its previous owner lingering within the chain of silver.
"Leander, reveal your core for me."
The boy scowled at the sudden request. "I don't wanna do lessons now. I wanna know what's wrong."
"And you'll get your answer once you bring out your core."
Leander continued to pout, but when no compromise was to be made, he huffed and closed his eyes while holding out his hands. The pale staff appeared without much effort, proof of the child's progress in such a short time. Only an inch longer than the size during its first appearance, the white wood was adorned with dozens of spells that favored the wind element, but all three elements were represented in the mix. Squall was proud of the hard work the youth had placed into his studies and was impatient for the day Leander could coax Laguna's songs from the beautifully crafted silver flute that Seifer had given to his son for the child's birthday earlier that week.
Reopening his eyes, Leander wrapped his hands around his precious staff and shoved it forward in an irritable display that he had done as requested.
Squall continued to stare at the young core, his body frozen from all action despite his previous resolve. He had forgotten how pure, how delicate the slim staff appeared compared to his own gnarled and stained core. The difference in their lives assaulted Squall in that moment and he wasn't certain if it was right or fair to take Leander from his innocent and blissful existence. Then the arm at his chest tightened, and though the dark-haired man greatly doubted that Seifer knew what was happening, Squall appreciated that silent support.
Lifting his hand, Squall exhaled in quiet surrender to his fate before reaching out. He barely noticed the widening of soft green eyes, the sorcerer's attention instead focused on the innocent staff that was about to be stained with his touch. The instant his fingers brushed against pale wood, Squall closed his eyes as he was overpowered by the fully opened bond between parent and child. There were no words to describe that connection which Squall had forcefully muted throughout the years to protect his son. To have it reopened after years of neglect, the sorcerer dumbly thought that he had been insane and incredibly stubborn to ignore it for so long.
The tearful voice encouraged Squall to open his eyes and gaze up at the boy's face. Leander's expression hopeful and fragile, the sorcerer didn't have the heart to correct the child's classification. Instead, Squall willed his body to move and replied with a jerky nod.
Leander launched forward, his young staff vanishing in the moment before impact. Surprisingly strong hands clutched onto the winter jacket Squall still wore and Leander buried his face into the fur collar while sputtering nonsensical words along with calls for 'mommy'. In that moment, the sorcerer felt like the fire element was playing with his heart, burning the life-giving organ and threatening to kill him with its heated touch. It was an amazing sensation.
"I told you that he wouldn't hate you," Seifer murmured into an ear.
Not interested in the playing the game of who was right, Squall jabbed an elbow back into the man's side.
Before the blond could retaliate, Leander abruptly pushed up and focused moist eyes on the brunet. "I knew you were my mommy, but I didn't tell no one 'cause it was a secret. That's why you didn't tell me, right? Because it was a big secret?"
"That's right, cub. It's a very important secret, one you can't share with anyone," Squall said as he wiped the tears from flushed cheeks.
"No one?" the boy asked in disappointment.
"No one, Ander," was the stern reply as Seifer spoke out from behind the sorcerer. "The moment you start telling people that Squall is your birth mother, it will put him in a lot of danger, not to mention putting yourself in danger."
Squall sighed, exhausted at being forced to revisit the topic that tormented him. "Give me your hand."
Reacting without question, Leander obeyed the demand while staring curiously at the dark-haired man. Squall held the small hand gently as he directed it to his stomach. The young boy frowned and shifted uncomfortably once his heated hand touched skin through the wide tear of Squall's shirt.
"What do you feel right now?"
"Something's in you," Leander stated worriedly.
"But can you tell what is growing inside of me?"
Soft green eyes blinked in surprise, the boy calming down with the realization that Squall knew all along that something was inside of him. The small hand flexed lightly against the brunet's skin before Leander cautiously replied, "It kinda feels like you and me."
"That's right, because this is a new life. A baby who has yet to be born. And once he... or she decides on the future, you'll have a baby brother or sister to look after."
