For Nothing, For Everything
Despite the cold weather and the threat of snow from low clouds, the main street of the capitol was packed with numerous booths selling various items including everything from cheap trinkets, to prime meats, and to specially made weapons. It seemed that snow and ice alone couldn't stop opportunistic merchants from taking advantage of the people readying themselves for the approaching winter celebration. It was a century old festival which lasted from the winter solstice and until the new year, and with little time before the shortest day of the year, many people were eager to spend their extra coins on a special gift or two.
Standing just inside the tent belonging to his favorite tailor, Seifer looked past the colorful flaps of the entrance and smiled fondly at the activities of the marketplace. It had always impressed the lord that he could find nearly whatever he desired and some things he had never imagined amongst the typical merchant wares. The musicians and performers looking for spare change were an added charm, and though over a week away, the entire energy of the crowd spoke of the coming celebrations. Aside from the spring festival, there was no better time to visit the marketplace.
But even while enjoying the sights and activities of the capitol's main street, Seifer kept his hand tight on his young son's shoulder, both to keep Leander in place and to protect the boy from potential dangers. At the fighter's other side was Hyperion, the weight of his favored blade adding a sense of safety for the paranoid blond. It had been nearly two weeks since the ill-fated party, and though Seifer figured the Emperor would be a fool to attempt something in the crowds of the marketplace, he felt calmer with the wide blade at his hip. Even the presence of his large steward inside the tent didn't give him the same sense of protection.
Seifer smirked softly at the irritated voice as he turned and lifted his free arm to prevent the escape of his servant. "Hey now, I thought we were getting you new clothing."
Lips set into a deep scowl, Squall pointed behind him. "She wants me to wear that."
Seifer lifted his gaze and eyed the older woman carrying a soft blue material patterned with dark indigo in her arms. The lord knew the fabric was a bit too much for a servant, but he also could tell that the coloring would be an excellent match for the servant's cold eyes of blue-gray. Flashing a convincing smile, Seifer commented, "You do need some formal wear in addition the warmer clothes we came here to buy."
His gaze incredulous, Squall spoke in low, threatening voice, "It would draw too much attention to me."
Seifer sighed at the argument, noting the hint of justified fear in the man's voice. "Fine. But I still want you fitted for other clothing. Let me speak with them about what material to use."
Reluctantly, Squall nodded and allowed an assistant to drag him to a corner for measurements.
Seifer watched the brunet briefly before looking down at his son. "So what do you think, Ander - do you like that color?"
"Is it for Squall?"
"That's the idea. Don't you think it would look good on him?"
His soft green eyes thoughtful, Leander carefully examined the fabric. "I've never seen him wear anything nice."
Overhearing the discussion, the woman holding the pale blue fabric smiled and moved toward the father and son. Kneeling down, she encouraged the boy to give the material a closer look.
His small hand stroking the fabric, Leander smiled and announced, "It's soft. Can we get it for him, Father?"
"Of course. In fact, why don't we make it your gift to him for the winter celebration?"
Leander smiled brightly at the suggestion and nodded in way that made his short hair bounce.
Seifer grinned at his son's unwitting cooperation, the lord certain that Squall wouldn't reject the gift of expensive clothing if it came from the dark-haired boy. Looking to the tailor's assistant, Seifer said, "I want something formal, but I'll have to trust your judgment to know what would look best on him. And please, keep this a secret from the man. He'll become even more difficult if he finds out."
"As you wish, my lord," the white-haired woman said with a conspiring smile. "Did you want to pick out any other material for him?"
"Not particularly. I'm certain you can find some neutral colors that won't offended him, but I want softer fabrics. Maybe something with fur. It looks like it's going to be a cold winter and I don't need him getting ill."
"That is kind of you, my lord. Will there be anything else?"
"No, that should everything for now. I trust this will pay for the first half of your fee," Seifer said while retrieving a pouch from his jacket and handing it to the woman. At her nod, the blond called over his shoulder. "Ward."
The large man moved from the entrance, an amused smile causing the scar down his cheek to curve upward. "Yes, Master Seifer?"
"Ander and I are going out to look for more gifts. I trust you can wait here with Squall and manage to hold your tongue about what you just overheard?"
Ward's grin broadened at the implication that he had been eavesdropping. "Of course, my lord. I wouldn't want to ruin the young master's surprise for him."
Assured of the steward's cooperation, Seifer looked to his son. "Ready to spend some more money?"
His green eyes bright, Leander asked in a loud whisper, "Are we going to go see the scary man with the special things?"
The blond pressed a finger against his lips in a shushing motion and winked as if sharing a great secret with the child.
"Do you think you will be long?" Ward asked.
"I can't imagine why. We'll meet you both back here, and then we'll find some dinner before going home."
"As you wish, my lord. Good luck with your shopping."
Taking a small hand onto his, Seifer led the way outside to the busy street of the marketplace. As they walked down the cobbled street, Leander would twist in his hold on occasion, ogling the magicians and acrobats who performed on every corner. Seifer laughed at the child's interest and wondered if he had done the same years past when his mother would take him to the capitol for various festivals. But their ultimate destination wasn't on the main street, and after several blocks, they changed direction and slipped down a narrow side street. With no more distractions, Leander took the lead and tried to make his father move faster as they walked farther away from the busy marketplace.
"And why are you so excited?"
Leander grinned as he tugged harder on arm restraining him. "Because I want to get Squall something good. I've never gotten him something before."
"Oh? And what about the clothes you're getting him?"
With a pleading frown, Leander declared, "But that's clothes and I wanna get him something with magic in it. Like that box with the little men we got last time."
"I don't know. That sort of thing is usually very expensive."
Coming to a stop, the young boy looked up with wide eyes. "But... but he likes things with magic. In his room, he always plays with those little men."
"Is that so?" Seifer said with a smile, intrigued that Squall was secretly pleased to have the chess set returned to him. "Well, if that's the case, then maybe you should get him something extra."
"Thank you, Father!"
Excited with the given permission, Leander resumed his previous lead with the occasional hard tug on his father's arm. Seifer allowed himself to be pulled along, silently impressed that the six-year-old boy knew where he was going. For several blocks, they walked past the common shops and bakeries, Seifer forced to stop his anxious son as the boy forgot about the back alleyway they were supposed to go down.
It wasn't until there was a short distance left before the antiques shop when Seifer felt eyes upon them, the sensation causing the blond to slow his step and examine his surroundings more closely. There was no one else in the narrow alleyway, a large difference from the crowded marketplace and something that made Seifer instantly wary. Leander whined at the slowed pace, but a quiet command from his father to come close silenced the boy as he moved to the lord's side and allowed an arm to wrap protectively around his shoulders. Looking up at the building tops, Seifer squinted at the glare of low clouds, but saw no movement that should have alarmed him. Eventually deciding that it was the cold weather getting the better of him, Seifer pushed Leander forward in a silent sign to hurry to the shop entrance.
Using his full weight, Leander forced open the door and then waited for his father to follow close behind. Seifer grinned at the youth's demonstration of bravery, knowing well of the child's apprehension toward the store owner, Heinrich. With a firm hand placed on a thin shoulder, Seifer ushered his son inside the antiques shop. It was a dreary place with the collection of numerous bookshelves blocking out the light from the few windows and the scattered lamps did little to otherwise brighten the store. The narrow space smelled of dust and mildew, unsurprisingly drawing a sneeze from Leander once the door closed behind them. Seifer smiled at the sneeze that nearly rocked the small boy off his feet.
Seifer looked up at the back door and watched the limping approach of the old man Heinrich. A survivor of three wars, the man of wild white hair bore more than his share of battle wounds, including a roaming glass eye that never failed to make Leander cringe against his father's legs. Seifer flashed a smile at the aging soldier and announced, "It's just us, Heinrich."
