For Nothing, For Everything
Soft light of a cloud-covered sky slipped through the crack of thick curtains and onto the wide bed of messed sheets. The single occupant groaned at the interfering light, but reluctantly opened his eyes despite the desire to hide beneath the covers. Blue-gray eyes dulled with sleep, Squall stared at the far wall beyond the mattress, not recognizing the dresser and full-length mirror. It slowly seeped in that he wasn't where he was supposed to be, and the fact that sunlight had wakened him also implied that he was late for kitchen duties.
Squall attempted to sit up at that thought, his body protesting against every movement until he finally rested back against the headboard and tried to regain his lost breath. He couldn't understand his pain until he glanced at his hands, his fingernails displaying a dangerously dark blue color that was a clear aftereffect of manipulating his life-force. Wrapping his arms tight across his chest, Squall shivered at the remembered sensation of death that had been caused by complex and hazardous magic. It was something he had experienced only twice before and he knew that he would never grow accustomed to the disturbing feel.
A quiet knock sounded to distract the sorcerer from his memories, and though Squall glanced up at the door at the noise, he didn't invite the person to enter. Even so, the handle turned and the door opened silently, revealing the last person Squall wanted to see, and yet he wasn't the least bit surprised by the man's visit. With a covered tray balanced on one hand, Almasy stopped short in the motion of closing the door, his green eyes focused on the brunet in a scolding glare.
"If you were awake, you should've answered."
Squall matched the nobleman's scowl, but said nothing.
Almasy muttered a quiet 'Why do I bother?' as he closed the door tightly. Moving across the room, the blond set his tray on the end table closest to the bedridden man. "You were frozen this morning when I moved you, something I can only assume is a result of that magic you used last night. Whatever the cause, the fire didn't seem to be helping you much, so I had some hot food prepared for you. And before you think to refuse, Matron wants you to know that she made the oatmeal especially to your taste."
As he spoke, the lord uncovered the tray to reveal a large bowl of oatmeal and several small pastries that still steamed from hot jam. Despite his reflex to resist Almasy at every move, Squall could smell the sharp scent of nutmeg and cinnamon to the oatmeal and instantly hungered for the warm food. Attempting a reluctant look, the sorcerer accepted the offered bowl and placed the heated dish on his lap before sampling the specially made oatmeal. It wasn't until after his third savored bite that Squall noticed the concentrated gaze directed at him.
Glancing over, he frowned at the staring blond. "What?"
Almasy smiled gently, undisturbed by the terse tone of the sorcerer. "Forgive me, but once again, I find myself indebted to you after such a short time. I'm afraid that I don't know the best way to handle this situation."
"I didn't do anything for you."
"Leander is my son and only child," Almasy replied with a hardened edge to his voice. "Do you think that his life means nothing to me?"
"That's not what I said," Squall countered before enjoying another spoonful of his breakfast. But while finishing that bite, his other hand was suddenly taken into a strong hold.
"Holy Hyne, your fingers are blue. I hadn't noticed earlier."
With the icy coldness of his hand melting at the touch of the lord, Squall allowed the unwanted contact. "It's simply a side effect of the spell. I'll be fine once my body regains its warmth."
"All of this to protect..." Almasy didn't finish his sentence as he cupped his hands around Squall's and breathed hot air onto the frozen skin. Startled by the unexpected action, the sorcerer said nothing as he stared at his entrapped hand. Slowly, green eyes lifted from the warming task and met confused blue-gray. A small smirk formed as Almasy adjusted his hold on the cold hand, placing his hands under Squall's. Though at first appearing to nearly kiss the bent fingers like a gentleman would to a lady, Almasy only breathed a mocking chuckle such that the puff of warm air was felt by the servant. His hand was then carefully lowered back onto the mattress top.
Frowning at the apparent taunt, Squall quickly wrapped his arm around his midsection, thereby keeping his hand out of reach from the unpredictable blond.
Almasy smiled softly at the move, but didn't comment on his amusement. "How is the food?"
His frown deepening, the sorcerer returned his attention to the cooling meal at his lap. "I was enjoying it."
"Then don't let me stop you," Almasy replied as he moved from the bedside to retrieve a chair from the far corner.
Watching the man from the corner of his eye, Squall resumed eating the spiced oatmeal. It was reviving to feel the warm food fill his chilled body, and though he didn't want his present company, the brunet had to admit that he appreciated the gesture by the nobleman to bring him something to eat. To add to the lord's credit, Almasy returned to the bedside and sat in his chair without a spoken word, purposefully directing his attention to the nearby window. Recognizing the attempt to ease his discomfort, Squall chose not to comment on the occasional shift of green eyes, the blond apparently unable to stop looking at the servant for any decent length of time.
With the eventual sound of light scrapping against the bottom of the bowl, Almasy turned to fully face the brunet. He removed the empty bowl to place it on the tray before offering the plate covered with pastries. Squall selected one filled with cherry preserves, but didn't taste the treat before saying, "I know you have questions."
Almasy set the plate on the mattress space between them and selected one for himself. "As obvious as that may be, I can wait until you have recovered."
"It's not like you to be patient."
"Yes, well, maybe I'm also in the process of recovering," the lord replied with a crooked smile.
Conceding that the man had the equal right to fear the near lost of his son, Squall didn't argue and instead took a small bite of the pastry. Sweet jam slipped into his mouth and nearly coaxed out a pleased hum at the sugary warmth. Squall, however, restrained himself in front of the watchful nobleman. Directing a suspicious glance at the broad shouldered blond, the sorcerer thought about the previous night, briefly worried about his hazy memories of being held within strong arms. But Squall placed aside that concern, understanding that there were more important things to discuss with the lord.
"What did I tell you last night?"
Almasy lifted his eyes, a rare gleam of blue softening the sharp green irises.
Before a word was spoken by the blond, Squall insisted, "Don't patronize me. I'm well enough to sit on a bed and talk."
The lord stared for a long moment before his lips curled into a vague smirk. "As always, you appear to be right." Finishing off his pastry, Almasy licked the remaining dark red jam from his fingers, the swift movements of the pink tongue catching Squall's eye as he unwittingly stared at the man's mouth. Once done with long fingers, an extended thumb was taken into that mouth and the last of the jam was sucked clean from calloused skin. A breath of laughter suddenly sounded, Almasy quickly regaining the startled attention of the the brunet as blue-gray eyes met the the nobleman's overly interested gaze.
