For Nothing, For Everything
June
2008

 

A set of candles burned softly next to a large four-post bed, their flames flickering in the darkness with the occasional breeze from an open window.  Seated against the headboard with pillows tucked behind his back, Squall focused on the book he held in one hand while his other arm rested comfortably over his swelled midsection.  Despite the chilled weather of early spring, Squall had his shirt opened and no other clothing while seated beneath thin bed sheets.  He was comfortable and relaxed for a change, but with the inevitable sound of padded footsteps, Squall knew it was too good to last.

"Why aren't you asleep?"

Ignoring the accusatory question, Squall closed the book over his thumb to hold his page and glanced up at the golden-haired man leaning with his shoulder pressed against the doorframe.  "You aren't supposed to be here, m'lord."

Seifer huffed at the casual honorific, one the sorcerer rarely used since early winter and before the events surrounding the solstice.  Shedding his jacket and vest while approaching the bed, the large man crawled onto the mattress and dropped next to the side of the seated man.  "I tried to stay away this time, but it was impossible to sleep without you there."

Breathing a soft chuckle, Squall placed a hand on top of the lord's head and caressed his fingers through the soft spikes.  "The ruse of Leander having a dangerous and contagious disease won't last long if you continue to visit here every night."

"It's only been three nights," Seifer argued, a claim weakened by his purring voice as he savored the touch of his lover.

"In other words, every night since we've returned."

"I know it can't last, but while I have enough to distract me during the day, there's nothing at night to stop me from wanting to be with you."  Reaching out, Seifer placed an arm around the man next to him and held him tight to his bare chest.  "In any case, I've been careful.  I always make certain to ride beyond the gates before using a different path here.  Rumors have already started that I've renewed old habits to waste my time and money in the bars of the capital."

Squall hummed lightly.  "And I wonder who started those rumors."

"Is it my fault that people are more inclined to believe the worst about me?"

"It is when you encourage such beliefs."

Seifer had no argument as he slipped his hand beneath the sorcerer's open shirt and the rough touch of his callused fingers elicited a sharp intake of breath from the stoic man.  Encouraged by his lover's sensitivity, Seifer inched closer to press lingering kisses against the smooth chest adorn with faded scars.  All the while, the brunet's long fingers flexed within golden-blond hair without forcing aside the attentive lord, Squall finding it increasingly difficult to hold onto a clear thought.

Unable to carelessly surrender to the whims of the seductive man, Squall argued drearily, "You do realize that I was enjoying an interesting book just now."

"Don't really care," Seifer murmured as he shamelessly licked a rose-colored nipple and his hand traveled lower to squeeze the brunet's bare thigh.  "Hyne above, are you trying to seduce me by dressing like this?"

"Seduce you?" Squall asked within a harsh laugh.  "My body feels like it's been touched by Ifrit and you think I want more heat from an overly fertile moron like you?"

Green eyes glanced up at the statement, worry seeping through the hungry lust.  "You're overheated?  Is it a fever?  Irvine said that he--"

"Don't bother completing that thought," Squall interrupted in a near growl.  "It's a common occurrence during pregnancy to feel overly hot or cold, especially in my case where the male body wasn't created to carry a second life.  My magic is constantly adjusting, and with fire as my primary element, it creates heat.  It's nothing more than that."

His expression quiet in thought, Seifer stretched out to place a kiss at the faded scar that decorated Squall's shoulder.  "Tell me to stop, my Prince.  I'm afraid that can't do it myself."

Squall stared down at the large man pressed against his side and watched dazedly as Seifer continued to show his reverence toward the scars most familiar to him.  "Would you stop?"

"If it was your wish."

The words spoken with great reluctance made Squall smile faintly.  "What is it about this body that makes you crave it so?"

Eyebrows furrowing, Seifer didn't glance away from his task when replying, "It's not just your body; it's everything you are.  Your history," he said with a heavy lick to a scar created from the claw of a Ravage.  "Your strength."  A large hand moved to his upper arm and squeezed in a massaging motion.  "Your heartbeat."  A biting kiss to his chest.  "Your life."  A far softer press of lips to his rounded midsection.  "Everything."

Squall whispered a curse at the unexpected reply, praying that the heat burning in his veins wasn't reflecting as a blush anywhere on his body.  As lips continued to press against available flesh and rough hands rubbed strongly at sore muscles, Squall had the vague desire to test his influence over the arrogant lord and speak the one word needed to end everything before it could truly begin.  But even while considering that option, the dark-haired man reached out to place his forgotten book onto the nightstand and slipped his thumb out from the page he had been saving with futile optimism.

Instantly lifting his gaze at the soft sound of the book placed on wood, Seifer grinned with a slow and lustful curl of lips.

"You can have tonight," Squall said as he moved his hand to Seifer's thick neck and squeezed firmly.  "But you aren't allowed back for a week."

The grin faltered and almost vanished.  "I can't stay away for a single night and you think I can manage a week?  It would kill me."

"Seifer..."

"No, you don't understand," the lord insisted as he lifted to straddle the shorter man.  Wrapping his hand around a slim wrist, Seifer pressed the sorcerer's hand against the symbol forever burned into his flesh.  "I belong to you, I need you like nothing I've known before.  Without you nearby, I feel lost and I don't particularly like the feeling."

Long fingers curled against blackened skin.  "It's only the magic intensifying those sensations.  The spell you chose is incredibly strong, which means that you need to figure out how to be stronger.  Coming to my side every night isn't the answer."

His hand tightening into an almost painful grip around the slim wrist, Seifer accused, "Easy for you to say when you obviously don't feel the same."

It would have been easy to respond with the same low burning anger, but Squall fought against the instinct as he remained relaxed beneath the powerfully built man.  "I understand magic and how the elements can manipulate the human mind."

Seifer stared down at his lover, hard jade searching the man's face.  "You understand...?  You can't mean that you feel it, too."

"Idiot, why wouldn't I?  It's a shared bond between the two of us."

"You fucking coy bastard.  I thought I was the only one who--"  The keen gaze abruptly shifted to the nightstand and Seifer choked out a laugh.  "Holy Hyne, you started that book two nights ago and you can't be more than twenty pages into it."

"Twenty-five pages," Squall argued reflexively.

His hungry grin returned, Seifer bent down to brush his lips against an exposed ear.  "Finding it difficult to concentrate, my Prince?"

"Hn, apparently your stupidity is contagious."

His laugh a low rumble, the lord bargained, "Give me tonight and you won't see me for three days."

"Unless you are including the nights, it doesn't count."

"Damn, you weren't supposed to catch that," Seifer said as he pressed a hard kiss behind the brunet's ear.  "Are you that eager to be rid of me?"

Squall arched up against the taller man and clawed his free hand against the lord's back.  "If it means getting any rest tonight, I'm fine with the option."

"Liar," Seifer accused in mid-groan.  Squeezing the wrist still trapped in his hold, he conceded, "Three days and nights, but I'm not to be blamed for what happens on the fourth night."

"We will see about that," the sorcerer murmured just before insistent lips pressed against his mouth and he was drawn into a needy kiss.  Despite his arm being trapped between their chests at an odd angle, Squall couldn't find the willpower to push away the domineering man.  Instead, his fingers awkwardly caressed the edges of the blackened seal that marked Seifer as his, the touch causing a variety of deep moans from the blond.

With an abrupt jerk, Seifer broke away from the sorcerer and hurriedly moved to the other side of the bed, removing his shirt and pants in a haphazard fashion before reaching the nightstand that held an assortment of oils, vials that had mysteriously appeared shortly after their first arrival to the summer house.  Smirking at his bonded partner, Squall casually removed his only piece of clothing and folded the shirt to place it on top of his unfinished book.  But before he could comfortably settle on the mattress, his arm was taken into a firm hold and he was pulled such that he landed with his back pressed against Seifer's bare body and his ass seated on the lord's muscular thighs.

Trapped with an arm across his chest and the other arm far lower, Squall didn't fight against the secure hold.  "Play it safely, rya soaler'ke, or else I may not remember you too fondly over the next few days."

Chuckling lightly, Seifer rested his chin on a narrow shoulder while his hand traveled somewhere far less innocent.  "Y'know, I recognize that soal-whatever from Kasir's rants.  Should I assume that you're insulting me?"

Squall shifted to give the incorrigible blond better access.  "It means 'sunshine'.  I doubt they have seen such pale hair like yours; there's no other meaning behind it."

"Hmmm, but you used 'rya' first.  Much like 'rya prahtr', yes?"

Squall hissed out a breath when the lord punctuated his question with a firm brush of his thumb against the sorcerer's beginning arousal.  Strong fingers then worked their magic with experienced knowledge of what was liked and despised, and though a part of Squall loathed being so thoroughly controlled, he relaxed into the ministrations that his body craved.

"Tell me, princeling," Seifer demanded with a hard kiss to the man's collar bone.  "What does 'rya soaler'ke' mean altogether?"

Tensing, but unable to hold his rigid pose with Seifer stroking him to madness, Squall asked suspiciously, "When did you learn to say that?"

"I spent weeks surrounded by creatures speaking in mostly their own language - even a hopeless student like myself can learn something."

Squall shook his head, unable to understand how the bothersome man could continue to learn the things that would set the sorcerer's world on end.  "My... 'Rya' means 'my' or 'mine', rya soaler'ke."

Seifer stilled for a bare second, his shaky breath felt against heated skin before he placed a gentle kiss at the curve of a shoulder.  "My Prince, my love, you can't possibly fathom what you do to me."

White teeth biting his lower lip, Squall resisted the argument that nothing could compare to the mental torment he endured every moment spent with the blond.  His lacking response went unnoticed as the lord continued to stroke and fondle his lover.  Each movement by the hand at his hardening arousal was accented by a hard kiss to his shoulder or neck and Squall cursed his body's interest in every touch by the larger man.  Squall arched back against his bonded partner and tried to initiate something more himself, but the poor angle prevented proper movement and left the sorcerer the only one pleasured by their closeness.

Breaths eventually coming out as soft pants, Squall reached beneath him and grabbed the man's thigh such that fingernails dug into muscular flesh.  "Sweet Shiva, you must want more than this."

Seifer laughed gently as he pressed his nose against the back of an ear.  "I always want more, but I was thinking... Would you prefer taking the lead tonight?"

Startled by the offer, Squall placed a firm hand on the lord's wrist to stop the distracting caress.  Stormy eyes focused ahead at their bare feet, offhandedly noticing the sharp curl of his toes.  "What do you mean exactly?"