Focusing a cloudy blue eye on the father and son, Heinrich huffed as he moved to the back of the counter. "You got my letter then, eh?"
Seifer didn't reply, both men knowing full well that the lord wouldn't have come if he wasn't certain that new goods were available. The lord instead bent down and lifted Leander to sit him on the edge of the counter, giving the small boy a better view of the dusty surface. Heinrich shuffled around the bottom cabinets before retrieving a large box with a heavy lock.
"I thought you'd be here today," he stated while removing the chain from his neck and producing an old key. "Three days after I send a letter and you're at the door. Impatient as always."
Seifer grinned at the muttering of the old man, hearing the same line before. Meanwhile, his eyes stayed firmly focused on the opening of the familiar box. Bony hands dipped into the box, revealing each item with a painful slowness that was unavoidable given the shaky hold of the aged soldier. Soon spread out on the flat surface were the typical items that Heinrich seemed to have in excess - ornamental knifes, assorted coins, and extravagant jewelry. None of the pieces held any appeal to the nobleman, and with every new object placed onto the countertop, Seifer felt his previous anticipation fade as he wondered if the old man had finally failed him after years of worthwhile treasures.
A quiet gasp abruptly sounded as Leander pointed to the necklace that had yet to be set onto the surface. "I want that, Father. I want to give Sq... uh, him that," he said, barely catching himself as he was previously warned not to speak Squall's name to the store owner.
A thin eyebrow arched, Heinrich look to the blond lord. "You're not here for yourself this time around?"
With a relaxed smile, Seifer lied, "Ander wants to give a present to a little friend of his."
"This is a mite expensive for a little one."
"Well, she is a daughter in the royal blood line. It doesn't hurt to impress, and perhaps to encourage young love," Seifer stated with a wink, suggesting that he was just another nobleman attempting to gain relations within the royal lineage. "May I see it?"
Heinrich shrugged, quickly uninterested in the games of nobility as long as it meant a sale. He placed the necklace of heavy chains in the lord's hand and returned to the task of emptying the box of its items.
With his son hanging on his arm, Seifer examined the silver necklace bearing a large pendant of a lion's head with its mane flowing down into a holy cross. Though trapped in mid-roar, Seifer didn't find the lion to be fierce, but instead there was a sense of pride and wisdom to the animal king. Vaguely recalling that the Loire family crest displayed a similar lion, Seifer had a feeling his son knew exactly to whom the necklace belonged.
Giving the necklace to Leander, the blond said, "I don't know, kid. This is pretty heavy."
"But..." Leander frowned, his eyes glistening with a light that didn't come from any lamp.
Knowing the child wasn't comfortable with lies, Seifer laughed and looked to Heinrich. "I suppose it'll take a few more years before he'll learn that ladies don't like the same things as men."
The old soldier coughed out a chuckle. "If I remember right, I got my first love a toad. She didn't like it much."
Seifer stared at the man, surprised to get a touch of conversation out of him. "No, I can't imagine she did."
The reminiscing moment past quickly as thin lips sunk back into a perpetual frown. "Is that going to be all for you?"
"If you don't mind, I'd like a quick look before deciding," Seifer replied while moving to glance into the box. As expected, nothing truly caught his eye. Heinrich was usually very good at guessing what pieces would interest Seifer, and the fact that he hadn't presented something outright suggested that the old man was merely gambling that there was something worthwhile to Seifer amongst the random trinkets.
Disheartened, Seifer sighed as he knocked aside the remaining items within the box, hoping he had simply missed something due to the poor lighting of the room. The frustrated action prompted a gruff growl from the store owner, but Seifer didn't care as his eyes set upon dark metal. Brushing aside a decorated purse and scattered jewelry, the blond lord lifted out a curved plate of tarnished metal. Turning it over, Seifer stared into the partial face of a raging lion. It was a half-mask that was scratched, chipped, and blackened from age, but even so, Seifer was impressed by the intricate work that had been done, including details down to the fine lines of muscles which spoke of both the physical and inner strength of the king of beasts.
Entranced by the mask, but knowing it could possibly be a fake, Seifer quietly asked his son, "What do you think, Ander?"
Leander hummed out an agreeing noise, a sign to let his father know that the mask had indeed been made by sorcerers. "But I like mine better. That one smells funny. Like blood."
Seifer looked at the young boy, curious as to what he meant by the comment, but knew it would have to wait until they were alone. "Well, this isn't for you anyway, kid, so it's none of your concern. Heinrich, I think we have found everything we need. Now, let's talk price."
After long minutes of bartering down the old soldier's price, Seifer was satisfied with the final cost, especially considering his disadvantage with Leander's obvious desire to have the necklace. From behind the counter, Heinrich produced a bag of soft material for the silver jewelry and used a scrap of similar cloth to wrap the old mask. The sale completed, Heinrich muttered something about 'next time' and limped his way back to his previous hiding spot.
Placing both items into the hidden pockets of his jacket, Seifer looked down to his son and was once again struck by the similar appearance of Leander and the difficult servant. Fair skin, expressive eyes, and slender body lines... Ever since the boy had shortened his hair, Leander had become a perfect image of what Seifer believed the sorcerer would have looked like in his youth. Smiling softly and remembering that he once thought the two mere cousins, Seifer placed a large hand on top the boy's head and ruffled the dark hair which stuck out from all sides.
"You know, kid, I don't think I've ever asked why you decided to cut your hair. I thought you liked it long."
Green eyes lowered in bashfulness, Leander knocked aside his father's hand and proceeded to finger the shortened strands. "Because..."
"Because... Matron told me..."
Confused, Seifer asked, "Matron told you to cut your hair? Since when did you start listening to her?"
Leander shook his head. "No, she didn't say that. A long, long time ago, she told me... she told me that if I really wanted something, I had to grow my hair and make a wish."
The father stared at his child, knowing all too well about the myth that supposedly made any wish come true. "But you've cut your hair... Ander, don't tell me that you got your wish."
With a shy smile, Leander looked up at his father. "Un, I think so."
Seifer continued to stare at the boy, wondering how much Leander consciously knew about his other father. It didn't occur to him that Leander would wish for anything except a mother, the lord knowing that his son was always given whatever else he desired. And yet, it seemed strange that the child hadn't known from the beginning that Squall was the one who gave him life.
It was with great reluctance that Seifer decided against further questions, and instead smiled softly. "Well, congratulations on getting your wish. That doesn't happen for everyone."
"Nh, that's what Matron said."
Offering his hand to the young boy, Seifer nodded in the direction of the doorway. "Let's head back. I'll bet Squall and Ward are waiting for us."
Hand in hand, father and son left the dusty antiques shop and stepped into the coldness of winter. Leander breathed deeply at the fresh air and then rubbed the sleeve of his shirt beneath his nose to rid the small nub of remaining dust. With grin at the endearing action of his young son, the blond pulled Leander forward and began to lead the way back to the entrance of the narrow side street.
Forgetting his previous paranoia, Seifer was suddenly reminded of the abnormal silence of the streets when a low growl rumbled from behind. There was no hesitation from Seifer as he unsheathed Hyperion and spun around in the same motion, the deliberate move also placing his son safely behind his legs. The blond swordsman stared at the beast before him, his heart pounding at the sight of the unexpected Ravage standing in the middle of the cobbled street. The beast's crystalline blue eyes framed by dark brown fur were focused on its new prey while its pointed ears twisted at sounds that only it could hear. Mismatched to the head of the wolf, the Ravage's long body of short tan fur swayed vaguely, enhanced by the slow, anticipating wag of a cat-like tail. Exposed claws clicked on the stones of the street, but the monster seemed to be savoring the moment before a kill, its black tongue sweeping over the blood-matted fur of its muzzle.
