For Nothing, For Everything
June
2007

 

The night sky stretched high above, but none of its stars could be viewed from the city below.  Instead, the streets were lit with the harsh brilliance of fire that held no mercy and no understanding of the buildings that it slowly devoured to satisfy its hunger.  Deeper into the city and into the heart of the destructive flames stood a towering palace made of stone and glass, the unique structure carved directly into the face of the cliffside.  Beautiful and strong, the palace wouldn't bend or break from the attack of the unending flames, but nothing was destined to survive within its sculpted walls.

Standing on a bridge between towers, Seifer glanced up at the black sky, a void that suited the Massacre that had taken place.  He smirked at the uncaring universe before continuing with his previous path across the bridge.  Broken glass crunched beneath his feet, the sound surprisingly loud despite the roar of flames raging below the narrow archway.  And though the smoke and heat should have overwhelmed him, Seifer felt loose and calm as he stepped toward the larger of the two towers.

Burnt doors fell apart at his touch and the blond soldier walked across charcoal and ash, the white fabric of his uniform darkening with every step further into the expansive throne room.  Green eyes glowed with fire as Seifer gazed upon the carnage before him - royal guardsmen were missing arms and legs, young maids had been split in two, and common soldiers stood frozen in unnatural ice.

And amongst the dead was the surprising sight of a living person, a dark-haired youth bent over an older man drenched in dark blood.

Lips twisting into an excited smirk, Seifer wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword and purposefully let the blade ring against the metal rim of its sheath.  The brunet stilled at the sound, hesitating before he slowly lifted to his feet and turned to face the intruder.  Blood covered the young man, a boy of no more than fourteen years.  Seifer felt disappointment at the recognition of boring prey, but his orders had been absolute - no sorcerer or supporter of the sorcerer clans could live.  Lifting his blade to the side, the soldier took a single step toward the silent brunet, but was unexpectedly halted by a weight against his leg.

"Don't hurt Mommy!"

Seifer stared down at the child wrapped around his leg, surprised by the boy's appearance.

"Don't... Leander--"

Though curious at the desperate tone from the teen, Seifer became more interested in the eyes of the child as the green pools shimmered with a soft white light.  Certain the boy was the child of a sorcerer, the Imperial soldier didn't think twice as he lifted his sword and kicked his leg forward.  The sharp movement succeeded in knocking the small form backward, far enough such that Seifer didn't injure himself when he drove the point of his blade down into the vulnerable chest.

The boy didn't make a sound at the assault, his innocent eyes wide and unbelieving as his body went limp and a dribble of blood slipped from parted lips.

"No...  Goddess, please no..."

Seifer looked over at the whispered plea and grinned at the stunned expression of the sorcerer.  "Is this yours?" he mocked as he attempted to free his sword.  When the edge caught on bone, Seifer was forced to use his foot to release the wide blade, the required effort mildly embarrassing.  The small body landed on the ground with a slight bounce, and with a final show of annoyance, Seifer kicked the boy in the direction of the unmoving sorcerer.

With an odd noise, the dark-haired teen dropped to the ground and cradled the child sorcerer into his arms.  "What have you done?"

"Rid this world of another sorcerer," Seifer replied coolly.  "I'm protecting my own kind."

"Protecting your own kind?" the brunet asked incredulously, his voice and body changing, aging as he spoke.  He abruptly looked up, blue-gray eyes intense with white light.  "You just killed your own son!"

After a moment of surprise, Seifer coughed out a laugh.  "My son?  I don't have--"

"You do," the dark-haired sorcerer insisted as he leaned back and placed a hand on his bloody and suddenly swollen stomach.  "And you will."

Green eyes widened in surprise and fear.  "No... That's impossible."

"But you know it's true."

Seifer slid a foot back, uncertainty and disbelief clouding his mind as he stared at the pale hand spread across the curve of stomach.  He refused to accept the man's words as truth, shaking his head as he watched the sorcerer bend down and place a soft kiss against the forehead of the lost child.  Seifer tightened his hand around the hilt of his sword, gradually coming to the decision that, truth or not, something was inside of the pale-eyed sorcerer.  Something that could not be allowed to live.

His decision made, the soldier acted without the chance of second thought.  Sprinting with his blade held in two hands, Seifer covered the distance between them in no time.  Metal slid into flesh without resistance, the sorcerer simply grunting in pain.  Forced to a stop, Seifer stared down at his sword and watched as bright crimson flowed from the man's abdomen and dripped from the edge of the silver blade.

"I knew..."

The man's words cut off by a choked cough, Seifer looked up at the sorcerer's face to stare into pained eyes.  It was wrong.  Something was wrong with the situation and the soldier felt sick by the foreign thought.  Sorcerers were a danger to the world.  The Emperor himself had told his army those very words, but still, something was very wrong.  Pain did not belong to those eyes of metallic blue.

Regaining his breath, the sorcerer palmed blood from his lips and laughed quietly.  "I knew my death would be by your hands."

"How...?"

Before Seifer could form the words he wanted to ask, life faded from stormy eyes and the sorcerer slumped to the side, but was held upright from the sword pierced through his body.  Meanwhile, lifeless arms released their hold on the child and the small body fell to the ground with a dull thump.  Seifer jumped at that sound and unconsciously removed his hands from Hyperion.  No longer supported, the sorcerer's body fell onto its side as if to lie down with the lost child.

"No..." Seifer whispered as the man's name suddenly came to mind.  "Squall... Hyne, what have I done?"

Kneeling next to the fallen sorcerer, Seifer stroked his hand through thick locks of dark chestnut and kissed a pale cheek.  He placed his other hand at the man's swollen stomach and could feel the heartbeats of life still pounding within the rapidly cooling body.  Seifer breathed a relieved laugh within a sob, but far too quickly, that heartbeat slowed and faltered in a last attempt to survive.

"No, please no," he begged as the first drop of wetness slid down his cheeks, but before Seifer could think of how his child could be saved, the heartbeat faded into silence.

Pressing his face against Squall's throat, Seifer choked on the sobs that wanted to escape his chest, but that wasn't enough for the pain to escape his body.  His eyes blinded by tears and his hand soaked in the blood of two lives, Seifer began to scream...


A scream of despair caught in his throat, Seifer woke into darkness and found it impossible to breathe.  Panicked and uncoordinated, the large blond fought against clinging sheets and fumbled his way into a sitting position before promptly placing his head between bent knees as nausea threatened to get the better of him.  Digging his hands into sweat-dampened hair, Seifer forced deep breaths in an attempt to calm his racing heart and only partly noticed the sluggish movement from the corner of his eye.

"Seifer..." Squall complained drowsily.  "What are you doing?"

The blond lord lifted his head at the question, but couldn't find his voice as he looked at the sorcerer's face.  Chestnut hair was messed from sleep, blue-gray eyes were dark with dilated pupils, and full lips were soft in contrast to the typical tight line of displeasure...  Seifer couldn't remember another time when Squall had looked so beautiful.  He reached over and grabbed a slim wrist to encourage the man into sitting, and when Squall resisted, Seifer whispered a broken 'please' that made the dark-haired man frown before cautiously pushing himself up from the mattress.  The larger man promptly wrapped his arms around the living and breathing sorcerer, but as he buried his face into the long neck, Seifer swore he could still detect the smell of ash and blood on the former prince.

After a startled moment, Squall sighed deeply as he placed a careful hand at the lord's back.  "What did you dream, Seifer?"

A sound escaped the blond, something between a laugh and a sob as he held the sorcerer tighter.  "Hyne, how can you know everything?"

"It's impossible to know everything, but I do know what it's like to be caught in a nightmare."

Seifer frowned as he considered the types of dreams that could have plagued the already tormented prince, but that line of thought quickly brought back the images of Squall cradling their murdered son.  "Hyne, I need to see Ander," he said as he pulled away from the smaller man, but Squall held the blond in place.

"Do you realize what time of night it is?  You know that all of this traveling has left Leander overexcited.  Tonight alone it nearly took me an hour to help him to sleep and now you want to wake him?"

"I won't wake him, I promise.  I just... Can I please see my son?"

A skeptical eyebrow raised, Squall stared at the blond for a long moment before releasing a deep sigh of surrender.  "All right, but I'm going with you."

Seifer grinned weakly at being given permission to be with his own son, but as the dark-haired sorcerer removed the sheets from his body, the lord's smile fell away at the sight of the small curve to the man's stomach that was visible beneath the warm nightshirt.  Leaning forward before the brunet could escape, Seifer wrapped his arms around the smaller man and placed a hand at the noticeable lump.  His skin rough against the soft fabric of the brunet's sleepwear, the lord pressed his forehead against the sorcerer's shoulder and whispered an apology under his breath.

A chilled hand rested on top of his, Squall's voice uniquely calming when he said, "Don't apologize for your dreams."

Seifer shook his head lightly.  "Dream or not, I did horrible things."

"... I'm too tired for this.  Do you want to see your son or not?"

With a bitter smile, the blond lord released his hold despite his hunger for an offer of comfort from the icy-eyed sorcerer.  He knew it was asking too much from the pragmatic man, but Seifer couldn't prevent the envy he felt towards his son, Leander being the constant focus of the sorcerer's doting attention.  It was proof that Squall was capable of love in his own quiet fashion and the lord desperately wanted that love.  Silently watching the brunet slip off the mattress and stretch sore muscles, Seifer reminded himself that patience had thus far brought the difficult man into his arms.  The heart couldn't be too far behind.

Squall turned slightly, his blue-gray eyes cold in the moonlight as a dark eyebrow rose in question.

Acknowledging the brunet with a nod, Seifer moved from the mattress and his mind too quickly drifted back to the images of his dream.  His chest tightened as he remembered the smell of young blood and the sight of Leander's limp body, and with thoughts of Squall momentarily pushed aside, Seifer walked passed the silent sorcerer.  Forced to keep his steps quiet, the large blond couldn't move with the speed he desired, but fortunately their hosts had provided them with a large suite that included a connecting room for the young lord.

Seifer entered the room silently, but slowed his step once he set his eyes on the dark-haired boy curled at the edge of the bed, sleeping as close as possible to the fireplace lit with red coals.  Beneath a thick quilt, Leander appeared small and fragile as he slept with the innocence reserved for children.  The lord's lips twitched into a loving smile, an expression that was quick to fade as he knelt next to the bed and placed his scarred hand on top of his son's loose fist.  He lightly squeezed the heated hand and pressed a gentle kiss against the fingertips that peaked out from his hold.

"He's beautiful, isn't he?" Seifer said softly as he felt the presence of the sorcerer behind him without ever hearing the man's steps.  "It's hard to believe that I had anything to do with creating him."