Unable to explain himself, Squall scowled and reminded the man of his unanswered question. "What have I already told you?"
Almasy smiled broadly, but wisely chose to not comment on the slip in composure. "We didn't have a very satisfying discussion last night, but you did tell me that the Empress was looking for you with some spell that had scared the shit out of Ander. You know, he was shaking this morning when he woke up. He then spouted things about arms ripping his soul from his body and I didn't know how to console him since... Tell me, Squall - do we need to be afraid? I can't tell him to feel safe if he should be on his guard."
Squall sighed, silently upset that he hadn't been awake to help the young sorcerer. "Ultimecia would not have left if she discovered anything. Unfortunately, she will always be suspicious, but I've fooled her like this in the past and she has never returned."
"But you can't be certain of that."
"... No," Squall admitted tightly.
Almasy frowned, his brow crinkled in thought. "Last night, you told me that the Empress was a sorceress, a woman with the same powers as yourself. If that's true... I assume it was by your magic that you knew the Empress was coming shortly before her arrival. How could she not sense you in a similar manner?"
With a shake of his head, Squall explained, "She isn't connected to the elements like a true sorcerer. We listen and coax the elements to do our bidding. Sorceresses, on the other hand, demand the obedience of the elements without ever hearing their cries of pain."
"I don't understand... How does that stop her from knowing you're here?"
"It wasn't me who 'sensed' her. Instead, the wind saw Ultimecia's approach and spoke its warning to me and, in a lesser sense, to Leander. Sorceresses, like humans, can't hear those words. But even if she could hear the voice of the elements, they would never tell her about my presence. They despise and fear her existence."
Almasy replied with an uncertain hum. "And that's because she forces these 'elements' to do whatever she wants?"
"It's more terrible than you can possibly understand."
The blond lord stared down at his hands, his eyes narrowed in frustration. "And that's going to be my life from now on, isn't it? That I will never be able understand anything about you or my son."
Squall frowned at the act of self-pity. "Of course you won't be able to understand something you can't experience. You should have realized that the moment you accepted Leander, a sorcerer by blood, into your life."
"I know. I know that, but... I've never really thought of him as a sorcerer. He's a kid, for Hyne's sake." Almasy shook his head, facing the denial of a father. Lifting his eyes, he focused on the sorcerer. "Does he really hear these voices?"
"Some. He needs more training before he'll be able to understand the words of the elements."
"And you'll stay to train him?"
Squall couldn't answer immediately, something in the lord's voice striking the sorcerer as... different. He eyed the blond, trying to identify something within the man's expression as suspicious or otherwise dangerous, but only tired, slightly reddened eyes stared back as Almasy waited patiently for an answer.
Holding that gaze, Squall replied, "I already promised to tutor him. I will stay until he can at least defend himself."
With an exhaled breath, Almasy leaned back in his chair and placed a hand over his eyes. "Hyne, you had me worried for a moment there."
The sorcerer continued to watch the man, noticing the movements of muscles that hadn't been so defined as when the lord had attacked him months previous. That sight of strength would have once brought a sensation of wariness in the servant, but now with the threat of Ultimecia hanging above him, Squall was thankful that Almasy had enough sense to resume his training with various weaponry. But as his eyes moved higher and lingered on the nobleman's face partly covered by a calloused hand, Squall heard quiet laughter. Though only hearing it once before, the sorcerer instantly recognized the wild and harsh sound as belonging to the most unreliable and the most powerful of the elements. Turning around to face the fireplace, Squall saw nothing different to the low flames and they weren't talking to him. But the light laughter continued.
"Are you alright?"
Startled by the deeply toned voice, Squall stared wide-eyed at the blond before he recognized the question he was being asked. Looking away sharply, the servant stared at the bed covers and ran fingers back through his hair. "It's nothing."
Almasy hummed unconvinced as he stood from his chair. "You're tired - it's alright to admit that, you know. Go ahead and rest. You can stay here as long as you wish."
Glancing down at the bed and remembering it wasn't his, Squall asked, "Where is this room? I don't recognize it."
"Oh? That's surprising," the lord commented as he moved aside and motioned to the wall behind him. "Beyond that tapestry is a room you know very well."
Squall looked at the dark wall hanging, the scene depicted by the skillfully woven threads familiar in a vague recollection, but otherwise unknown.
"Can it be that you haven't visited his room that often after all?"
Blue-gray eyes widening, the sorcerer asked in disbelief, "You don't mean... Leander's room...?"
"That's right. This room has been vacant for several years, ever since Ander's last nanny was sent to the streets. I suppose that it's about time this room was put back into use."
With a frown of confusion, Squall moved his eyes away from the lord, but settling on the sight of the tall dresser, the sorcerer stiffened at the unnoticed presence of a narrow box, an overly familiar box ruined from fire and age. Stormy eyes unable to look away, Squall questioned, "What is the meaning of this?"
Stepping in the direction of the dresser, Almasy brushed off nonexistent dust from the lid of the wooden box. "You left this in my care the last time we spoke at length. I'm returning it to you."
With a surprised look to his expression, the blond lord eventually smiled with a resigned curl to the pink lips. "Come now, at least hear my proposal before refusing me."
Arms crossed over his chest, Squall glared at the man in a silent demand to move on with the matter so he could refuse properly.
Almasy returned his gaze to the burnt box as he halfhearted played with the lock sealed by magic. "I didn't sleep well last night. At first I was able to get some rest, but then I was wakened by nightmares of Ravages and fairy tale witches. I sat for a long time, thinking about how lucky I was to have you around to save Ander, but I almost wasn't lucky enough, was I?"
Squall frowned at the rhetorical question, not certain what the nobleman was implying.
Daring to turn around, Almasy met cold blue-gray eyes. "Both times, with the Ravages and with the Empress, you had to run to Ander, to reach him in time to protect him. A few minutes... Hell, maybe even a few seconds could have changed everything and it makes me sick to think that. That's why I want you here. As Ander's personal servant, no one will question you being at his side at any and all times. You can even increase the length of your tutoring sessions and no one will be suspicious of you spending that time with him. And--"
"And I'd run the risk of being recognized in such a high profile position," Squall interjected coolly.