Leander whimpered behind his father and clutched onto the back of his pants.
"You have to let go, Leander," Seifer warned quietly, his sharp green eyes focused on every twitch of the Ravage's heavy muscles.
The child did as told, a sniffle sounding as he backed away a step. "You can kill it, right? Squall said you could."
Seifer stiffened at the declaration, his surprise at the sorcerer's supposed praise briefly distracting him until the monster began to crouch low to the cobbled streets. "Don't worry about me, Ander, but I need you to run. Find Squall and he'll protect you. And don't let anyone else touch you. I don't care if your secret is revealed to the entire world. Just protect yourself. Understood?"
"Good boy. Now make me proud and run!" Seifer yelled out as he jumped forward to gain the attention of the beast, praying to Hyne that Leander could escape without difficulty.
Unsurprisingly, the wolf-faced monster dodged the direct attack of the large blond and began a sprint to its weaker prey. Ready for the change in direction, Seifer turned with an extended arm that gave his blade a wide arc. Though the Ravage was faster than the veteran soldier remembered, Hyperion still connected with long body of the beast and cleanly removed a back leg in addition to the tip of its tail.
As the Ravage howled at being injured, Seifer used the moment to look at the entrance of the side street and sighed with wholehearted relief when he didn't see his son in view. That momentary glance, however, was more than the swordsman had time to spare. With a pained roar, the Ravage whipped around to face its tormentor, and despite missing a leg, it managed rear up in an unbalanced attempt to pounce on its larger prey. Caught unaware by the monster which should have been grounded, Seifer fell back to the stone ground and lost his faithful blade when his bent arm slammed against the street. Though surprised, the experienced soldier automatically raised his left arm to guard his throat and face, the move coming hardly a moment too soon when the bloodied muzzle of the Ravage lashed forward in search of revenge.
Seifer yelled out in agony when long fangs sank into his defenseless arm and the raw strength of the Ravage's jaws threatened to break his forearm in two. The beast then shook its head in an irritated attempt to remove the object preventing it from attacking the man's vulnerable throat, and for the briefest of moments, Seifer feared losing his arm completely. To add to his agony, the Ravage was forced to work around its handicap as it placed a heavy paw at the man's stomach and used the extra leverage as a necessary aid in its murderous endeavor.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, the former soldier reached down with his free hand and clawed at his thigh until finding the hilt of a short knife sheathed in the holster strapped to his leg. Lacking his typical smoothness, Seifer fought to free the blade from its holder, forgetting at first to remove the strap holding it in place. Seconds wasted, the blond growled at his fear induced stupidity and thumbed aside the band of leather to remove the knife. Seifer pushed the head of the Ravage back, angling the beast to his liking before slicing the blade across the underside of the monster's wide neck. The Ravage lunged back at the injury, making Seifer once again worry for his arm, but the beast released its hold as it tried to use its mouth to regain the ability to breathe. Its mouth gaping, the Ravage stumbled back several steps, leaving a thick trail of blood at its unsteady feet before finally dropping to the ground.
Seifer didn't focus on the fallen beast for long, knowing that the vicious creature wasn't patient enough to play dead for the purpose of luring its prey into false security. Quickly sitting up, the blond fighter spent the moment to tear off the remains of his ruined jacket sleeve and used the thick fabric to bind his injured forearm. It was a hurried job that would do little to stop the blood, but Seifer had already heard the first footsteps of new opponents as he reached for his dropped sword.
"My, my, it looks like the honored Captain Almasy of the Imperial Army can still handle at least one Ravage single-handedly."
Seifer relaxed into a defensive pose to save his remaining energy as he eyed the new-comers. There were four men in view, all wearing the dark blue uniforms lined with black that identified the soldiers as members of the Royal Army. Of the group, the brown-haired, brown-eyed man who had spoken was the only one who displayed a shield on his right arm, a golden shield that signified his high-ranking status within the personal army of the Emperor. The other men were large and heavily muscled, and though Seifer was accustomed to sparing with Ward, the blond lord knew that if it came to a fight, he would be severely disadvantaged with his injured arm and battered body.
Swinging a thick leather leash and muzzle, the army officer smiled, "I should thank you for handling that puppy. We were cleaning the streets of vagrants and it got away from us. I was afraid it was about to head directly for the marketplace."
Seifer glared at the man, the lord's green eyes bright and sharp with his pupils contracted fully. He knew the officer was being far from truthful, the smirks of the soldiers behind him a clear sign of that fact. Tensing in readiness, Seifer adjusted the angle of his sword and spoke in a low voice to the officer.
"What is the meaning of this? The Emperor has already tried to kill me in this particular fashion and failed. Why try it again?"
Brown eyes wide in fake innocence, the leader declared, "We weren't trying to harm you, my lord. And I assure you, the Emperor hasn't declared your life forfeit."
Seifer sneered at the man. "The Empress, then?"
The officer's expression relaxed into something more serious, his brown eyes narrowed in vague surprise at the lord's guess. "Then you do realize that you have offended the High Lady."
"I have done nothing to offend that woman. Instead, she is the one who had threatened my home and family. And now, out of nowhere, she has decided that it would be best to end my life?"
Humming softly, the brown-haired man stepped to the side. "The Ravage wasn't meant as an attempt against your life; rather, it was a test to determine if you were the one who could have handled the Ravages that were... 'lost' on your property months ago. Strange that you can hardly protect yourself from one Ravage, and yet you supposedly killed a full pack by your own strength." Reaching the stone wall, the officer leaned against the solid support and tilted his head curiously. "Perhaps the Empress was right about you after all."
Seifer wasn't given the chance to question the statement, his focus on the leader's movement and words leaving the blond vulnerable to the other soldiers. Seifer swiftly turned with Hyperion steady before him, and though the bloodstained blade bit into the thick neck of the fastest soldier, it did little damage as the sword was promptly knocked aside by a gauntlet-covered hand. Before Seifer knew what was happening, his wrists were taken into strong, meaty hands and he was launched back into the unforgiving wall. Hard boots stepped into the back of his legs and he was forcibly dropped into a kneeling position.
"We know there is a sorcerer, Lord Almasy," the officer stated as he stepped in front of the fallen blond. "Frankly, the Emperor and his Lady don't like unknowns within their Empire and your alliance with an unidentified sorcerer is too dangerous to ignore."
Seifer didn't struggle against the holds pinning him against the wall, though his left eye squinted slightly at the rough fingernails biting into his loosely bound forearm. His eyes focused solely on the lean soldier, Seifer said hoarsely, "There is no sorcerer, idiot. I fought and was nearly killed in the Massacre - I have no love for those magic users. As for those Ravages, did you ever consider that there were other people who helped me to kill those monsters that invaded my property?"
The officer smirked, not persuaded in the least. "Say what you will, but my Empress is confident that you are hiding a sorcerer. All that remains is for us to flush him out."
Defenseless, Seifer watched the brown-haired man step close and kneel directly in front of him. The officer reached into a pouch strapped to his side and removed a decorated glass vial that contained an abnormally bright red liquid. There was a sharp order to, 'open his mouth,' and only then did Seifer begin to struggle against his captors. But the attempt was worthless against the two large men, one holding his nose and the other forcing his jaw open as they tightened their grasps on his wrists.
Seifer gagged and tried to spit out the liquid that tasted of blood and alcohol, but the hand at his chin slammed his jaw shut, the forceful move causing the back of his head to knock against stone. Inadvertently swallowing at the pain, green eyes went wide with the realization that he was probably in serious trouble.
