For Nothing, For Everything
Seated on a cushioned piano bench, Squall stared down at the wooden keys that were yellowed with age and dust. Although alone in the room, the sorcerer still found it awkward that it was so quiet. Several tall and wide bookcases lined the room, but instead of texts filling the shelves, numerous instruments from all countries were present. Apparently placed there for storage and not for display, most of the instruments were dull from dust and cobwebs. Since the first time Squall had stumbled upon the room, he was amazed and disappointed to find the various instruments of excellent quality being left unused in a room where both the outdated furniture and the few windows were covered by heavy sheets. But despite the regretful neglect, Squall had welcomed the solitary escape where few seemed to venture judging by the layers of dust.
And after three years of peace, Squall was about to lose his last sanctuary on the Almasy Estate.
A soft knock followed by an opening door broke the quiet of the room. A child's voice then sounded, Leander questioning his father about why they weren't going to the stables. Judging by the amused expression on the lord's face, Almasy had remained silent to the boy about the plans for Squall to tutor the young boy. Not enjoying the nuances of surprises, the sorcerer sighed loudly and stood from his spot behind the piano. The movement instantly caught the eye of the young boy and made him cry out.
"Squall! Why are you here?" The smiling boy ran up to the servant, but then stopped short with a wary glance back to his father. "Is something wrong?"
Almasy laughed and shook his head. "No, Ander. This is something I imagine you've wanted for long time."
"What I've wanted?" Leander repeated as small eyebrows scrunched in deep thought.
Amused by the befuddled expression, Squall knelt down and gazed directly into green eyes. "I'll explain what he means in moment, but we have something else to discuss first. Tell me, Leander - have you ever sensed something different and perhaps strange about me?"
The young sorcerer hesitated before replying cautiously, "I guess... the air feels weird around you. Nothing bad, but... weird."
"And on occasion, that sensation is stronger than usual?"
The boy nodded, his confidence returned with the servant's belief in his answer. "Sometimes it feels really heavy, but I like it. It makes me less scared and it smells like rain."
Surprised by the offhanded comment, the stormy-eyed man asked, "Scared? Why are you scared?"
Guessing the source of his fear, Squall placed a gentle hand at his son's cheek. "If you are referring to the secret concerning your sorcerer blood and powers, then I already know."
Startled and fearful green eyes met calm gray. "You... you know? But you... I never..."
"Leander, think for a moment. Why would I know that you consider me different than everyone else?"
The child stared at the man he had befriended over the years, and after a long silence, Leander lifted a shaky hand to touch the larger one still resting on his cheek. Green eyes instantly brightened with the unique glow of a sorcerer as the youth gaped for a moment and then asked, "You're like... me?"
Leander shivered at the simple reply as his eyes moistened near tears. "You're like me."
"Yes, cub, and this is something your father discovered recently. Instead of sending me to the Emperor, he has asked me to tutor you in the art of sorcery. I agreed."
As if not hearing the words, the dark-haired boy launched forward and grabbed onto the man's shirt with two hands. "Do you know my mommy?"
Startled by the sudden question, Squall could only stare wordlessly at the child.
"You're a sorcerer! Like me! That means you know my mommy!"
"I... I can't say..."
"Why not? Don't you know my mommy?"
"Leander," Squall exhaled in a whispering breath. "I'm sorry..."
With a quiet and hurt-filled 'oh', Leander released his desperate hold on the man's clothing and glanced away for several moments. As the sorcerer had intended, his regretful voice could have implied anything to the young boy - that his 'mother' was dead, that the person didn't want to be known, or that Squall simply didn't know the person's identity. And while watching the dark-haired child, Squall wished he knew exactly what thoughts were occurring in the young mind.
Eventually, with a soft gleam to his eyes, Leander returned his gaze to the brunet. "Are you really gonna teach me how to use magic?"
"A-ah, I am," Squall replied, thankful for the boy's change in focus despite the remaining disappointment that lingered in his voice. "We will meet here twice a week, and your father wanted today to be your first lesson."
Leander turned around at that information. "I can use my powers now?"
Almasy smirked with a playful edge to the curl of lips. "Of course, but only under Squall's supervision."
"Thank you, Father!"
"No need to thank me, kid," the blond lord responded as he stepped forward to the piano. While running a finger across the propped lid of the instrument, Almasy commented, "But I have to say, Squall, I'm curious about your choice to meet here instead of my study. Aside from my surprise that you even know about this room, it doesn't seem to be a good place for learning."
Not hiding his annoyance that he was required to explain himself, the sorcerer replied, "There are open windows in your study through which anyone can observe us. And while training outside would have been best in a circumstance that didn't demand privacy, this room has certain tools that can be used to strengthen Leander's control."
After scowling at the smear of dust on his fingertips, Almasy looked to the brunet. "Tools? There's nothing here but random instruments my mother attempted to learn and then discarded in frustration."
Forgoing a verbal response, Squall lifted from his kneeling position and moved his gaze to a nearby shelf. His hand raised, the sorcerer calmed his center and allowed the whispers of earth and air reach his ears. Without a sound, a flute made of tarnished metal rose from its dusty resting spot and glided forward a bare foot before tilting at a slight angle. Just as a slight gasp came from the young boy and his father looked about ready to make a comment of disinterest, a quiet note broke the silence.