"Do you question it?" Squall asked in an unreadable tone.

"No, I can see myself in his eyes and sometimes I like to think that I can feel that parent-child bond you've told me about.  But after all of these years, even if I were to learn that my blood doesn't run through his veins, Leander is still my son and no one will take him from me without a fight.  Not even you," Seifer declared in a quiet but firm voice, and then barely caught himself as his hand fisted too strongly around small fingers.  Leander whined irritably, but didn't wake as he rolled onto his back and return to deeper sleep.

Squall sighed in annoyance, a silent reminder that he didn't want the boy wakened.  "Leander loves you.  He never wanted to leave you."

"He's a child and doesn't know any better," Seifer said as he lifted his free hand to brush aside thick strands of hair from the boy's forehead.  Lightly cupping his hand at the side of the young face, the lord stared down at a faded scar line that could hardly be seen in the dim lighting of the room.  There were terrible memories associated with that scar, a past he wanted more than anything to keep from the child's birth parent, but with the aftereffects of his dream taunting him with dark images of his bleeding son and lover, Seifer had the sadistic need to reveal his darker secrets to the soft-spoken servant.  "Did Ward ever tell you how Leander got this scar?"

"The one at his hairline?" Squall asked with mild curiosity.  "Should I assume that it's not one of his normal scrapes and bumps?"

Seifer didn't reply directly, his eyes the color of dull jade as he thought about the past.  "He was young when he got it, maybe a few months after his first birthday, and it's my fault that he got hurt.  It's my fault that he has this scar."

"... Perhaps this is something we should discuss elsewhere."

The tall lord closed his eyes in silent pain at the low voice.  The quiet tenor sounded too much like the desperate man who had lain broken and bleeding on his bed, demanding that no healer was to be summoned.  Months of coaxing the dark-haired beauty into his bed and into his arms had gone to waste with a few short words, but Seifer didn't regret speaking the truth.  Reopening his eyes, he gazed down at his sleeping son and smiled fondly before pressing a light kiss against the pale scar.

With a lingering touch, Seifer pulled back his hand from soft skin and reluctantly pushed himself up from the ground.  Once he managed to step away from the bed and turn around, Seifer met the hard gaze of the sorcerer and motioned a hand forward in a sign that Squall should go first.  The brunet crossed his arms over his chest before exiting the small room, Seifer then following the man's silent footsteps across the hard stone floor.

Returning to their shared room, Seifer couldn't bring himself to move further than the closed door.  His hand still wrapped around the chilled doorknob, he leaned back against the heavy wood and watched with wary eyes as Squall moved to the foot of the bed.  Arms still crossed, the dark-haired sorcerer sat on the edge of the plush mattress before meeting Seifer's gaze.  Without a spoken word, Squall made it very clear to the lord that he wanted to know every detail about the scar that was somehow different from the numerous other cuts and bruises Leander had gained in his short lifespan.

"I don't want you to hate me again," Seifer eventually said in a soft tone, resisting the instinct to look away from eyes of sharp sapphire.  "But tonight I dreamed... something terrible and it made me remember the past, a past I would much rather keep from you.  And yet, you already know what I was.  I don't know why I bother trying to pretend that the past can be forgotten."

"People who forget the past without learning from it are cowards," Squall said tiredly, his head bowed and eyes hidden beneath dark chestnut.  "And you are no coward."

Startled by the plainly worded praise, Seifer stared at his difficult lover for a lasting moment and tried to convince himself that he wasn't silently saying his goodbye to the man.  "I was drunk," the lord began, his eyes never leaving the face of the dark-haired sorcerer.  "I don't remember the exact reason why, but I had managed to drink myself to a dangerous state and was unceremoniously kicked out of the last tavern that would have me.  Irritated and drunk, I returned home and somehow stumbled to my chambers without waking the entire household, but once I tried to go to bed, I found him..."

Seifer breathed a laugh before continuing, "You would've been proud - Ander was maybe a year and half old and not only had he managed to escape his crib, but he had crawled the entire way to my room and sat there for probably hours waiting for me.  At least, the smell of his diapers made it obvious that he had been there a long time.  I remember being so mad that he had soiled himself, and when he set eyes on me, of course he began crying.  I yelled at him, but my agitation only made him cry louder.  And before I knew what I was doing... I hit him."

Squall lifted his head, his eyes wide open and his lips parted in a rare display of shock.

His hands fisted at his sides, Seifer resumed the story with forced words.  "I've never heard silence like I did after that moment.  I had hit Leander so hard that he had bounced and I don't think he was breathing for those silent seconds, but when he could find the air, he screamed...  It wasn't long before Ward barged into my room.  I don't know what he was expecting to see, but he went directly to Leander and gathered the boy into his arms.  Leander was so tiny compared to that barbarian and I could see the blood sliding down his face and I... I did nothing while Ward took him away from me," Seifer ended in a voice no louder than a whisper.

The pale-eyed sorcerer stared at the large man, the wide-eyed expression of surprise already faded to a stoic facade that the lord feared more than the outrage he had anticipated.  Unable to detect a twitch of emotion in the brunet's face, Seifer couldn't guess the progress of the man's inner thoughts.  Squall could have been planning a slow, torturous execution for the blond as easily as he could have been considering a midnight snack, and the inability to prepare for his immediate fate put Seifer on edge.  He wanted to apologize and to say that he never deserved Leander, but in the end, Squall knew that truth and it would have been a waste of words.

Eventually done with his silent thoughts, Squall let his arms slip out from their crossed hold and fall such that one arm rested loosely around his waist.  In a pensive tone, the sorcerer asked simply, "Is that what convinced you to stop drinking?"

"Huh...?" Seifer replied distractedly, uncertain how to handle the pragmatic question from the brunet, the same man who had nearly killed him weeks earlier for slicing his stomach and endangering their unborn child during their last spar.

"It's a simple question, Seifer."

"I... I never intentionally made that choice," the lord admitted as he ran a rough hand back through short strands of golden hair.  "I couldn't look at alcohol without remembering his crying face and the sound of his scream.  Unable to drink anything intoxicating and being sober for a change, I eventually realized that I had been treating Leander like a stray dog taken off the streets and that I had never held the boy as my son.  I don't know how I did it, but I managed to convince Ward and Matron to let me see Ander and to hold him.  It must have been a good hour before Matron made me hand him back to her and I got my first lesson about diapers... Hyne, I don't know how those tiny things can make such foul-smelling shit."

Without offering his own ideas about the difficulties of caring for infants, Squall glanced downward in pensive consideration, his thoughts guarded behind the shine of metallic blue eyes.

"I'm not asking for anything here, Squall," the large blond eventually stated with a weak smile, unable to stay quiet in his anxious state.  "The only reason that I'm telling you this is because I've seen you watching Ander and me and I know what you're thinking, that I make a decent father.  But I can't live with the lie that I've always been a good father to him.  In fact, I wouldn't say that I was Ander's father until the day I first held him and I... I wanted you to know the truth from me before someone else decided to warn you, especially when our second child is on the way."

"I appreciate that," Squall stated slowly as he lifted his head, but didn't look at the lord.  "It's disappointing to hear, but I knew what type of man you were before I left Leander in your care.  More than anything else, I knew what you could become when you drink too much."

Pressing back against the door, Seifer couldn't prevent the small shivers that coursed through his body.  He still had no memory of the night he had taken the dark-haired sorcerer, which meant that he had probably indulged in even more alcohol than the night when he had hurt his son and heir, a night that continued to plague his occasional nightmares.

"Do you know when I first spoke to Leander?"

Surprised by the question, Seifer looked up to find the sorcerer's gaze focused on him.  "I... Sorry, but all I know is that you started working here when Ander was about three.  Ward mentioned how you kept Ander from running away around then."

Squall smiled lightly, his eyes unusually warm.  "That was the time.  Your father had died and you were forced to spend time in the capitol while settling the arrangements of your inherited estate.  You were gone for months and Leander was heartsick for the only parent he knew, so he decided to look for you.  It was by chance that I saw him leaving the manor with a little bag filled with his necessities - a stuffed toy, a piece of cake wrapped in a napkin, and, of all the things, a small silver flask filled with water."

With a slight wince, Seifer admitted, "I gave him that flask.  When I stopped drinking, I didn't have a use for it and he seemed to like how shiny it was."

"Hn, I can imagine.  In any case, I decided to follow him and make certain that he would be safe.  I was surprised when he walked a good three miles before he tired out and he would've gone farther if his little body would have allowed it.  He wanted to see you, he wanted his father that badly."  Squall leaned back against the bed in a relaxed pose.  "He loves you, Seifer.  Obviously you've done something right despite your wrongs."

His chest sore with relief, Seifer moved away from the door and stepped closer to the former prince.  With each step forward, he feared that Squall's expression would change to something cold and unforgiving, or worse, that the sorcerer would abruptly disappear like he had the year previous.  But the servant patiently waited for the lord to approach, his eyes as calm as twin ponds recently freed of winter ice.

Standing directly in front of the smaller man, Seifer reached out and brushed aside dark locks of hair from Squall's forehead.  "Why...?  You should hate me right now."

"I'm the one who left him and didn't return for three years.  I ran away, and for that crime, I have no right to blame you for those years when I had deserted my son.  But if I had returned and found Leander unhappy, I was prepared to take him from you."

"You still could have taken him.  You sacrificed so much more for his chance at life."

"I considered it more than once," Squall admitted as leaned into the lord's warm hand.  "But Leander would have hated me if I chose to steal him from you and his hate would have destroyed me."

"Hyne, Squall, don't say that," Seifer stated hoarsely as he pressed his lips against the man's temple.  "That kid could never hate you, especially now that he knows who you are."

Squall said nothing, the brunet's silence encouraging the lord to continue placing light kisses against pale skin in an attempt to soothe the sorcerer.  With each kiss a little lower, a little harder, Seifer trailed down the side of the lovely face until reaching the corner of full lips.  Silent to that point, Squall startled the blond when he asked a simple question -

"What did you dream?"

Seifer leaned back sharply, but didn't move very far given the unrealized fact that his arms were wrapped around the brunet's waist.  He stared deep into pale eyes that were too old, too wise for a man in his twenties, and found that he couldn't speak a single word.

Squall placed a chilled hand the back of the lord's neck and squeezed lightly.  "You don't have to tell me anything, but when I woke and saw the fear in your eyes... I want to help you, but there's nothing I can do without understanding what you dreamed."

Green eyes widened further in disbelief.  "You want to... comfort me?"