"Me bent over.  You having your wicked way with me.  Is that clear enough?"

Despite the arrogant tone and confident words, Squall felt the bare shaking of the hand still wrapped around his erection.  A part of the sorcerer knew that he should be somewhat offended by their situation where he was the one penetrated by Seifer and never the reverse.  But Squall also had firsthand experience to know what it meant to be a substitute for a woman.  Compared to that one night, he had been treated by Seifer with nothing less than all consuming reverence and it left Squall no thought to question his constant role in sex.

Moving his grip to completely cover the man's larger hand, Squall asked softly, "Why are you pretending to want this?"

"What?  I'm not--"

"Seifer," the sorcerer scolded before Seifer could deny his fear.  "I can feel your uncertainty.  Do you think I want to force anything on you?"

"You wouldn't be," the lord insisted while holding the lithe man closer to his body.  "Is it too much to believe that I want to share this with you?  And... if I wanted to be truthful, I'm curious what you feel every time you throw back your head and groan.  Your body shakes and quivers, and Hyne, blessed Hyne, your eyes shine like full moons reflected in the calmer waters of the ocean and I want to know, I need to know that pleasure."

Squall fought against a laugh.  "In other words, your current pleasure isn't enough to satisfy you."

"Damn it, don't twist my words.  You know very well that I would do anything to have you writhing beneath me for days on end."

With a soft hum, Squall conceded the statement.  "I believe you have attempted to make it a reality on more than one occasion."

"Can you blame me?" Seifer asked, pleased grin unseen, but clearly felt by the man in his lap.  "So, what do you think?  You want to try me out?"

The dark-haired sorcerer considered the option given to him, as well as the lord's reaction to either answer he could give.  Glancing down at the sword-roughened hand that had stealthily moved to his raised stomach, Squall smiled vaguely at the man's obsessive nature.  "Not tonight."  Before Seifer could voice his complaint, the sorcerer continued to say, "The necessary motion wouldn't agree with me and things have finally settled down after all of that traveling."

"Hn, I didn't consider that," Seifer said in an apologetic tone, "but if not tonight...?"

At the implied question, Squall sighed, "After Verena is born, which may actually be the best time for experimentation."

"And why would that be?"

Placing a hand on top of the one at his stomach, the sorcerer explained, "There's only one way for her to leave my body."

Seifer made a questioning sound that quickly transformed into a vocal expression of surprise mixed with pained sympathy.  "Was it... bad?"

Squall breathed out a mocking laugh before he pulled away from the clinging blond, eventually able to turn around and straddle the man's thighs while facing his bonded partner.  Placing his hands at the lord's waist, Squall leaned in close to brush a kiss at the man's throat and didn't retreat when saying, "I'm hot, extremely bothered, and you're at fault.  When are you going to do something about it?"

His smirk sardonic and restrained, Seifer commented, "You're avoiding the question."

"I'm allowed."  The obstinate tone left no room for argument, and with his hand cupping the lord's thickened arousal, Squall insured the next topic of 'discussion'.

"Fucking Hyne, you might feel hot, but your damn hands are still ice-cold."

A dark eyebrow lifted questioningly.  "Should I not touch you?"

His smirk broadening into something lecherous, Seifer wrapped his larger hand around Squall's and lifted it to his mouth.  "I think, instead, we need to do something to warm up these icicles."

Eyes of mischievous green gazed at the sorcerer before a heavy tongue licked the very tip of the middle finger of the entrapped hand.  Squall inhaled sharply at the move that was clearly intended to mimic the action his stiff and rather sore erection would have greatly appreciated.  Instead, Seifer devoted his attention to each finger individually, the arrogant lord clearly pleased with his act of 'warming' the brunet's hand.  Unwilling to admit defeat, Squall kept his gaze level with attentive jade and distractedly wondered if the poisonous color of those eyes was at fault for his increasingly shortened breaths.

Finishing with a light nip to the heel of the hand, Seifer lowered it back to its previous position and groaned somewhat dramatically, "That's much better."

"Is it now?" Squall murmured as he flexed his hand and teased the sensitive organ with his long fingers.  Before he could ask if there was something his lord desired with his warmed hand, Seifer moved in to claim another kiss from the sorcerer.  Yielding to the demanding kiss, Squall savored the skill of his more experienced partner while enjoying the occasional misstep of tongue and teeth whenever his fingers stroked just right along the man's cock and balls.

The kiss broke with a breathy laugh as Seifer wrapped his arms firmly at the brunet's back and rolled them to the other side of the mattress, efficiently pinning Squall beneath him.  "You damn tease.  I warmed your hand so that it could be a little more productive down there."

His longish hair fanned out over his pillow, the sorcerer gazed up with softly glowing eyes.  "Like this, perhaps?" Squall asked when tightening his hold and then pumped with the strong grip, his neutral expression showing no concern about hurting the former soldier.

Seifer groaned hoarsely and dropped such that his forehead rested on a narrow shoulder and heavy breaths could be felt against scarred skin, but no pressure was placed on the rounded stomach between them.  The lord muttered a few creative curses at his situation, but still managed to locate the vial dropped in the bed sheets and poured oil onto thick fingers.  With a comment for the sorcerer to continue his 'blessed torture', Seifer placed his fingers at the tight hole that no longer hurt at their entrance.  Squall frowned slightly at the awkward thought that questioned what had changed to make his body more receptive to the manipulations of the insatiable lord, but when rough skin stroked against that distinct place hidden within him, those troublesome thoughts scattered and faded to nothing.

A large hand abruptly covered Squall's, preventing further movement as Seifer bent down to place hard kisses along the stretched arm.  "Can you do this face to face?"

Squall made an assenting noise, but then added, "I don't know for how much longer.  A month or maybe a few weeks more than that."

"In other words, enjoy it while it lasts," Seifer stated with an eager smirk as he shifted between the sorcerer's legs.

"Safely, my lord," Squall reminded, giving the cock in his hold a final hard squeeze.  Pleased at the man's pained flinch, he pulled back his hand and relaxed with confidence in Seifer's skills which had greatly improved over their months together.

Seifer lifted a leg to his bare shoulder and helped to best adjust the brunet's position, each movement graced with a special sort of reverence that was never vocalized, but shown with purposeful caresses and featherlike kisses.  The first penetration jolted Squall, but not from the usual sensation of dull pain.  Instead, a heat like none other flared within his already sweating body and drew a quiet whine that he couldn't prevent.  Seifer instantly stilled at the unusual sound, but before a word could be spoken, Squall wrapped his arms around the man's neck and raked his fingers up into damp golden hair.

"You're too hot, rya soaler'ke.  I can't last."

With a quiet hush, Seifer pressed a consoling kiss against a pale forearm, but didn't attempt to hide the shine of burning green eyes.  Squall stared into the unnaturally bright gaze and in that instant understood why the lord always demanded for his eyes to remain open during their more intimate moments.  The sorcerer drew one hand down from hair spiked from sweat and brushed his thumb just below one eye, mystified at the passionate satisfaction he felt at the knowledge that it was his magic and his presence that had brought light to Seifer's eyes.

"Squall..." Seifer said in a breath, an implied plead that he couldn't continue to control his body's urges to move.

Inconsiderate of that need, Squall leaned in despite the awkward bend of his body and kissed slightly parted lips, the touch causing the lord to shudder and whisper a curse.  The sorcerer allowed himself to be pushed back down onto the mattress and breathed deeply as Seifer drew back slowly to promptly drive a hard thrust forward.  While the motions were painfully similar to the night only he remembered, Squall could no longer make himself believe that the act of sex between them was something wrong and disgusting, not when the bold mark of Sugenti Denynas moved in front of his eyes.  Shiva had approved of his unusual choice in a bond partner and it was a futile effort to maintain the front that he didn't want Seifer in his life.

The headboard creaked against the old wall, the sheets tangled between their legs, and drops of sweat pattered onto Squall's rocking body.  A lost pillow knocked against the nightstand and the loud thud of his forgotten book dropping to the floor did nothing to break the rhythm of Seifer's thrusts.  Squall arched back against the mattress and his hands moved to broad shoulders to claw deeply into skin tanned from his sparring sessions with the Shumi.

The sorcerer groaned at the feel of fire licking every inch of his body and cursed the knowledge that only Seifer could do that to him and it would only be Seifer for the rest of his existence.

The large blond swore sharply as his body jerked, the resulting movement within Squall drawing an echoing cursing as his body broke into heated release.  Lost in that abrupt flare of light and heat, Squall closed his eyes and breathed through the orgasm while continuing to clutch onto strong shoulders.

"Damn it, princeling," Seifer breathed between heavy pants.  "Don't do that... soul thing during sex... It'll be the death... of me."

Squall opened his eyes partway, looking much like he was squinting against a bright light.  It should have troubled him that he couldn't seem to control his soul's desire to reach out to Seifer, but such moments were rare and unexpectedly worth the effect it held over the lord.

Seifer huffed when he realized that he wasn't about to receive an apology, but his cocky smirk revealed his true option at the emotion he had felt through their bond.  After shrugging off the sorcerer's clawed hold and carefully removing himself, Seifer dropped at the man's side and placed a heavy arm over the scarred chest.  Squall scowled at the hot and sweaty weight of the arm against his skin and larger man pressed against his side, but he had no energy to shove aside the still smiling blond.

"So, only me, hmmm?" Seifer questioned in a low purr.

Lethargically lifting an arm, Squall folded his hand around the one hanging off from shoulder.  "Perhaps I need to try other partners to make certain."

The lord intertwined his fingers with his lover's.  "Unless you want to be responsible for their deaths, I suggest not fulfilling that threat."

The sorcerer couldn't prevent the slight curl of his lips.  "You'd spare my life after betraying you?"

Humming out a lazy 'yes', Seifer added, "But I'd chain you to my bed for the rest of time.  Let's see you seduce other lovers from a locked room."

Eyes half-closed and breaths slowing, Squall turned his head to the side and pressed his forehead's against the lord's sweaty brow.  "I'm hot."

"Sorry, can't move.  We'll cool off soon enough."

"Easy for you to say.  You don't have something living inside of you."

Seifer breathed a laugh.  "I won't bother attempting to win this argument."  The large man made to move to the other side of the bed, but the hand in his hold refused to let go, thus keeping him in place.  "Princeling, I can't move if you don't release my hand."

"Idiot," Squall scolded as he nudged closer.  "Don't do anything.  Just let me complain."

