Tea For Two


Out of breath and grinning from ear to ear, Verena Almasy ran through the mansion toward her rooms as fast she could without being scolded by Matron or her parents.  The young girl of five years was an impish child with honey brown hair, wide eyes of deep blue, and pale skin that was pink from playing in the sun.  Her sleeveless dress was white with frilled edges of golden yellow and small bows of lace, a sunny outfit that had streaks of green from her activities in the grass.  Though the maids called it unladylike, her father was proud of his daughter's adventurous spirit and never tried to restrain her to more moderate hobbies.

Rushing into her suite and closing the door behind her, Verena took a few deep breaths before stepping lightly into the sitting room decorated with furniture meant for the Lady of the household.  Two cushioned chairs faced a large sofa and between them was a small table that always held fresh flowers.  Behind the two chairs, a portrait hung above the fireplace depicting a stern looking man dressed in a captain's uniform, his gloved hand firm on the shoulder of a lovely woman with long golden hair and a warm smile.  In her thin arms was a small baby, his eyes closed while a fisted hand stretched out above his head.

<What is the rush, young lady?>

Her expression brightening further, Verena turned around to discover a woman seated in a formal manner on the previously vacant sofa.  Though clearly the same woman from the portrait, Astrea Almasy, her color was completely lost to shades of white and gray, her darkest feature being eyes of dull black.  Occasionally flashes of color would appear, such as golden strands to her hair or hues of pink to her flesh, but they were nothing more than brief memories that never touched the dark eyes.

"Grandmother," Verena greeted happily, accustomed since a babe to the spirit's appearance, and thus was never afraid of the soulless eyes.  Hurrying to the other end of the sofa, the small girl climbed onto the soft cushions and moved onto her knees in excitement.  "Look at what Father gave me!  It's not my birthday, but he said I was a good girl for showing Faer my core yesterday."

Her small hand clutched around the thin chain of her necklace, Verena lifted the golden locket for her grandmother's examination.  The spirit's eyes widened briefly before she smiled fondly and reached out a hand toward the locket, her fingertips slipping through the solid object.

"Father said it's yours," Verena said proudly.

<I'm surprised he found it,> Astrea replied in a voice that was always difficult to hear, like a whisper within a cavern.  <It was meant to be passed down to the next Lady Almasy, but... I suppose it suits you far better than whatever sham wife he would have been forced to marry if his father was still alive.>

Her head tilted in confusion at the idea of a 'sham wife', Verena decided to focus on the part that the necklace suited her better.  "It's really pretty.  I told Father I'd wear it always just like you do."

Astrea straightened at the words, her hand drifting the locket resting against her own chest, a memory of the real necklace Verena still held in her hand.  <Darling one, tell me you didn't say it like that to your father.  He may think...>

The spirit didn't complete the thought, a habit Verena had grown accustomed to over the years and was too young to realize that there should have been more.  "Father thought I meant the paintings.  He was happy when I said it."

Astrea breathed a sigh of relief, an incongruous sight for a ghost.  <Thank the blessings of Hyne.>

The girl's smooth brow wrinkled briefly at the spirit's tone, but she had learned to not ask questions about why the woman always seemed worried.  Instead, Verena asked, "Can you stay and play with me?"

Her smile gentle, Astrea nodded with a regal bow of her head.

At the sign of consent, Verena immediately slid off the sofa and went to the nearby cabinets where she very carefully pulled out a silver tray holding a tea set of white porcelain with hand painted roses.  The young girl walked with exaggerated caution, one of the tea cups bearing a small chip from a previous lesson learned about the fragility of the tea set.  Successfully setting the tray onto the table, Verena beamed up at her grandmother.

<You're becoming quite graceful,> Astrea stated with a humored tone.

Giggling at the praise, Verena set out two tea cups on their individual saucers and lifted the teapot as her grandmother had shown her to keep the lid in place while pouring.  Of course no liquid came out, but Verena went through the exact motions as if truly serving tea to an important guest.  The 'tea' poured, the young girl placed one of the cups in front of her grandmother and set the other aside for herself.  With a soft exclamation of remembering something, she reached into a pocket of her dress and pulled out a handful of broken cookies that she had stolen from the kitchen.  After placing them onto a plate, Verena set the cookies between the two cups of 'tea', but several inches closer to her own cup.

After covertly wiping her hands on her dress, Verena moved back to the sofa and climbed onto the cushions to sit next to her grandmother.  Just barely keeping her seat, she reached out for her tea cup and its saucer, successfully retrieving them to lean back and attempt to mimic Astrea's dignified pose.  The spirit smiled affectionately at the young girl before leaning forward to hover a hand over her tea cup.

<This tea set brings back so many memories.  Did I tell you that your father would share tea with me in the gardens when he was younger?>

"Father did that?" Verena asked with eyes wide in surprise.  "But he won't have tea with me."