"Is that so strange?"

Pale lips twitched into an almost smile, Seifer immediately hiding his face against the sorcerer's long neck before Squall could see his expression become something completely ridiculous.  "You're an impossible man, Squall Leonhart.  Am I ever going to be able to predict what you'll do next?"

"If you don't want my help--"

"It was about the Massacre," Seifer interrupted before the brunet could withdraw his offer.  "I don't want to go into detail, not tonight, but I... Without hesitation or thought, I murdered you and Leander for being sorcerers."

Squall tensed at the admission, but didn't retreat from the former soldier.

"I'm so sorry, Squall.  I don't know why I did it.  You were even pregnant, but I didn't believe you when you said it was mine.  I had to kill you and I didn't realize until afterward that I was wrong.  I had been so wrong."

Using his hand on the thick neck, Squall forced the taller man to lean back and meet his serious gaze.  "It was a dream born from tension and anxiety, nothing more and nothing less.  And I imagine that with us moving further east and closer to the coast, you have spent too much time remembering the days of the Massacre."

"But I had your blood on my hands."

"I know," the dark-haired man said soothingly as he strengthened the grip of his hand.  "But you have to realize that the blood in your dreams isn't real.  While it has the same color and the same smell, it will never have the warmth of life like true blood."

Seifer stared down at the brunet, stunned by the words of advice.

"Don't be so surprised.  For many years, I dreamt that I was the one to behead my father and rip the heart out from my uncle's chest.  It took me a long time to learn the difference between reality and my nightmares."

"Fucking Hyne," Seifer said as he pressed his forehead against Squall's.  "How can you possibly be sane after everything you've lived through?"

"I succumbed to madness once.  It did nothing except to tear new wounds in my soul."

There were no words to offer as Seifer stood in place, thinking about their spar over a month back when the life of their unborn child had been threatened.  Blue-gray eyes had glimmered with the shine of promised death, an expression void of humanity that Seifer hadn't seen in his lifetime, let alone from the mother of their son.  Recalling that moment, it was no surprise to learn that madness lurked beneath the surface of the former prince, insanity controlled by nothing more than an unbreakable will.  And as he pressed closer, Seifer was overcome by the respect he felt for the incredibly dangerous man in his arms.

"Thank you," Seifer whispered as he kissed a dark brow.  "Thank you for everything."

"Whatever," Squall stated with a vague shrug.

The lord couldn't hold back a smile at the lack of absolute coldness toward the expression of gratitude, but words were never enough for the blond.  He kissed the scar that cut between eyes of pale sapphire, and then dipped lower to take plush lips into a chaste kiss, one promptly ruined by a yawn from the shorter man.

Laughing lightly, Seifer pulled back with a fond smile.  "Hyne, I'm hopeless.  First I wake you and then I prevent you from going back to sleep.  Why do you put up with me?"

"Because you won't leave me alone," Squall replied in a dull tone as he pushed the larger man aside.

Seifer released his hold at the silent demand and watched as the dark-haired beauty stepped around the bed before crawling onto his side of the mattress.  The blond lord followed suit and slid under the sheets that had cooled in the short period they had spent out of bed.  Ignoring the likely chance of irritating the servant, Seifer reached out and pulled the smaller man close such that he could comfortably press his nose against dark chestnut hair.

Though initially growling at the selfish move, Squall sighed deeply and settled against the hard body.  "Will you be able to sleep tonight?"

"Doubt it," Seifer replied honestly, and as his hand drifted to the sorcerer's stomach, he added, "Would you mind if I held you like this tonight?"

"Better me than Leander," was the muttered reply.

The intuitive response brought a soft smile to the lord's lips, Seifer fairly certain that he would have indeed snuck into Leander's room if Squall had denied him the contact he sorely needed.

In short time, the exhausted sorcerer fell directly asleep, leaving Seifer to his thoughts and memories.  Too afraid to close his eyes for longer than a few heartbeats, Seifer gazed at the fireplace and the embers that glowed bright red.  It reminded him of the burning city during the Massacre, but the haunting memories of that night felt hollow compared to the silent suffering of the man held in his arms.  He had promised to spoil the former prince and make things better, but Seifer felt daunted by the realization that he had made an impossible pledge.  There was too much pain, too much loss.  And despite all of that, Squall had the strength to console Seifer over a single nightmare compared the sorcerer's years of unforgiving dreams.

A soft sigh abruptly sounded as Squall stretched back against the larger man and placed a hand on top of Seifer's.

The unconscious act made Seifer smile as he pressed a kiss against dark hair and whispered, "One day I'll have you figured out, my Prince.  But until then, you can continue surprising me like this."


Though late into the afternoon, the temperature hadn't warmed far above freezing in the northern forests that lined the foothills of daunting mountains.  Bundled in coats made of soft leather and lined with fur, Seifer and Squall walked side by side with their son leading the way, Leander professing that he wasn't tired enough to be carried.  The warmth and comfort of the last city had been left behind along with the entire entourage that had been essential during their visits with several families of high status.  Seifer didn't like the fact that they were forced to travel alone, but he also understood the necessity.  The Shumi were private creatures and the sight of too many humans would lead them to attack or hide, neither option helpful in the mission of gaining their aid.  Unfortunately, horses were also out of the question, the animals overly skittish when it came to the sight and smell of Shumi.  But with every mile covered, Seifer felt increasingly irritated that his young son and pregnant lover were forced to walk through snow and ice, especially when there was no guarantee that the Shumi would fight against the Emperor.

"You're growling again," Squall commented lightly.

"Can you blame me?  Ander has never walked this far before and I know perfectly well that you won't admit to feeling tired or sore.  I don't know why I let you talk me into traveling during the winter," Seifer complained as he adjusted his pack, the bag heavy with all of Leander's items in addition to his own.

"Because we both couldn't afford to wait any longer.  Your alliances won't be loyal forever and Ultimecia will eventually decide to be serious with her attempts to destroy you and your family name."

Seifer sneered with annoyance, not in the mood to follow logic and reasoning.  "It's been a decade since the Massacre.  This could have waited another year."

"You're wrong," Squall said plainly, his hand then moving to rub his stomach, the lump poorly hidden beneath his winter coat.  "And I would prefer this child being born into a world that was a little bit safer."

The blond lord stared at the sorcerer, mildly surprised that the man had considered their child when choosing to visit the Shumi sooner than later.  Seifer had assumed the burdens of pregnancy was the only factor in Squall's decision, something that was logical considering the pride of the skilled swordsman.  But to hear the words that the man was concerned for their second child, Seifer felt great relief that the unborn one was indeed loved by its mother, not only by blind instinct, but in considerate thought as well.

"Daddy, Daddy, what's that?"

Seifer fixed his gaze on his curious son, surprised by how far the boy had traveled ahead.  Green eyes then drifted in the direction where Leander was pointing, focusing on the center of a large tree where a patch of bark had been ripped free, the deep groves in wood suggestive of unforgiving claws.  More worrisome, however, was the rust-colored stain visible against the pale innards of the darkly colored tree.

"Leander, stay close," Squall scolded as he walked up to the young boy and placed a hand at his shoulder.

"Is there something to be concerned about?" Seifer asked as his hand settled on the hilt of Hyperion.

"We're entering the Shumi's territory.  While we will be safe within their village, we have to arrive there first."

The former soldier grunted out his understanding while examining the faded streaks of blood against pale wood.  "Is it human?"

Squall glanced over his shoulder and smiled lightly in reply, the dark gleam to stormy eyes reminding Seifer of another time when the sorcerer had mentioned that the Shumi believed the blood of an enemy was sweetest when fresh.

After directing a final glance to the scarred tree, Seifer joined the two dark-haired sorcerers as Squall ushered their son forward into Shumi territory.  As if unconcerned about his own warnings, Squall spoke in a calm voice to Leander while describing the storytelling nature of the wind.  While no longer deaf to the elements, the young sorcerer had trouble understanding the words of the air and fire.  The earth had its own words as well, but according to Squall, the aged element could spend a year finishing a single sentence.  Remembering a lesson weeks past, Seifer couldn't prevent a smile at the memory of the brunet describing in a bored tone that the earth had nothing of interest to say to make it worth a patient sorcerer's time.

The afternoon grew later as they traveled deeper into uncharted territory, Seifer silently hoping that the former prince knew where he was going whenever the man would change their direction further north and occasionally east.  Given the decreasing amount of light, they would be forced to find a place to camp at some point, a reality that irritated the blond since he hadn't wanted his young son to sleep on snow.  A growl rumbling in his throat, Seifer struggled to silence his complaints, many of which Squall had already heard and declared nonsense since they first set out that morning.

Then Squall flinched.  Without a spoken word of question, Seifer dropped his pack and unsheathed his blade in the same moment that the dark-haired servant jerked Leander close and used his free arm to shield the young boy.  Seifer eyed the forest around them, seeing nothing for the length of several quick heartbeats until shadows took the shape of beasts that should not have been able to hide in the sparse covering of trees and snow covered bushes.

Fur colored with the same intense hues of fire stood out from the winter landscape as four cat-like creatures walked soundlessly on hind legs and approached without concern for the wide blade pointed in their direction.  Holding his ground, Seifer studied the infamous monsters known as the 'Shumi', surprised to discover that the felines wore various bits of leather belts and metal decorations on their bodies.  All of the beasts carried blades of some design, some small knifes while one wore a curved blade at his back.  The need for those blades, however, appeared unwarranted given the dark claws that stood out from immense paw-like hands.

"You saw the warning sign."

Green eyes widened in shock at the language of humans being spoken in the rumbling voice of the Shumi, but then the meaning of those words promptly wiped away that surprise and Seifer tightened his grip on Hyperion.  As implied by the cat, they had continued walking despite the warning of the scarred tree and it appeared that the Shumi were very prepared to deal with trespassers.

"Of course we saw it," Squall unexpectedly spoke out with a scoff.  "But it loses its meaning when you use rabbit's blood."

While surprised by that revelation, Seifer resisted the urge to look back at the sorcerer.  His lips twisting into a disbelieving smirk, the lord was impressed that the stern man had effortlessly tricked him into believing that human blood had been smeared on the tree.  But even more interesting was Squall's tone toward the dangerous beasts.  It was oddly similar to the teaching voice the sorcerer would use during the lessons Leander didn't particularly want to learn no matter their importance.

The largest Shumi and the apparent leader of the group took a step forward while focusing narrowed yellow eyes on Squall.  "Should we use your blood, human?"

"Don't make threats beyond your abilities, cub," Squall countered in a bored tone.  "All I want is for you to fetch Kasir for me.  And I suggest that you do it quickly."