Grinning, the lean soldier mocked, "That's a boy. Drink up your medicine."
Seifer coughed as his head was released from the vice-like grips and he was able to breathe freely. "What... did you give... me?"
"Nothing deadly... well, as long as your sorcerer decides to show himself."
With a chuckling cough, Seifer bowed his head in defeat. "There is no sorcerer... who would save my life."
"Interesting. Then there is a sorcerer you are hiding away somewhere."
The blond lord shook his head. "... Not what I said," he muttered, his throat feeling hot and raw as time continued to pass. There was also an uncomfortable warming sensation growing within his stomach, but Seifer couldn't be certain if it was a result of simple mind games or if he was truly in trouble. Either way, he wasn't about to plead for his life, not when it would mean forfeiting Squall's life in return. His head still bowed and his green-eyed gaze focused on the ice of the street, Seifer smiled bitterly and mourned at the notion that once everything was said and done, the cold-hearted sorcerer would never know of his sacrifice.
"All right boys," the lean officer said while pushing up from the ground. "Go ahead and release him. There's nothing left for us to do except to wait."
Though his arms were freed, Seifer didn't consider that he could easily reach for Hyperion, the wide blade resting a short distance away and ready to enact revenge against the soldiers of the Royal Army. Instead, the blond lord was fully distracted as his eyes remained focused on the ice of the street, a thin frost on stone that was suddenly trailing after the steps of the unsuspecting officer. Seifer bit back the instinct to warn a fellow soldier about the telltale sign that a sorcerer was close by, and with morbid curiosity, he watched as the ice eventually took hold of the man's foot and crawled up the long leg.
A moment too late, the lean soldier stopped and noticed the clinging ice. A curse hanging on the man's lips, his entire body abruptly turned pale blue as every touch of fire left the officer and escaped into the cold air of winter. The man's underlings jumped back from the officer in plain shock, all of them slow with obvious choice to draw their blades. Their reaction, however, seemed to matter little as Seifer heard the sound of metal moving across stone and, when he turned, he found Hyperion gone.
The next sound was a scream of pain, Seifer certain that someone had tasted the edge of his blade. His lips settling into a prideful smirk, the lord glanced back to the doomed soldiers and was in time to witness the man with a split gut fall to the ground. Meanwhile, a brown blur had already moved from the one target and raced directly between the last two soldiers. Abruptly coming into focus for human eyes, Squall stood in place with Hyperion piercing through the chest of one man and an elegant hand placed on the exposed side of the other soldier. At the same moment the first man gasped out his last breath, the last soldier standing watched helplessly as his innards exploded from his stomach and splattered onto the cobbled ground at his feet.
With respect and admiration, Seifer stared at the dark-haired sorcerer as Squall slowly turned while examining his surroundings, the final pleads of the dying soldier completely ignored. The blond thought to call out and reassure the servant that there had only been the four men, but before he could force his voice through his hurting throat, Squall abruptly summoned his staff and slammed it to the ground. A fierce wind sounded from high above, the sudden howl chilling Seifer though he never felt the slightest breeze across his skin. Then, from seemingly nowhere, a scream sounded and slowly gained volume until sharply ending with a dull thud. Looking to his left, Seifer stared with widened eyes at the body of an unknown man resting further down the side street, the person's surprised and final expression focused on the lord though the rest of the man's broken body was directed the other way.
"Why are you still sitting there like an idiot?"
Seifer blinked at the reproachful tone, and then slowly faced the sorcerer. Unable to hide his awe, the lord gazed into the bright eyes that shone like polished silver and sapphire. Half wondering if the cause of the burning in his chest was from the poison or from the man before him, the blond said hoarsely, "Y'know, I've never seen you do that before. I've only heard..." Abrupt and harsh coughs exploded from Seifer as he covered his mouth and closed his eyes in a silent plead for it to mean nothing more than the winter air irritating his lungs.
"What's wrong?" Squall asked as he approached the blond. "Your arm... Are you injured elsewhere?"
Seifer tiredly shook his head, but before he could say anything more, his hand was forcibly taken into an icy hold and the servant stared at the revealed palm coated with spots of thick red.
"Shiva..." Squall whispered in plain horror as he hovered his fingers over the dark red liquid. "How much did you drink?"
With a soft smile, Seifer focused on the slim fingers wrapped at his wrist. "So, you can tell?"
"That doesn't matter. How much did they make you drink?"
"I... I can't say. And you can't help me," the lord added as he jerked his hand away from the smaller man. "If you do, the Empress--"
"She'll know nothing. Everyone who witnessed you taking the potion is dead, including her spy, and not even a sorceress can speak to those without life," Squall stated calmly as he shifted back onto his heels and lifted the hem of his shirt to retrieve a small knife.
"But you said... the wind can't tell you everything."
"It tells me enough when I ask."
With a shake of his head, the nobleman insisted. "But Ander... If I die, she'll think that there is no sorcerer whatsoever. He would be safe."
"And if you truly believe that, then you're more of a fool than I thought," Squall stated as he placed his knife at his wrist and made a small, but deep cut. Directing the bleeding wound in front of the lord, he encouraged, "Drink the blood. It'll neutralize the potion that has yet to seep into your veins."
Seifer scowled at the offering and tried to shift away, but found his body heavy and unresponsive. "You don't understand."
The sorcerer scoffed. "And you don't understand what it means to be poisoned with Lengen ni Werlogh. It's more than death and you do not deserve that sort of ending."
Gazing at the pooling blood on pale skin, Seifer muttered quietly, "Werlogh... that's 'sorcerer' in your language, but I don't remember the other one..."
"Take the blood and I will tell you."
The hint of unsteadiness to the typically cold voice made Seifer glance up and look directly into the entrancing eyes that still shone with an inner light. It was with some surprise that the nobleman found true concern in the stormy eyes, and with slow realization, Seifer came to recognize the desperation hiding behind the guarded expression. The lord closed his eyes in disbelief that his life meant anything to the brunet, but instead of questioning that thought, Seifer reached out for the offered hand. Focusing his gaze onto blue-gray eyes, Seifer placed his mouth on the seeping wound and lightly sucked on the warm fluid. As the first mouthful blood was swallowed, Seifer jerked back at the icy touch that trickled down his throat, the unexpected sensation renewing a coughing fit from the blond.
Moving his hand to the broad chest, Squall said soothingly, "Ward will be here soon. We'll get you to Lord Kinneas."
"No. If the Empress has spies at the hospital..."
"... Then she'll know you have been poisoned," Squall finished with pained understanding. "But you need a healer, a very skilled healer."
Seifer grinned broadly despite a deep, burning itch starting at his injured arm. "Heh, I'm going to have to tell Irvine that you think so highly of him."
"This is serious--"
"Oh, I think I realize that, princeling. I'm the one who feels like I swallowed some hot coals, remember?" the lord said as he rubbed his bandaged forearm. "There are places only Ward and I know about. He can bring Irvine there."
Squall nodded before placing an interfering hand on the nobleman's arm, preventing his attempt to scratch away the heated itch.
Seifer scowled at the meddling, but as he glanced down at the cool hand, green eyes went wide at the sight of his injury beneath the loose wrappings. As dark red blood steamed in the cold air, Seifer felt an unknown sickness as he saw small portions of his skin and flesh seemingly melt from the edges of the wound and drip onto the ground below. Unable to move, the lord stared blindly as Squall took the stained cloth and rewrapped the wound to cover the sight.
Squall sighed softly before saying, "'Lengen ni Werlogh' means the 'Sorcerer's Haunting'. It's an ancient poison used to curse those unfaithful to sorcerers. It makes the elements within your body fall apart and attack each other. As it is, your organs are slowly being destroyed and without a healer... There's not enough I can do to save your life."