No one spoke as the untouched flute began playing a song of low notes, a haunting tune that only the whispers of wind could produce. It wasn't a complex song, but it required the cooperation of the air to mimic the flow of breath while the earth moved the pads of the instrument to produce the correct notes. While not an easy task, the sorcerer had played several instruments in his long past and was accustomed to the strain of forcing the air and earth to work together. But it was for that reason Squall was startled partway through the song when he noticed that one of his fingers was already shaking from the amount of concentration and energy that was required to control the flute. It was distressing, but understandable given years of neglect toward his magic and training.
With a sharp movement of his hand, Squall stopped the wind from coaxing music from the old flute and allowed the instrument to return to its resting place. Unconsciously rubbing his injured and sore shoulder, the sorcerer stared at the tarnished metal and murmured the words his father spoke during a similar lesson long ago - "Any fool can create a tornado or a firestorm to destroy a city, but it takes a skilled man to use those same powers to create a simple, beautiful song."
After a time of quiet, the next sound came from Leander as he excitedly demanded, "When can I learn that?"
Squall smiled softly and placed a hand onto dark hair, but didn't reply. Instead, he glanced over to the silent blond with the expectation of a snide comment from the arrogant man. Almasy, however, didn't notice the challenging gaze as his green eyes continued to stare at the unmoving flute. It wasn't a frightened gaze, nor one of amazement. The lord was in deep thought and Squall wasn't certain if he felt comfortable with the look of concentration.
"Squa-all," Leander whined while moving the hand from his head. "Please, can I learn how to do that?"
"Not yet, cub," Squall stated with some amusement, wondering if this was the first time the boy was eager to be tutored. "You have many things to learn first, not to mention how to play a flute."
With surprise clear in the green eyes, Leander asked, "Isn't it just a spell?"
"Unfortunately, no. Our magic relies on the manipulation of air, earth, and fire. While certain spells may help us to focus on the exact action that we desire of those elements, the spells alone don't command them."
The boy frowned, obviously trying his best to understand the words, but there was only so much a child of six years could grasp.
"Don't worry. You'll understand in time," Squall assured him as he knelt down once more to be eyelevel with the boy. "Anyway, you have something more important to learn than music. Today, you will learn to bring forth the core of your magic."
His eyes wary, Leander gazed at the servant. "My core...? Will it hurt?"
With a soothing smile, Squall sat back on his heels and held out his hands. The rush of wild energy made the brunet sigh, the impossible mix of fire and ice coursing down his arms never failing to create an oddly pleasurable sensation. And then the staff of dark red wood and deep carvings was resting in his hands, exposed for anyone to see. Leander stared at the long weapon for an awed and fearful moment. Raising his small hand, he moved to touch the staff, but then hesitated as he looked into calm eyes for permission. With a slight nod, Squall watched as careful fingers touched the weapon and glided along the ridges of complex spells. Then, whether by chance or with subconscious knowledge, Leander lingered on a simple warming spell that had been used to protect the onetime newborn from the cold of night.
"This is the stick you used to kill the wuffs."
"That's right," Squall replied softly.
"But you do magic without it..."
Hearing the implied question, the sorcerer explained, "It's possible to command magic without exposing our center, but it's safer to summon our core to completely control the elements and to prevent a backlash of power. Also, for those learning magic, it's necessary to reveal this part of ourselves in order to imprint new knowledge, to make it a part of our magic."
Dark eyebrows scrunched in deep thought, but Leander was far from understanding the things he had yet to experience.
Pulling his core from the child's touch, Squall allowed the weapon to dissolve and flow back within himself. Leander seemed hurt at the sudden loss, but didn't vocalize his thoughts. With an encouraging smile directed at the youth, Squall announced, "Now, show me yours."
With wide eyes, Leander stared at the sorcerer. "I don't know how."
"It's simple. Just close your eyes, hold out your hands, and guide your powers into your hold."
Though uncertain at first, the child did as he was told. For a long time, Leander stood with his hands palm up and his eyes closed tightly in deep and apparently painful concentration. Squall remained silent, watching how pink lips eventually twisted into a frustrated scowl. It was a familiar expression, one that belonged completely to the elder Almasy and it caused a deep burn within the chest of the sorcerer. For the briefest of moments, Squall had forgotten that Leander was the child he had given to another man. He had forgotten that his son had never belonged to him.
Huffing loudly, Leander slapped the back of his hands against his thighs and interrupted the sorcerer's distracted thoughts. Soft green eyes were moist with held back tears as the boy declared, "It's not working."
"Don't quit now, cub," Squall said soothingly as took hold of the child's hands and lifted them to their previous position. "For my first time, I needed my father's help, as well."
"Of course." Placing his fingers at the boy's chest, Squall instructed, "Close your eyes once more and focus on placing your energy right here. As your power moves, it should feel like ice forming at your feet. Eventually it will become a heavy frost that crawls up through your legs and to your center. But where my fingers are, there should be a searing heat that makes every breath hot. Do you feel it?"
With a quiet noise, Leander nodded and shifted uncomfortably.
"That's the fire moving within you and gathering at your chest. And wherever fire goes, air and earth will follow. Can you hear their whispers?"
"Uhn... they want... I think they want out."
"Then release them," Squall said while removing his fingers, thereby cutting off the additional touch of fire which the sorcerer had used to lure the child's power into his center. "But don't grant the elements their freedom. Instead, release them into your hold and within your control."