The lord nodded, but then spoke quickly to prove he had already considered that matter. "Of course there would be some risk, but it has been almost a decade since you were in the public eye. And even then, few people this far west have ever seen your face. I doubt anyone of importance would recognize you from sight alone."
Almasy straightened, an interested gleam to his eyes. "I suppose your name does stand out a touch. It's strange that you didn't think to use an alias here, but you did at the Heartilly Manor."
Blue-gray eyes lowered to avoid the lord's gaze. "It wasn't my fault. Ward... he was surprised to see me back then."
"A-ah, so the old man spoke up for you and ruined any attempt to hide your identity?"
"Well, no matter how it happened, you've been living here for years and no one has questioned your past. I don't see that changing with you taking a new position. And be realistic - as Ander's steward, you would still be a low class servant, someone whom nobles wouldn't give a second glance. I don't believe you'd be risking as much as you think."
In an angry mutter, Squall commented, "It's not your life to fear losing."
"... No. No, it's not, but I do fear losing my last and only son. And if you were to consider it closely, I think you'd realize that the risk of him being killed is far greater than anyone giving a shit about you."
His head snapping up, the sorcerer glared at the arrogant man, but found no words to counter the cheap argument. Instead, he felt his chest burn in frustration as his secret son was once again used against him.
Almasy met the gaze of icy fire for a long moment before exhaling in a deep sigh. With a hand resting on the box holding the stone chess set, the blond lord asked quietly, "Do you think that, if the worst were to happen, I wouldn't do everything in my power to protect you?"
Scoffing, Squall replied, "And why would you bother?"
Green eyes flashed with an unnamed emotion before the nobleman looked to the box of charred wood. "I appear to be asking too much of you today." After a final brush of his fingers along the latch of the box, Almasy moved to the doorway. "You've earned your rest, so remain in bed as long as you like. And don't think of visiting the kitchens tonight - I've already told Matron that you aren't allowed to work. But by morning... if you chose to refuse my proposition, then go back to the kitchens and hide. Otherwise, meet me in my study. We can fight over your duties and compensation during morning coffee. Understood?"
With his hand on the handle of the door, Almasy didn't wait for a vocal reply as he looked into blue-gray eyes. Instead, he nodded as if hearing the answer he wanted and promptly slipped out of the bedroom while closing the door behind him.
Pressing a hand to his face, Squall wondered out loud, "And what if I don't care for coffee?", but with the lord gone, his question went unanswered except for the amused crackle of fire. His lips set in a scowl, he asked the flames, "What do you know?"
As if done hiding in the charcoals, new flames flared to life and danced in the enclosure of the fireplace. Golden orange and vibrant red moved in chaotic motions until settling on a particular image of a basket made of interweaving fire. Squall tensed at the sight, his eyes widening as a tiny hand reached out from the wall of the basket, reaching out for him. But then a howl of wind abruptly sounded in the walls of the chimney, causing the flames to swirl and the image to disappear into irritating smoke. Though its fun had been ruined, the fire held onto its amusement and continued to laugh in light snaps.
Shaken by the fire's action, Squall closed his eyes and inhaled deeply to settle his heart. He knew the malicious element was simply mocking him for being unable to deny his child anything, that he'd sacrifice his own life to guarantee Leander's safety. But the point had been made and the dark-haired sorcerer knew that he had no real decision to make concerning Almasy's offer. He should have been grateful that the nobleman was freely giving him an excuse to stay near Leander and to watch over the boy, and yet there was something at the back of the sorcerer's mind, a quiet voice warning him that he was blindly stepping into a den of sleeping lions.
"I think he knows," Squall stated quietly, his breath trailing in the air cooled by snow and ice.
Ward chuckled and shifted beside him, the massive man unsuccessfully hiding his bulk within the warmth of his coat. "And who knows what, exactly?"
The dark-haired sorcerer said nothing for a time, his pale eyes focused a fair distance ahead as he watched the movements of father and son playing in the depths of snow. It was one week after the party and Almasy had decided to gift his son with an early present before the winter solstice - a set of wooden swords. Despite the foot of snow covering the expanse of the estate, Leander begged to try out the practice weapons, something his father unsurprisingly considered to be an excellent idea. Squall's scowl and attempt of an argument was promptly ignored when the pair of idiots ran outside with weapons in hand.
Currently leaning back against the outer wall of the mansion, the brunet watched as Almasy combined play with a true lesson in handling a sword. Their movements were erratic and occasionally flamboyant, but the former soldier skillfully knocked his son's wooden blade in ways that forced the youth to hold his weapon tightly, insuring the eventual callusing of soft skin and the strengthening of his muscles. With no knowledge of his father's purposeful attacks, Leander continued to laugh and cry out meaningless threats at the large man.
"Almasy," Squall eventually clarified for his longtime mentor. "I think he knows I am Leander's other father."
"What?!" Ward asked loudly, and then quickly placed a gloved hand over his mouth when he realized how loud he had been. With the play of father and son continuing without interruption, the large steward asked more quietly, "What in Hyne's name makes you think that?"
Squall shrugged, unable to explain the subtleties that had led to his conclusion. Aside from that first morning after the party, it was the continued tutoring sessions which had left the sorcerer with a sense of disquiet. The lord was silent as usual during the lessons, but his eyes had taken on a sharper gleam that made Squall feel like his every secret was exposed to the world. More so, whenever Squall would touch the dark-haired boy and secretly glance at the silent nobleman, there would be an odd hurtful expression mixed with disbelief on the strong face, the open displays vanishing into a smirk once Leander would look to his father. With such unusual moods in addition the sudden placement of Squall as Leander's steward, the servant could only assume Almasy had stumbled upon the truth that would have been obvious to any other fool.
Shaking his head, Ward argued in a low rumble, "You must be imaging things. The moment Master Seifer realizes the truth, the first thing he'll do is attack either Lord Kinneas or myself. And if he doesn't accidentally kill us, he'll demand to know why we hadn't told him anything about something so important. As you should know well by now, he isn't a man who controls his anger."
Squall nodded, remembering the healer's tale of nearly being killed by Almasy once the secret of the former Sorcerer Prince came to light. With uncertainty lingering in his voice, the brunet admitted, "I suppose I could be assuming too much..."