Seifer stared at the downcast face as he became hyperaware of every heated ache and piercing pain within his body, uncertain which were a result of fighting with the Ravage and which were due to the poisoning. But after that initial fear, the lord found an unexpected sensation of peace as his studied the face of the man he had been watching for months, but rarely so close. And with that closeness, Seifer found himself focused on long, dark lashes that softened to a light brown at the very tips, like touches of golden sunlight hanging high above frozen pools of blue-gray.
A cautious smile on his lips, Seifer lifted a hand to cup a smooth cheek and forced Squall to meet his eyes when he asked, "You wish for me to live?"
Squall scowled at the question, the look of distaste being his only response.
"I know you said you forgave me, but..." Seifer's smiled broadened into something more reckless as he leaned in closer to the smaller man. "Let me kiss you."
Blue-gray eyes flew open in shock. "At a time like this and that's your only--"
"If I am indeed dying," the blond interrupted quietly, "then allow me this last request."
"... Why? Why me?"
"I don't know, but it is. It's only you," Seifer replied while closing the bare distance between them, daring the chance that the sorcerer wouldn't deny him a final wish. With the first brush of lips, the blond smirked at the expected jump of the servant and allowed him that retreat. Opening his eyes, Seifer gazed into entrancing blue-gray and savored the expression of confusion and wariness that lacked the shadow of fear he had seen too often on the handsome face. But that moment of pleasure passed too quickly when a flare ignited within his stomach and he was forced to push Squall aside before he lost his lunch to the street.
Coughing in disgust, Seifer clutched onto the torn shirt at his chest and wished that he could ignore the feel of flames licking the inside of his body. It seemed the fires of Hell were already reaching for him and he was afraid of the pain only getting worse with time. Lost in his misery, he jumped at the touch of blessed coolness settling at the back of his neck and glanced over at the weakly smiling sorcerer.
"My blood must have reacted with the remaining poison. It's a good sign that your body is trying to cleanse itself."
Seifer stared at the brunet, feeling ridiculous that he was being soothed like a child with the flu. And yet, once that thought had passed, the lord knew he didn't deserve any sort of kindness from Squall. Eyes lowered to the street and his voice quiet, Seifer admitted, "I know..."
The calming hand stilled at the words. "And what do you know?"
"That you are the other father."
There was no immediate reaction from Squall aside from a twitch of a finger against his back. Instead, silence reigned for several long seconds until a soft breath sounded from the stoic brunet. "I figured as much."
Surprised, Seifer glanced up and stared at the somber, resigned expression of the sorcerer. "You... you figured?"
"You don't hide your emotions well."
After a stunned moment, Seifer breathed deeply as a disbelieving smile tugged at his lips. "Well, not everyone can be as coldhearted as the snow goddess you worship."
Squall scoffed as he stood, but stopped when a strong hand grabbed onto his wrist in a desperate hold. Glaring at the lord, he said, "Ward is around the corner. I--"
"Yes, fine, whatever, but I need to tell you something first," the nobleman begged, stressing his already worn voice. "If this is it, I want you to know that Ander is yours."
Dark eyebrows furrowed in confusion, Squall asked, "What is that supposed to mean?"
Seifer opened his mouth, wanting to answer the question, but was interrupted by a deep cough that brought back the taste of vomit to his mouth.
"Don't speak," the brunet demanded as he knelt back down to place a hand on the lord's chest. He then muttered to himself, "Of all the luck... It's already attacking the lungs."
Shaking his head, Seifer placed his hand over the smaller one and squeezed tightly. He wanted to tell Squall more, about his desire and love for the difficult man, about his plans to share Leander properly, and about the vague dreams of being a family, but there was no breath left in the blond for him to speak those words out loud. And then, when Squall pulled his arm away from the lord's hold, Seifer feared that it would be the last contact he would ever have with the man. Unexpectedly, the storm-eyed man didn't try to leave with his freedom, but instead, he placed his cool skin at the lord's cheek and brushed his long fingers back into golden hair.
"I won't let you die, Seifer."
Losing a precious second to shock, the nobleman watched helplessly as the sorcerer removed his hand and stood quickly to hurry in the direction of the side street entrance, his call of Ward's name echoing across stone walls. Despite that noise, the lingering sound of the brunet's promise made almost everything seem distant and vague to Seifer, but the pain of his chest and arm couldn't be numbed by mere words. Choking on his own heated breath, the injured man closed his eyes as he tried to focus on the ghost touch remaining on his cheek. Hardly aware of the hurried steps in his direction, Seifer made a single promise to himself - he would hear his name spoken in that voice at least once more in his lifetime.
Darkness and pressure were the first two things Seifer noticed upon waking, and as he laid motionless, he tried to remember every legend he knew about Hell, but none came to mind which involved the distinctive touch of flesh on flesh and the tickling caress of breath across his neck. Shifting his position, the blond groaned out a pained breath as his entire body angrily protested the move, the loudest argument coming from the arm that had been injured by the Ravage and was apparently trapped under a solid weight.
Daring to open his eyes, Seifer first stared up at an unfamiliar ceiling stained with water and mold. Confident that it was a safe house which Ward had chosen, the blond lord remained calm as he looked down to his bare chest. Green eyes went unblinking for a long stretch of time, Seifer unable to believe that he was truly seeing the mop of dark hair resting on his shoulder and an elegant hand spread out at the center of his scarred chest. At that moment, he dumbly wondered what he had done to deserve Heaven.
Lifting his free hand, Seifer meant to touch the dark hair to see if the man pressed against his side was real or just an illusion of his dying body, but he froze before making that first contact. Surprised green eyes focused on the scar of his raised arm, his left arm which he had nearly lost to the deadly attack of the Ravage. Meanwhile, Seifer could still feel the stinging pain of his right and previously undamaged arm, and bewildered by that revelation, he rested back against the mattress to simply stare at wild dark hair. After a time of empty thoughts, Seifer decided that it probably meant nothing for his arm to hurt, that the greater surprise was still the naked sorcerer sleeping peacefully at his side. It would have been a shame to ruin the unimaginable moment, and with a soft smile and his eyes closed, Seifer rested his cheek against thick hair.
Seemingly seconds later, a quiet knock sounded to ruin the moment, then followed by the careful opening of a door. But the intruder's thoughtfulness ended with a sharp curse. "Hyne's hips! I knew I couldn't leave you alone with him."
Curious by the outburst from the typically calm man, Seifer opened his eyes and glared tiredly at his friend. "Irvine... quiet down..."
The auburn-haired healer jumped at the hoarse call, wide violet eyes promptly meeting the reddened gaze of the lord. "Seifer. You shouldn't be awake yet."
With a shrug that inflamed more aches in his body, the nobleman commented, "Squall's asleep... on me... naked..."
Irvine scowled in reply. "So I noticed, but don't assume too much. It was necessary to help save your life. And though you must be enjoying this greatly, I need to wake up that imbecile before he kills himself."
Seifer stared at the approaching healer, not understanding the man's words until a hand reached out toward the sleeping sorcerer. Reacting before his body could refuse, the former soldier knocked aside the offending hand and placed a protective arm over his servant. His throat sore and his anger too heated, Seifer chose against words and settled with a hard glare in the direction of the lanky man.
Irvine sighed as if dealing with a child. "I swear to explain this to you later, but for now, Squall has to be wakened before he hurts himself further. If you won't let me do it, then I'll leave it to you."