The other Shumi immediately whispered amongst themselves, halting once the leader snapped its teeth in their direction.  Returning his attention to the brunet, the large feline asked lowly, "Who are you to ask for our H'rugur?"

Irritated by the condescending tone of the overgrown cat, Seifer replied for his lover.  "Don't you know the face of Squall Leonhart, the Sorcerer Prince?"

Silence fell for a few short seconds before roaring laughter nearly deafened the blond lord.  Three of the large beasts had their mouths opened wide in amusement, long teeth appearing white and sharp compared to their dark lulling tongues.  The remaining Shumi standing behind the others grinned with some humor, but it didn't take part in the open laughter of the other felines.  Instead, amber eyes shifted to the silent brunet and remained there in unspoken thought.

"Squall Leonhart?" the leader asked with a lingering chuckle and a stubby finger pointed in the man's direction.  "You say he is the Leonhart our tribe trained and named?"

Seifer scowled at the cocky feline without answering, bewildered as to why the Shumi wouldn't recognize the former prince.

The smallest of the group decided to speak up, its words heavily accented compared to his leader.  "Leonhart is war'er tall like H'rugur and magic'er who kill wit finger.  That h'man is small like youn' and made of sticks and fat belly.  His death not good when Leonhart gets 'im."

With a breathed laugh, Seifer glanced over his shoulder and commented, "They don't think you're Leonhart."

Squall frowned in his typical irritated fashion and muttered a curse toward useless myths and gossiping females.  To the group of Shumi, he then said, "I don't care what you believe.  I have asked for Kasir and you must honor my request.  If I'm the impostor you think I am, I will die by his hands."

A shadow of uncertainty crossed the furry face of the leader, a low growl emitting from its mouth instead of words.  Eventually the feline furthest back pushed up from its position and turned its back to the confrontation between human and Shumi.  It made noises between roars and almost understandable words to its partners, only the mention of 'Kasir' assuring the blond lord that the Shumi Squall wanted to meet was about to be fetched.  However, by the gleam in the leader's yellow eyes, Seifer wasn't too certain if the remaining three cats had the patience to wait quietly.

Seifer stepped back a pace to stand closer to the sorcerer and asked quietly, "Why don't they recognize you?"

"I'll explain later.  Just know that they are young and reckless," Squall replied as he bent down and placed a hand on top of his son's head.  "Leander, it's time for you to perform that barrier spell I taught you.  Close your eyes and stay here until your father or I approach you.  Do you understand?"

The inexperienced boy nodded shakily before kneeling down onto the snowy ground.  "Will they hurt us?"

"No, lion cub.  They just don't know who we are yet."

While not wholly appeased by that assurance, Leander didn't argue before holding out his mitten-covered hands.  Seifer watched proudly as the seven-year-old child summoned his pale staff despite the tense situation.  Small hands wrapped tightly around the young core and Leander closed his eyes before he muttered something under his breath.  A few of the symbols glowed with a greenish-yellow light and Seifer could feel the air stir as the invisible element surrounded the child sorcerer.

"He'll be safe," Squall commented, his words followed by the ring of an unsheathed blade.

Green eyes narrowed on the dark-haired servant, Seifer not pleased at the sight of the blade that he had purchased for the sorcerer given the man's difficulty in summoning his own blade.  "What do you think you're doing?"

"They insulted me," he replied, his cold azure eyes glancing at the lord in a silent challenge to keep him from taking his revenge.

With a sigh of surrender, Seifer commented hopefully, "They haven't attacked yet."

"They will.  And I would appreciate it if you wouldn't kill any of them."

The large blond smirked as he redirected his attention to the overgrown cats and noted the way their long tails flicked with anticipation as bright eyes watched movement of raised swords.  "I'll try to hold back, but I won't make any promises if one of them hurts you or Ander."

"I wouldn't expect anything less."

The leader of the small group of Shumi stepped forward, its voice underlined with a purr when saying, "Put down your blades, humans.  We could get the wrong idea."

"I know your games and we won't stand here defenseless," Squall replied as he settled into a fighting stance.  "If you want to prove yourself to Kasir, I suggest making your move before he arrives."

Sharp teeth bared in anger, the Shumi's purr changed into a low growl.  "You ask for death, we will give you death."

The leader barked something back at its partners, the cats flashing their teeth in excited grins that reminded Seifer of hungry Ravages.  The smallest of the group stepped in Squall's direction while the other two walked toward larger prey.  Seifer nearly laughed at the Shumi's assumption that the dark-haired man would be the easier kill, but the lord was grateful for the chance to fight without fearing for the life of his lover.  Hyperion pulled back to his side, Seifer lifted a gloved hand and coaxed his furry opponents closer.

It was no surprise that the leader was the first to lunge forward, Seifer easily dodging the paw of a hand that swiped at his face and throat.  However, the speed of the second Shumi that followed its leader's attack was unexpected and Seifer failed to knock aside the arm of slender muscles before he had gained the first hole in his winter coat.  Knowing better than to let anger overcome his actions too early in a battle, the blond lord fell into a defensive rhythm as he dodged and parried the long-reaching attacks of the large felines.  While accustomed to his fights with Fuujin and Raijin, Seifer immediately recognized that his friends' ability to attack together would never compare to the seamless grace of the two Shumi who managed to strike within seconds of each other and never tangled in between.  More so, the agile cats didn't limit their attacks with their large paws, but used their entire body in the fight, something Seifer had encountered only once before against a tribe in the far south.

Despite the skill of his opponents, Seifer was able to match the graceful dance of the Shumi with something rather clumsy, but effective against the thrashing of teeth and long reach of thick claws.  Green eyes were hard and bright after every blocked attack, the former soldier looking for any opening that he could use in an attempt of a successful offense.  Nothing seemed obvious at first, but the initial skill of the Shumi slowly gave away to inexperience.  Once graceful maneuvers gave away to more desperate and less coordinated attacks as they grew frustrated with the length of the fight against a 'mere' human.  Smirking at his own memories of being a kid unable to defeat his elderly instructors, Seifer jumped back several paces and lowered Hyperion to give an opening that the felines desired.  Again, the leader was the first to move, the lunging cat too anxious for the kill as its feet didn't gain the proper purchase on slick snow.  Prepared for the expected mistake, Seifer dashed toward the unbalanced feline and swung Hyperion forward with its hilt in the lead.  The heavy pommel landed square at the underside of the Shumi's small snout and the shatter of bone could be heard just before the feline yowled in pain.

Dodging the blind swipe of a heavy paw, Seifer raised Hyperion to chest level and grinned at the other feline that had gained a stunned expression as it watched its leader collapse onto the ground.  Paw-like hands flexed in a display of dark claws, but the standing Shumi didn't immediately attack as it studied his prey with a cautious light to yellow eyes.  Unbothered with his remaining opponent, Seifer glanced in Squall's direction and smiled lightly at the utterly befuddled expression of the Shumi who had blood-matted fur in all areas, but no serious injury that Seifer could identify.  It was obvious that Squall was making the cat pay for commenting on his 'fat belly'.

Though looking at his lover, Seifer's attention was hardly diverted, a fact his opponent didn't consider as the Shumi took the opportunity to catch the blond unaware.  Seifer didn't bother to shift his eyes while dodging the overly cautious attack, but as the furry arm pulled back, the swordsman flicked his wrist such that Hyperion sliced the top of a stubby finger and efficiently removed a dark claw.  The Shumi barked in pain, but the wounding served to reignite the feline's desire to fight.  Attacking with paws spread wide, the beast pressed forward against the slightly shorter human.  Seifer laughed at the rage of the overgrown cat, and though he gained a few additional holes in his coat for some careless mocking of the Shumi, the former soldier gained easy control over their fight and manage to lead his opponent toward tall trees.

With a few slow dodges to coax his cat into thinking he was tiring, Seifer stepped back and lowered his blade just enough to goad the beast into lunging.  Amber eyes bright and teeth bared, the Shumi pounced with its full attention on the human and the thought of victory.  Seifer smirked as he used the snow underfoot to slide and turn out of the way, allowing the Shumi to head face first into the trunk of a dark tree.  While the feline barely caught itself from real damage, Seifer promptly grabbed onto the lengthy red fur at the Shumi's head and proceeded to pound its face against the unforgiving bark.

Once the cat went limp in his hold, Seifer dumped the unconscious creature to the side before turning around to see how his lover was fairing.  The lord's easy smile immediately fell the moment green eyes took in the sight of the injured leader, the Shumi unexpectedly standing and stumbling toward the sorcerer who was busy tormenting his opponent.  As Hyperion was dropped in thoughtless surprise, Seifer sprinted toward the slinking feline, and though the Shumi got within a step of the oblivious brunet, its paw spread wide and dark claws exposed, Seifer tackled the beast before it touched the lithe body.

The two large forms crashed into snow, but with the Shumi caught unprepared, Seifer easily gained the dominate position and promptly raised to his knees before landing his first punch against the side of the feline's face.  Uncaring of the teeth that cut against his knuckles, Seifer threw punch after punch, only pausing in the assault when the Shumi blindly clawed at the face of the blond.  With only a minor scratch scored against his cheek, Seifer pinned the arm against the cold-hardened ground and punched directly at the underside of the exposed elbow, succeeding in breaking the joint.  Satisfied at preventing future interruptions, Seifer returned to pummeling the cat's already abused face.

"Seifer..."

Hearing his name, but choosing to ignore the voice of the only person who could stop him, Seifer continued his assault until a strong hand wrapped around his wrist and interrupted his rhythm in such a fashion that the blond lord nearly fell onto his side.

"Enough, Seifer.  He's not worth killing."

Green eyes bright in feverish rage, Seifer stared up at the serious expression of the sorcerer and couldn't comprehend why Squall wouldn't let him destroy the creature that had wanted their death.  "He was going to hurt you."

Full lips curled into a slight smirk.  "I know," he replied with a nod of his head in the direction behind Seifer.

Turning as best he could, the lord looked downward and was startled to notice that frost almost completely covered the Shumi's leg.  That surprise slowly faded, however, as Seifer breathed a laugh at himself for thinking that anyone, human or otherwise, could have succeeded with a sneak attack against the infamous Sorcerer Prince.  Worse, by tackling the Shumi and lifting him off the ground, Seifer had broken the freezing spell and had probably saved the beast's worthless life.

"Sorry for ruining your kill," Seifer apologized with a smirk and his eyes still focused on ice-covered fur.  "But I thought that you couldn't use magic in your current state."

"I'm not helpless, idiot.  It's just harder than usual to connect with the elements."