"Trust me, if he hasn't discovered your secret yet, he won't anytime soon. I image that your paranoia is a result of spending more time with our Lord than you'd like," Ward suggested with a lopsided grin.
Directing a knowing eye to the smaller man, the elder steward continued to ask, "How is that going, by the way? I was surprised to hear that you agreed to help our hopeless lord to learn the language of sorcerers."
"He's an utter idiot," Squall said quietly.
Chuckling, Ward nodded. "That may be true, but the question remains as to why you are tutoring him."
"He's interested in everything Leander learns, but he has problems keeping up when a six-year-old manages just fine."
The pale-eyed man laughed deeply before asking, "Did you consider that Leander understands better since he has the instincts of a sorcerer?"
"Well, in any case, there surely needs to be an additional reason for you to willingly subject yourself to Master Seifer's presence."
Glaring at the large steward, Squall hissed, "I have no interest in that man. Why are you so persistent about this?"
Ward smiled smugly as he met the angry gaze. "Because I still think you deserve each other."
"What the hell do you--"
Unable to finish his question, Squall was interrupted by the whispered warnings of wind, a voice that led him to automatically raise his hand and create a thick shield of air in front of his body. The subsequent 'thud' and splattering of snow made the sorcerer blink in surprise before he glared forward at the troublesome pair which had apparently found a new game to play.
Leander, unable to contain his laughter, quickly pointed at his large father as the thrower of the snowball, something Almasy didn't deny as he smirked at the irritated brunet. "Sorry, but you looked too serious over there. It's nearly the winter solstice and the year-end festival - try to look jolly and all of that holiday ridiculousness."
Squall scowled in spite of the suggestion, and it didn't help his mood that he continued to wonder why his mentor and father's friend had decided that he somehow deserved the green-eyed curse.
His grin widening, Almasy commented, "Well, your reflexes aren't too bad there, but that's cheating to use shields. Why are you afraid of a little snow, princeling? It's not like some ice can make you any colder."
A dark eyebrow rose in disbelief at the man's childish thought process.
"Uh-oh," the lord said mockingly as he bent down toward his son. "Do you think I made him mad, Ander?"
The boy giggled, not realizing that he was being used as a screen by his father, Almasy proceeding to make another snowball behind small legs. Although the blond was quick in collecting the heavy snow, Squall was well prepared for the obvious attack. With the help of wind, the snowball was destroyed the moment it left the gloved hand, the splattering of slush hitting both father and son. Leander yelped with a playful laugh and proceeded to hide behind his large father. Almasy, meanwhile, scowled at the sorcerer and placed a fisted hand on his hip.
"You know, you sure have a knack at ruining my fun."
Focused on the lord's pouting expression, Squall couldn't stop a small smile from forming as he considered the ridiculousness of the situation. And worse, he felt the inescapable need to respond in kind. Cold wind answered immediately as Squall directed it into the snow along with a touch of fire, the swirling air submerging into the depths of whiteness to eventually rise with four orbs of compacted snow. Almasy stared with widened eyes at the hovering snowballs, the lord wasting precious moments before realizing the purpose behind the demonstration of magic. He turned quickly to run for cover, but the forgotten presence of his son behind him made the large blond stumble and fail to dodge as he was pelted with cold slush. Yelling out in surprise, Almasy fell face first into the snow, Leander just barely avoiding the crush of his father's weight.
"Whoa," the dark-haired boy expressed with awe, his light green eyes then moving to the sorcerer. "How'd you do that?"
His smile widening, Squall motioned for the child to come close. While the nobleman took his time rising from the snow, the sorcerer placed a hand at Leander's shoulder and faced him in the direction of his father. "First, summon your core to better control the elements," Squall stated softly, waiting a brief moment as the child called upon the young staff, a task that had become easier for the boy. "Now, you will need to have the wind turn in the snow, but the secret is the touch of fire to melt the ice and help form the sphere shape. Also, fire has a playful nature that the air and earth will always follow for things like this."
As he spoke to the child, Squall watched as Almasy slowly stood up and brushed the sticky whiteness from his coat. The nobleman eventually felt the gazes focused on him, a blond eyebrow then rising in a curious arc as he noticed the close proximity between student and teacher. But by that moment, it was too late for the lord as Squall felt the elements stir at the silent, but insistent pleas of the youthful sorcerer. Clumsy and misshapen, a clump of snow rose from the ground. Leander smiled at the first attempt, his hand then taken into Squall's.
"And now, we let it go," the elder sorcerer declared as he swung the small arm forward, Squall adding his strength to help launch the snowball at the blond lord.
"Oh shit," Almasy cried out, stupidly not expecting the obvious attack, but he still managed to cover his face in time with a bent arm.
As the snow splattered against the block, Leander cried out happily, "I did it, I did it!" and promptly spun around to wrap his arms around the brunet's legs in a dangerously tight squeeze.
Barely holding onto his balance, Squall placed a hand onto dark hair and ruffled the thick strands. Ward bent down next to them, congratulating the young boy with a light punch against a small arm. Leander laughed and then proceeded to explain what it was like to use his first wind spell in addition to the warming spell he had learned only days earlier. Glancing up from the pair, Squall looked to the abused lord and was unsurprised to find green eyes hovering on the sight of the sorcerer's hand resting on Leander's head. But then those eyes glanced up, meeting stormy blue as a soft, pleased smile crossed pale lips.
Before the sorcerer was given a chance to question that expression, the gentle smile turned into a broad smirk as Almasy called out, "Hey, small stuff!"
When Leander turned at the voice of his father, Almasy motioned the boy over, a request the child didn't think to refuse as he hurried clumsily through deep snow. The large man opened his arms as if ready to give his boy a congratulatory hug, but the moment Leander came within range, Almasy promptly grabbed and dumped the child into deep snow.
"That's what you get for attacking your father," the blond stated as he flung more snow onto his son.
Unable to hold a pout, Leander laughed as he tried to sit up. It was at that moment that Squall noticed the pale stick still in the child's hand despite the interruption in concentration. The small hand tightened slightly, his thumb brushing against the engraved wind spell Leander had learned earlier in the week, and Squall could feel the hesitant obedience of the air. The sorcerer shook his head, amused at the boy's quick study with the worthless technique to create snowballs.