Leander frowned at the last requirement of releasing his core, but pink lips soon parted in a surprised gasp as small arms shook at the sudden flow of power. Green eyes snapped open as Leander looked down at his hands, the flash of accomplishment quickly replaced by a disappointed pout. Resting on his open palms was a thin stick made of pale, unmarked wood that was no bigger than a conductor's wand. It was obviously not what Leander was expecting.
Silently laughing at his own memories of first seeing his core, Squall placed a consoling hand on dark hair. "You are young, cub, and very inexperienced in the ways of sorcery. With training and age, your core will grow stronger with power and spells."
"Really?" Leander asked, his light green eyes peaking ashamedly from beneath dark lashes.
"Trust me. My core was smaller than yours when I first started."
Confidence returned, Leander smiled brightly as he turned and hurried to the blond nobleman. "Look, Father. I'm going to have a staff like the sorcerers in the pictures you showed me."
"I never doubted that for a moment," Almasy said with true pride as he leaned over his far smaller son. "May I see it?"
Without hesitation, Leander held up his core in an offer for the lord to hold the precious stick. Squall blamed himself for not explaining the deep importance of the eventual staff, that the child's very life energy was intertwined with the power of the elements. But watching Almasy gently lift the core of pale wood, the sorcerer realized that it wouldn't have mattered to warn Leander beforehand. No innocent child would fear entrusting his life to his parents.
Shifting away his eyes from the large blond, Squall looked at young boy and noticed a thoughtful expression that didn't belong on the face of children. Unable to look away, the sorcerer watched as Leander turned, stared at him for an uncomprehending moment and then glanced down at his small hand. An excited smile suddenly broke out on the boy's face as he turned to his father.
"Can I have it back?"
Though confused, Almasy nodded as he returned the stick, the man unable to sense the importance the pale wood anyway.
Grabbing onto his core, Leander moved quickly to the dark-haired servant and demanded, "You have to look at it now."
Pale eyes of blue-gray stared down at the boy as cold disbelief coursed through the sorcerer's body and mind. Leander was a child, a mere boy who didn't understand the elements, the limitations of his power, nor the invisible strings which tied people together. And yet, there was an intelligence, an overwhelming certainty in the soft green eyes that suggested Leander had recognized the touch of his father holding onto his core, that he had identified the absolute bond of parent and child.
Remaining stiff and silent, Squall stared at the stick of pale wood, a young core that held no shields and no stains of blood. The sorcerer knew what Leander was attempting, that when the boy had examined his aged staff, he had felt 'something'. However, that sensation was dampened by layers upon layers of defenses which Squall had placed over the years onto his all-important core. The same wasn't true for Leander's newly exposed staff. And when Leander had unexpectedly offered his unprotected center to Almasy, Squall had no doubt that Leander had immediately sensed the bond of 'father' with the blond lord. But for Leander to connect that sensation with the muffled 'something' from Squall's staff, from the single moment when his small fingers had graced the sorcerer's weapon... That was inconvenient.
And now, Leander stood before the dark-haired servant, innocently asking for the impossible. It was tempting for Squall to set his hand on the pale wood and reveal everything to the young boy. He wanted to freely hold onto his son and to hear the child's voice call him 'father'. But instead, Squall dug his fingernails into his palms and turned his hard stare to the boy's face, all the while saying nothing.
"Please, Squall..." Leander goaded more softly, some hurt sounding in the young voice as if the sorcerer was rejecting the boy by refusing the offered staff.
Silently apologizing to his son, Squall narrowed his eyes and spoke coolly to the youth. "You shouldn't hand off your core so thoughtlessly. That is more than a stick or some toy - it is the manifestation of your power and life energy. I won't have you be reckless with it."
Green eyes widened in a crushed expression, Leander rarely being at the focus of the chilling tone. His small core vanished in an instant, and as his pale skin flushed dark red, the young boy murmured an embarrassed and hurt apology.
"Now wait a moment," Almasy spoke in a near growl, ready to defend his distressed son. "There's no reason to--"
Squall interrupted him. "If I were to snap that core, I could drain his power and take it as my own. His center destroyed, Leander would sink into a life of insanity where vengeful elements would control his body and mind."
Silence followed the sorcerer's statement, the quiet then broken by short laughter. "What kind of joke is that? You would never hurt Ander."
"It's not a joke, and you shouldn't belittle my words. You have never witnessed a sorcerer's madness." Looking to Leander, Squall warmed this tone and told him, "You did very well today, cub. Few children are able to summon their core on the first day of their lessons. But you should go rest now. We'll continue in another few days."
Leander frowned. "I can do more. I don't feel tired." But as he walked toward the sorcerer to argue further, the small boy stumbled and dropped to his hands and knees. With a quiet 'oh', Leander proceeded to lay out on the floor and close his eyes with a sigh.
Startled, Almasy moved quickly to kneel at his son's side. "Ander, what's wrong? Are you hurt?"
"He exposed his core for the world to see," Squall began as he turned to leave. "It leaves a child exhausted, and when he awakens, he should be starving. I'll ask Matron to have someone deliver a tray to his room."
"And that's it? He collapses in front of you and you'll do nothing more than order some food for him?"
Refusing to let the nobleman's easy anger overwhelm him, the sorcerer walked to the door. "Leander is simply asleep. He'll wake in a few hours, and I assume that you would rather to carry him to his room yourself. Meanwhile, I have postponed my chores long enough."