Eyes crossed while focusing on his lover's face, Seifer gazed with shameless amusement at the request.  "Of course, my Prince.  Whatever your desire."

"That's better," the sorcerer murmured, the haze of sleep eventually stealing him away from the uncomfortable heat.

~ > < ~

Morning came earlier than Squall preferred, the exhausted man waking to the jubilant chirping of spring birds that had taken roost just outside the open window.  Bodily necessities forced him to slip out of bed, a simple matter made into a complicated event when the sleeping man in his bed was reluctant to lose his apparent pillow.  With little time to spare, Squall relieved his bladder, and then used a wetted towel to wipe his body clean of dried sweat and other fluids.  Returning to the bedroom, he sighed at the sight of Seifer closing his eyes with the obvious hope that he wasn't caught awake.

"You need to return to the main house," Squall admonished while moving to a nearby dresser and selecting fresh clothing.  "Clean up and get dressed before I give you a reason to get out of bed."

With a groaning whine, Seifer rolled onto his side and gazed beseechingly at his lover.  "Why do you want to shorten our time together?"

Squall directed a hard glare at the lord for acting more like a spoilt child than a nobleman with plans to overthrow an empire.

Seifer sighed at the wordless declaration and scratched irritably at his messed hair while moving out of the bed.  Wrapping his free arm around the brunet's bare waist, Seifer pressed a passing kiss to the man's shoulder before continuing toward the wash room.  While the blond completed his routine, Squall dressed in loose clothing, straightened the bed sheets, and collected Seifer's discarded clothing from the floor, setting the items on the bed for the lord to dress in an appropriately rumbled manner to support the rumors associated to his scandalous night life.

"Matron doesn't like it when you clean things like that."

Picking up his fallen book, Squall replied, "I've been a servant for several years.  I think I'm capable of making a bed."

Seifer smirked at the reply, his eyes shining with the childish delight that he was going to 'tell' on Squall and make certain Edea scolded the sorcerer for doing more than what was needed.

Ignoring the smug expression, Squall decided that he was done waiting for the troublesome man and exited the bedchambers before Seifer had managed to slip on his wrinkled pants.  His steps light while passing the door to Leander's room, Squall moved to the dining room and was unsurprised to find the the first breakfast dishes already set on of the table and covered to stay warm.  Lifting a cover from a silver tray, he gazed hungrily at the revealed sight of cooked apples with cow tongue.

"Don't just look, child.  Eat!"

Squall glanced up guiltily at the woman who had appeared from the kitchen with a basket of bread.  "Matron, this is too much.  I know you don't like making these dishes."

"I'd cook an entire cow for you if that is what it takes to encourage you to eat," Edea said with stubborn sincerity.  "I've never seen such a picky eater and I've served five generations of Almasy noble blood."

Smiling softly at the statement, Squall knew the best way to give thanks to the motherly woman would be to enjoy her cooking until the plate was clean.  He took his place next to the head of the table and placed aside the cover from his specially made plate.  Cutting a small piece from the tip of the tongue, Squall savored the well seasoned meat that was balanced by the sweetness of apple juice.

Edea beamed at the sight of her meal being enjoyed.  "Is there anything else you want?"

"You've done more than enough, Matron."

Her smile softening to something appreciative, the raven-haired woman took a seat in the large chair typically reserved for the head of the household.  "I must say, it's quite relieving to see you recovered from your travels.  I can't imagine what Lord Seifer was thinking to drag someone in your condition across the continent."

"I didn't give him much choice," Squall commented while cutting his next piece.

The golden-eyed woman sighed at the implication that the sorcerer had placed himself into the troublesome position that had made him sick and possibly threatened the life carried within his body.  "I see that I'm going to have my hands full trying to keep you in place until that poor child is born."

"I won't be restrained to a bed," was the argument spoken around thick meat.

"Of course not," Edea agreed with a light laugh.  "But there are certain limits to what you should be doing."

"I know.  I've already learned those lessons."

"... May I ask from where?"

Freezing while raising his fork covered in cooked apples, Squall glanced at the motherly woman for the question that seemed to have an obvious answer.

Edea straightened at the pale-eyed gaze and was about to explain her question when the sound of booted feet approached the dining area.  Surprise visible in her typically controlled expression, she promptly stood up from her chair and folded her hands over her apron in an overly formal pose.  "My Lord, I didn't realize that you had... stayed the night."

With a grin at the woman's obvious discomfort, Seifer moved toward his usual seat that Edea had previously occupied.  "Squall has already lectured me about coming here too frequently.  I think he's trying to be rid of me."

"As if that's possible," Squall murmured before returning to his meal.

"My Lord," Edea began with a lightly scolding tone, "You should have informed me that you would join us for breakfast.  I'm afraid the meals I've prepared are meant to satisfy a sorcerer's unusual tastes or else is quite raw per the request of our exotic guest."

"That's perfectly fine, Matron," Seifer said while selecting a small loaf of bread from the basket on the table.  "If I appeared at the main house looking well fed and refreshed, no one will believe that I had spent the night in the capital.  Bread will tide me over before I find some alcohol to pour over my head and let dry during the ride back."

Edea sighed with pitying smile.  "It's a shame you are forced to play these games."

"Everything will be worth it," Seifer declared while tearing his bread in half.  "And last night was certainly--"

Placing his fork onto his plate with a loud clang, Squall directed a cold glare at the arrogant lord, but only gained a shameless grin in return.  With a sigh at the tactless nature of the blond, Squall decided to redirect the conversation at hand before Seifer could embarrass him further.  "Matron, you were about explain your question before this idiot appeared."

Edea tensed almost unnoticeably, her golden eyes shifting to the seated lord.  "It is nothing of immediate importance.  You should enjoy your meal."

Squall frowned at the woman's reluctance to speak in front of the nobleman, an uncommon reaction that suggested he wasn't about to enjoy the matter the motherly woman wished to discuss.  Despite the instinct to avoid such dialog, he set down his knife and fork to the table before motioning to the seat directly in front of him.

"Squall..." Edea said in part-argument, but Seifer spoke out before she could fully voice her refusal.

"It's rather obvious, my dear lady, that he won't continue eating until you speak your mind."  With a playful smile directed at the woman, Seifer thumbed in the direction of the seat Squall had already offered.  "Have a seat, Matron.  Or would you rather him leave his breakfast uneaten?"

A surprised gleam entered golden eyes before Edea realized that the typically dense-minded nobleman was correct in his assessment.  She stared at her lord and master with clear bewilderment, the stunned moment shortly followed by a sharp glance between both men as she struggled with the idea that there was a deeper relationship than she had dared to assume.  Squall fought against a smile as he considered his own amount of denial when it came to loving the man who had destroyed his life on more than one occasion.

Once regaining her composure, Edea moved to the offered chair and sat with her typical proper posture.  Eyes downcast in thought for a silent second, she stated evenly, "As you know, Ward was able to tell me what he knew about Master Leander's conception, and while the events trouble me, I do not wish to pry into the details about that tragic night.  But I'm concerned about the subsequent months and what 'lessons' you learned during your first pregnancy."

Squall said nothing as he stared at the woman who was a stern force within the kitchens, but at the end of the day, held an incredibly compassionate heart for everyone she considered her 'child'.  Her desire to know the past reflected Seifer's deeper passion to understand everything about his elusive lover, but Squall was still unable to believe that retelling the details of a pained past could bring any good to those involved.

When the sorcerer held his tongue, Edea spoke with a slight waver to her voice, "I don't know if you saw, but I was the one who found Master Leander when he was nothing more than a babe sleeping in a basket.  He was so small compared to most babies and it was so very cold that night, but I remember his blanket still feeling warm to the touch.  How long did you hold him before committing to the decision of leaving your child to his worthless father?"

With a deep breath to steel himself against memories of that night, as well as the lord's current stare of distressed green, Squall asked dolefully, "What do you want to know, Matron?"

"I don't mean to be offensive, but I can't begin to imagine how a young boy could have survived such an ordeal.  Weren't you terrified?"

Squall hesitated before his response, his voice soft and controlled when he said, "I can't say if it was a blessing or curse, but I knew from the beginning what was wrong with me.  I couldn't feel the piece of life within me for several weeks, but starting from that first day, my magic was drawn inward to support that beginning existence.  I immediately recognized the signs from my uncle's stories about his own experience."

With a hand covering her mouth in surprise, Edea asked, "Your uncle also gave birth to a child?"

The sorcerer nodded, disinclined to offer more information than necessary, but Seifer didn't seem to agree.

"Squall's uncle was Leander Loire," the lord stated with an odd measure of pride.  "Ander was named after him."

While Edea whispered a pleased 'oh my', Squall stared at the large blond and silently questioned Seifer's sudden amount of respect for a man he never knew.

Grinning at the pointed stare, Seifer said, "Ward has started to tell me stories about your dear uncle.  While Leander would've apparently tortured me to a slow and painful death, I can't help liking the man more and more with every new tale."

Squall hummed to himself, positive that Leander would have despised Seifer for 'defiling' his nephew, but Squall wasn't too certain what his uncle would have thought about the man who loved with all of his heart and soul, damning the consequences of not having that love returned.  Old Leander had a weakness for talk of 'true love' and Seifer would have easily fed into that fascination.

Lightly clearing her throat, Edea gained the attention of both men.  "While it's truly interesting to know the young master was named after someone you loved, I'm more concerned about the months of your pregnancy.  How did you..."  She waved a hand while looking for the right words without being insulting.

With a grim smile, Squall supplied, "How did I know what to do when no male child is taught anything useful about a woman's pregnancy?"  At Edea's apologetic nod, the sorcerer replied, "For the first months, there was nothing I could do, so I lived my life much as I had before - sleeping on the streets and doing whatever job was available.  That changed when the harvest season came.  I decided to travel to a nearby village in search of farm work like I had the year before, but the day was hot and the road had little shade, conditions I was poorly prepared to handle.  I didn't realize I had collapsed under the heat of the sun until a young priestess revived me.

"At that point, I looked much as I do now, but my hair was longer.  Selphie, the priestess, assumed I was female and offered to take me to her church where they sheltered some pregnant women.  Apparently, soldiers of the Imperial Army have a bad habit of mounting any pretty girl in the countryside and many families find it too shameful to have their daughters live with them during the length of their pregnancy.  While I was mortified to play a woman, they were willing to offer me a roof, food in exchange for menial work, and more importantly, there were lessons about the latter stages of pregnancy."

Edea breathed a soft sigh, a breath she seemed to hold since Squall mentioned his homeless situation.  "Then you were able to stay with them for the final months?"