Lifting his gaze back to the dark-haired beauty, Seifer noticed how his entrapped hand was torn and bleeding through his dark glove, not to mention the mess left from his assault on the Shumi.  Not wanting to get his blood on the brunet, he attempted to pull away, but Squall didn't allow the arm to slip through his fingers.  Instead, the servant tightened his hold and bent down to place a gentle kiss against the hand wet with blood.  Seifer instantly felt the cold energy that caressed his wounds, and though he knew Irvine had forbidden the sorcerer from using healing magic, the lord couldn't bring himself to forcefully take back his hand.  He could only hope that the strict healer wouldn't blame him for being weak under the spell of his lover.

"See?  Not helpless," Squall stated softly, his eyes of blue-gray bright beneath dark lashes.

"Not in the least," Seifer agreed, and then dully remembered that Squall had been in the middle of his own fight only moments earlier.  Glancing behind the slender man, the blond smirked with pride when he saw state of the smaller Shumi: semi-conscious and pinned to the ground with Squall's sword pierced through his shoulder, the feline had learned its lesson about insulting the former prince.  "Well, that looks familiar.  Taking lessons from me?"

Scoffing, Squall let the healed hand slip out from his hold.  "You were lucky I didn't kill you that night.  You were wide open."

"I'm not the only one who was lucky that you let me live."

Though a dark eyebrow lifted in an incredulous arc, Squall didn't argue the point that many things had happened since the night when Seifer had learned the servant's true identity.  However, he also didn't comment on whether or not those events had anything to do with good fortune, but judging by the slight smirk of full lips, Squall was of the opinion that the blond lord wasn't quite the curse he first believed.

Matching that smirk, Seifer pushed up from the unconscious Shumi he had been sitting on, but before he regained his balance, Squall had already turned and walked off in the direction of Leander.  The boy still had his eyes squeezed tightly shut, his pale staff held between mitten-covered hands.  At the first touch of Squall's hand against the invisible shield, Leander snapped open his eyelids and stared up with an anxious expression.  Squall smiled down at the boy, the calming sight causing Leander to smile weakly in return before he released the barrier of wind.  Snow flew up at the abrupt ending of the spell, Leander promptly standing and wrapping his arms around the sorcerer's waist.

"You did very well, lion cub," Squall murmured as he brushed snow from dark hair.

Leander didn't respond, his face buried in the heavy coat that bore spots of fresh blood.

Seifer smiled at the sight of his lover comforting the boy who had seen a few too many teeth in his young life.  Over the past month, Squall had lost much of his awkward tension around the boy whenever Leander treated the man more like a parent instead of a trusted friend.  And though Seifer knew a few weeks meant nothing compared to years of living in the shadows, he hoped that the tormented spirit of the sorcerer was slowly healing with the attention of their son.

"Hrekka gie Ifurit, are any of these fools still breathing?"

Startled by the baritone voice, Seifer immediately reached downward in the reflex to retrieve his sword, but touching his empty scabbard, the lord dully remembered that he had dropped his faithful blade several yards away.  His defenseless state, however, didn't seem to matter when he noticed the fond smile of the stoic brunet.

"Kasir.  I hope you weren't the one to train these cubs."

At the name of the one Squall had wanted to see, Seifer turned to see the approach of a single, very large Shumi that had a surprisingly light step in the snow-crusted forest.  Over a head taller than the other felines they had dealt with, 'Kasir' was obviously a creature born to kill - its entire body was firm with slender muscle, it exuded a quiet confidence with its white fangs slipping over smirking dark lips, and its thick coat of fur was the bright color of fresh blood.  And as Seifer gazed up into the poisonous green eyes that shone in the late afternoon light, he felt his chest constrict as he realized that Kasir fit the image of the monster in his childhood nightmares, a demon that his father had described in many dark tales about the infamous Shumi, beasts who snacked on the bones of misbehaving children and idiot soldiers.

Before Seifer could gather his wits, Squall gently pulled Leander aside and approached the looming form of the impressive Shumi.  Undeterred by the smile of far too many pointed teeth and the flex of biceps that could easily snap the thin sorcerer in two, Squall stepped directly in front of the large beast.  A heavy paw reached out for the brunet, the sight of thick claws prompting Seifer to step forward, but the lord didn't get far when he saw how Squall leaned into the feline's touch and lifted his own hand to stroke red fur.

"Rya prahtr," the Shumi murmured, and with its darkly-colored pads pressed against a pale cheek, the creature bent down to rub its face against the sorcerer's other cheek.  Tangled braids of long fur jingled with colored beads as the beast purred and moved further to bury its nose at the crook of the brunet's long neck, Squall unbothered by the intimate touch of the overly large Shumi.

Stunned by his difficult lover allowing the Shumi's caress, Seifer stood in place while unable to think or move despite the burning necessity to break apart the lasting hold.  But then there was the crunch of snow followed by the thump of a small body crashing into something bigger and suddenly Leander had efficiently wrapped himself around Squall's leg.

"Don't hurt Mommy!"

Seifer nearly collapsed in that moment, his knees abruptly weakening at the cry that echoed the one in his nightmare from over a week previous, a dream that still haunted him.  But while tentatively holding his stance, the lord couldn't bring himself to approach the others, silently grateful that his son had interrupted the awkward moment.

"It's alright," Squall soothed as he drew back from the Shumi, unaware of the lord's unbalanced state a short distance away.  His smile warm and stormy eyes glowing in the dim light, the sorcerer placed a hand into Leander's dark hair.  "This is how the Shumi greet each other.  When they have been apart for too long, they like to be reminded of the other's scent."

Young green eyes stared up at the brunet, Leander's expression one of plain disbelief, an expression that Seifer mirrored from his position several yards behind the sorcerer.

"Don't assume too much, Leander.  Those other Shumi didn't know us and that is why they attacked.  They were afraid and nothing more."

His eyes wavering with uncertainty, the boy glanced up at the immense feline before them.  "Is he afraid, too?"

"I don't fear the Lion, cub," the Shumi answered before Squall could form a reply, "But I have learned to respect his fangs."  The tall feline then knelt down into the snow and curled its dark lips into a relatively friendly grin that hid the teeth beneath.  "Brave and curious - you must be Leonhart's cub."

Shaking his head, Leander argued, "Squall and Father made me.  I don't know who 'Leonhart' is."

His grin widening, the Shumi didn't correct the boy's misunderstanding and instead held out a large paw-like hand.  "May I know your scent, young sorcerer, so that I will always remember you?"

Leander glanced up at Squall, his silent question answered with a shrug of shoulders.  Small teeth bit into chapped lips as the boy wavered with indecision, green eyes watching the motionless paw as the Shumi waited patiently.  Eventually, Leander unclenched his fingers from Squall's pants and very slowly placed a mitten-covered hand on top of dark pads of skin.  Stubby fingers curled slightly around the small hand as the Shumi bent down and brushed its black nose against thin leather and breathed deeply while moving upward, gradually pushing the edge of the coat sleeve up and revealing pale skin.

The tenseness in narrow shoulders evaporated as the boy giggled and complained, "That tickles."

Golden-green eyes glanced up before a dark tongue peaked out from dark lips and the Shumi proceeded to lick the arm beneath the coat sleeve, the move prompting Leander to jerk away his hand with a laughing yelp.  The feline grinned softly as it bowed its head.  "I knew we would meet some day, young prince.  I am glad it was today."

His smile one of enjoyment, Leander argued, "I'm not a prince."

The large cat didn't argue as its bright eyes studied the child standing with one arm still wrapped around the sorcerer's leg.

"Kasir," Squall interjected quietly, gaining the feline's attention.  "There's is another I want to introduce to you - Seifer Almasy."

The slender brunet turned and blue-gray eyes settled on the blond lord for the first time since the large Shumi's arrival.  Instantly dark eyebrows furrowed at the sight before him, concern dulling the glow of stormy eyes as Squall attempted a step forward and nearly tripped from the forgotten child clamped onto his leg.

Meanwhile, without waiting for a more formal introduction, the Shumi stepped pass the two sorcerers and approached the lord.  The beast's smile was soon lost as the distance closed between them and the Shumi stopped a few short feet in front of the silent nobleman.  Golden-green eyes narrowed harshly as heart-shaped nostrils flared and its long ears perked slightly, the movement causing a faint jingle of the beads in its fur.

"You are Leonhart's kri'sange?" the Shumi asked the blond in open surprise.

"No," Squall quickly replied for the lord.  "My blood was needed to save his life some time ago and that is what you smell."

Seifer stared at the dark-haired sorcerer, curious at the man's urgent need to clear up the feline's apparent misunderstanding.

The Shumi purred a soft chuckle as he glanced back over his shoulder.  "His scent covers you, rya prahtr.  Why hide your bond?"

"We are not bonded," Squall stated with a cold gleam to his eyes, but Seifer was more interested in the man's tone of voice.  He knew he had heard the inflection once before, but couldn't remember the particular circumstance.  His gaze drifting in thought, Seifer glanced down at the man's midsection and smiled at the sight of a hand gloved in soft leather resting there, a more common happenstance in the past couple of weeks.

The Shumi smirked and returned its luminescent gaze to the lord.  "Do you have a tongue, golden one, or does Leonhart speak for you?"

"I didn't wish to interrupt," Seifer replied with forced courtesy.

The feline cocked its head in a curious tilt that didn't suit the immense beast.  "You are angry."

Though the blond had the suspicion the Shumi had already sensed his possessiveness towards the sorcerer, Seifer shrugged indifferently.  "We were attacked by your people.  It has left me on edge."

Intelligent eyes narrowed in thought, moments before the large beast began to laugh in a roar filled tone.  "Ifurit, you think I will steal your mate from you."

"Kasir..." Squall warned from behind, but Seifer chose to respond despite the brunet's obvious desire to avoid the topic.

"Forgive me for those assumptions, but Squall is... particular about those who are allowed to touch him."

As Squall growled out Seifer's name, the Shumi smiled with a broad flash of teeth.  "Words of truth.  That is rare from a human."  The feline then placed a large paw at its chest and announced, "I am Kasir, golden one, H'rugur to my tribe and prahtr to Leonhart."

Though clueless what the words meant, Seifer mimicked the Shumi's gesture.  "I am Seifer Almasy, Lord of the Almasy Estate and former Captain in the Imperial Army."

Kasir nodded and reached out with a paw-like hand.  "May I know your scent, Seifer-Almasy?"