Not allowing Almasy the chance to comment, Squall opened the door and quickly stepped into the hallway where he walked in the direction opposite of the wing which held the family bed chambers. It was a quick journey down a set of staircases, and though he intended to return to the kitchens, Squall continued to walk as the image of the hopeful Leander stuck in his mind. With his attention distracted by worrisome thoughts, the sorcerer didn't notice the passing scenery until a cold wind brushed against his neck. Though startled to find himself standing outside and amongst thin trees, Squall didn't spare much thought on the common occurrence of losing himself in his mind.
Exhausted, the sorcerer lowered to the ground covered with dead, moldy leaves and laid out on his back. His palms pressed down against cold dirt, Squall allowed the low tones of the earth to wash over him and grant him a sense of aged peace. It was a rare escape that the brunet allowed himself, but it still wasn't enough to calm the deep fears churning in his stomach. Leander would hate him soon. In the case he learned the truth, he would hate the man who deserted him and betrayed his trust. Or in the brunet's attempt to protect the truth, Leander would eventually hate him for the harsh words and cold manner. In the end, Squall was about to completely lose his son and he didn't know how to prevent the impending shatter of his soul.
"Please..." the sorcerer whispered, his eyes of impure sapphire focused on the cloudy sky above. "Please, Shiva. I need strength when I have none left. I need... something... someone... anything that will help me stand. I need..."
With a short laugh of disgust at his worthless plead, Squall moved onto his side and rested his head on the bent arm of his uninjured shoulder. Eyes closed, the thin man savored the cool weather and considered enjoying a nap before returning to the heat of the kitchens. It was a tempting thought, a nearly fulfilled desire as the sorcerer sunk deeper into calm darkness, but tiny kisses of ice brought Squall back into full awareness. Blinking, he rolled onto his back and stared up as white flakes glided gently from the sky. It was an early snow, the first snow of the year. And as small flecks of ice stuck to dark lashes, Squall focused on the gray sky above and silently feared that his thoughtless words had been heard by the frozen goddess of his people.
After a second string of stronger knocks, Squall heard a tired call to enter. He opened the door wide enough to slip through the formed crack and stepped just beyond the threshold where he quickly closed the door and leaned back against the wood. His hand steady on the doorknob, Squall was determined to leave at the first possible moment.
"What do you want?"
A deep chuckle sounded from across the lengthy room. Seated behind his large desk of polished wood, Almasy gazed over a pair of golden framed glasses and smirked at the agitated man. "I don't believe it's the position of a servant to question the desires of his lord and master."
"You are not my master."
Chuckling once more, Almasy adjusted his glasses and returned his attention to a stack of papers. "You know, pressed against the door like that, you look like a mouse being stalked by a bored cat. Have a seat and relax."
"No, thank you. Why did you summon me?"
"That wasn't a suggestion, Squall. Have a seat."
Scowling, the stormy-eyed sorcerer glared at the nobleman and questioned for the hundredth time why he hadn't kill the blond when he was given the chance. But when there was apparently no bargaining with the frustrating man, Squall sighed and walked to the seat placed directly in front of the disorganized desk. Just as he reached the cushioned chair, however, he noticed a plate of various cheeses and bread resting on the dark red seat.
"Couldn't find room on your desk for this?" Squall asked as he picked up the plate, but Almasy waved him off.
"No, I had that delivered for you. Matron mentioned you preferred either overly plain foods or some grotesque meals that I wouldn't care to witness, so I asked for something simple."
"I already had breakfast."
Almasy scoffed as he wrote something on the report he was reading. "That was over four hours ago and it was half of an apple. That doesn't qualify as a meal."
Stunned, Squall stared at the blond lord. "You're spying on me now?"
"While tempting, no, I'm not spying on you. Matron freely offered the information. She doesn't approve of your eating habits either." Lowering his glasses, Almasy casually examined the thin body poorly hidden by loose clothing. "Really, I'm surprised that you lasted as long as you did during our little spar. You certainly wouldn't have gotten that injury of yours if you had taken better care of yourself. Now eat."
Thoughtlessly, Squall placed his free hand at his healing shoulder. "I'm not hungry."
Eyes of vibrant green peered directly at the sorcerer, the intense gaze forcing the brunet to resist the need to shift uncomfortably until Almasy eventually sighed and removed his glasses. "Fine. Just set it on the floor and sit down."
"I won't stay for long," Squall stated while taking the seat and resting the plate on his lap with the full intention to return it to the kitchen with his leave.
"We will see about that." Leaning forward with his chin resting on folded hands, Almasy spoke in a low, soothing tone as he asked, "Why didn't you answer Ander when he asked if you knew the identity of his mother?"
"I answered him," the sorcerer argued cautiously.
"No, you apologized. That's hardly an answer."
In a derisive murmur, Squall commented, "I'm surprised you noticed the difference."
"Yes, well, sometimes I manage to display more intelligence than a six-year-old child. But now I'm curious - why did you lie?"
The servant glowered at the blond, silently informing him that it hadn't been a lie.
"You're going to be difficult again, aren't you?"
Smiling amusedly with a lopsided grin, Almasy sat back in his chair. "Fine, you didn't outright lie, but you did let Ander assume that you don't know his birth parent. Isn't that just as bad?"
"What do you want from me?"
"I want whatever knowledge you have about the man I fucked."