Shaking his head, Squall continued, "It was a ruse that couldn't last.  I tried to be careful - I used my mother's name, I spoke softly and only when it was necessary, and I let the others assume my past as I refused to be naked with anyone - but everything unraveled when I became horribly ill two months later.  I thank Shiva to this day that Selphie was the one to volunteer and take care of me, which included washing the fevered sweat from my body.  She was horrified when she saw that I wasn't female and became incredibly angry at my deception which she at first thought included a fake pregnancy, but the living child in me was quite obvious at that stage.  Once recognizing that truth, Selphie decided that I was a cursed man and kindly continued to treat my illness without revealing my secret to anyone, but when I was strong enough, she escorted me from the church with the strong suggestion that I should never return."

"Oh, Squall..." Edea said pityingly.

"She was perfectly in her right," Squall defended firmly.  "I was an abomination in her mind, and yet she still cared for my wellbeing.  She even went so far as to mention an abandoned farm house that could provide shelter and gave me some extra clothing to wear against the approaching winter months.  No, she did more than I deserved for my reckless actions and I don't think I would have survived otherwise."

Seifer reached out beneath the table, his hand wrapping around Squall's.  Though nothing was said, the sorcerer could see it in the man's eyes that a sizeable donation would be made to the church that had given refuge to the suffering sorcerer.  While typically adverse to excessive use of money, Squall knew each copper piece would be well used by those within the church who had made a practice of helping the people that were ignored by society.

"I spent the last several weeks within that farm house," Squall said to finish his story.  "I would only leave for the capital to buy food with my last coins, and gods be damned, it was one such evening when the contractions hit me.  I managed to hide in an alleyway, smothered my cries to avoid anyone from finding me, and... Leander was born onto cold stone, practically in a gutter."

Hands folded on top of the table, Edea shook her head.  "Sweet child, forgive me, I shouldn't have asked you recount the events which have left such deep scars in your soul.  I never dared to imagine the life you led before coming here, but everything you've said..."

"Don't apologize, Matron.  In truth, you weren't the only one who needed to hear about that past."  Looking at his bonded partner, Squall explained, "This is some of the pain you felt during our joining.  Does it help you to understand the source of that pain?"

A sheen of somber blue softened the intensity of green eyes as Seifer met his lover's gaze and lifted his free hand to brush fingers across the sorcerer's pale cheek.  "Tell me, why did you chose to give Leander to me?  You deserved him far more after all of your sacrifice."

With a weak laugh, Squall said, "Look at me, Seifer - I have nothing that could nurture a babe.  I learned very quickly that I had no milk for a newborn and no coin to purchase soft blankets that wouldn't scratch his skin.  For weeks, I begged for the sake of my child, asking only for milk and nothing for myself, but it was too much.  I spent those days considering my options and came to the conclusion that leaving him here was Leander's best chance at life.  Not because you were the father, but because Ward seemed to be in your good graces.  I thought he would convince you to let a sorcerer child stay in your household as a servant.  I never considered that you would accept Leander as your son and heir."

"You didn't want to give him to me," Seifer said with a gentle smile, most likely imagining the sorcerer from that night, holding his child for what he thought was the last time.

"I knew you as a drunken bastard.  Of course I feared for his life and wellbeing."

"And now?" Seifer prodded.

"I still fear for his life."  At the lord's somewhat crestfallen gaze, Squall said, "He's only seven and already shows his Almasy blood.  It's a miracle you have survived this long and I can't assume Leander will be equally blessed."

Green eyes danced with a clear retort in mind, but he wasn't given the chance when Edea laughed with visible delight at the exchange between the two men.  An eyebrow raised, Seifer stared questioningly at the typically reserved woman.

"It seems I owe Ward an apology," Edea said while standing from her seat, but didn't clarify any further.  "My Lord, I believe you have been kept here too long.  You'll be expected at the manor for breakfast."

With a deep sigh, Seifer stood from his chair without releasing his hold on Squall's hand.  Bending in a formal manner, he lifted that hand and pressed a kiss against long fingers.  "As promised, I will endure three days without your presence.  I'm trusting Matron to watch over you in my stead."

"My food isn't getting any warmer," Squall commented dismissingly, his voice not as stern as he had hoped.

His smirk angular with a knowing curl, Seifer released the hand in his hold.  "Then I shall leave you to your meal."

Though unspoken, the sorcerer heard the warning of 'be prepared for my return' in the man's low tone that edged a sensual timber.  Squall maintained a bored expression while the lord left with a slight drag to his typically bold stride, Seifer admirably restraining himself from a final backward glance at his lover.  Once the click of boots could no longer be heard, Squall took his knife and fork in hand with the intention to return peacefully to his meal.

"I never thought I would see the day."

Squall hummed questioningly, his attention more focused on cutting a piece of meat.

Edea continued to gaze at the lord's exit when saying, "Ward told me that our trouble child had finally fallen in love, but I didn't believe him.  I thought Lord Seifer only desired a physical relationship and then felt responsible for the child you bear, but just now, he gazed at you just as his father would gaze at his bride."  Looking down at Squall, she smiled and added, "It may be too late, but I should warn you that if he has his father's mentality, you won't be safe while pregnant, not even to the last day."

Briefly halting while lifting his fork to his mouth, Squall frowned in thought along with drawn eyebrows.  "Good to know," he replied before finishing his bite.

Edea laughed lightly at the tone that suggested plans would be made to temper Seifer's insatiable desires.  Any other words, however, were cut short when the sounds of unsteady steps approached from the other end of the building and Leander appeared in the dining room with a fisted hand rubbing his eyes and his mouth wide open in a prolonged yawn.  Sekre followed shortly behind, the Moomba dressed in his typical attire of soft leather and metal without the need of heavy robes as Edea had grown accustomed to his appearance and no other person dared to visit the summer home placed under quarantine.

"You're up early, Leander," Squall commented while watching the half-asleep boy stumble to the chair closest to his and crawl up onto the cushioned chair.

"Uhn, I thought Daddy was here," the boy said as he somewhat clumsily removed the cover from his waiting plate.  He smiled at the sight of 'sorcerer's food', the term he had given the concoctions only he and Squall enjoyed.

"Sorry, lion cub, but he already left for the manor and he won't be back for several days."

"Oh," Leander replied with a pitiful frown.

Squall reached out and placed a consoling hand deep into sleep-messed hair.  "You know that these are temporary arrangements.  We are playing a dangerous game right now, so we need you to be very strong and support your father during these times."

Leander glanced up at the sorcerer, and after a moment of thought, nodded with a fierceness to young green eyes.  "I promised Father that I'd protect you when he's gone, but I wish he'd stay longer."

"He misses you, too, but he also knows that everything he does now will shape the future.  More than anything, he wants to give you and your sister a life without fear."

Sitting tall, Leander declared, "Father will do it.  He always does what he promises."

With a soft smile directed at his son, Squall was surprised by his own impulse to blindly trust the arrogant lord to conquer any challenge no matter how daunting it seemed.  It was a foolish hope, but when Seifer was a man who had gained the heart of the tired and beaten sorcerer, a heart that Squall thought he had lost to ice long ago, it was easy to believe in the impossible.  But while easy to believe, Squall couldn't bring himself to speak the words, both superstition and fear stilling his tongue.

Unbothered by the man's silence, Leander started into his breakfast with youthful eagerness.

For a time, Squall watched his son eat a meal that was a favorite in their lost country, the inconsequential sight seeming more meaningful than Leander's use of magic.  Before he returned to his own meal, Squall hesitated at the shifting sensation within his body as his daughter made herself known.  It was a startling moment to realize that he was with a family that had no right to exist per his beliefs, but when cold anger stirred in the chest at that idea that his children didn't deserve to live, Squall knew that he was beyond considering his beliefs as absolute and free of human prejudice.

Placing a hand at his raised stomach, the sorcerer closed his eyes in a silent prayer that he wasn't wrong to doubt the lessons preached by their clerics and instead trust Seifer's conviction that their daughter was simply their daughter.  The small life within him moved at that moment, and though it wasn't the answer Squall wanted, he realized that it should be the only answer he needed.

"Are you well?"

At the lightly growling voice, Squall opened his eyes and looked directly into the unforgiving gaze of deep amber.  The question was straightforward, but the sorcerer felt heavy with the weight of implications behind his answer.  At the unreserved clinking of silverware, Squall glanced over at his oblivious child and, despite himself, he felt his lips curl into a hopeful smile.

"I'm fine.  Everything is just fine."


The evening sun another hour from resting behind the horizon, the sky was a somber pale blue with wisps of clouds left over from the morning's rain storm.  Tall trees shaded the large summer house from the dropping sun and their vibrant green leaves rustled quietly in a slight breeze that served to cool a body without being a disturbance.  Easily frightened squirrels scurried from tree trunks to the forest floor, their small ears perked in wariness of the cats that hunted for mice in the summer house.

Enjoying the peaceful sights and sounds of the surrounding forest, Squall sat on the edge of wooden steps and leaned against a wide pillar while staring out at the lake in the short distance.  At his lap, Seifer had stolen the available space to rest his head and kept an arm wrapped around the underside of bent legs.  While it was an unnecessary and terrible risk for Seifer to visit his family during the daylight hours, the lord had spent his last month finalizing important plans in the capital and others villages, staying late into the night along with others loyal to his cause.  Between such strategy sessions, Seifer still maintained his facade within the nobility, which meant attending various parties and playing the role of an ignorant lord loyal to his Empire.

Altogether, the stress had begun to take its toll on the young man, so when Seifer had appeared earlier that afternoon with dark circles under his eyes, Squall didn't have the heart to deny the man's simple request for an evening of rest with those he loved.  Despite his cautious mentality, Squall was able to reason that, if he had refused, the volatile man would more likely make a grievous mistake when overburdened with thoughts of his family instead of the tasks at hand.

Disturbing the peace of the quiet evening, a clatter of fast footsteps sounded at the nearby doorway, promptly followed by a loud, "I found them!"

Seifer jerked awake at the yell and clutched tightly at Squall's legs to prevent slipping off the top step of the stairs in his surprise.  "Hyne's fucking cock, what was that?"

"That was your son directing someone to our presence," Squall replied wryly.  Turning as best he could with the lord still occupying his lap, he looked at the boy excitedly bouncing on the balls of his feet.  "Leander, what are you doing?"