Eyes and mouth opened wide in shock, Leander eventually choked out, "Really?"
"Can't you feel your connection to this life?"
The young boy shook his head wildly, strands of chocolate-colored hair flying in the exaggerated sign that Leander wasn't experienced enough to identify the soul of his sibling. With hidden disappointment, Squall blamed himself for blinding Leander to the importance of blood. After all, he had spent years shielding the boy from the bond of parent and child. Leander had never experienced the wholeness that could be found with the ties of blood, and from that neglect, the child never knew to search for that loss.
"Well then, you can take my word for it."
Leander smiled in acceptance of the man's words, but that momentary excitement vanished when pink lips fell into a frown and dark eyebrows scrunched in deep thought. "Is the baby making you sick?"
"A little, but it's nothing terrible," Squall replied before squeezing the boy's hand. "Leander, I have to tell you the truth - it's not normal for a man to carry a child like this. I've told you this secret because you deserve to know, but if you tell anyone else about how you or your sibling were brought into this world... Well, most people wouldn't believe you," Squall said with a strained laugh. "But it would only take one person to believe your words and realize that I am a sorcerer, a dangerous man who would be executed without trial by the Empire. And as my son... you would follow me in death."
Eyes of soft green widened slightly, Leander too young to hear such words, but the necessity was still there. He blinked several times, trying to rid his eyes of building moisture, but it was a lost cause. Jerking his hand from Squall's, the youth laid down and pressed his face against the fur collar that had yet to dry from his previous tears.
"Why do they hate us?"
"There are many reasons, but foremost is that they are frightened of our magic."
"But.. but Daddy doesn't care and he's not scared of us."
Squall hummed in light amusement. "While that's true, your father doesn't fear everything he should."
The large blond huffed behind him, but didn't interrupt with his full opinion about the matter.
Leander pressed closer as he burrowed partly into the sorcerer's ruined coat. "I won't tell no one, Mommy, so don't go away again."
With a hand buried in thick hair, Squall placed his lips against the child's brow. "Upon the source of my power and the core of my life, I swear to be here whenever you need me. But Leander, you can't continue to call me... 'mommy'," he scolded, trying to disguise the annoyance from his voice.
The young boy whined in peevish determination, no real words forming as he clutched harder onto soft leather.
"You can't keep my secret safe by announcing to the world that I'm your 'mother'. You're old enough to realize that."
With a reluctant slowness, Leander leaned back far enough to ask, "Can I call you 'mommy' when it's just you and me and Father?"
"I'm sorry, cub, but you would develop bad habits that way. I can't allow it."
"But... I don't wanna call you 'Squall' no more. It'd feel wrong."
The pale-eyed sorcerer held back a deep sigh from the pain that laced his very soul. He couldn't remember the amount of years he had yearned to hear those words, to know that his son saw him as something more than a servant named 'Squall'. But the former prince had grown accustomed to rejecting his dreams for the sake of surviving reality, especially when it meant protecting his son.
His cheek pressed against dark hair, Squall forced his voice to sound. "Thank you, my son, but on occasion, we must all do things that are against our nature. For the sake of your life and mine, I need you to do this."
"I don't wanna," Leander whined, but when the sorcerer offered no bargain to satisfy the boy, the youth eventually muttered in a pitiful tone, "But I will. 'Cause you said so."
Hugging his child close, Squall whispered hoarsely, "Thank you. And I'm sorry."
Leander grunted that he had heard, but was going to prove his displeasure to the older sorcerer by not replying with words. And though the boy curled comfortably against his chest, Squall doubted that he would hear a full sentence from the spoiled child in the next couple of days.
Hardly a silent moment passed before the blond lord decide to make his presence known. Large hands slipped beneath the ruined shirt as Seifer wrapped his calloused fingers around the man's waist and pulled him close in a position that was hardly innocent and utterly inappropriate given the presence of their son. But before Squall could react, the caress of warm lips at the back of his ear paralyzed him as a pleasurable chill ran down his spine.