Growling under his breath, Squall stood up with the plate of bread and cheese in hand, but before he got further than turning his back to the crude man, Almasy continued to speak to him.
"You're my last chance at finding him." When the servant halted at the serious plead, Almasy explained further, "I used to drink a lot, as I'm certain you've heard. It was a misguided attempt to forget the past and my... unique problems. Whenever I had sex with that sorcerer, I was full of alcohol. No matter how much I've tried, I haven't been able to remember a thing about him. Hell, I don't even know when it happened. I can assume it was around a year before Ander was left in my care, but beyond that..."
Staring at the door across the room, Squall felt the elements stirring within him, encouraging him to escape the study and then vanish from the Almasy Estate altogether, but instead, he asked, "What does it matter to you?"
There was a reflective pause before the lord answered. "Truthfully, I haven't thought about the man in years. Of course, I tried to find the person, but after almost a year, I gave up when searching for rogue sorcerers in the area became a complete waste of time. And eventually, I came to the conclusion that finding the man would lead to more trouble than he would probably be worth. But yesterday, with Ander's question, with that damn pleading expression of his... all this time, I had no idea that he was thinking about his 'mother'."
Eyes narrowed, Squall resisted the urge to call the man a blind fool.
"I know you don't owe me any favors, but unfortunately, you are my last resource. And for Ander's sake--"
"I won't help you."
Almasy hummed softly, disappointed but apparently unsurprised by the refusal. "Then, what if I offered this?"
There was the noise of moved papers and a quiet sound of wood settling on wood. Curious despite himself, Squall turned around and noticed the previously absent box. Gray eyes studied the long and decently sized box, taking in the sight of the deep scratches in the red wood and the black streaks of fire damage along its entire length. Unmarked otherwise, Squall couldn't determine why the blond lord would believe that the ruined box would hold any appeal to him.
Squall gazed into green eyes, hoping for some sign about what Almasy could be scheming, but nothing was obvious beneath the man's cocky expression. After first setting aside the plate of bread and cheese onto his vacated chair, Squall stepped in front of the wide desk and glared at the suspicious item. With a hand on the lid of the box, the sorcerer hesitated as the strong sting of dormant magic rushed up his arm. But it wasn't until the faint taste sweet smoke reached his tongue that the brunet showed any surprise, his pale eyes widening in disbelief. His thumb undoing the simple latch protected by a weak earth seal, Squall opened the lid and stared within box that was divided into two sections and lined with dark velvet.
"Interesting," Almasy stated with awe, disrupting the sorcerer's stunned silence. "It took the merchant a hammer and wedge to open that box. For you to open it so easily, I assume that it's protected by magic of some sort?"
Unable to look away from the box, Squall demanded quietly, "How did you get this?"
"One of the merchants I trust in the capitol knows about my obsession with sorcerers, and he finds these artifacts on rare occasions. I usually buy them simply because I believe that they belong in Leander's hands if not another sorcerer. It'd be a shame for some rich fool to purchase these as war trophies or the like."
Hardly hearing the reply to his question, Squall reached inside the box and ran his fingers across the white pieces of stone that were handcrafted into detailed chess pieces. Taking hold of a bishop, the sorcerer stared at the piece that was no larger than his pinky finger. And as he examined the smiling face, Squall had to resist the sudden urge to shed the tears he thought no longer existed within him.
"Now, about that information I want..."
Still staring at the chess piece, Squall muttered, "You stupid, arrogant bastard."
"I've been called worse," Almasy answered with a laugh.
Growling, the sorcerer gripped tightly onto the bishop. "Did you ever speak with Ward about sorcerers? About our laws and beliefs? Did you ask him about anything that would be relevant to your son's heritage?"
Taken aback by the reproachful tone of the servant, Almasy stalled before replying, "While he offered some advice, Ward doesn't like to explain anything at length. And with the downfall of your family, I decided that it would be counterproductive to teach Ander the values of a nation that no longer existed."
"In other words, no, you never took it upon yourself to understand anything about your son's murdered ancestors."
Green eyes flared with offense, but before hurtful words left the lord's mouth, Almasy sighed and ran a large hand through his golden hair. "You're right. I suppose that I've been ignoring that side of my son for too long. Or perhaps I've been avoiding it. Either way, I was wrong to keep those things out of Ander's life."
The unexpected surrender and admission of the lord stole away the heat to Squall's anger, leaving him a little lost as he gazed down at his aching hand. The base of the chess piece had dug into the flesh of his hand, leaving sharp lines of red along his palm.
"Perhaps you can educate me?"
Gray eyes flicked to the blond, expecting to see the man's strong features set in a mocking expression. But while the ever-present smirk was in full force, Almasy's appearance was one of challenging determination rather than the childish arrogance Squall typically associated with the lord. And as a pale eyebrow lifted in a questioning manner, the sorcerer sighed deeply in a sign of defeat. But unable to look at the blond any longer, Squall turned to the side and walked to a large window where he leaned against cold glass.
Eyes not seeing the garden wasted by cold weather, Squall asked tiredly, "Did you know that this chess set belongs to my family?"
"I had hoped so. While I purchased it long before I learned your identity, I was told that the Loire crest was branded into the wood beneath the velvet. It's something I remembered this morning."
Cursing the lord's apparent luck, Squall gazed at the cold marble in his hand. "My grandfather made the set himself, mostly through magic. So much of him is in every piece. Even now, by only touching the stone, I can smell and taste the pipes he would smoke."