Kneeling over his son, Almasy didn't notice the lump of snow behind him, the surprise nearly being ruined by a stifled laugh from Ward. But before Leander could figure out how to make the snowball fly at his father, Squall heard the quick progression of steps in snow. Panic tightening his chest, the sorcerer directed a shot of air at the snowball, destroying it into a mess of slush that covered the lord's back.
Almasy yelled out a playful, "Hey!", but then quieted at the sudden appearance of a maid, the breathless woman holding her skirt high in a failed attempt to keep the dress dry. Sitting back on his heels, the blond lord focused sharp green eyes on the maid as his smile slipped. "Was there something you needed?"
The young woman flushed at the reprimanding tone. "Forgive me for interrupting, my lord, but the young master's tutor has arrived early and wishes to begin so he may leave before nightfall. I first tried looking for Mr. Zabac..."
"It's alright, Casey," Ward assured as he moved from his place at the wall. "It's my fault for not telling anyone where I was. Go back inside and dry off in front of a fire."
With a clumsy curtsy in the snow, the woman said her apologies once more before retreating.
"Well, I guess that's enough fun for you, kid," Almasy said as he wrapped his hand around a small arm and lifted his son from the snow. "Go with Ward and get into some dry clothes before heading to your lesson. I don't need you catching cold before our trip to the city in a couple days."
"I'll help him," Squall said stiffly, his body tensing with cold anger. He should have known better than to teach Leander to use magic outside the safety of the manor's walls. And now, after years of hardships to keep their secret safe, everything had been nearly ruined by a simple, worthless snowball.
"No," Almasy argued as he shoved Leander in the direction of the large steward. "There's something we need to speak about, so Ward can handle your job for a short while. Of course, only if that is alright with you."
Squall frowned, knowing he didn't have a real choice in the matter. Arms crossed over his chest, he looked at Leander and silently wished he could have escaped with the boy. Not understanding the purpose behind the brunet's gaze, Leander simply waved 'goodbye' as he hurried off to match Ward's far longer stride.
Eventually turning his back to the departing boy, Squall followed the lead of the large blond who was doing his best to shake clinging snow from the back of his jacket. Blue-gray eyes settled on the exposed neck of the man and Squall thoughtlessly watched the shift of muscle as Almasy stretched awkwardly to shake his coat. It was a bad habit as of late, the sorcerer finding himself staring at the blond in a shameless and inexcusable manner. He couldn't explain his sudden interest in the former soldier's body, but the more he looked, the more he understood the reason why the briefest appearance of Almasy could make the maids stop their work and sigh. But even with that understanding, Squall believed the women fools for fawning over the arrogant man.
In short time, the two men entered the back doorway which led directly to the lord's private study. Squall relaxed his arms from their tight hold across his chest and sighed in relief at the sight of tall flames within the wide fireplace. Not removing his coat, he moved close to the source of heat and held his hands out to the entrancing flames. Never realizing Almasy hadn't continued to his desk like always, Squall jumped at the touch to his arm.
Almasy smiled apologetically, but didn't release his hold on the ragged jacket. "Sorry, but I just realized that this thing is worthless. You must have been freezing outside. Why didn't you get something warmer?"
Jerking his arm free, Squall informed the lord, "This is my best coat."
"Well, that won't do. You are now the personal servant of an Almasy - we need you look more presentable than this. Once we're in town, remind me that we need to purchase you new clothing."
Squall bit back his urge to reject the offer, the former prince knowing all too well about the never-ending pageantry within the society of nobles. But needing to voice his annoyance, the sorcerer asked, "Is this what you had to speak to me about? That I don't take good enough care of my clothing?"
"Of course not," Almasy declared as he moved from the brunet's side. Supplying nothing more to his reply, the lord took off his jacket and tossed it over the back of a chair. His leather gloves soon joined the wet cloth on the seat of the dark wood. Almasy then raked his fingers through his hair and scratched roughly to remove wet snow from the short strands, the flight of water droplets landing just short of Squall's feet.
"What are you - a dog?"
Blinking, Almasy glanced up at the comment, his startled state fading with a soft smirk. "I've been called worse," he said before giving his hair one last good scratch.
With a quiet sigh of exasperation, Squall demanded, "Would you just tell me what you want?"
The question caused a flash of various emotions to cross the unshielded eyes of green, but Almasy didn't appear to act on those impassioned thoughts as he instead moved to his desk and leaned back against the polished wood. "It's frustrating that you always go directly to the point, but since there's no helping it..." After closing his eyes in a brief moment of thought, the lord stared directly into blue-gray and began, "I brought you with me because I knew that if I left you to your own devises, you would sit in some corner and brood over damned 'what ifs' in connection with that maid. In plain terms, I don't give a shit that someone almost saw Leander using magic. No one did and that's that."
Eyes narrowed, Squall argued in slow words, "Someone could have been watching us the entire time."
"Wouldn't the wind have told you otherwise?"
"If the wind were to tell me everything it saw, I would go deaf," the sorcerer replied angrily, upset that the nobleman had assumed they were safe.
Though an eyebrow rose with interest, Almasy countered, "That doesn't matter. I specifically chose that spot to practice since there are few windows looking over the area. And frankly, there will always be a chance that someone will oversee Ander using magic. He needs to learn how to cover his ass when that happens, just like how you destroyed his snowball before that maid came into view."
Squall showed his surprise at the comment. "You knew about the snowball behind you?"
"Of course. Whenever he tries to control those elements of yours, he concentrates so hard that his left eye begins to squint," Almasy explained while pointing to his own eye and demonstrating the expression. "It's cute, really."
Dumbfounded, Squall asked, "If you knew..."
"Why didn't I do anything about it? Please, I'm a father. Sometimes I let the little one get the better of me to help build up his confidence."
The brunet had no response to offer, only able to stare at the broad shouldered man as if seeing him for the first time.
"Also speaking as a father, I have to ask - how proud should I be that he picked up that snowball trick so fast?"
His eyes cold gray, Squall looked away from the man who was already smirking with extreme pride. "I shouldn't have taught him in the first place. I was--"
"You were being fucking human for once," Almasy stated in a near growl, "and thank Hyne for that. I think today was the first time I've seen you have a bit of fun. No matter what you say, it felt good to see you smile, and that half-assed thing you usually show Ander doesn't count."