Seifer watched the man for a short time longer, but the words of the healer finally seeped into his fuzzy mind, particularly the comment that Squall was about to kill himself. Though still confused, Seifer shifted enough to get a better look at his sleeping prince and smiled softly at the intoxicating sight before placing his hand at an overly thin shoulder. He shook Squall gently, and when the man simply groaned in annoyance, Seifer brushed aside thick hair to blow hot air into the exposed ear.
Eventually Squall responded with a surprised jerk, but didn't remove himself from the shameful position as he lifted his head and looked up at the blond. "Seifer...?"
The large lord blinked in surprise at the sound of his name, and then relaxed with a disbelieving chuckle. "I guess I can die now."
Squall scowled at the comment, but didn't give a voice to his irritation. Instead, his attention was diverted as the hovering healer cleared his throat loudly.
Arms crossed over his chest, Irvine asked, "Am I going to have to move you to another room?"
The sorcerer stared for a moment before shaking his head. With a bone-weary slowness, Squall pushed away from the large body of the lord and rolled onto his other side with the apparent intent to go back to sleep.
Seifer watched the retreat of the naked man, but the growing pain of his chest prevented any lecherous ideas from taking hold of his mind. Hissing quietly, he rubbed his palm against the center of his chest and tried to force deeper breaths through his worn lungs. "Damn. Am I still dying?"
"You aren't dying, idiot," Irvine tutted quietly before pulling aside the hand. "Lungs are tricky things. If I heal them too quickly, they'll scar and irritate you until the last day of your inevitably short life. The rest of you is fine enough, though, so stop complaining and be thankful you're alive."
"But my arm still hurts," Seifer muttered peevishly before getting his first good look at his right arm. Green eyes narrowed at the sight of a long vertical cut along his forearm, the wound oddly not healed, but instead stitched together with dark thread.
"Sorry, but there's nothing to be done about that. Squall had to give you his blood to drive away the poison, but because that cut was used to transfer blood tainted with strong magic, it can't be healed properly."
"Wait, Squall did what?"
"The potion they fed you was some sorcerer curse. Basically, it's an old poison meant to execute traitors, that a person can survive only if a sorcerer is willing to sacrifice his blood for him. You're lucky Squall decided to keep you alive. From what I've read in the past, sorcerers are very reluctant to donate their blood to anyone for fear of it being used against them."
Seifer stared at the healer, afraid to allow himself the hopeful thoughts that could be associated with Squall going to such an extent to save his worthless life. But then remembering Irvine's earlier words, Seifer turned and faced the bare back of the sorcerer. "Squall... Don't tell me that you risked your life to save mine."
The servant scoffed, his only response.
"But then why did Irvine say your life was in danger?"
When Squall didn't seem to be eager to reply, Irvine sighed with a frustrated air. "While he did nearly bleed to death for you, that wasn't what I was referring to. He..." The healer hesitated before asking, "Is it true that you discovered another one of Squall's secrets?"
Seifer eyed the man, not overly surprised that his friend had also stumbled upon the same knowledge. But once where there would have been anger, the lord found a deep respect for the healer who had protected the secret which was so damaging, so painful to the sorcerer. Smiling weakly, Seifer silently swore that he would properly thank the man for his troubles at another time.
"Well, Seifer? Is it true?"
"If you're referring to our son, then yes, I know."
Irvine breathed out a deep breath and pressed his fingers to his temples. "Hyne, it took you long enough to figure it out. Can you even imagine how hard it has been for me these last several months? You kept asking question after question, and you were so close to the truth without realizing a damned thing! 'Do you think he lost a child of his own?' you once asked me. I thought I was going to die from the stress!"
"Yes, thank you, I've already come to the conclusion that I'm a dense idiot, but what does this have to do with Squall's life being threatened?"
The healer lowered his hand, and after glancing at the dark-haired man to see if he would partake in any of the explanation, Irvine began, "I'm not certain what Squall has already told you, but not all sorcerers have the ability to bear children. Mixed blood is needed, the blood of a sorcerer joined with the blood of a healer. Obviously, Squall has that trait."
Green eyes narrowed slightly at the words, remembering well when the servant had spoke passionately about his uncle and mentioned that there was a presence of a 'taint' in the sorcerers who could be impregnated. Seifer cursed the fact that he had never asked Squall what he had meant, assuming that it was just words and not something more.
Irvine continued, "Though dilute, the healer portion of his blood is what kept him alive after that attack by Ravages. Sorcerer blood isn't able to heal a body and I should've recognized that from the beginning, but I was surprised by the sheer amount of power that was radiating from him and I allowed myself to be distracted. In any case, he has the ability to heal, but his sorcerer powers dampens that lesser magic. In short, with you injured and in severe pain, he has the instinct to help you, but the magic ends up warped and dangerous."
"What exactly do you mean by that?"
"I can't say, really, but somehow, instead of encouraging your body to heal on its own, Squall directs his own health and life into your body. It's impossible, but whenever he does it, I can feel his life slipping away. Unfortunately, he had to remain here to make certain that his blood would cleanse away the last of the poison from your body, but he swore to stop trying to heal your lungs."
Dumbfounded, Seifer placed a hand on his chest and realized that he hadn't felt any pain in his chest until he was forced to wake the sorcerer. Looking at Squall with a confused gleam of soft blue to his eyes, Seifer said to Irvine, "Give us a moment."
The healer hesitated before agreeing. "Very well. I can't continue healing your lungs until morning, anyway, but I insist that both of you get rest soon. I hate dealing with exhausted patients."
The blond lord whispered a 'thank you' to his friend, but his eyes remained on the tense back of the dark-haired man. Waiting for the quiet click of the closed door, Seifer struggled onto his side and moved until only his chest was pressed against chilled shin. He ignored the wary quakes of the smaller man as he placed an arm around the slim waist and he looked over the thin shoulder. Taking a hand into his, Seifer gently twisted the arm until the long cut along the forearm was revealed, including the familiar black threads which held together the sliced skin.
"Why...?" was all Seifer could say, wanting to ask everything at once, but unable to think of the best words to use without further alienating the man he worshipped.
"I don't know," Squall replied, his voice quiet and terse. "But I couldn't let you die."
The lord smiled at the words, amused that the sorcerer was apparently at odds with himself when it concerned the man he once hated. "I'm honored that you think it's better to keep me alive when I know you once wished for my death."
Squall didn't deny the statement, but also didn't relax within the loose hold of the blond.
"You know, I'm glad it's you," Seifer said as he rested his cheek on the bent arm. "It's good to know that Ander has the blood of one good man in him. But I'm sorry... Can you ever forgive me for the circumstances which led to our son?"
The sorcerer rolled slightly, enough to focus icy gray eyes on the blond. "You bastard, you think you raped me, too?"
Stunned, Seifer tried to process the words. "Are you saying I... Wait a minute, 'too'? Who else thinks I raped you?"
"Lord Kinneas and Ward. Idiots," Squall grumbled as he rested back onto his side. "As if I can't handle a drunken fool. And now you... I'm disappointed that you think so low of me."
The lord winced at the affronted tone. "I'm sorry, but can you really blame us for assuming the worse? Or would you rather us assume that you wanted to be fucked by me? ... Unless, is that--"
"Shiva, are you that arrogant?" Squall replied as he pushed up into a sitting position with the obvious intent to escape, but Seifer encircled the man's waist with his arms and held him in place.
"Wait, please, don't go. I'm sorry that I don't remember, but you are the only one who knows what happened that night, and if I'm ever to make amends, I need you to tell me how I wronged you."
The sorcerer stared down into pleading eyes, and without further struggle, he said coolly, "Let go of me."
Reluctantly, Seifer obeyed the command, hissing in pain as he used his injured arm to sit up and better meet the stormy-eyed gaze. When Squall didn't use the opportunity to run off, the lord begged once more, "Please, tell me."