Standing at the doorway, the child lord glanced back over his shoulder and grinned with a familiar curl of lips, appearing everything like an Almasy with a secret.  "Sekre has something for you."

A dark eyebrow lifted into an interested arch at the statement, but Squall held back his questions for the Moomba's eventual appearance.  In the meantime, Seifer pushed up from his resting position and motioned lazily for his son to come close.  Though experience should have taught Leander otherwise, he stepped within the man's long reach and was promptly grabbed to be pinned against hard wood.  Torture in the form of merciless tickling ensued to the point of breathless laughter and tears streaking at odd angles across the boy's face.

"That is why you never wake a soldier from his well deserved sleep," Seifer informed somewhat uselessly to his wheezing son.  Squall found it somewhat interesting that he had no urge to save the squirming boy, but instead took some pleasure while watching Seifer torment their child.

Silent as a shade, Sekre stepped into view while dressed in dark robes, but with his hood lowered to keep his long ears free of the clinging material and his feline countenance in plain view.  Though Seifer had assured differently in the past month, the Moomba was wary to leave the safety of the summer house where others could view them from the surrounding forest and felt calmer when prepared to cover his features at the first sound of an unexpected visitor.  Amber eyes focused on the play of father and son, and Sekre smiled with an amused curl of dark lips that showed hints of pointed fangs.

Eventually choosing to recognize the Moomba's presence, Seifer grabbed onto a flailing arm and hauled Leander into his lap where the boy was promptly captured into a bear hug that gave Leander enough room to breath and little more.  The dark-haired child didn't seem to mind the confining position as he wrapped small hands along muscular forearms and smiled up at the large cat.

Sekre nodded his thanks to Leander before moving his tawny gaze to the seated sorcerer.  "Forgive my interruption of the time with your kri'sange, but I was asked by Dzieden to gift this to you when you were prepared."

"You know Seifer isn't my kri'sange," Squall argued out of reflex, his thoughts instead focused on the rest of the Moomba's statement.  "And what do you mean by 'prepared'?"

Dark lips pulled back further in his smile, but Sekre said nothing when revealing a large book.  Squall instantly recognized the script of the sorcerers' lost language and stared in disbelief at the old book that should have been destroyed along with the precious library that was devoured by the flames of the Massacre.  At the brunet's hesitation, Sekre motioned forward with the aged book, encouraging Squall to accept the apparent gift.

Brushing a reverent hand over the leather cover, Squall asked in a weak voice, "Where did this come from?"

"Many, many years in the past, before the times of Adel, a magic user came to our village.  He gave our H'rugur of the time that book and asked him to protect it until someone needed to read its words.  It is said he was cursed with sight of the future and knew these words would be lost if he did not save them.  Twice this book has left our protection, twice it has returned to us for the same reason it first came into our possession."

Curious, Squall opened the aged book and glanced over the first pages.  His eyebrows furrowed at the listed titles.  "I don't understand, Sekre.  These are legends... fairy tales that my father would tell me before bedtime.  Why are they so important?"

With a smooth shrug of shoulders, the cat said, "Dzieden said it was for you to discover."

Squall sighed in frustration at the games of the Shumi Ealher, but wasn't allowed to dwell on the matter when Leander leaned forward as best he could while trapped in his father's hold.

"Are those sorcerer legends?" the boy asked with predictable interest.  "Can you read them to us?"

After a quick glance at the sky, Squall replied, "There's enough light for one story."

While Leander smiled at the possibility, Seifer gained a thoughtful expression that the sorcerer didn't care for, especially when the lord abruptly whispered something into the boy's ear.  Leander cocked his head in confusion, but still asked as if it was his own request, "Does the book have the story that says where the blue and red flame came from?"

Though answering his son, stormy eyes narrowed on the grinning nobleman.  "Are you certain that's the story you want to hear?  I may not want to read another story for days or even weeks after this one."

Leander's resolve weakened slightly as he considered other stories he wanted to hear first, but with one glance back at his father, his expression hardened with certainty.  "That's the flame I saw when you and Father joined, right?  Is there a legend about it?"

Knowing he had lost, Squall nodded absently to the boy's question while carefully searching the book for the story that was unfortunately listed on the title page.  In short time, he came across the page that had a simplistic illustration of an alluring woman with long hair that flowed to her feet, elfin ears decorated with various jewelry, and flowing robes that protected her body from the eyes of mortals.

"She's pretty," Leander announced from his position at Seifer's lap, encouraging the blond to move closer so that the boy could get a better look at the book's illustration.

"That is Shiva, our holy goddess," Squall said softly.  "This legend is about her and her lover, Ifrit."

Leander frowned at the comment and asked drearily, "Is this a story about kissing?"

Though tempted to say it was and avoid the tale altogether at the boy's disgust, Squall instead shook his head and said, "I think you'll like it."

Leander appeared far from impressed, but Seifer whispered in the child's ear to endure it for his sake.  After a light glare in the lord's direction to announce that he had heard the plea, Squall looked to the book of meticulous handwriting and placed his fingers beneath the first line.  The style was an older form of the language he was raised to read, but he understood enough to recite a simpler version of the dense prose.  With a readying breath, he began the story he hadn't heard since his father had used it as a bedtime tale:

In the long past, before the separation of Ensem from the Great Continent, gods walked freely upon the earth and lived devotedly under the watchful eye of Hyne, the holy Father and Mother of all creation.  Of His children existed a daughter of unrivaled beauty, a daughter born from an island of ice and bestowed the duty of commanding the storms of winter and calling upon the winds of spring to end the days of frost.  Lithe as a flitting fairy, skilled as the best marksman, Shiva lived apart from the other gods and the human kingdoms, preferring the sanctity of the mountains that reached toward the heavens.

Word of her loveliness spread across the human lands and to the gods wandering the earth, and eventually traveled to the depth of Hell itself.  Diablos, the King of Hell and Master of Demons, was enthralled by the tales of the beauty who had skin as pale as fresh snow, eyes as cold as lifeless sapphire, and hair as stunning as the frozen storms under her control.  Resolving to make Shiva his wife, Diablos forged dark shackles from the black metals of the Underworld, polished the metal until it shone like ebony, and then meticulously etched the runes that made the chain indestructible to ice and fire.  Once finished, he summoned his most loyal servant, Ifrit - a fire beast of black scythe-like horns, a mane of crimson fur, and a body of hard muscle - and commanded him to capture the goddess who was deemed worthy enough to be the Bride to the Demon King.

Unable to deny his Lord any request, Ifrit took the dark shackles and began his search across the earth for the recluse goddess, a hunt that pulled him high into the ancient mountain ranges and deep into hidden valleys.  Late into the winter, Ifrit traveled a passageway between the rugged peaks of a vast mountain range and gained his first scent of a flower that could not exist within the suffocating snow drifts.  His smile feral and eyes bright gold, the fire beast ran across snow and rock while following the trail of the distinctive scent.

Drawn to a thick forest of leafless trees, Ifrit treaded softly and skillfully maneuvered his bulky form to prevent alerting his prey of his presence.  The fire beast reached the edge of the forest to be stunned into immobility for he had found his Master's bride and was not prepared for her beauty.  Upon a lake a thick ice dusted with snow from a recent flurry, Shiva danced with the perfect grace of the gods, her silken robes flowing like a gentle breeze.  Each movement held a purpose, her elegant hands carving symbols into the air and slipper-covered feet tracing lines into the light snow.

Entranced, Ifrit was startled when the goddess abruptly turned with a flurry of pale robes and lengthy hair.  Eyes without warmth stared at the intruding brute, and as new snow began to fall onto the frozen lake, she asked,

"What is your purpose, demon?"

"To find my Master's bride."

"Is she lost?"

"No, she is here."

Shiva saw the dark shackles wrapped at the fire beast's arm and recognized the entrapping magic for what it was.  Against Ifrit's assumptions about the delicate goddess fleeing much like a rabbit, Shiva smiled with all the warmth of winter frost.  A hand extended, clear ice stretched out and formed a perfect bow.  Her other hand lifted to create an arrow of shimmering light and aimed the deadly point between bright golden eyes.

"You are mistaken."

The world changed at the battle between goddess and demon, their physical blows tearing into the earth and shattering the ground with the force of their strikes.  Their unrestrained magic of ice and fire clashed to form massive windstorms that widened the cracks within the earth, driving apart the lands and creating the continent of Ensem.

Though weakened by the winter that tempered his fire, Ifrit was one of the finest warriors in Hell, a rare demon of intelligence in addition to brutal strength.  Shiva lasted nine days and nights against the fire demon, her arrows true in aim, but weak against the unwavering demon.  Her defeat came under the moonlight when the broken earth shifted and collapsed beneath her feet, but she did not fall.  Her wrists trapped within Ifrit's massive hand, Shiva hung above the endless chasm.  Captured in the beast's grasp, she bowed her head and conceded his victory.

The shackles placed at her pale throat and delicate wrists burned into her unblemished skin, but she did not cry.  A hand always at her chains, Ifrit guided her across unforgiving mountains and untouched valleys, but she did not lose her poise.  At the entrance to Hell, the fire beast stood at the gateway guarded by Cerberus and described the future awaiting the Bride to the Demon King, but she did not recoil in fear.

Never before had Ifrit felt like an animal as when he stood side by side to the snow goddess.

The gates opened for any to view upon Hell and Shiva said,

"I have not called for Spring."

Black chains rattled, but did not bend when Ifrit clutched the magical restraints.

"It will be a long Winter."

Loyal to his Master, Ifrit led the goddess across the threshold between this world and the Underworld.

The path to the throne room was long, time meaning nothing without the sun.  Stolen from her world of snow and light, Shiva faded in the confines of Hell.  Her pale beauty grew ashen, the sun-golden strands with frozen-blue hair changed to the yellow of dying leaves, and her lovely silken robes tore at the jagged brimstone that lied in their path.  Only her eyes held their initial beauty, fearless and cold as they stared at the world that was to become her home.

Ifrit brought the goddess before his Master, the Demon King prepared for the arrival of his bride.  A small throne made of black lava rock and rotted bones stood beside the grand throne of the King of Hell, ready for its Queen.  Diablos rose from his throne, his wings of blood-colored leather spread wide as he approached his servant and bride.  Amber eyes studied the goddess brought before him.

"She does not seem so beautiful."

Ifrit knelt before his Master without releasing his hold on forged chains.

"Her beauty has wilted without the sun."

"Matters not.  She will suit me and my world well."