"Damn, you're a stubborn one. But I imagine that is what has kept you alive all of these years."
Hearing a tinge of regret to the typically strong voice, Squall looked over to the man and watched as he moved to the front of his desk. Papers were brushed to the side, revealing a decent sized box that Almasy picked up and opened. Offering it in the sorcerer's direction, the lord asked, "Have you tried these? It's a new chocolate they are making further south."
Squall stared at the box of candies ranging in color, his arm tightening around his waist. "Ward told you."
Honest confusion crossed the lord's face, his softened green eyes flitting between the box and the brunet. "Told me what? Do you have something against chocolate?"
While unable to determine if the man was being truthful in his innocence, Squall could tell that the chocolate would taste amazing either way, and it had been years since he had savored the dark sweet. At first hesitant in his approach, the sorcerer crossed the room, feeling much like a stray cat being lured into a trap by a piece of fish. But once in range, Almasy did nothing except to smile broadly and extend his arm further in a coaxing manner.
Squall stared directly into the clear green eyes, and finding no evidence that the lord was toying with him, he finally selected a chocolate molded into the shape of a seashell. He took a small bite of the treat, more of a sliver than a real taste, but it was enough. A shaky sigh escaped the servant as it melted on his tongue and teased his senses after years of deprivation. And with that single taste, Squall knew he was in trouble as he forced his eyes open and looked straight into intense green eyes that had widened in surprise.
"Oh..." was Almasy's succinct remark, revealing that the nobleman had indeed not been aware of the sorcerer's weakness. But judging by the touch of fire in the emerald gaze, Squall knew the man won't soon forget the dangerous piece of information. Pink lips curled into a mischievous smirk as Almasy selected a dark chocolate for himself and placed the box back onto the cluttered desk. "Good, aren't they? I got them from a couple of close friends who had traveled to Centra recently."
Knowing it'd be unwise to watch the blond lord eat his treat, Squall quickly glanced down at the desk and the still open box of chocolates. His eyes focused on the safe spot, he took a larger bite of the dark candy, far better prepared for the taste he loved. But as his gaze drifted, stormy eyes were quickly attracted to a piece of paper trapped beneath the thin wood, the curled parchment revealing a broken seal of dark gray wax.
Swallowing down the suddenly sickening piece of chocolate, Squall faced the blond lord directly and demanded, "Why are you dealing with Biggs' mercenary group?"
Once again surprised by the servant, Almasy finished off his chocolate with a heavy lick to his thumb. "You recognize his seal?"
Not replying to the obvious, the sorcerer glared at the lord and waited for an answer.
"Well, not that it's anything you need to know, I'm thinking about enlisting the help of the Elite Soldiers to clean up a mess down south."
Squall stared directly into green eyes, the lord's gaze suddenly shielded and hard. "You're not telling me the full truth."
Pale lips curled into a lazy smirk. "As I already said, it's nothing you need to be concerned with."
Though bristling at the brush off, the servant held back his desire to argue and instead warned the lord, "Don't trust Biggs. He'll betray you the moment he can benefit from it."
"Oh? What makes you say that?"
Upset and uncomfortable with sudden emotions, Squall turned away from the blond lord and stepped in the direction of the chair that held the drying coat of the nobleman. Placing a hand on dark fur, the sorcerer stroked the soft material as he spoke. "When the Empire attacked my country, it wasn't a surprise. Our few spies told us months beforehand that the Emperor planned to rid the continent of sorcerers and their followers, him ready to claim that we were plagues of the human race. We tried to prepare ourselves, but our people were artisans, not warriors. Even amongst the sorcerers, there were few willing and able to fight. And so, my father decided to hire a skilled group of soldiers to protect the capitol from an initial attack..."
A loud banging noise made Squall spin around, stormy eyes instantly settling on the tight fist held against the clutter top of the desk. Almasy sneered viciously as a loud growl slipped past his lips. "Those bastards. I was there when Biggs told our generals that they had already handled the city's defenses. But Biggs and his group were the 'defenses', weren't they?"
Squall didn't reply, his attention otherwise entranced by the anger of the large blond.
"Damn them to Hell, they had also bragged about not losing a single man to the pathetic 'army' of the sorcerers. I even envied their supposed ability to destroy the sorcerers' defenses without raising a single alarm. Why do I have to be so fucking blind all of the time?!"
There was a fire to the lord's eyes, a verdant blaze that Squall hadn't seen since the night he was wrongly accused of molesting Leander. Seeing that sign of impassioned anger, the former prince didn't want to believe that Almasy truly cared about Biggs' betrayal against the lost country of sorcerers. But as Almasy lifted his hand and rubbed reddened knuckles, Squall felt oddly heartened that the one-time soldier of the Imperial Army was angered by the treachery that led to the elimination of innocent men, women, and children.
Losing some of his heated energy, Almasy sat back onto his desk. "And to think, I was this close to hiring them. I can't even begin to imagine how many lives could have been lost. But damn them, they are the strongest group on the continent and the only ones worth their gold."
Squall focused on the green eyes that were distant with thought, and exploiting
the distracted moment, the sorcerer said, "You don't want them for a skirmish
down south, do you? You're after bigger game to the east of the mountains."
Almasy sat straight at the announcement, his eyes wide in the surprise of someone caught red-handed. But quickly covering himself, the lord smirked and chuckled lightly. "I think there's a misunderstanding here. I do need help further south, in fact to protect and maybe even expand my property in the region where these chocolates have come from."
"Fine, then that was the truth, but you only want to test the Elite Soldiers before you decide on their skill and trustworthiness."
The nobleman sat quietly for a time, his smile fading into a more worrisome expression before he asked, "What gave me away?"
Though somewhat surprised by the quick admission, Squall was relieved that the man trusted him enough to stop the game of lies. Deciding to show the same respect, he explained, "The Elite Soldiers are respected for a reason, the same reason why my father decided to hire them. But despite their reputation, the Elite Soldiers chose the side of the Emperor and ruthlessly broke their contract with the sorcerers. And now, for you to be worried about that, it makes me believe that you are planning something that would involve using those mercenaries against the Emperor, a plan that would end in carnage if you decide to use Biggs."