Without a vocal reply, Seifer purposefully removed the shredded glove from his unhealed hand and placed the exposed hand onto the dark pads of rough skin.  Schooling his expression, he tried to ignore the feel of claws brushing against his arm when the large paw closed over his.  Kasir then bent down and pressed its cold nose against skin, uncaring of the mess of blood and cut flesh.  The feline breathed deeply, its ears twitching several times before its paw closed more tightly around the offered hand.

"You are the other father."

Seifer stared down at the head of the Shumi, mildly concerned for the safety of his entrapped hand.  "If you mean Leander, then yes, I'm his father."

Feral green eyes glanced up at the lord, the threat of death visible in the poisonous depths in the moment before the cat straightened and glanced back over his shoulder.  "Why have you brought this man here?"

Squall met the feline's glare with one of his own.  "Seifer isn't the same man he was in the past."

"He destroyed you," Kasir hissed in return, the harsh emotion making Seifer scowl at the thought of what the Shumi had seen when the dark-haired sorcerer had returned after Leander's birth.

"Muro-kas prahtr, you know very well that I was already in ruins before Seifer laid a hand on me."

Seifer didn't pay attention to the Shumi's response, something mostly spoken in its rumbling language.  Instead, he studied the brunet's guarded expression and noted the familiar grayness to stormy eyes.  Seifer immediately recognized the sign that Squall was done with the topic at hand and would only grow less responsive with further pressure.  The blond lord then glanced downward and noticed the half-lidded gaze of his young son, Leander's exhaustion not yet apparent to the protective servant despite the child clinging onto dark pants.

"Forgive me for interrupting," Seifer said during a pause within growled words, "But I would appreciate having my arm returned to me."

Bewilderment shining in its eyes, Kasir glared down at the blond-haired man for the dully spoken words.  "I should kill you for the pain you caused Leonhart and you want me to release you?"

Seifer chuckled at the beast.  "'Leonhart' isn't some damsel to be avenged.  If he had wished me dead, then I wouldn't have been spared a last breath to beg for mercy."

The Shumi's gaze shifted vaguely to Squall, a man with a small body, cold eyes, and deadly skill.  After a gruff sound of agreement, Kasir then commented, "But that does not explain why he would want you."

"I wouldn't assume that he 'wants' me around.  At this point, I imagine that he see me as something akin to a necessary evil in his unfortunate life."

Long pointed ears perked at the response, Kasir showing its curiosity as its large head tilted to the right.  But instead of more words, the feline nodded as it slowly released the hand in its hold, making certain that its claws tore into the lord's coat sleeve before Kasir stepped aside.

Seifer breathed a sigh in quiet frustration at the games of cats, but paid little mind to the Shumi.  Instead, he stepped directly to his son and lover, and without a word of intent, Seifer bent down to take Leander into his arms.  The growing boy didn't fuss at the hold, that being Seifer's final proof that the young sorcerer had exhausted himself with too much walking and the extended use of magic.  Though his son was heavier than he last remembered, the blond encouraged Leander to rest his head at a broad shoulder and hoped that the boy could find some rest in that position.

"It's been a long day," Squall murmured as he brushed his fingers through the boy's dark hair.

Seifer smiled at the comment, hearing the brunet's hidden apology for not noticing Leander's fatigue.  "We've all been through enough today.  Is there any chance that this 'prather' of yours will invite us into their village or will my presence make things too difficult?"

Fine dark eyebrows lowered with irritation as the sorcerer glared at the cat, but Squall wasn't given the chance to speak when another called out in a whistling language that Seifer couldn't decipher except for the mention of 'Kasir'.  Squall, however, seemed to brighten at the voice and turned in the direction of the call.  From the shadows of the forest, a tall figure stepped into the fading light of late afternoon as the younger Shumi from before trailed behind.  The newcomer was nothing like the crimson-furred Shumi, the creature bearing grayish wrinkled skin, a small face with a very long and fat chin, dark bug-like eyes, and large hands with lengthy fingers that reminded Seifer of tentacles.  The creature was also dressed in a long robe of indigo and silver, giving it an impression of reason compared to Kasir's air of brutality.

Slowing to a stop, the creature managed an odd smile and lifted its arms in Squall's direction.  "It isss you, Heart of the Lion.  Kasssir wasss to tell usss if you were indeed... you."

The dark-haired sorcerer didn't hesitate in approaching the tall creature and even allowed its long arms to wrap around his body.  Returning the hold with a single hand resting on top of a stooped shoulder, Squall said, "Dzieden, it is good to see you."

"We are alwaysss here.  But you, we feared that we would not sssee you again."  The creature pulled back and focused dark eyes on the brunet.  "And now, you are here, giving me work yet again."

"They attacked first," Squall clarified with a small smile.  "And I wasn't alone in teaching those reckless cubs their place."

The tall creature straightened at the comment, its shadowed gaze shifting to the lord and the burden in his arms.  Though without eyebrows, it still managed to show confusion as wrinkled skin above its eyes furrowed in thought.  Eventually returning its attention to the sorcerer, the creature stared for a long moment while its long fingers shifted over narrow shoulders, and then abruptly, its small eyes widened in surprise.  "Ifurit, you are--"

"Dzieden," Squall chided quietly.  "I didn't ask you to use your healing abilities on me."

Though stunned to hear that the Shumi also had healers, Seifer asked without thought, "Squall, are you injured?"

As the brunet groaned, the tall creature chuckled with a whispering edge.

"Dzieden," Kasir growled, showing his anxiousness concerning the sorcerer.  "Do not listen to him if he needs healing."

Its laughter ending, the creature replied, "Heart of the Lion isss fine, but thossse cubsss will be embarrassssed to learn they were defeated by a magic ussser burdened with life."

Dumbfounded, Kasir looked to Squall in an obvious plea for the man to deny the healer's claim.  Squall, however, merely sighed and placed an arm around his waist before glaring at the dark-eyed creature for revealing the hated secret.  With the sorcerer's lacking denial, Kasir then looked to the lord and promptly snarled once seeing the man's pleased smirk.

"You forced him to--"

"Kasir," Squall threatened lowly.  "If you dare say that Seifer raped me, I swear that you'll be joining those cubs in the snow and mud."

Seifer held back a laugh at the expressive wince of the large feline, knowing well what it felt like to be the object of the sorcerer's ire.  But the blond lord became quickly distracted when Leander shifted in his arms and a cold nose pressed against his neck as the boy shivered lightly.  Tightening his hold, Seifer interjected, "It may not be my place, but the day isn't getting any longer and Ander certainly isn't getting any lighter.  A warm meal and a bed for the night would be appreciated."

"More than a night," Squall corrected as he looked between the gray-skinned creature and the furry beast.  "Seifer has plans in place to destroy the current Empire.  More importantly, he aspires to assassinate the Emperor and Ultimecia, but these plans cannot succeed without the aid of the Moombas.  We have come to ask for their skill and lives."

Dzieden hummed gravely at the declaration.  "Yesss, more than a night indeed.  Kasssir, take Heart of the Lion and hisss loved onesss home.  In the morning, the Eldersss will gather and lisssten to your plea."

Kasir growled something under its breath, earning a harsh glare from the healer.  The hierarchy of the Shumi became apparent when the feline couldn't match the creature's gaze and bowed its head in consent despite a paw-like hand fisted in frustration.  "Understood, Eahler.  You will take care of the cubs?"

"Of courssse.  They have sssuffered long enough for attacking Heart of the Lion," the creature replied with a slight smile, acting much like the other healers Seifer had known in his lifetime.  Apparently anyone who had gotten hurt from acting on pure stupidity deserved to suffer in his 'stupidity'.  "Sssekre will guard me in your ssstead," Dzieden added, referring to the silent Shumi that had initially left to fetch Kasir and was currently silent behind the tall healer.

The more experienced feline huffed at the option.  "I will return once I show Leonhart the new entrance.  Stay here until then."

The healer waved off the Shumi's demand, Dzieden already walking toward the most injured cat, the one that had foolishly decided to attack Squall from behind.

With a rumbling breath, Kasir gave up on the creature and stepped toward the forest while motioning for the others to follow him.  Squall glanced back at the lord and smiled vaguely in a wordless comfort that they had been accepted thus far.  Seifer forced a smile in return, but the expression fell away once the brunet had turned and stepped quickly to keep pace with the large cat.  The blond looked down at the small body pressed against his chest, Leander managing to fall asleep despite the awkward position.  Not for the first time, Seifer was concerned that taking the young boy into the Shumi's world would strip away most of the child's innocence.  Any other son of a respected nobleman wouldn't be exposed to blood and death until they served their years in the Imperial Army, but Seifer had reluctantly accepted the fact that Leander had been born into a world that didn't want him around.  Brushing dark bangs from the boy's face, Seifer tried to imagine Squall around the same age and asking his father to let him train with the Shumi.  It was beyond ridiculous, but an apparent necessity for a child with sorcerer blood.  And no matter how much Seifer wished more for his son, he wasn't going to leave Leander defenseless against the Empire.

After placing a kiss against the forehead of the sleeping boy, Seifer followed behind the large feline and the dark-haired sorcerer, his green eyes quiet as he watched from a distance and hoped to Hyne that he was suffering from paranoia whenever he noticed the furry beast brushing too close to Squall.

~ > < ~

With one arm pressed against stone and the other holding back a thick curtain, Seifer stood at the entrance of a small house that had clearly been created by the unique abilities of a sorcerer.  Staring out across a forest of lush green leaves and bright unusual flowers, the green-eyed lord found it difficult to believe what he was seeing.  From the snow-covered ground and frosty mountain air, Kasir had led them to a hidden cavern that promptly became a maze of dark tunnels that only the cat could navigate through.  When the darkness of caverns had finally opened to night skies, Seifer had been thankful and then amazed at the sight of a virtual jungle bathed in moonlight.  Squall had tried to explain that the heat from the earth element kept the land warm and melted the snow before it could reach the village, but Seifer was still awed by the valley of the Shumi.

"Aren't you tired?"

Without moving from his position, the lord replied, "Exhausted."

"Then why are you standing there like an idiot?"

Seifer shrugged.  "My head is filled with too many thoughts for me to sleep."

A knowing hum sounded before Squall stepped close and placed a hand on the raised arm holding back the curtain.  The brunet was careful in forcing the arm to lower and release the old rug that served as a door, darkness promptly settling in the room sparse of all furniture except a mattress of feathers in the back corner.  Seifer didn't particularly care for the lack of light and attempted to reach out for the curtain once again, but Squall prevented the move.

"Come to bed, Seifer, and you can tell me all about these supposed thoughts of yours."