Eyes closed, the dark-haired beauty rested back against the headboard of the bed and crossed his arms tight over his chest. "It was simple, really. I was hungry and you offered more money than I could refuse. Nothing more dramatic than that."
Seifer watched the man closely, hearing the lie beneath the plainly spoken words. Before him was the former prince of a peaceful country, a man who had once been ignorant of the need to work for food and shelter, a man who had been respected and loved. And he was the same man who was treated like a mere whore on the streets, fucked and left behind. His thoughts dark, the nobleman considered that it would have been better if he had raped Squall, giving him the chance to blame everything on the lord. But by accepting his money and lying in his bed, Squall had disgraced himself and his lineage for the natural desire to end his hunger. With a deep sadness, Seifer wondered if he had been the final insult which had destroyed the proud man.
Seifer moved close to the brunet and placed a steady hand beneath the man's chin, encouraging him to open his eyes. "I love our son, so I can't say with sincerity that I wish it had never happened. But I would trade everything I have, including my life, if Leander could have been born under better circumstances."
Stony eyes softened vaguely as Squall looked to the side. "I know. I see you with him and... I'm surprised that you make a decent father."
Seifer chuckled gently as he removed his hand. "Yes, well, I'm lucky to have the type of kid who makes me look good. And it didn't hurt to have his mother around to help me raise him."
Blue-gray eyes quickly regained an icy sheen as they shifted to the blond. "I am not a mother."
With a charming smirk, Seifer asked, "Did you not carry him in your body and give him entrance into this world? That sounds a lot like a mother to me, even if you're male."
"... I deserted him."
Losing his smile, the nobleman said delicately, "When Leander was first discovered and examined by Irvine, he was malnourished. Not dangerously so, but hungry all the same. Don't you think it's easy to assume that you were in worse state than your half-starved son?"
Squall closed his eyes and pressed a hand to his face. "You know nothing."
"Of course not. I wasn't the one to live through the horrors you've seen, but even so, I can appreciate your pain and sacrifice." Seifer took a hold of the raised hand and carefully turned it to reveal the long cut. Pressing a gentle kiss to the fresh wound, he said quietly, "I thank you for my son and my life, Squall Leonhart. I owe everything to you."
"Don't say that."
"But it's true," Seifer countered as he lowered the arm onto cool sheets. "And it's a terrible thing that I want even more from you."
Eyes wide and filled with fright, Squall told the lord, "I won't give you another child."
The large blond stared blankly at the servant, beyond confused by the quickly spoken statement.
"I know... That night, you were drunk and you confessed to me that you can't... perform with women. I always assumed that if you found out about me... and if you wanted another child... you would..."
A disbelieving chuckle left Seifer as he shook his head. "Just a moment ago, you were insulted that people had assumed that I had raped you in the past, and now you think I could force you into having another child?"
A faint hue of pink graced the cheeks of the sorcerer as he turned away from the lord.
Though enchanted by the sign of embarrassment, Seifer silently wondered if there more than he was seeing to the man's worry. Then considering how many times Squall had risked his body and life for Leander, the nobleman felt a slight queasiness at the question of what else the brunet would do to keep his son safe and close.
Raking his fingers back through golden hair, Seifer said, "Listen, I've been blessed with one son, and given my past, that's more than I deserve. Truth be told, I'm a little afraid to ask more of Fate."
Cautiously, Squall turned and faced the lord. Uncertainty shone in the stormy eyes, but keeping to his stoic ways, he didn't voice his inner thoughts and questions to the world.
Seifer wanted to reassure the man that Leander wouldn't be used against him again, and more than anything, he wanted to promise Squall that he, too, would be safe and protected within the walls of the Almasy Estate. But words meant nothing to the former prince, only action would do, and for the life of him, Seifer didn't know what action would keep the man forever at his side.
Squall shifted uncomfortably under the gaze of the nobleman, then stated quietly, "You seem fine enough. There's no reason for me to stay."
Afraid of losing the sorcerer when there were still more secrets to be told, Seifer glanced around the room with the need to find a reason to keep the man in place. Green eyes then landed on his bloodied jacket resting on the corner of the bed, and with a wide smirk, Seifer announced, "I have a present for you."
Squall was just tying the laces to his pants when he looked up. "A... present?"
The large blond nodded as he stretched to reach his ruined jacket, the move causing several areas of his body to remind him of his previous near-death status. The dark-haired servant scolded him for the action, but was too late as a hand grasped onto the bloodied material and Seifer dragged it close. "It's meant to be a present for the winter festival, but I think I owe you something for your actions today. Oh, just so you know, Leander's present is here, too, so no peeking and ruining his surprise."
Squall frowned in thought as he sat on the edge of the mattress, his eyes trained on the jacket. "You shouldn't have--"
"I owe you far more than this trinket, but it made me think of you," Seifer said as he removed the larger of two items from a hidden pocket and held it out to the dark-haired beauty.
Squall hesitated before accepting the gift, his stormy eyes instantly brightening with a silver gleam. Pink lips parted in bewilderment before he lifted the cloth and revealed the half-mask of a lion. "How...?" he asked in a breath.
"I purchased it from the same merchant who had your chess set. I doubt it means anything to you, but I think the lion image fits you well."
His fingers skimming the tarnished metal, Squall smiled incredulously. "You think it fits me?"
"With your strength and pride, not to mention your family name and crest, how I could I compare you to anything else?"
Glancing up with his shining eyes, the sorcerer told him, "It's mine."
"Well, of course. I bought it--"
"No, I mean that you have returned another item to me. I made this mask with the help of my uncle." Looking back down at the mask, he traced the faint lines at the corner of the hollow eyes of the lion. "I was eight, almost nine and I was afraid for my uncle's life. My father had just brought him back home after my grandfather's death and there was so much fear and hate in the palace. I wanted to be stronger, but no one would teach me what I wanted to learn. So I turned to the Shumi."
Surprise clear on his face, Seifer leaned in close to the sorcerer. "The Shumi? You asked those... them to train you?"
"Not exactly. Once every five years, they offered their home and skills to sorcerers who wanted to become warriors, but only for a select few. There was a contest of sorts to win that chance. My father would have never allowed me to enter the contest, and so I decided to hide my identity and made this mask."
"But... you were eight?! Any sane father would have forbidden you from training with the Shumi."
The sorcerer didn't argue as he continued to stroke the mask, the metal gaining a new shine with every pass of long fingers.
Momentarily distracted by the subtle display of magic, Seifer realized that the sorcerer wasn't adding anything to the story. Though he thought he knew the answer, the lord was forced to ask, "Uh, Squall... You weren't accepted, were you?"
The man smirked softly. "While not the worst, I was fairly pathetic during the challenges, but the Shumi liked my determination. At the time, I don't think they realized just how young I was."
Seifer pressed a hand to his face and muttered, "Hyne, trained by the Shumi... No wonder you're a terror on a battlefield."
With a final look at the mask, Squall carefully recovered it with the piece of fabric and placed it against his chest. "Thank you for returning this to me."
"I'll accept the thanks for the gift, but truthfully, I didn't know it belonged to you. I simply asked Ander if it was a legit artifact of the sorcerers. The only thing he added was that it smelled like blood."
"Just that. I never got the chance to ask him what he meant--"
Squall whispered a quiet 'no' before he stood up in a quick motion. Seifer reacted without thinking and grabbed for the sorcerer, accidentally digging his fingers into the stitched cut of the man's arm. Squall cried out at the unexpected pain and jerked away, the awkward action resulting in unbalanced twist that ended in the sorcerer falling to the ground. Though regretting his mistake, Seifer crawled to the edge of the bed and lowered to the floor where he placed restraining hands on thin shoulders.