With a loud exhale, Almasy moved to his feet. "Thank Hyne, only you would make those assumptions with such little information like that. I don't need others coming after me with that same knowledge."
Squall frowned as he thought about the attack from Ravages. "Doesn't the Emperor already assume you are planning something?"
The blond lord smiled at the concerned voice. "The Emperor can assume all he likes, but he'll never get rid of me publicly unless he has evidence to that fact. Instead, he has decided to threaten me on a yearly basis in an attempt to keep me tamed. Though I have to say, his use of those monsters was a bit dangerous. Everyone knows that only the Emperor likes to use those murderous beasts."
The servant gazed at the man, realizing that in his dislike for the blond, he had blinded himself about the deeper traits of the arrogant lord. Almasy's stance and expression were still displays of exaggerated pride, but for the first time, Squall could see the hidden intelligence to the vibrant eyes, an intelligence that the Emperor would fear if he knew of its existence. Instead, Almasy played a recluse noble who had money, power, and an apparent disinterest in both. While the Emperor wasn't completely fooled, the dark-haired servant knew those of nobility had bought the act. During his time at the Heartilly Estate, Squall had heard the various rumors associated with the blond, some fairly reasonable about his love of swordplay, but then descending to the completely ridiculous concerning a harem of foreign women hidden away in the cellars of the manor.
Overall, Almasy was hardly considered a rival within the noble society, most finding him entertaining when he bothered to attend various gatherings. And now, with the hint of the real Seifer Almasy shown before him, Squall hated himself for believing the same lies.
Placing aside his anger at himself, Squall asked the nobleman, "What reason do you have to challenge the Emperor?"
"Many reasons, actually, but it all started with the Massacre," Almasy replied with a strange gleam to his eyes. "He used me and others to kill innocent children. At first, I tried to drink until I forgot the faces of the dead. When that did little to help, I then proceeded to try and kill myself on various battlefields, but obviously, I somehow failed at that simple task."
The lord said nothing more, and though Squall knew there was more to the man's story, the servant understood the base emotion of wanting to stop living. "And what happens if, by your god's will, you succeed?"
"Heh, you mean, do I intend to take the throne of Emperor for myself?"
Squall replied with a slight nod of his head.
Almasy smiled a cat's grin. "No, I don't think so. The last thing I'd want is to be named Emperor. Frankly, it's too much work to rule a country. I'd rather place a man on the throne and have that person forever indebted to me and my whims."
"Then whom do you have in mind?" the brunet asked, finding it amusing that only the lord in front of him could find a benefit in being lazy and irresponsible.
"Currently, Alexandros tops my list. He's rather fair and wouldn't do anything reckless, even to save his life. Also, he's a blood cousin to Deling, which should make the nobles happy enough. Mostly, I fell in love with his daughter when I met her last year. She'll make a wonderful queen when her time comes."
Squall looked away from the lord at that point, trying to remember as many details as he could about the head of the Alexandros family. Nothing stood out as dangerous or different than any other noble, and while the sorcerer didn't have as much faith as Almasy had concerning the man's ruling abilities, Squall knew the role of Emperor could be one of a figurehead if the man was incompetent enough.
Reluctantly deciding to trust the lord's judgment, Squall asked, "If you need a strong group of warriors, would you consider accepting the help of the Shumi?"
There was no immediate reply, and when the servant faced Almasy once more, the man appeared beyond words as his mouth hung open without a sound. Eventually, a disbelieving laugh left the blond as Almasy said, "The Shumi? Hyne's hips, those demons are worse than the Ravages. If I set one foot on their land, they'll cut off my legs and watch me bleed to death."
The sorcerer grinned faintly. "There's a reason for that - it makes the meat of their enemies sweeter to let them bleed out first."
Shifting back in surprise, Almasy watched his servant carefully before a light of understanding came to the clear eyes. "Then it's true that the sorcerers controlled the Shumi?"
A sharp laugh left Squall as he shook his head. "The Shumi would allow no one to be their masters. No, centuries ago there was a bloodied war between us that occurred over a misunderstanding. Afterward, once the falsehoods had been cleared, a truce was made, which then led to a type of kinship. That's all."
The lord frowned at the explanation, his brow creased in thought. "If they were your allies, then why didn't they lift a hand to help you in the Massacre?"
"Unfortunately, while we sorcerers trust the Shumi, not everyone in our capitol would have been comfortable with them residing within the city. And so, my father hired Biggs' mercenaries to defend the capitol and give us time to notify the Shumi. We were never given that chance."
Releasing a deep sigh, Almasy raked his fingers back through soft spikes of gold. "Hyne, if those Shumi had been there, I sincerely doubt your city would have been destroyed. Hell, I'm not too certain I would have been willing to fight against those odds. Facing the sorcerers was bad enough, but to defend ourselves against those beasts--"
"Stop referring to them as monsters," Squall demanded sharply.
Though at first surprised by the outburst, Almasy smiled apologetically. "Forgive me. I've already forgotten that these are friends of yours."
Glancing away toward the fireplace, the sorcerer nodded in a vague sign that he wasn't overly offended. In truth, he could understand the man's point of view, one held by the entirety of the continent save the magic users. Outsiders only knew of the matured warriors of the Shumi race, dangerous fighters with the head and claws of tigers, but placed on the slender and upright bodies of humans. Their reddish fur was also something of rumor, the legends stating that their love of blood had stained their once white coats. It was all lies and fairy tales, but with few men daring to tread onto their land and threaten their homes, the Shumi weren't motivated to dispatch the mistruths.
"Squall... May I ask you something?"
The voice low and tenuous, the sorcerer turned slightly and eyed the blond lord without facing him directly.
"I know I'm probably asking for trouble by asking this, but I need to know before I make myself insane with hopeful assumptions. I mean, with you going so far to offer your connections to the Shumi, and this in addition to teaching me about sorcerers..." Almasy bowed his head and scratched the back of his neck in hesitation before sighing and returning his clear-eyed gaze to the sorcerer. "Do you still hate me?"