"I'm disappointed, princeling," Seifer said softly, the ever-present smirk clear in his tone of voice. "Don't you know that you shouldn't apologize when you've done nothing wrong?"
Unable to respond to the lord's impossible logic, Squall moved an arm from around his son and grabbed one of the hands at his waist. Forcing the heated hand onto his stomach, the sorcerer told the man, "Enjoy the moment while it lasts, idiot. You may not get another chance."
Seifer chuckled lightly as he rubbed the soft flesh. "That's what you think."
Kneeling in the corner of his room, Squall glared into the bucket that held the dinner which he had rather enjoyed earlier in the evening. True to his word from the previous day, Seifer had already convinced the difficult Matron to prepare some of the more unique foods that appealed a sorcerer's taste. She had been obviously displeased when serving the dish of pig's heart and apples, but the moment Squall dug into the plate with clear hunger, her golden eyes had softened in motherly surrender. And then only three hours later, that meal was wasted in a bucket stained from weeks of use.
The knock at his door drew a tired sigh from the sorcerer before he forced himself onto his feet and called for the person to enter. Anticipating the sight of golden hair and emerald eyes, Squall straightened with interest when the doorway was filled by someone entirely unexpected.
His grin light and playful, Ward asked, "You seem disappointed. Were you hoping for someone else?"
Squall crossed his arms over his chest and frowned in a sign that the joke wasn't appreciated.
His grin widening to the point of curling his long scar, Ward pushed the door closed behind him and stepped further into the room. "Master Seifer is busy while planning the final details of your trip, so he sent me to check on you. He also wanted me to mention that you left your dessert half-eaten and that he convinced Matron to save it for you."
"Idiot, as if I'd want to eat something right now."
"I told him as much, but I thought you may appreciate the courtesy."
"... You don't need to convince me that Seifer intends to treat me well."
Ward cocked his head slightly, intelligence lighting his pale blue eyes. "I suppose you're right. After all, you didn't seem very surprised when Master Seifer held the Cuor nie Fluam," the former soldier said with a heavy accent, the man fluent in the language of sorcerers', but unable to properly speak the melodic words.
Squall exhaled a tired breath. "I was wondering why you didn't mention something sooner."
"There wasn't much of an opportunity when our excitable lord held your attention all of yesterday and most of today." Ward moved to the bed and sat down, his heavy frame making the wood groan in protest. "So, when did he first hold that flame?"
"At the solstice. He asked to see my core and I let him touch the blade," Squall admitted tightly, making certain to add, "But it means nothing. It's a ridiculous legend that has no basis in reality."
The large man chuckled at the hurried refusal. "Then the honor of creating the flames of Shiva and her lover means nothing, but the pain of following the prejudice words of an old book means everything?"
Before the sorcerer could reply, he was distracted by the creak of an opening door. Dumbly realizing that he never saw the door fully close, Squall turned and glared at the uninvited man. His hand on the doorknob, Seifer had the grace to look vaguely apologetic for eavesdropping and entering without permission, but that moment quickly passed when he looked to his faithful steward.
"Ward, were you talking about those odd flames that appear whenever I touch his core?"
The steward smiled in anticipation to answer, but Squall beat the elder man. "Why are you here, Seifer?"
"I forgot to remind Ward to help you pack for the trip. Knowing your ways, you'd bring two sets of clothing along with a single coat and think that you over packed."
Dark eyebrows furrowed, Squall asked, "We're visiting the Shumi to solicit their help. More clothing won't help in that endeavor."
"You seem to be forgetting the hundreds of miles between here and there, not to mention the horrid weather. Since you are adamant about leaving before spring arrives, we're going to do this my way."