From a winged servant, Diablos was given a crown made of dead rose vines twisted into a circlet of thorns.  He smiled a shark's smile, full of teeth and without mercy, and with the crown held between bloodstained hands, held it above the head of the silent goddess.

Ifrit stood without warning and knocked the dead circlet from his Master's hold.  Unprepared for the betrayal of his loyal slave, Diablos fell beneath a bone crushing strike against his chest and did not rise.  Ifrit lifted the chained goddess and draped her over his broad shoulder before fleeing the throne room, aware that no one could defeat the King of Hell.

"What have you done?"

"This is not your world."

"He will kill you."

"My King would give you a living death."

Diablos did wake and called upon his armies of demons and the dead, commanding them to destroy the Betrayer and to retrieve his Bride.  Ifrit fought off the swarms of dark creatures, protective of the chained goddess as they came closer and closer to the gates of Hell.  Shiva begged to be set free and allowed to fight, but Ifrit feared the shackles could never be broken except by the touch of the Demon King.  Still, she asked him to try and the beast could not deny the request.

Hidden within the Maze of Lost Souls, Ifrit wrapped a clawed hand at the thick collar and used his fire against the metal that could not be bent.  Shiva did not cry out at the searing pain, but raised her hand to twine her fingers within the thick fingers of the beast.  With his strength, Shiva pulled for her magic despite the seals etched into her shackles, but ice did not appear; instead, flames of sapphire ignited within the crimson fire at her throat.  Dark metal hissed and cracked beneath the joined magic, and then shattered into dust.

Freed, Shiva fought at the side of the fire beast, two souls against the servants of the Demon King as they struggled to reach the gates of Hell and salvation.  They did not remember the guardian of the gates, Cerberus, and Ifrit was drawn into a battle against the three-headed canine.  Weakened by Winter and exhausted by endless battles, Ifrit was an unfortunate match against Cerberus' trashing teeth.  Two heads defeated, the third latched onto the beast's side, its yellowed teeth piercing through the solid body.  Spears of ice rained upon the Hell Dog, killing it in a deafening moment.

Lost of power after her strike, Shiva crawled to the wounded fire beast and knelt at his side.  She cried over his body, pearls of ice clinging to the mane of crimson fur.

Ifrit's pained laughter echoed throughout the caverns of Hell.

"You cry for nothing... but this?"

Shiva did not answer, but wrapped her hands around his bloodied hand.

"Run, my Goddess.  He comes..."

The warning was his last breath.

Unable to leave the side of her savior, Shiva closed her eyes and...

Squall halted in his reading of the sorcerers' script, his stormy eyes wide in confusion and his breath shallow when he flipped the page and stared unseeingly at the text that continued for several more pages.

"What's wrong?" Seifer asked in the same tone he used whenever about to summon Kinneas when he thought something was wrong with his pregnant lover.

Slowly shaking his head, Squall replied in bewilderment, "This isn't how the story ends.  In the version I know, she kills herself and escapes to Heaven, but never again to set foot on the mortal world.  But this... this continues far beyond that..."

"Then you should continue reading it," Sekre stated from his position leaning next to the back entryway.

Glancing over his shoulder, Squall stared at the Moomba.  "What is the meaning of this?"

Sekre showed no expression at the accusatory tone, but his tail flicked against the material of his robes.  "You won't know unless you continue."

Eyes narrowed, the sorcerer nearly spoke out in argument, but a heavy weight against his side stole away his attention.  Squall glanced at the boy latched onto his arm and met the gaze of eager green as Leander stared up questioningly.

"Does Shiva really die?  Does Diablos get her first?"

At the innocent inquiry, Squall smiled slightly and felt foolish for the unease he felt at the existence of a different version of a childhood story.  More so, he had argued many times in the past that it was nothing more than a fairy tale and that it gave no meaning to the sapphire and crimson flames that existed between him and Seifer.  He had given the story more power than it deserved and it was unlike him to do so.  With a nod to his son, Squall returned to the book and recited:

Unable to leave the side of her savior, Shiva closed her eyes and ignored the careful approach of demons while she prayed to her Father and Mother, Hyne.

"Save him.  He does not deserve death."

"Child, beautiful Child, there is nothing left to save."

"Have I asked anything else of You?  I live as You command.  I love the Winter You have given me, I cherish the Spring that burns me, and I have asked for nothing.  Please, Mother, Father, grant me this one wish."

"You would sacrifice for this beast, this slave of Hell?"

"I have already sacrificed and would suffer more if it brings him back."

"And lose your immortal life?"

"If that is Your judgment."

"Then give your life to restore his."

Shiva lowered the heavy hand held in hers and opened her eyes to view upon the approach of Diablos.  Blue lips formed a rare smile when she lifted a hand and showed the Demon King an arrow of glittering light.  Diablos roared and commanded his legions to stop her, but Shiva had already pierced the magical shaft into her chest and gave her life to Hyne.

With the life of His daughter in His command, Hyne did not do as told to restore the life of the fire beast.  Instead, He waited patiently for Time to create the circumstances He desired for His child, and then used the lonely spirit to create two mortal lives.  One life was born from...

Squall choked on his breath and stared at the text as if it was lying to him.  He would declare it a cruel joke if the words hadn't been written in the ancient language of sorcerers, nothing that could be mimicked by someone who wasn't schooled to write the complex script.  With a glance back at the watching Moomba, Squall frowned at the knowing gleam to amber eyes, but still returned to the text.

... born from the body of a sorcerer, Damues, and with the love of a healer, Jasun.  By the guidance of the gods, they returned to her the name of Shiva.  Though mortal in life, she matured into a woman who was more powerful than the greatest sorcerer, wiser than the ancients who ruled their kingdom, and more beautiful than the ladies of royalty.  Suitors of all countries would seek for her hand, but none could catch her.

Tired of her determined suitors, Shiva climbed the mountains in escape and wandered deeper each time.  One day late in the autumn, she heard the howls of attacking wolves and followed their cries to discover a gray creature defending himself against the hungry beasts.  Her heart jerked in fear for the creature and she did all in her power to destroy the wolves.

The gray creature mortally injured from tearing bites, Shiva sacrificed her healing blood to save his life, but was unprepared for the vibrant fire that engulfed his body.  She wrapped her arms around the small creature and held him close to her body and called upon cold winds to smother the flames.  Stubborn, the fire continued to burn without harming her skin, but Shiva held on until the last flicker of bright red flames vanished into the night.

In her arms, the gray creature was replaced by smaller beast of crimson fur and glowing amber eyes.  Shiva knew her savior at that moment, as did Ifrit recognize his Goddess, and in their mortals lives, they were allowed to love...

The sorcerer continued to stare at the text before him, stunned by the words he had never once heard from his tutors nor read in the vast libraries of their capital city.  Without looking to the Moomba, Squall asked dazedly, "Is this what Dzieden meant by Shiva's human life?  That she was a sorceress before she was taken to the Heavens?"

"From what we understand, she was the first sorceress," Sekre stated plainly.

"I still... How is this possible?  No other book describes this account of the legend.  It must be some kind of deception on the part of whoever wrote this text."

"You would believe that true before believing this legend?" Sekre asked in part amusement, but didn't wait for a response before explaining, "The times of Adel changed many things.  This book was saved when others were burned."

"And the Shumi believe this tale to be true?  That Ifrit also lived in mortal form as a Moomba?"

"We do not remember those times and had no story to explain why Ifurit loves us or why we change into Moomba.  But we do remember Aeris and her kindness for our clan, and for that reason, this legend does not feel wrong to us."

Squall shook his head, too overwhelmed to consider his own belief about the words that didn't match the history he knew... or thought he knew.

From his side, Leander pressed a hand against the curved stomach and asked, "Is Verena going to be like Shiva?"

Before Squall could reply, Seifer placed his hand on top of Leander's and said, "Your sister is going to be even more beautiful than a mere goddess.  You and I will have our hands full with chasing away the bastards who will think they are good enough to court her."

Leander grinned up at the blond, clearly excited at the prospect of partnering with his father in the mission to protect the unborn girl from the world.

Squall glanced at Seifer's face, some calm returning at the sight of his sharp green eyes and confident smirk.  Noticing the eyes on him, Seifer widened his smile before reaching out with his free hand and stroking his fingers deep into dark chestnut hair.  Squall leaned into the touch he unknowingly craved from his bonded partner.

With a returned sense of composure, the sorcerer considered the Moomba's words and eventually asked, "Who else has seen this book?"

"I do not know all, but Dzieden said that your father's brother once came to us when he had questions.  This book was his answer."

Briefly closing in his eyes at the dull ache caused by old memories, Squall gazed down at the large book that held many more legends.  There was some fear at the simple stories that could shatter everything he believed, but a small voice in his mind questioned the worth of beliefs based on altered accounts and forced morals.  He brushed his fingertips beneath the final illustration depicting Shiva in human form while embracing a reborn Moomba, the creature's large paw clinging onto the traditional clothing of past sorcerers.  Stormy eyes glanced to the next page that promised more tales about the destined pair, but he carefully closed the book to rest in lap.

His gaze drifting up to the darkening sky, Squall placed his hand on top of the ones still heavy against his stomach.  "I will need you both to protect this girl."

While Leander nodded with youthful enthusiasm, the sorcerer directed a meaningful glance to Seifer.  The lord smiled in a fashion that was nearly lustful, making Squall doubt that the man understood his worry with the plans that were to be enacted within a month's time.  Ignoring the abruptly cool gaze from pale eyes, Seifer leaned in close to press a kiss at the corner of full lips and spoke his pledge against soft flesh.

"Our daughter won't be brought into this world without me, my Prince."

Squall lifted his hand and clawed his fingers deep into golden spikes.  He wanted to be angry at the man for making a promise that clearly held the veiled meaning that if Seifer were to be killed, Squall along with their daughter would follow him into death.  Their joining shouldn't have made it an absolute, but Squall felt from the beginning that their bond ran too deep and twisted within their souls to never be removed.  There was no life without each other, and though there should have been fear at the revelation, Squall instead felt guilty relief at the knowledge he wouldn't survive to have another bond broken.

"I want this girl."  The words he stated in a rush surprised Squall himself, the sorcerer dumbfounded by his statement that he couldn't be certain was true.  But when Seifer leaned back and stared with eyes of wide jade, Squall was stunned by the knowledge that he wanted to see a daughter with his vibrant eyes, he wanted to watch her father cope with dresses and lace, and he wanted to be there for every first he missed with Leander.  And more than all of that, he wanted to live his life with the impossible lord.  His expression pained at his renouncement of everything he thought was right, Squall repeated with more confidence, "I want this girl."