With a soft hum, Almasy said, "Then I'm glad that I bought it from that merchant. This set obviously belongs to you."
The sorcerer nearly bit his tongue to refrain from commenting that if the chess set belonged to him, it should have been freely returned into his possession.
"But enough about this. You can't avoid the issue of Ander's 'mother' forever."
Ignoring the impatience of the lord, Squall told him, "Look at the face of the black bishop."
There was a pause before Almasy followed the instruction and searched noisily through the box. A quiet curse signaled his discovery of one of the desire pieces. "I'm sorry, Squall, but it looks like some of these were damaged."
"That's doubtful. These pieces were formed by magic and can only be destroyed by magic."
"But there are some bad scratches--"
"Across the bishop's face and midsection. Yes, I know. In fact, both of the bishop pieces are disfigured like that." Staring at the piece of white marble in his hand, Squall explained carefully, "My grandfather had two sons, my father and my uncle, and he designed the bishops after them. The white bishops have my father's features and the black bishops bear my uncle's appearance."
As the lord searched and found the second bishop to confirm the sorcerer's words, Almasy asked with stunned curiosity, "Why are both ruined like this?"
"Because my uncle was an abomination." Closing his hand around smooth stone, Squall faced the window. "You ask to know the identity of Leander's other father, but how can you accept that reality without disgust? A man was never meant to take the place of a woman. It was a mistake and a sin that it ever became possible."
"Wait, are you suggesting that your uncle...?"
Nearly laughing at the nobleman's sudden discomfort, Squall shook his head. "No, it would be impossible for him to be Leander's father. Aside from the fact that he died during the Massacre, he was in love with another man, a warrior who burdened him with a child, left him in absolute disgust, and denied the existence of the child he helped to create."
"That's... that's ridiculous. Why would he leave him in such a state?"
Squall scoffed. "The warrior wasn't the only one to turn against my uncle - he was also disowned by his father, shunned by his friends, and hated by our people. He became an Untouchable and was banished from the palace until my grandfather's death. And although my father welcomed his brother back wholly, few ever spoke to him. Ward, Kiros, and of course my parents..."
"What about you?"
Unable to explain his connection to the man who understood him better than his own father, Squall instead asked, "Do you understand yet? The man who gave birth to your son has been living a life of shame and misery. Why do you want to extend that pain further?"
A reluctant noise came from Almasy. "I think I understand... But..."
At the blond lord's hesitation, Squall turned and stared as he watched the man stroke a calloused thumb along the scratched midsection of the bishop. The lord's eyes were unusually soft as he examined the marred ebony, his eyes shining a warm green-blue that Squall had never witnessed in the previous years. He was drawn to those striking eyes sheltered by pale eyelashes, and he instantly feared that attraction.
"What am I supposed tell Ander? That his 'mother' was ashamed of him? That he was unwanted?"
Squall looked away sharply and pressed his forehead against cold glass, forcibly ignoring the desire to argue that he had never been ashamed of Leander. "Tell him nothing. As you said, my country is dead - its laws and beliefs should die with it. As long as his birth parent never reveals himself, Leander won't have to understand the shame related to his creation."
Almasy chuckled bitterly. "That will only last so long. He's a curious child with a dangerous dose of intelligence."
"Then wait until he is ready. For now, let him be an innocent."
There was a pause, a long moment during which Squall felt eyes focused on his back. Unable to stop thinking about the sea green hue of the man's eyes, the sorcerer suddenly felt awkward as he pressed closer to the window in a poor attempt to make himself hidden. It was a habit, he supposed, a reaction that had become like second nature in the necessity to hide his identity from wandering eyes. And yet, leaning against the window misted by his body heat, Squall felt like a frightened child.
"Does it still hurt?"
At first confused by the question, Squall then noticed that he was massaging his injured shoulder in a nervous action. Pulling away his hand, the sorcerer scowled and muttered that he was fine.
"You know, Kinneas likes you despite your hostile nature. He wouldn't mind coming out here--"
"I'll live without his help, thank you."
"But if you're in pain--"
A steady string of knocks interrupted the lord, prompting a quiet growl from the blond as he called for the person to enter.
Unaffected by the harsh tone, Ward walked inside the study and bowed slightly. "Lunch is about ready to be served, my Lord."
"Alright. I'll be there shortly."
"Leander is waiting," the older man mentioned, but then his pale eyes shifted sharply to the open box on the desk. "Hyne, is that...?"
"My grandfather's chess set," Squall finished for the steward as he held up the bishop in his hand.
Ward looked to the sorcerer, but his eyes didn't move far from the sight of the white stone. "Impossible. The palace was destroyed by fire. Nothing could have survived."
"Leave it to the tenacity of human vultures to find valuable merchandise," Squall stated cynically as he lowered his hand.
Not one to be swayed by the mood of the one-time 'Sorcerer Prince', Ward smiled softly as he said, "I remember how much you adored that set, even when you were just five-years-old. You always asked Laguna to play, though you didn't understand the game. You just wanted to examine each piece and understand the magic. And then you would try to fix the black bishops, saying..." The older man trailed off, his eyes widening in a horrific expression as he finished in a surprised whisper, "Saying that you didn't like seeing your uncle hurt."
As questioning eyes focused on him, Squall maintained a neutral expression despite his rapid heartbeats and the sudden sickness at the base of his stomach.