"We will be visiting select families along the way. I've already sent letters about our impending visits and I intend to gain more support for my cause. More importantly, they will be able to give us shelter from the ice and snow for a few days."
Blue-gray eyes widened in disbelief. "We can't waste that amount of time."
"I disagree. I don't know when you've last traveled in winter, but the horses can only take so much abuse, the carriages are bound to crack and fail, and Hyne knows what else. It's better to divide the trip into more manageable pieces, and given that necessity, we might as well put those delays to good use. By the way, that includes you looking presentable at our son's side."
Lips tightened into a thin line of displeasure, Squall glared at the lord while refusing to admit that the man had a reasonable reply for once. The games of nobility would always be distasteful to the former prince, but he could acknowledge the necessity of gaining further support for Seifer's dreams of the future. Once the Emperor fell, there would be instant chaos across the vast lands of the Empire. By soliciting the nobility in key regions before that fall, Seifer hoped to maintain some semblance of stability. It was a tricky game to play as any one of the families could turn their back on him, but none knew enough details to destroy the plans in their entirety. Even if Seifer were to be assassinated for his traitorous tactics, enough of his men were already in place to complete their mission.
The lord smirked when he recognized that no other argument would come from the difficult brunet. "Now that we are clear about that matter..." Seifer returned his attention to the seated steward and asked, "What do you know about those flames?"
"Why are you asking him?" Squall demanded before he could stop himself.
"Because I don't trust you to give me the full answer."
Deep laughter erupted from Ward. "Hyne in Heaven, the two of you must have been created for each other."
While Seifer looked very satisfied with that assumption, Squall growled lightly at the interfering man. "Don't put ideas in his head."
"Much too late for that, I imagine," Ward commented with a pleased grin.
"Then don't give him any more ideas. It's merely a reaction of elements between two bodies that produces the fire and it has nothing to do with Shiva or her supposed lover."
"You may want to believe that, but I think we both know otherwise."
Squall glared at the elder man, but wasn't able to continue the argument. The truth remained that when he had first seen the flames of crimson and sapphire, the sorcerer had immediately thought that Shiva was insane to mark Seifer as someone who was his opposite, someone who was everything that could complete him. Since that fateful night, Squall had tried to convince himself that the fire meant nothing beyond the reactivity of souls and conflicting elements, but seeing those flames again at the end of their duel, he wasn't quite certain about his hopeful theories.
"Well?" Seifer asked impatiently.
Pale blue eyes remained focused on the dark-haired man, and after a brief pause, Ward shook his head. "Forgive me, my Lord, but I think this is something that you must hear from Squall, something he can't do until he believes it himself."
Squall straightened in surprise, his eyes silently questioning the former soldier. Ward shrugged in reply before he stood up from the bed and brushed nonexistent dust from his pants. With an excuse that he should help Leander to pack, the large man walked to the outer door, only pausing with a bow of his head to his lord and master.
Once alone, Seifer stepped toward the sorcerer. "You know, I saved that bastard's life and he still favors you. I'm a little bit hurt."
Squall refrained from commenting that the lord didn't sound hurt in the least.
Reaching the smaller man, Seifer brushed his fingers through thick locks of hair. "How are you feeling?"
"Don't patronize me. I know you want your answers."
"That is obvious enough, but I trust that old man. If he says it's something I need to hear from you, then I'll wait until you decide to tell me."
Unfolding his arms, Squall placed a hand at the broad chest before him. "It's only a legend."
"Most legends are born from grains of truth," Seifer countered as he leaned in close, but then jerked back in surprise. After a moment of confusion along with a deeply wrinkled nose, green eyes flicked to the corner of the room and a hum of realization left the blond.
"It's normal," Squall argued before the lord could make an excuse for delaying their trip. "Even women get sick during pregnancies, some worse than others according to Lord Kinneas."
"Hey now, let me say something stupid before you start attacking me for it," Seifer said with a light grin. "And for your information, I was only thinking that it was a pity that you lost your dinner. It was the first meal that I've seen you enjoy in weeks."