Seifer smiled with a consoling edge.  "Then I will make this a perfect world for her."


Standing next to a large open window, Squall stared out into the star covered sky while a raised hand kept lengthy bangs from his eyes.  He had never taken much stock in the belief held by some sorcerers that the stars and planets could be read to determine the future, but staring up into the moonless night, Squall wished he had a minor comfort to mitigate his fears that something was wrong.  Tugging dark locks between his fingers, he eyed a reddish star and wondered if it was his imagination that it seemed overly bright compared to the other stars in the black sky.

"What in the good name of Hyne are you still doing awake?" Edea demanded with the exasperation of someone who was faced with an impossible situation.

Squall didn't reply, but turned to acknowledge the raven-haired woman dressed in an old nightgown and a matching robe.

"It's not good for you or your child to be standing around like this," she mothered while stepping close, but instead of dragging away the sorcerer to the nearest bed, Edea took a seat at the windowsill and sighed worriedly when staring up at the silent man.  "Why aren't you asleep, Squall?  Is little Verena making things difficult for you?"

The sorcerer shook his head in reply, unable to discourage the woman from her concern.  For over three decades, Edea had assumed the role of midwife for the female servants in the Almasy household.  Despite that experience, she seemed befuddled by the pregnancy of a man, particularly when she cared for that man like an adopted son.  The same symptoms that she would have laughed off for a pregnant woman were treated with the utmost caution despite Squall's constant protests.

"Something must be wrong, child.  It's late, far too late for you to be awake and staring up into the sky."

"... He's not here."

Edea frowned in concern, her fine eyebrows drawn.  "If Master Seifer was allowed his way, you know that he would have stayed here all day instead of fulfilling his duty as the head of the Almasy Estate.  I imagine the celebration is simply running late, as they tend to do."

"No, he promised to be here long before now.  Something is wrong."

"He could be delayed for any number of reasons," Edea suggested in a soothing tone.

Squall refrained from reminding her about the bond that joined him to the reckless lord, a bond that had been filled with unease since they parted before sunrise that morning.

It was the night of the Empress' birthday, an event that was to be honored by nobility from across the continent at the grand ball that would shame all other celebrations since her last birthday.  As the head of the wealthiest family in the Empire, Seifer couldn't refuse the personal invitation from the Emperor to attend the celebration, and thus left to prepare earlier that day.  Squall had to admit his reluctant admiration for the lord's front of confidence during the morning hours, Seifer already assuming his role of a flirtatious nobleman without a care in the world.  But in reality, the assassination of the Emperor was planned for the night after the festivities, a time when security would be relaxed after a long day of successfully protecting their royal leaders and guests throughout an overcrowded ball.

While there was no intelligence to suggest that anyone within the Imperial Palace was wise to the coming attack, Squall was more afraid of his cousin's tendency to act erratically and without mercy.  Seifer's life had been targeted many times in the past, the last time by the sorceress' decree alone, and the fact Seifer was still breathing had to be a thorn in the woman's side.  It was an optimistic hope that Seifer would be safe within the mass of nobility attending the event, but nothing was guaranteed when it came to the vindictive sorceress.

"Mommy...?"

Pulled from disconcerting thoughts, Squall glanced back over his shoulder to find Leander standing a short distance away, his young eyes tired and full of distress.  Without a spoken word, Squall reached out a beckoning hand, and when Leander pressed against his side, he wrapped a strong arm around the small body.

"Where's Father?"

Squall shook his head.

Small fingers clutched harder at the sorcerer's shirt.  "I had a dream where a dragon ate him.  When I woke up, I tried to reach for him like always, but he won't let me.  Something's wrong."

"I know," Squall whispered, enduring a harsh look from Edea for confirming the young boy's fears.

"Young master," Edea said with a soft smile.  "You mustn't worry so much.  I am certain Lord Seifer is on his way back at this very moment."

Scowling, Leander argued, "You're wrong, Matron.  Father almost never stops me from reaching for him.  If he was coming home, then he'd let me feel him."

Her smile lost, Edea sighed in a wordless admission that she couldn't understand the ways of sorcerers, least of all the forged bond between the lord and servant.  Standing up from the windowsill, she brushed off her robe and said, "I might as well make us some hot cider.  There's no telling how long we will be forced to wait."

Some time later, Squall sat upon a sofa with a half-finished mug of cider in one hand and his arm around the boy resting fitfully against his side.  Edea sat in her usual spot at an old rocking chair and took up her knitting needles to work on a small dress that she had started earlier that day.  The soft clicking helped to soothe Squall to the point where his eyelids threatened to close despite his worry, but another sound immediately cast away the lethargy that was clouding his thoughts.

The clatter of hooves against hard ground could be heard from the courtyard and Squall found it odd that he knew that Fritz, Seifer's favored horse, was not one of the horses approaching the house.  There was painful silence in the moment it took for the riders to dismount and enter the front door, the sound of boots on stone suggesting two men.  Already on her feet since the sound of hoof beats, Edea left the sitting area to receive them before an unwanted person could view the sorcerer weighted down by his drowsy son.

After a sharp series of whispers from the entry hall, Edea appeared at the threshold with a drawn face.  Ward followed shortly behind, his formal uniform streaked with dirt and otherwise messed from a hard ride.  Pale blue eyes serious and shadowed, the large steward didn't step forward from his position between the two rooms.  With Leander awake at the noise, Squall was able to push himself up from the sofa and took a step forward before Ward lifted a hand in a sign that he should stay in place.

"I'm afraid I don't come with good news," Ward said tightly, the corner of his mouth twitching to reveal clenched teeth before he added, "Master Seifer has been taken."

Though the information was far from surprising, Squall still felt a sharp pain pierce his heart.  "What happened?"

"I'm not certain of the details, but I've brought a man with me who claims he has a message for your ears alone.  His name is Zell Dincht, a first-class captain of the Imperial army."  At the sorcerer's concerned glance, Ward shook his head.  "I assure you, he is loyal to Master Seifer and our cause, and I believe he already knows your most damaging secret."

Stormy eyes narrowed in brief consideration of what the steward thought was his 'most damaging secret', but he didn't dwell on the matter.  "I recall Seifer once mentioning an officer he held in great faith."

Ward nodded in a sign that Dincht was that officer.  "Will you meet with him?"

"I have no other choice."

The steward placed a fist to his chest and bowed in reflex to his days as a guard to the Loire family.  While Ward left to retrieve the waiting officer, Edea stepped close and placed a hand at Squall's cheek.  Golden eyes were full of worry, but the motherly woman knew that it wasn't the time to speak distracting words.  Instead, she lifted to her toes and placed a light kiss against the sorcerer's brow, a silent pledge of support before she moved to the sofa and gathered Leander into a consoling embrace.

Ward reentered with a far smaller man at his side, the soldier's blond hair spiked to make him seem another several inches taller than he was.  At the left side of his face was a black tattoo of an odd design that didn't seem familiar to Squall.  In contrast, the moment the officer's soft blue eyes settled on the sorcerer's face, it was clear that he recognized Squall.

Stopping short and pointing a hand at the sorcerer, Dincht moved his mouth without sound for a painful moment before he abruptly blurted out, "You're the fucking Sorcerer Prince."

A dark eyebrow lifted in surprise, Squall studied the officer more closely, but the obvious features of the tattoo and spiked hair didn't strike any useful memories about the man's possible identity.

At Ward's rebuking cough, Dincht abruptly realized that it was rude to be pointing like an idiot and clumsily moved his hand to scratch the back of his neck.  "Uh, I bet you don't know me, but we kinda met in... in the Massacre..." he trailed off, his awkwardness palpable with the reference to the destruction of the sorcerers' capital and society.

The embarrassed pose brought back a vague memory of a young soldier who didn't belong in a war, let alone in a battle that had the sole purpose of murdering those of magical ability.  "You were a part of the invading force," Squall commented, his suggestion that he remembered the man's identity instantly causing Dincht to gain a deep hue of red to his cheeks.  The additional sight solidified the sorcerer's memory of the terrified boy.  "We crossed paths after you had saved the children from those animals with blades."

Dincht shook his head.  "Nah, man, I just stalled them.  You're the one who took care of those pricks and left me alive.  I never got the chance to thank you for that... and the other thing."

"Your spared life was my thanks to you, not a gift," Squall corrected, the sorcerer recalling his pledge during the Massacre to leave any person in an uniform either bleeding or dead.  Within the destruction of fire and swords, it had been a startling sight to find an Imperial soldier who wanted to spare the lives of the children who had been condemned for associating with the sorcerer clans.  Despite the soldier's good intention, Squall remembered the overwhelming urge to still destroy the boy in uniform, but was then humbled by the plain fright of the soldier who became bright red when he lost control of his bodily functions.  The Massacre's madness had never seem so obvious than at that moment.

Dincht swallowed loudly, his pale eyes then drifting down to stare at Squall's heavy midsection, but the excitable man wisely kept any questions to himself about the sorcerer's state that was visibly different from the days of the Massacre.

Clearing his throat to regain the man's attention, Squall asked, "What happened tonight?"

"Forgive me, but I'm supposed to speak with--"  Without finishing his statement, Dincht abruptly pressed his hand against his face.  "Holy Hyne, what was that idiot thinking?  'Give my Prince a message,' he said.  Why not paint a fucking sign that says he's sheltering the Sorcerer Prince?"

Squall exhaled a long breath, unsurprised to hear that Seifer had acted foolishly in his arrogance.  "If it was that obvious, you would have realize he meant me at the beginning."

"Of course I never thought it was you!  I thought it was a code name for another lord or someone, not an actual prince!"

"What is done, is done.  There are more important things at this time."

Frowning at the truth of the statement, Dincht squared off his shoulders and began into his account.  "As you should know, Almasy went to the Empress' celebration for her birthday.  With both the Emperor and Empress present, not to mention hundreds of noblemen and women from across the world, soldiers from the Imperial army were made to work along side the Royal Guards.  Y'know, to protect such important people from an assassination attempt," Dincht said with a light touch of sarcasm, indicative of the knowledge he held concerning the events intended to occur within the next day.  "The ball went the same way as the rest of them - lots of drinking, some good old fashioned backstabbing, and the occasional dancing, I suppose to make it seem like a real ball.  Everything was going good, but I guess I didn't know any better.