Unable to deny the sorcerer's request, the lord allowed the smaller man to lead him towards the meager bed in the main room of the home.  There was only one other room to the building, a tiny room where Leander had been put to bed.  Aside from the entrance, the only other openings in the wide room were two small windows that let in faded moonlight and created deep shadows on stone.  Overall it was a cold place, something Squall had admitted guiltily and then promptly excused by saying it was difficult for a lone sorcerer to force the earth to form walls and ceilings that would keep away the rain.  But Seifer held the suspicion that there was another reason for the coldness that drove away the warmth of the valley.

Slumping down onto the mattress of soft sheets and rolling onto his back, Seifer watched as Squall lowered with a little more grace and settle onto his side to better face the lord.  Even though the sorcerer said nothing as he focused stormy eyes on the blond, Squall was a master of saying everything with his silence and Seifer couldn't last against the shadow-darkened gaze.

"What does 'prather' mean?"

Eyes narrowing with amusement, Squall replied.  "It's pronounced prahtr and it means 'brother'."

His entire body relaxing at the response, Seifer breathed out a chuckle.  "Fuck, is that all?"

"Why, what did you think it meant?"

"Don't give me that, princeling.  What else am I supposed to think when a Hyne-damned overgrown kitten comes out of nowhere and you let him rub his body against yours?"

"You're supposed to remember that I come from a background that disapproves of two men being together, let alone a sorcerer mixing with nonhumans."

"Yeah, well altogether, I was expecting a better welcome than what we received.  I thought these Shumi knew and trusted you."

With a familiar sigh of annoyance at needing to speak in length, Squall began into his explanation.  "The last time I came here, it was shortly after Leander was born and I only stayed for a few months.  Since then, I traveled for almost two years and eventually found my way back to the Almasy Estate, which means it has been almost six years since I've stayed in this village."

"And what, they forgot you after only six years?"

"In a sense," the sorcerer replied.  "What you don't understand is the Shumi tribe.  When we walked through the village, did you notice that the ones who look like Dzieden outnumber the Shumi we fought?"

"Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.  What are those creatures?"

With a small laugh, Squall said, "Dzieden and the 'creatures' like him are the true Shumi.  Male and female, they are born with the same features that resemble some sea animals that I've seen in the past.  But once the male Shumi mature and reach an age when they can reproduce, they are given a choice - to stay as they are and live a long life filled with wisdom, or to evolve and become a Moomba who protects the village with his body."

"Then... Those cats and Kasir are Moomba?"

Squall nodded once.  "Kasir's change occurred almost two decades ago.  He is one of the oldest Moomba in this tribe and is well respected, thus he is their H'rugur or war leader.  Those other Moomba we met, however, are mere cubs who evolved maybe three or four years ago at the most."

"And it's been six years since you were here... But then I still don't understand - wouldn't they have known you before they changed?"

"When a Shumi evolves, the past is almost entirely left behind.  Walking, talking, and general social skills all have to be relearned within their first two years of rebirth before they can begin their training as a warrior.  The only thing they will remember from their Shumi life is the mate who helped them to complete the change and guarded them when they first began their life as a Moomba.  With that being the case, the only 'Squall Leonhart' those cubs know are from tall tales that the females enjoy spreading to their mates who have forgotten everything."

Seifer stared up at the darkened ceiling and the deep shadows created from the faded light through a small window.  Thinking of what he had been told, the lord believed every word, but still found his creativity lacking when he tried to imagine the life of the odd creatures that his lover called friends.

Squall yawned softly before placing a chilled hand on the lord's chest.  "Kasir told me that his youngest son has chosen to take the path of the Moomba next week.  Maybe then you can better understand what it means to be a Shumi."

Though curious what such an event would entail, Seifer didn't want to waste his questions while the sorcerer was in a talkative mood.  Needing to speak what was truly on his mind, the lord said, "That overgrown feline... Kasir said that I had destroyed you."

The brunet stilled at the comment, either unable or unwilling to answer the implied question.

With a hard swallow, Seifer rolled onto his side and leaned up on an elbow to stare down at the smaller man.  "I need to know, Squall.  What happened?"

Eyes pale blue in the sparse moonlight, Squall met the lord's gaze.  "You didn't know who I was.  It wasn't like you meant to ruin me."

"And that excuses what I did?"

"No..."

Seifer waited as patiently as he could, but when it became obvious that the sorcerer wasn't about to embellish, the lord growled out, "Fucking Hyne, you still aren't going to tell me anything, are you?  You even promised that one day I'll know the truth, and because of that promise, I've tired to prove myself to you, but damn it, princeling, what else am I supposed to do?  What else can I do to earn your trust, because I have to be honest, at this point I am completely out of ideas."

Blue-gray eyes shifted before Squall admitted distractedly, "I've asked myself that very question time and time again."

Dully shocked that the brunet had spent many of his precious thoughts on the issue, Seifer asked warily, "And did you come up with any answers?"

The man nodded vaguely, the shift of dark bangs hiding pale eyes.

Darkened green eyes studied the face of the sorcerer, troubled by the apprehension he saw there.  "Were you going to share those answers with me?  Because Hyne knows that I need the help."

"... First, I have a different question for you - what will you do when I tell you everything?  You can't change what has happened and you have already done your best to make this life easier for me to bear."

"Squall," Seifer whispered, resisting the urge to reach out and touch the sorcerer.  "While it's true that I can't do anything to fix the past, I also can't make proper amends for crimes that I'm unable to remember."

"It's not that simple," Squall argued while glancing away from the pleading gaze.  "The moment I tell you about that night, everything will change.  You will either be disgusted with me or with yourself and I... Against my beliefs otherwise, I've grown comfortable with you by my side."

Brief shock fading away to an incredulous smile, Seifer placed a hand beneath the brunet's chin and encouraged Squall to lift his eyes.  "That's why you haven't told me?  Because you think I would desert you?"

Pale eyes narrowing into an impressive glare, the sorcerer corrected the man's assumptions.  "Before last month, you didn't deserve to know.  You were arrogant and had no understanding of what you were demanding from me.  But then out of nowhere, despite the risk of losing me, you told me the truth about what happened between you and Leander when he was an infant.  You were honest and respectful and... I'm afraid that you've gained a ridiculous sense of honor that will prompt you to do something incredibly stupid once you know about our past."

"Hyne above, I never thought... But if I remember correctly, weren't you the one who told me that a person who forgets the past without learning from it is a coward?"  Cupping his hand at a soft cheek, the lord brushed his thumb beneath a bright eye of metallic blue.  "I'm tired of being a coward in your eyes, Squall.  Please, tell me."

The servant briefly closed his eyes, dark lashes a strong contrast to pale cheeks as they fluttered in silent thought.  Once coming to his final decision, Squall reopened his eyelids to reveal irises of dull silver that Seifer hadn't seen in months, not since after their first night together and the piano lesson with Leander, the first day the sorcerer had come to terms that he was pregnant for a second time.  Squall lifted his hand and pulled away the heated touch of the lord, but then he continued to hold the calloused hand as he pressed it against the mattress.

"After the Massacre, I wasn't well," he began in a somber, disconnected tone.  "The death of my father and uncle tore at my heart and left a bleeding wound that became infected with grief and rage.  Kiros, the Dark-Eyed Shaman as you know him, found me in the ruins of the palace and helped me to the safety of the Shumi village, but the moment I was able to walk under my own strength, I left with naive plans to assassinate Ultimecia."

With a weak imitation of a smile, Squall continued, "I was an arrogant fool who never considered that the outside world was nothing like our small country.  I was the Sorcerer Prince, a child who could walk through the market and take whatever fruit I desired without a single payment.  I never abused that privilege, but then again, I had never gone a day without a meal whether in the palace or while living with the Shumi.

"By the time I had reached the Imperial capitol, it was a year later and madness had darkened my heart.  With no true skill beyond the ability to fight, I lived on the streets and worked meager jobs to earn enough money to survive while planning my revenge.  After months of observing the palace between jobs, I located a weakness in their defenses and I made my way into that cursed castle.  I don't know how many men I killed, and I imagine that there were a few unfortunate maids as well, but when I came face-to-face with Ultimecia... I failed.  My connection with the elements had faded with my madness and I couldn't match the absolute power of the sorceress.  After a lengthy fight, she defeated me with a spear made of ice through my chest and I fell through a tower window to the ground below."

Stunned that the slender man had made his way into the palace and survived the magic of the sorceress, all at the age of fifteen nonetheless, Seifer asked in a hoarse voice, "How did she not kill you?"

Squall replied with a vague smile, "As you've seen before, I'm skilled at making myself dead to Ultimecia's spells.  I managed to crawl away and hide in the shadows while the Imperial guards and her magic searched for me.  By Shiva's blessing alone, I wasn't found that night, but I was badly injured.  All of the scraps of money I had saved in the previous year were quickly spent on a shady surgeon who wouldn't ask questions."

Seifer glanced down at the sorcerer's chest, but when he attempted to move his hand to look for the scar from that night, Squall tightened his hold and shook his head in a silent sign that he didn't want to stop speaking.  Understanding that he may never know the truth if he stopped the brunet at that moment, Seifer nodded in an encouragement for Squall to continue.

"After that night, winter came far too quickly and harder than I knew up to that point.  My country was always cold during the winters, but I until that first winter in the capitol, I had never seen feet of snow landing on streets, merchants leaving for warming territories, and icicles hanging nearly two feet in length that would crash down...  When you stumbled upon me, I had survived five months of winter on the streets - unable to leave for fear of starvation in the wilderness and only able to scrape together enough food to live and hope for another chance against Ultimecia."

Noting the vague shivers of the sorcerer, Seifer forced himself to be still and not interrupt the man's story.  In his mind's eye, he could imagine the young brunet huddled in the corner of some alleyway, too proud to steal the food he could easily obtain, too stubborn to leave the capitol without achieving his revenge, and too young to realize that he was slowly destroying himself.  It was the very image of the obstinate man Seifer's had grown to love.

"You were drunk," Squall said simply, his expression unreadable as he recalled the infamous night.  "You stumbled into me and promptly vomited onto the only cloak I owned.  You were apologetic at first, called me 'miss' several times while using your handkerchief to clean off the vomit, and eventually after manhandling me for a good minute, you realized that I didn't have breasts.  You changed at that moment, almost sober when you offered me handful of coins in exchange for sex.  I refused and walked away, but you followed and kept increasing the price until... You offered four hundred gold for a single night."

Seifer blinked, impressed with himself to offer the rather ridiculous price for a peasant off the street, but knowing his tastes from back then, he had probably felt that Hyne was smiling down on him when he had found Squall, a man who had an elegant beauty that made most of the noblewomen in the Empire appear commonplace.