Oblivious to the tension, Almasy spoke with a hardened edge to his voice. "Squall told me all about his uncle, something you failed to do in the past six years. Why did you never tell me about the hardship of sorcerers who could bear children?"
"Because I never believed in it," Ward stated clearly, his pale eyes focused on the dark-haired man despite answering his lord. "While I served the royal family faithfully, I have no hint of sorcerer blood in my body, and therefore had no desire to follow their beliefs. That Laguna's brother had to suffer for the creation of precious life... it's not enough to say that I was disgusted by how he was treated." Turning to face the nobleman, Ward continued, "You were blessed with the chance to raise a son. I didn't want your thoughts tainted with the idea that Leander was a worthless abomination."
Almasy scoffed loudly. "I'm not that easy to influence. But now I understand why you weren't overly helpful in locating Leander's 'mother'."
Ward frowned slightly. "The sorcerer had a reason to stay hidden, and someone had to remind you of that fact."
"You could have simply explained it to me."
"Nothing with sorcerers is simple, and certainly not this."
Scowling, Almasy glanced down at the dark bishops in his hands. "Hn, I suppose not."
There was a time of somber silence before Ward cleared his throat. "Master Seifer, Leander is still waiting for you."
Grunting that he understood, the blond lord gently placed the scarred chess pieces back into the velvet-lined box. Almasy then stood from his chair, and as he straightened his clothes, he stated, "We're not done talking about this, Ward."
The older man bowed his head, hiding a faint smirk viewable from Squall's vantage point.
Looking to the silent servant, Almasy smiled softly in an honest fashion that brightened the cerulean hue of his eyes. "Thank you for your time, sorcerer. We will do this again, soon."
Though dreading the idea of more time with the blond lord, Squall lowered his gaze and replied, "As you wish, my lord."
Almasy breathed a laugh and murmured something unintelligible as he walked across the room. Slowing as he reached the closed door, he glanced back over his shoulder. "Are you coming, Ward?"
The large man shook his head. "If you don't mind, my Lord, I would appreciate the chance to speak privately with Squall."
The nobleman frowned in reflexive distrust, but then shrugged. "Do what you wish. I'm planning to take Ander out riding after lunch, so you are free to use this room until I return."
"Thank you, my Lord," Ward said with a slight bow.
Almasy replied with a dismissing wave as he opened the door and exited into the silent hallway outside. The door slowly closed behind him, and with that sound of renewed privacy, the large steward was the first to speak.
"Why did you never tell me?"
Not looking away from the door, Squall commented, "I don't believe this is the place to discuss this."
"I wouldn't be concerned with Master Seifer. He's not subtle enough for spying, and by offering the use of his study, he's assuring us complete privacy."
"You trust him that far?"
"Yes, I do."
It was difficult for the sorcerer to set aside his doubts concerning the lord's sense of honor, especially with Ward's absolute faith in the man. But faced with the problem of needing to speak away from curious ears, Squall reluctantly decided to place his trust in the steward's word. His hand tightening around the bishop of white marble, the brunet faced the window and asked, "Are you disgusted with me?"
"Of course not. I respected your uncle as much as your father. And you are--"
"A whore," Squall interrupted.
After a quiet moment, Ward stepped close to the smaller man, near enough to be felt, but not quite touching. His voice soft and deep, he asked, "How did it happen?"
The older man sighed with faint frustration. "I suppose that you're disappointed with me for never noticing. Leander looks just like you, and of course to be named after your uncle... While it's not an excuse, I always thought Master Seifer was the one to name him. It's not a rare name, after all. But for the child to be a sorcerer, and for you to appear years later... I should've known."
"You thought I was dead," Squall murmured.
"And for Leander to be my son, it meant I had to sleep with another man. With Seifer Almasy."
After a startled moment, soft laughter rumbled from the large man. "You've got me there. I suppose that imagining you sleeping with a man never entered my mind, but then, you never were an amorous sort. Hell, in the past several years, you've never once recognized the advances of those interested in you."
Scowling, Squall glanced back at the large man. "Interested in me? Who are you talking about?"
"Oh, just about every new woman who joins the staff. A couple of the men, too. Even one of Cid's boys has had his eye on you, though I don't think he's good enough for a man of your lineage."
Though not overly trusting of the smirking man's words, Squall didn't question him further about the unimportant matter. Instead, he lowered his eyes and leaned against the cool window, wishing he could somehow evade the remaining questions which had yet to be mentioned.
"Why doesn't Master Seifer know?" Ward asked, his voice changed to a soothing, coaxing tone.
"... He was drunk."
In a sudden move, the steward grabbed onto the brunet's uninjured shoulder and spun him around until they were face to face. Pale blue eyes were hard and cold as Ward demanded, "Did he rape you? I swear, if he forced himself upon you..."
Though tempted by the opportunity to avoid the truth, Squall shook his head. "He didn't."
The large man exhaled deeply in relief as his painful grip relaxed, but didn't release the slim brunet.
Eyes lowered, Squall commented, "It's curious that both you and Kinneas were afraid that he had."
"Lord Kinneas knows?" Ward asked in a startled whisper.
The sorcerer simply nodded in reply.
"Hn. While inconvenient, Lord Kinneas is a trustworthy man. And he knows far better than myself about Master Seifer's unstable temper while drunk. But forgive me, it was wrong to assume that you wouldn't have been able to protect yourself from a drunken idiot."