"You see, Almasy came over and told me to give 'his Prince' a message.  He said that the Empress was eyeing him something fierce and that he didn't like the feel of that place, but that no matter what happens, the plans for tomorrow night are to proceed forward.  He mentioned that he always thought something would happen to take him out of the loop, so that's why he never planned to have a critical role in the final execution."

Squall scowled at the demand that was unwanted, but expected.  "I trust he didn't say this such that too many people could overhear."

With an admiring smirk, Dincht shook his head.  "Nah, Almasy's too good for that.  He lured some noblewoman to the corner near my post and wooed her until she was forced to slap him for being a shameless bastard.  While everyone else was busy gossiping about him, Almasy used me as a 'sympathetic ear' to ease his heartbreak.  I pieced together the important parts to tell you."

Edea sighed crossly from her position at the sofa, an expression of disgust that Squall knew was for his sake.  The sorcerer learned during the weeks earlier that it was a lost battle to explain to the woman that Seifer's flirtations were nothing more than a play to entertain the nobles and feed their latest rumors.  No matter the rationale, she thought it unseemly for the lord to freely court any beautiful lady when he had a pregnant partner waiting in the shadows.

Never looking away from soft blue eyes, Squall asked, "Where is Seifer now?"

"I don't know, really.  Shortly after he passed along that message, the Emperor called Almasy to the throne, and in front of everyone, Deling made the request for a personal meeting with him.  It was some bullshit reason to thank Almasy for the gift he brought the Empress, but it didn't matter.  Almasy couldn't refuse without insulting the Emperor and forfeiting his life.  Once the party started winding down, Almasy was escorted to the East Wing of the palace where I'm not allowed."  The last part was stated through clenched teeth, suggesting Dincht had attempted to enter the restricted area despite the knowledge that only Royal Guards were permitted past that point.

Suppressing his own anger, Squall stated dully, "Then the Emperor decided to make Almasy a gift for his wife.  I feared that would become a possibility, but I never imagined that it would happen openly."

"What will happen to Father?" Leander demanded from Edea's side.

Considering his reply for the young boy, Squall glanced toward the open window and wondered if the stars knew this would happen.  But that thought went unanswered when stony eyes narrowed on a flicker in the distance.

"Squall...?"

"Next to me Leander," the sorcerer stated without room for argument

The young boy slid off the sofa and moved to stand at Squall's side where his fingers clutched at the hem of his shirt.  Curious at the command, Edea looked to the open window for a long moment, the resulting silence broken when a white dove abruptly entered the sitting room.  Startled by the flapping of wings, Edea jumped up from the sofa and placed a hand at her cheek, hiding the signs of her embarrassment at fearing a bird.  The dove eventually settled on the pillow where Leander had been sitting and cooed softly between erratic urges to preen its feathers.

"Oh my," Edea breathed as she lowered her arm.  "What is a messenger bird doing here at this time of night?  Shouldn't it have gone to the main house?"

"That's not a bird."

All eyes shifted to the sorcerer, and then back to the dove of pure white feathers, its little head cocked in an defenseless manner.

With no time to waste to convince the others, Squall focused solely on the bird and demanded, "What is your message, beast?"

Maintaining an innocent front, the dove hopped slightly and began to spread its wings for flight, an action Squall wouldn't allow.  Already prepared for resistance from the creature, the sorcerer drew upon a small piece of the wind and lashed it at the bird, effectively removing a spread wing.  Edea gasped at the seemingly overdone attack on a beautiful dove, but before she could voice her defense for the harmless bird, she stepped back at the sight of blackish-green blood that oozed from the amputated wing and dripped onto the pillow with the hiss of acid.

"You won't be harming anyone here, so again, what is your message?" Squall demanded with a raised hand, perfectly willing to cut the bird piece by piece if needed.

The dove stood placidly despite its injury, and after refolding its remaining wing, the corners of its beak spread back into an impossible smile.  In a resonating voice that was almost comical from a small bird, the creature asked in the common language of humans, "Are you the pet sorcerer?"

Allowing his magic to give his eyes a silver light, Squall glared at the menacing demon without replying the insulting question.

With a cough-like laugh, the bird inched closer.  "We have your master, pet.  If you want him, you should run and show yourself, or my Mistress is gonna kill him."  In a sing-song voice, it added, "Sacret lieb, werlogh.  Your life for his, his life for yours."

"Is that all you have for me?"

Going abruptly still at the cold tone, the dove stared dumbly with its dead black eyes.  Its disturbing smile faded with the realization that its mistress had sent it on a suicide mission.  With a flicker of hateful red to its eyes, it leapt from the pillow in a last attempt to attack the sorcerer.

His expression bored, Squall waved his hand to set the small body ablaze and casually sidestepped the bird's final flight, making certain to shield Leander from the magical flames.  The vibrant fire didn't last long while feasting upon the shadow creature, the charcoaled remains looking nothing like the flesh and bone of a bird, but instead the true form of the disguised imp.

Stunned silence was broken by the hoarse cry, "Holy fuck, what in Hyne's world was that?"

"A demon servant," Squall replied before glancing at the Imperial officer, interested to find that Dincht had at some point ducked behind the large steward, much to Ward's exasperation.  "Ultimecia sent the imp as both a message and a test.  Though small, its poison is deadly and I'm certain she commanded the demon to kill everyone in the Almasy Estate until a sorcerer was revealed."

Edea gasped at the statement.  "The main house... What if this... this thing went the main house first?"

"You and Ward should check, but it's unlikely.  Imps like this are drawn to magic.  Since Leander and I haven't been to the main house for months, it would have been drawn to this building before moving on to the next one."

Not completely calmed by the sorcerer's reasoning, Edea clutched the front of her robe.  "We'll go check on the others, but child, what do you plan to do?"

Squall sighed at the difficult question.  "I suppose try to sleep.  There's not much else that can be done until the proper time."

With a heavy step forward, Ward argued, "You can't be thinking to confront that woman in your current condition.  Master Seifer wouldn't allow it."

"'Sacret lieb', Ward.  If I do not show myself, Seifer's life is forfeit."  When a retort was apparent from steward's expression, Squall silenced him with a chilled glare.  "At this moment, it's taking all of my strength to wait for the right time to move.  I will not act thoughtlessly and endanger the plans that have already been set into motion, but I must act nonetheless.  And if timed correctly, we may even be able to serve as a diversion."

Ward's scar lengthen with his deep scowl.  "We?  Who else do you plan to draw into your recklessness?"

"There's no telling what Ultimecia has planned for Seifer.  If he is willing, Kinneas may be needed for his abilities.  Otherwise, Sekre will demand to uphold his pledge to protect me and I know that you have too much honor to let your friend's only son walk alone to his death."

Ward glared at the brunet for his assumption, but didn't deny the words.

With an awkward clearing of his throat, Dincht interjected, "I'd love to join you, but I have my own role to play at the palace gates.  If it helps, I can stop along my way into the capital and tell Kinneas to get his ass over here.  Hyne knows that he wouldn't want to miss a chance to place Almasy further into his debt."

"The help would be appreciated," Squall said without breaking gazes with the steward.

"Then I think I'll take my leave," Dincht suggested while tacking on a muttered, "before anything else weird happens."

Waiting until after the soft close of the entry door, Ward crossed his thick arms across his chest and asked, "Why should I even consider to allow you within a mile of that cursed palace?"

"I'm not defenseless, just... slower and unable to control stronger magic."

"All the more reason for you to stay exactly where Master Seifer left you."

Squall gazed at the stubborn man and didn't see the proud solider of old, but instead the man who had become his surrogate father.  "Ward, who are you trying to fool with this front?  Even if I stay here, you know that my life is lost the moment Ultimecia decides she is finished toying with Seifer."

Uncertainty shone in pale eyes.  "It isn't a forgone conclusion.  I've seen numerous sorcerers survive the death of their joined partner."

When Leander whimpered against his leg, Squall placed a consoling hand into dark hair, but didn't shift his gaze.  "You know that this bond runs deeper than most.  I will be lost without Seifer and you wish to deny me a final opportunity to see his face."

With a pained expression that resembled a man struck by an arrow, Ward unfolded his arms and scratched blunted fingernails at his lengthy scar.  "You're just like your father, always making it impossible to say 'no' even when reason dictates otherwise.  Hyne, and I thought you managed to get a dose of sense from your mother."

"I think I lost my sense back when you first told me that I 'deserved' Seifer," Squall stated lightly, his attention shifting to the child attached to his side.  Brushing his hand through messed hair, the sorcerer asked his son, "I'm going back to bed - would you like to stay with me?"

Young eyes wide, Leander argued, "But Father's in trouble."

"Which means I need rest before helping him."

Leander struggled with the piece of logic.  "I don't want Father to die.  Why can't you help him now?"

"Because if I leave now, I threaten the lives of many brave people.  But if I wait, it may be possible to bring your father home with the help of those same people."

Frowning, the boy said, "I don't like this."

"I don't like it either, lion cub, but there is nothing else I can do."

At the defeated tone, Leander hugged his small arms around Squall's waist as best he could.  "Father will come home.  He always does, even without help."

Squall wanted to believe his son's simplistic faith that Seifer was a force that could never be defeated.  It was almost easy to consider it true after the lord's accomplishment in life, but Squall also understood the cruelty of his cousin.  After so many years since the Massacre, it was overwhelming to consider that Fate was about to make her final judgment within a day's time - either Ultimecia would complete her senseless revenge against the family she never had, or else Seifer would fulfill the pledge he made once learning of the Emperor's lies about sorcerers.  Guilty relief settled in his chest, Squall confident that the pained life as he knew it would be forever changed depending on the first person to die.

"Mommy...?"

Staring down at his boy, Squall brushed dark bangs from the young face and studied the eyes that held too much of the 'Almasy poison' in their gaze.  He wanted to tell Leander how much he loved him, but it would have felt too much like saying goodbye.  Instead, Squall rubbed a thumb at the faded scar just below the boy's hairline.  "You're right, cub.  It would be foolish to underestimate your father."

At the admission, Leander flashed a wide, but shaky grin.

Unable to continue looking at the young face, Squall closed his eyes and silently prayed to Shiva that a lie wouldn't be his final words to his beloved son.

 

{Continued}

 

Author's Whining -- Wait, wait, is that a light I see in this long, torturous tunnel?  After sixteen chapters of Hell, there's actually an ending in sight and I have the lofty goal to have this thing done by July.  Of course, I have more torture planned for once this beast is dead, but that should be fun torture... I hope.  Keep your eyes on my Live Journal for details around the end of June, aka whenever I get ch17 sent off to the betas. *grin*