"Frankly, I couldn't refuse.  I was cold and hungry, the wound from the sorceress hadn't healed properly, and I still desired my revenge.  There was so much I could do with that gold and all it required was a night of satisfying a drunken idiot lord."  Squall paused in his tale, dark eyebrows drawing close together as his unfocused gaze receded into the past.  "It hurt.  That's mostly what I remember aside from your demands for me to hide my male features.  You were frustrated, hated that I made you hard when an equally beautiful woman would never do.  But when all was said and done, you paid me as promised and let me recover in the room you had paid for the night while you returned home."

"Wait," Seifer pleaded softly.  "I have to know - aside from the obvious, how did I hurt you?"

Lifting his eyes with a blinking gaze, Squall focused on the man in front of him and eventually replied, "Nothing that caused permanent damage.  You were rough, forced me to use my mouth on you, threw me on the bed and twisted my arms while positioning me as you liked...  You choked me once, blaming me for your inability with women, but that was the worse of it.  Ultimecia had caused far more damage than you."

With a frustrated growl, Seifer pressed his forehead against the hand still holding onto his.  "Fucking Hyne, don't belittle what I did to you, Squall.  I took advantage of your bad luck and I hurt you for nothing that was your fault.  And knowing your ways, I'm certain that you are holding back on the details you don't find important."

Squall didn't reply except for a light squeeze of his hand, a wordless statement that only he would know the exact details of that night years past.

Pushing up such that he could properly look at the brunet, Seifer asked urgently, "When did you know that I had... that you were pregnant?"

"The next morning."

Though curious by the short answer after lengthy explanations, the lord didn't press the point.  "What about the money?  Did that at least help you?"

"... It was stolen before I could use it."

"What?" Seifer asked loudly, then quieting when the servant directed a harsh glare at him for potentially waking their son.  When no sound came from the adjoining room, Seifer demanded, "How could anyone steal four hundred... no, how could anyone survive after robbing you?"

His free hand drifting to his stomach, Squall replied hesitantly, "When I woke the next morning, I was sore and tired... I never noticed that there was something else wrong with me.  I left the inn while lost in thoughts about what I could do with the gold, but a small group of thugs didn't let me get far.  Apparently where you found me was a popular place for some whores and I owed a 'merchant fee' for selling myself in that area.  I intended to fight, maybe kill them, but the elements didn't react like I expected and I couldn't summon my sword in time to defend myself.  Defeated, bleeding, and my money stolen, I realized that you had done far more damage than I was prepared to handle."

Seifer breathed a pained laugh.  "Then you were left in the same state as I found you, but now pregnant along with being hungry and cold."

Squall shrugged lightly.  "You had also tipped me four gold pieces.  I learned to make it stretch."

Temporary relief faded into bewilderment and the lord prodded, "But you said that they had stolen the gold I gave you."

The slender brunet said nothing for a long moment, his eyes gray and quiet as he considered his reply.  "The inn was old and questionable without any sort of bathing facility.  I had decided to wait and clean myself at a bath house where I could more easily... remove the tip you had given me."

Seifer was standing before he realized that he had moved, and as he stared down at the dark-haired beauty, he continued to back away until hitting the wall of molded stone.  Unable to handle the sight of eyes pale in the moonlight, Seifer turned and stepped to the small window that let in light and fresh air.  A hand buried into his golden hair, the nobleman stared out at the dark jungle and forced deep breaths while resisting the urge to knock his head against solid rock.

Squall shifted on the mattress behind the broad form of the lord.  "While it was crude of you to mock me by 'tipping' my ass, those four coins helped me to survive, not to mention giving Leander a chance at life."

Something resembling a laugh erupted from Seifer, his throat instantly hurting from the unnatural noise.  "You shouldn't have been on the edge of survival in the first place!  You should have been home with your father and your uncle and everyone else you loved, living warm and safe in the comfort of the palace that your ancestors created.  You should have had a child with a woman, a proper relationship that wouldn't have left you ashamed and confused...  You should have...  You should have..."  At a lost for further words, Seifer pounded his fist against the wall, hating that his apparent purpose in the world was to aggravate the wounds that had cut deeply into the sorcerer's soul.

Silence lasted for a long moment, only the cries of night creatures sounding in the small room before Squall decided to speak.  "Then is it as I thought - has everything in my life been for nothing?"

Seifer turned sharply to face the seated brunet.  "How can you say that?  Everything good in my life is because of you.  Everything... but that shouldn't be a comfort for you," the blond said softly as he leaned back and knocked his head against the cold stone.

The rustle of sheets sounded, prompting Seifer to look at the dark-haired beauty and watch as the graceful man stepped close without hesitation.  The tall blond thought to stop the brunet and to prevent the touch of long fingers that were a great weakness of his, but Squall moved before Seifer could reach a noble decision.  Cold hands slipped beneath the edge of the lord's old shirt and slid across warm skin until settling at the man's lower back, the touch surprisingly calming and seductive in the same moment.

"It means more than you could know," Squall stated in a near whisper, his eyes glowing with a subtle white light.  "For too long I've lived in doubt and wondered why I bothered to continue the charade that any of this could be worth the pain.  And then you... You wouldn't leave me alone."

Breathing a weak chuckle at the comment, Seifer shook his head.  "You should have been more forceful in telling me to stay away."

"You assume that was possible.  After all, I left when you thought I molested Leander, I almost killed you when you learned who I was, and I otherwise did nothing to encourage your infatuation with me - what else should I have done?"

Seifer couldn't hold back a smile at the reality that Squall never stood a chance against his blind determination.  Reaching out with a careful hand, the blond lord brushed dark bangs aside to better reveal calm sapphire eyes.  There was no fear, no indecision in the clear depths, something that bewildered Seifer after everything he had heard that night.  "How can you stand being near me?"

"I don't really know, but... A single night doesn't compare to an entire year spent in your presence.  I've seen some of your best and worse traits, but more than that, I've finally noticed the change in myself.  It's been a long time since I've fought for my life, but every day I spend with you, I feel like I'm doing just that."

An eyebrow lifted in disbelief, Seifer asked, "Is that supposed to relieve my worries?"

Squall offered a slight smile in return before sliding his hands forward to rest on the waist of lean muscle.  "It's strange - your body is more firm than that night long past, and yet I don't feel afraid of surrendering myself to you."

"Blessed Hyne, you would do anything to defeat me," Seifer whispered in subtle amusement as he bent down and gently pressed his lips against Squall's.  The soft, testing kiss quickly deepened into a lasting twist of tongues that drew a pleased hum from the sorcerer.  That noise of delight, however, turned into a yawn that the brunet couldn't hold back.  Seifer chuckled into the broken kiss and focused jade eyes on his tired lover.  "And once again I have kept you up too long.  You should have said something."

"I'm pregnant, idiot, not a child.  I'm perfectly capable of knowing when I've pushed myself too hard."

Seifer smirked at the comment, fighting back the desire to point out that the sorcerer was positively the worse judge at recognizing when he was at his limit.  "Yes, my Prince, but it is late and we both know that Ander will happily wake us the moment the sun rises."

Squall hummed at that reality and drew back from the large blond before he took hold of the man's wrist and led him to the mattress resting on the ground.  It was a simple matter to stretch out onto the soft sheets and fit against each other in a familiar position with Seifer on his back and Squall pressed along his side with his head on a broad shoulder.  With a tired smile and slightly reddened eyes, Seifer brushed his fingers along the brunet's side in a soothing rhythm that wouldn't disturb the man's sleep.  Squall shifted once with an annoyed grumble at the lord's inability to rest quietly, but in short time, soft breaths settled into an easy cadence that Seifer recognized well.

Waiting as long as he could, Seifer moved his hand to the arm resting on his chest and carefully pulled back on the servant's sleeve to reveal pale skin.  Green eyes immediately focused on the sight of the long scar that still bore the distinctive imprints of stitch work.  It had been three months past and yet Seifer could still taste the poison that had been forced down his throat, a magically created potion that would have killed him if it weren't for Squall.  Hearing the sorcerer's tale and knowing of his pain, Seifer couldn't understand why he was allowed to live when his death would have made things so much easier for the former prince.

"I don't regret it."

Seifer jumped at the quiet voice, then surprised to notice that Squall had opened his eyes and was looking at the revealed scar.  "You... you were asleep," the lord accused before realizing what the brunet had said.  "Wait, what was that again?"

Squall smiled lazily, his eyes focused on the scar line along his arm.  "After Ward had taken us to safety, I had cut your arm and then my own before I recognized how desperate I was to save your life.  More than that, it didn't feel wrong to give my blood to the man I once hated and feared.  And while I thought your emotions for me were confused and temporary, I knew you respected what I was and that you would treasure my gift to you."

His hold tightening around the slim wrist, Seifer corrected, "I respect who you are, princeling.  I can't say that I knew who you were."

Squall hummed a noncommittal sound as he closed his eyes.  "You have my blood, my flame, and my body... what more do you want from me?"

"Do you really need to ask?"

"... You ask for the impossible."

"I wouldn't say that," Seifer said in a quiet purr.  "That kitten friend of yours didn't seem to care that my scent covered you... Well, at least until he figured out that I was Leander's other father."

Dark eyebrows furrowed together in troubled thought, the brunet appearing much like a child trapped in a bad dream.  "I will speak to Kasir about that."

"I'm certain you will," the blond lord murmured as he rested his cheek against dark chestnut hair and finally allowed his exhaustion to overwhelm his thoughts and worries.  There would always be questions, most without answers, but it seemed the skittish sorcerer wasn't about to vanish into the night and leave the lord with even more uncertainty.  There was time, and while not an overly patient man, Seifer knew a war could not be won from a single battle.  And while each battle had left a few scars and the rare light of hope, the real prize was barely visible on the horizon and an experienced officer knew when it was better to sleep and recover for another fight.  After all, one never could tell which battle would be the last and it was best to be prepared.

 

{Continued}

 

Author's Whining -- Ugh, writer's block hit me hard with this one, so I apologize for any inconsistencies.  That said, there you have it - the past that everyone wanted to know about.  I figured you were all patient in waiting for this chapter, so I wanted to do something special.  As I've warned in the past, it wasn't anything complex or special that led to Leander's creation, so I hope it wasn't a major disappointment.  Now with that chunk done, I'm very much on the downhill to the ending of the this story.  Currently, I figure there is at least five chapters left of this monster.  That mostly depends on the transitions between the scenes that I know have to come... You see, this is why I wanted to avoid this story - damn you, Miss Dincht!  Why do I listen to you? =P