"So, you still won't tell me how it happened?"
Squall shook his head, briefly shivering at held back memories.
"Does Leander... No, he can't know. He would have revealed something by now."
Not offering any type of response, Squall was surprised when, without warning, heavy arms wrapped strongly around his shoulders. Relaxing in the fatherly hold, the sorcerer felt years worth of exhaustion be set free into his body, the energy used to maintain his secret no longer needed in front of his father's longtime friend. Surrendering to his need for contact, Squall slumped forward against the towering body and grabbed loosely onto the man's shirt with a single hand.
"Laguna would have loved his grandchild," Ward said sincerely as he pressed his cheek against dark hair. "And Leander would have been honored by his name-sake. You have no reason to be ashamed."
Squall shook his head, but couldn't vocally reason that the two most important men in his life would have rejected the child born from sin and shame.
"Don't argue with me, boy. You didn't know your father and uncle like I did. And young Leander is an amazing child despite his Almasy blood. You've done a great job of raising him behind our backs."
Emotion burning at the back of his throat, Squall tried to push away, but the large man wouldn't be moved. "Stop this. He's not my son anymore. He isn't mine."
"But he is. No one can take him away from you."
"I gave him up!" Squall retorted as he surrounded himself in wind and forced the steward back several steps. Loose papers were stirred by the sudden wind and fluttered between the two men, reminding Squall vaguely of new snow. Reluctantly looking away from the fallen sheets to meet pale eyes, the sorcerer stated in a soft, desperate voice, "He will never be my son."
Ward scowled at the defeated comment and glanced away from the destroyed prince before him. But before he made another argument, the steward's frown changed into something more thoughtful. And as a faint smirk widened on his scarred face, Ward asked, "Tell me - what do you think of our lord and master?"
"He's not my master," Squall replied by reflex, only thinking afterward about the odd question.
Bending over, Ward retrieved the forgotten plate of bread and cheeses. "Well, he is my master, and I know that he never eats shortly before lunch. Even when starving, he doesn't want to spoil his meals with Leander." Looking to the silent sorcerer, Ward stated with certainty, "Master Seifer had this delivered for you."
Scoffing, Squall moved to the desk and dropped his white bishop into the open box. "He was trying to soften me with food and presents."
Closing the lid to the box, the brunet stated, "Leander asked about his 'mother' yesterday, and Almasy decided that a fellow sorcerer would know the man's identity."
Ward laughed deeply. "At least I'm not the only blind man around here, though I imagine that Master Seifer is certain that he would recognize the man he had impregnated."
Squall said nothing in reply as he silently reactivated the earth seal on the latch to the box.
"He'd spoil you, you know."
Turning sharply, the sorcerer glared at the smirking steward. "What nonsense is that?"
"For the past couple weeks, Master Seifer has been asking questions about you. Very detailed questions. And though he'd never admit it to an old man like me, it makes me believe that he's interested in you."
"His curiosity was prompted by the Ravage incident, that's all."
"While that may have been the beginning to everything, that's not what I meant. I've seen him watching you, mostly from this very room, though he pretends that he is only looking at the garden. He's also been asking Edea about your sleeping and eating habits. He's certain that you are slowly trying to kill yourself."
"That's none of his concern."
"He's making it his concern."
Fists clenched at his sides, Squall stated slowly, "Then someone needs to remind him that I'm not his problem."
"Even if that were the case, I won't be the one to speak with him."
"What? Why not?" the sorcerer demanded.
"Because, in the past several years, you've been dying before my eyes. Only recently have you started to show new life, and whether you want to believe it or not, I know that Master Seifer is at the root of your revival."
Breathing an incredulous laugh, Squall argued, "You're imagining things. And if it were true, why not assume it's because I'm allowed to spend more time with Leander for once?"
Ward shook his head, and as he stole a piece of cheese from the plate, the steward began walking in the direction of the doorway. "As I already said, you can believe what you may, but consider this - Leander has always been a small part of your life, while Master Seifer has just now entered it. When have you felt more alive?"
"You don't understand," Squall called out, but the former soldier had already opened the door and left, his deep chuckling heard until the door closed on its own.
Angered and betrayed, the dark-haired sorcerer fell back against the desk, his hand brushing against damaged wood. Looking down at the burnt box, Squall rested his hand on the sealed lid, but resisted the need to see the pieces once more. He wouldn't take the offered set, the chess pieces being too elegant for a mere servant. Almasy would question him, perhaps demand that the set belonged to him... And it worried Squall that he could almost hear the lord's impassioned voice.
Removing his hand from the marred box, Squall pushed up from the desk and stood still for a moment as his gray eyes scanned the papers that had been scattered onto the floor by his mild wind attack. For a brief moment, he considered straightening the mess, but then decided that the blond lord wouldn't notice the added disarray to his work. Stepping slowly to the exit, the slim brunet massaged his hurting shoulder and debated about returning to the main kitchen. Ward would have already arrived, the hardly eaten plate of food in his hand. Matron's scolding words held no appeal, nor the potential of Ward's further comments about his 'master'. But reluctantly remembering his place, the dark-haired servant knew that he had chores to complete before nightfall.
Prepared to play deaf and dumb in the face of his elders, Squall sighed softly and longed for the days when he was left alone to his misery.
Author's Whining -- Ugh, headache.