Not reacting to the firm touch, Squall stared at the floor with wide, unseeing eyes. "It's impossible... it should be gone..."
"What are you talking about?"
"I thought it would disappear..."
Gripping tightly on bare shoulders, Seifer asked, "What should have disappeared? What does this have to do with Leander?"
Squall lifted his head, the previous light of his eyes dead and gone. "I'm sorry. I thought... he's third generation, but it's still there."
Seifer stared deeply into the fearful eyes and was struck by the knowledge that there was only one issue which seemed to leave the sorcerer unbalanced and distressed. "Squall, are you saying that Leander is like you? That in the future, if he and another man..."
With sudden action, the sorcerer tried to push away from the larger man's hold, but Seifer quickly moved his arms to entrap the brunet in a strong hug.
"Hey, calm down. It's all right. It doesn't matter to me what is in his blood."
"No, it's not all right. I gave him my taint. I ruined his life!"
Tightening his hold despite the pain it was causing him, Seifer placed a hand in dark hair. "You did no such thing, and if you think about it calmly, it's not a terrible thing. Why, you've doubled our chance to have grandchildren."
Squall leaned back and glared at the lord. "Are you insane?"
"No, but I think you are being unfair. Why does a man bearing children have to be an abomination? Either Hyne or your goddess made it possible, and I know Leander is a great kid who couldn't have been born any other way. I'm sorry, princeling, but I refuse to believe that your blood is tainted no matter how many times you say it."
"Just because it's possible doesn't make it right or natural. And this... it can't be right when it can lead to disaster."
"If you're insulting my son--"
"No," Squall argued immediately as he looked away from the lord. "Leander isn't the issue here. I barely remember after the party, but I think I started to tell you... Sorceresses are rare for a reason."
Nothing more was said, but Seifer had already caught onto the man's meaning. "And that's the only reason why it's considered a great sin? Hyne, Squall, do you know how many murderers and other beasts have been born into this world? The Emperor and that madman Odine aren't saints and they came from the loins of ordinary women. How can you blame a crazed sorceress on the man who gave her life?"
"Because they wouldn't have a chance for life unless men like me surrender to mindless passion!"
Seifer paused at the true horror and anger sounding in the sorcerer's voice, his thoughts speeding through his mind as he realized an important question he had never asked the former prince. "You said your uncle was exiled for being pregnant, but you never mentioned what happened to his child. Could it be possible...?"
Head bowed into a shaky hand, Squall said, "She destroyed everything. He gave her life and she destroyed his country, killed his family, and then smiled when she made his heart explode within his chest."
With a sorrowful gleam to his eyes, Seifer stared at the ruined man before him, a man who had apparently witnessed the death of his beloved uncle without being killed himself. Reaching his arms back around the unsteady brunet, Seifer pulled him close and rested a hand in thick hair. There were no words that could be said, and so he simply held the smaller man while ignoring the drops of hot wetness that fell onto his bare skin. He wished Squall would have allowed him more freedom to better comfort his pain, but Seifer willingly acknowledged his boundaries.
Long after his few tears had fallen, Squall pulled back from the lord and insisted quietly, "It's wrong."
Seifer held back the argument that immediately came to mind, knowing it would take time to convince the Sorcerer Prince that his blood wasn't black with taint. Ready to face that challenge when the time was right, Seifer smiled softly at the man he adored and reluctantly admitted to himself that he wasn't the one Squall needed at that moment. "I think you should go and be with Leander right now."
His head snapping up, Squall gazed questioningly into bright green eyes.
"He must be frightened after seeing another Ravage," Seifer said, gifting the sorcerer with an excuse to be with the child. "I don't imagine he'll get decent sleep unless you're there for him."
A quiet gleam of sapphire reentered tired eyes and the brunet nodded in agreement. "I'll go to him, but I think you will need help back into bed first."
With a broad grin, Seifer placed his better arm at the edge of the mattress and extended the other one to the sorcerer in silent acceptance of the man's offer. As his injured arm was delicately placed around Squall's neck, the large blond played with the idea of placing more weight than necessary onto the narrow shoulders of the servant, but with that first push from the ground, he didn't anticipate the lack of cooperation from his muscles. Leaning far off balance, Seifer would have dropped back to the floor if it hadn't been for the support of slim arms. However, Squall's strength couldn't maintain the greater weight of the former soldier, and without a dose of grace, both men fell face first onto the bed.
Though the jolt to his sore body was hardly appreciated, Seifer found himself chuckling at his horrid positioning - a naked man draped on the edge of the mattress with his ass in the air and his arm wrapped around the dark-haired beauty he could never have. It seemed Fate was toying with him once again. Rolling to his side, Seifer met the confused gaze of the sorcerer and suddenly realized that he was very close to the other man. The laughter gone, his lips crept into a smirk as he recalled the last time they were so close.
"Thank you for the kiss."
Squall cringed at the reminder and quickly sat up, but surprisingly didn't knock aside the arm moved to his waist. "I didn't..."
"Please, princeling, I'm not proud enough to think that I could touch you if you truly didn't want that contact."
Noting the dangerous tenseness to the brunet's bare back, Seifer sighed while removing his arm from the tempting body. "All right, I get the hint. Go ahead and comfort your son. If you remember, let him know that I'm fine. Oh, and if you have the chance, be certain to tell him that I killed that Ravage all by myself," the lord added with a grin, happily ignoring the fact that he had nearly lost his arm in that fight.
Squall glanced down at the larger man, a shadow of a smile revealing itself to the blond. "Why not tell him yourself?"
"Because he actually believes what you say. My word means nothing to that brat."
A glimmer of bright silver flashed in stormy eyes, a mischievous gleam that suggested Squall was proud of his son's intelligence.
His heart lightening at that expression, Seifer pushed himself further onto the bed and away from the dark-haired beauty, all to resist the overwhelming desire to taste the man's lips once more in his lifetime. "Go on. I'll bet he's waiting for you while you're wasting your time with me."
The sorcerer nodded as he stood from the bed and retrieved his discarded shirt from the corner of the mattress. While the lord settled under the sheets, Squall stepped to the single door of the room, but paused there without opening the passageway to his escape. He didn't say anything in that moment, but Seifer noticed the man cradling the wrapped mask to his chest, and when the brunet continued to hesitate, it suggested to the lord that there was something on Squall's mind, but his pride wouldn't allow a single spoken word. And so, without anything said, Squall abruptly opened the door in front of him and hurried beyond the threshold to promptly close the door at his heels, never looking the lord in the eye.
Amused at the conflicted antics of his servant, Seifer swore to make amends for the past that made his current endeavor to win the man's heart so difficult. And with his solstice present already given to the brunet, Seifer decided that he needed a different present for the holiday, something more than trinkets and soft words. Closing his eyes in thought, he rolled onto his right side and inched near the spot that had long cooled with the departure of the sorcerer. Idea for gifts quickly left the lord as his mind turned to better thoughts encouraged by the scent remaining on the sheets and pillow. A childlike smile formed, and with his last seconds of consciousness, Seifer realized that he was hopelessly in love with a man. It was the fulfillment of his greatest fear from the days of his youth, and yet, he couldn't imagine a better fate.
Author's Whining -- Long chapter and yet there's still so much to be said. For those disappointed with the easy answer to the big question of "what happened to get Squall preggers?", there's still more about that night and, certainly, about the months of his pregnancy. But really, to Squall, what he said is all that matters about that night. .... *sigh* And as I look back at the first chapter, why did I ever think that this story would take only seven chapters? Stupid difficult muses...