It was a straightforward question that should have had an equally straightforward answer, but Squall found his throat suddenly dry and his tongue stuck as he continued to stare at the young lord. Months or even several weeks earlier, the servant knew he wouldn't have even paused in his answer. But that was before Almasy proved his right to be Leander's father, before the tutoring sessions during which Almasy would show his true interest about the sorcerers and their magic, and long before Squall found himself alone with the charismatic lord on an almost daily basis. Searching within himself, the servant could no longer sense the heated anger he once felt for the nobleman he thought he knew. Instead, there was simple wariness of the lord's true intentions behind his actions, and oddly, a deep concern related to the sorcerer's own desires in connection with the blond.
"I know I did something to you," Almasy spoke out in a rush, apparently worried by the brunet's long pause. "I still can't remember what happened between us, but I'm not surprised that it was my fault and that I've hurt you. More than anything, I wish I could make up for that past, but I know there are some things which are unforgivable..."
Looking at the blond, Squall tried to understand his feelings for the anxious lord and why the hate had disappeared. Then his focus went to the large hand that was still wrapped at a broad shoulder. It was a hand that had touched him and burned his skin, but those remembered sensations had grown dull and surreal over the years. Instead, there were clearer memories of the rough hand playfully messing with Leander's dark hair, of long fingers wiping aside the boy's frightened tears, and of warm skin wrapped around the sorcerer's frozen hand, a touch that was never vocally declared unwanted.
Squall shook his head lightly in denial of his thoughts, but as the corner of his lips curled into a disbelieving smile, the servant knew there was no escaping the facts - he had grown soft to the idiot lord before him.
Green eyes flashed with pain at the misinterpreted sign of dismissal, and as Almasy opened his mouth to stutter out another pled for absolution, Squall interrupted him -
"It seems that I have already forgiven you."
Almasy stood stunned for a long moment, a soft cerulean hue seeping into green eyes as he stared wordlessly at the sorcerer. Eventually, a breath partway between a laugh and a cough escaped the lord as he ran a shaky hand back through his hair. Quickly regaining his center, Almasy looked to the brunet and grinned blissfully. "You are an utter enigma, princeling, though I think you'll regret telling me that."
Squall frowned. "Forgiveness is not the same thing as trust."
"Oh, I know that, but trust is something that can be built slowly over time. Forgiveness, on the other hand..." Almasy trailed off into momentary thought, his eyes growing distant. "There's nothing I could've done to earn that."
Stormy eyes widened slightly, his insides twisting at the indication that the lord indeed knew everything despite his earlier declaration that he had no memory of their past. But frustratingly, the sorcerer knew he couldn't confront the lord on the slim chance Almasy honestly didn't know the full details of what had happened. And as Ward had already mentioned, it was difficult to believe that the volatile man wouldn't react poorly once stumbling upon forgotten memories.
Uncomfortable silence followed Almasy's troubled statement, and though typically appreciating quiet moments, Squall felt his time with the lord had gone too long. A hand tight at his waist, the brunet turned and made a step in the direction of the door.
Pausing in place, Squall replied, "There's nothing more I want to say and Ward has better things to do than watch over a child. So, if you don't mind, my lord--"
Dark eyebrows scrunched in confusion, the sorcerer looked back at the smirking man. "Excuse me?"
"It's my name and I want you to use it."
Scowling, Squall replied, "I know it's your name, but it wouldn't be proper--"
"I don't care," Almasy interrupted for a second time. "After everything that has happened in the past several months, I think we've moved beyond meaningless honorifics."
With a mischievous smile and a determined glint to his eyes, Almasy added, "Or if you want to remain stubborn, I can play that same game, your Highness."
Stormy eyes widening, the former prince choked out, "You wouldn't."
"Not to the point of threatening my Liege's safety, but..." The lord let his words hang, suggesting endless torment until he got his way.
His left eye twitching in angered exasperation, the sorcerer turned sharply and placed a hand at his forehead. "Fine."
After taking a cleansing breath, Squall clarified slowly, "When others aren't around, I won't use honorifics."
"Alright, but only as long as Ander and Ward don't count as 'others'," Almasy said as he moved behind the smaller man, close enough for his heat to be felt across the bare inches between them. "But I believe you missed something."
Though becoming lightheaded by that unexpected closeness, Squall straightened with resolve. "Also, and only when necessary, I will call you by name."
A breathy chuckle left the lord, the warm air causing strands of dark brown hair to sway. "Hyne, you are so difficult. It's a wonder I bother."
"I'm leaving," the sorcerer announced sharply, trying not to dwell on the question of why the man was 'bothering' in the first place.
"A-ah, of course, I shouldn't keep you from Leander's side for too long."
Ignoring the man's attempt to bait him into another argument, Squall stepped quickly to the door, somewhat surprised when no hand reached out to stop him. Nonetheless, there was the burning sensation at his back, every move of his escape being watched by piercing green. Creating an opening just wide enough for his lean form to slip through, the sorcerer quickly closed the door behind him, but with his heartbeats rushed, Squall found himself unable to move straightaway.
His hand still on the handle, Squall rested his head against dark wood, wordlessly demanding himself to stop thinking about the low voice that made him weak, the clear-eyed gaze that flashed with passion, and the smug smirk that coaxed too much out of him. It didn't take long for the sorcerer to realize that the traitorous thoughts wouldn't leave him so easily. His breaths shallow, Squall became overwhelmed by a new sort of terror as he pressed further against the door. Though his eyes were closed tightly in denial, the servant knew he would no longer be able to fully protect himself from the man beyond the threshold.
With a light growl, Squall pushed away from door and glared past the thin wooden barrier as he imagined the large blond seated at his desk. In a barely audible voice, the sorcerer announced, "I was wrong. I hate you. I hate you... Seifer..."
Author's Whining -- While I'm certain this wasn't worth waiting for, I needed this chapter to setup the events coming up in the next one. It's so hard trying to take this relationship slowly, especially when I know how much they need each other. Anyway, as what should be a bad sign, the Shumi have appeared in this fic... yes, this is going to be a long story. =P But in reference to the Shumi, I just wanted to point out that there are still the little guys that appear in FF8. I just took their 'evolved' form of Moomba and upped it with the idea that they eventually grow up into warriors. Easier to imagine now?
So, the next chapter should be more... whatever the word is. ^_- It shouldn't take me as long to write as this chapter, but I may diverge and decide to do a chapter of 'High Price' first. We'll see where the muses take me.