Releasing a relieved breath, the sorcerer leaned into the lord's lingering hand and commented, "Ward said that you were busy with last minute details."
"Hn, I was hoping to avoid those responsibilities for something more enjoyable."
"Not tonight. Leander has asked to sleep with me."
"Spoiled brat," Seifer growled as he leaned in to place a hard kiss against the brunet's pale throat. "It's not like you appeared out of nowhere and announced that you were his mother."
"He's a child."
"And you constantly say that I have a mind of a child, so why can't I share you?"
Squall swallowed back a groan when the blond nipped at a particularly sensitive region along his neck. "Because you don't share nicely and I want to sleep tonight. One of you in my bed is hard enough - I can't imagine you both."
"How cruel, princeling," Seifer said as he pulled back and attempted a hurt expression. "I always knew that you loved Ander more than me, but I didn't think that you'd be so mean about it."
A dark eyebrow lifted in a disbelieving arch. "Why would you think otherwise?"
"What can I say - I'm a man who believes in his dreams and fantasies," the former soldier replied while resting his hands at the lean waist, his long fingers massaging the brunet's lower back. "Though I have to say that it's quite pathetic how I've already lost to our next child. I've had months to gain your love and this one captures your heart in a few brief weeks."
"... What are you... Don't be an idiot."
"Come now, princeling. I nearly lost my head and other essential body parts when I threatened that life within you. It was a lucky thing that you love me or I would be a worse mess than those Ravages you killed for touching Ander."
Squall stared dumbly at the towering lord, and while unable to cope with the man's primary message, the sorcerer automatically replied, "I don't love you."
Seifer grinned at the dully spoken words, his green eyes bright with mirth. "Keep lying to yourself, sorcerer, but your heart isn't going to stay silent forever."
"You're being a fool."
"If that's true, then you're a greater fool for not believing me," Seifer said as he quickly bent down to brush a kiss at the corner of parted lips, interrupting whatever the brunet meant to say. "Unfortunately, I don't have the time to continue our talk, but there's long road ahead of us. Don't expect to escape me with ease the next time, my Prince. For now, enjoy your night with your son and I will see you both in the morning."
Befuddled and feeling like he was repeating the night Seifer had stolen him away from Lady Rinoa, Squall could only watch silently as the lord turned and walked away while stretching his long body. The sight of flexing muscles was addicting as ever, and before he had the mind to hold back his words, Squall said abruptly, "I will tell you one of these days. I'll answer all of your questions."
Seifer stopped in his exit, but didn't turn around. "Hn, I know that. But first, I think I still have something to prove before you can show me that amount of trust."
With no encouraging words to offer, the sorcerer wrapped his arms around waist and simply bowed his head in a silent apology that the lord wouldn't see.
"Good night and sleep well, lovely. The next month is going to be a long one."
Squall whispered a 'good night' in return, uncertain if the man had heard it before closing the door behind him. Standing in place, the dark-haired man wondered what was left for Seifer to prove - he had raised and loved their son despite his origins, he had shown true remorse for the events of the Massacre, and he had ignited passion in the sorcerer when Squall had believed the life within him was near dead. But Seifer had spoken true, that something was preventing Squall from fully trusting the man, something that stole his voice before he could share every secret of his past and present. Something...
His arms tight around his midsection, Squall questioned out loud, "What if there is nothing left for him to prove...?"
Author's Whining -- Don't say you didn't see it coming. I'm a pitiful soul who can't help cursing Squall with the things he loves to hate and hates to love - Seifer, mpregs, Seifer, world-saving responsibilities, Seifer... *grin* Anywho, more secrets are coming up in the next couple of chapters. Hopefully sooner than later, but of course I was planning to do a lot more with this chapter than I did, so I'm not guaranteeing anything. Never underestimate the power of muses who love to ruin the best laid plans.