<Well, he was much younger then, a child who didn't know that it is unsightly for a soldier to sip tea with his mother,> Astrea stated as she placed a hand at the saucer and her fingers at the handle of the teacup, and though her hands couldn't truly touch the porcelain, she leaned back with a memory of the cup and plate held steady in her hands.  The true teacup and saucer left on the table, Astrea sipped from the nonexistent cup as wisps of steam curled near her face.

Awed by the sight, Verena stared for a long moment before she remembered to mirror the woman's movements.  After sipping 'tea' from her own cup, she asked, "Was Father ever small like me?"

With a melodious laugh, Astrea replied, <No matter their size or strength when older, everyone begins their life as a helpless baby.>

"Really?  Then I can grow up like you?"

<You are on your way, darling one.>

Verena smiled hopefully at white woman, and then tried another elegant sip of her 'tea' when a knock sounded at the door followed by a soft call of her name.  Recognizing the voice, the young girl straightened in her seat.  "Ander?"

The door opened to reveal Leander, the boy twelve years old with his long dark hair tied back into a short ponytail and his clothing a smaller version of their father's wardrobe.  The soft color of green eyes contrasted the sharpness of his gaze, and once stepping into the suite, Leander stared curiously at his sister seated on the sofa.  "Hey Vera, I though I heard you talking.  Is Peony visiting?" he asked, referring to Irvine's daughter and Verena's recent close friend.

Deep blue eyes widened slightly at being heard, the young girl glancing at the image of their grandmother that Leander couldn't see.  "No, I'm just playing."

Humming to himself, Leander closed the door and stepped into the sitting room.  He glanced at the teacup and saucer placed at the other end of the table, his eyes narrowing in thought.  "Where did you learn to serve tea?"  At Verena's startled stare, Leander smiled gently and explained, "It's nothing Father and Faer would have shown you, Matron has been far too busy for such games, and Peony is too young to understand the right and wrong way to do it."

Her hand moving to her chest, Verena twisted the thin chain of her necklace around small fingers.  She again looked to her grandmother in hope of guidance, but the woman was focused solely on the Almasy heir.  Lips twisting with uncertainty, Verena felt close to tears at the frustration of always lying to her family.  It was the one matter Astrea was firm about, though her reasons were never explained.

Leander came to a stop when he noticed his sister's upset state.  His expression shifting to something sympathetic, he knelt down and motioned for the girl to come to him.  Verena immediately followed the silent command, slipping off the sofa and setting her teacup and saucer onto the table before running to her big brother.  He wrapped his arms around the small girl and patted a hand against honey brown hair.

"You know, Vera, before you were born, I promised Father that I would always protect you.  There is nothing that would make me afraid of you."  Leaning back, the dark-haired boy smiled while gazing at his sister and tenderly wiped tears from her cherub face.  "If something is wrong, you can tell me and I'll do my best to help you."

Teeth biting into her lower lip, Verena sniffed loudly before blurting out, "But Grandmother doesn't want me to!"

<Darling one,> Astrea whispered in dismay.

Not hearing that voice, Leander stared confusedly at his sister's renewed tears.  "Grandmother?  What do you mean?"

When Verena's only reply was a shake of her head, Leander removed a handkerchief from a pocket and offered it to the sniffling girl.  As Verena wiped her own tear, green eyes glanced up at the portrait hanging above the fireplace, but then abruptly shifted to stare at the twin teacups sitting on the small table.  His expression quiet in thought for a long moment, Leander continued to stare at the porcelain cups decorated with painted roses when he asked, "Do you... speak with Grandmother often?"

<Don't answer him.  He doesn't need to know,> the spirit said urgently.

Verena glanced back at the white woman sitting with her hands folded and pressed against her chest, but a callused hand brushed against her cheek and made her return her gaze to encouraging green eyes.

"Is she speaking to you right now?"

Lips quivering, Verena reluctantly nodded.

Leander's eyes widened in shock, the boy not truly believing his theory until her wordless admission.  His gaze shifting briefly, he asked warily, "Are... Are you certain it's her?"

"Uh huh.  She's like the pictures and she has the necklace, too," Verena said as she fingered her locket.

"But could it be someone... something pretending to be Grandmother?"

The idea never occurring to the naive girl, Verena glanced back at the spirit and was surprised to find her grandmother visibly impressed at the question, despite the delicate hands that were still pressed worriedly against her chest.  "She's Grandmother.  I know it."

Leander stood slowly at the statement, the movement making Verena stare up at her brother.  Placing a hand at her shoulder, he said, "I believe you, Vera."

The girl smiled brightly at the words of trust, and once grabbing that hand, she pulled him toward the sofa.  "Want to talk to her?  She's really nice.  She plays with me and shows me things, like serving tea."

"I'd like that," Leander said as he moved with her to the sofa.  He sat down first and pulled the smaller girl onto his lap before wrapping his arms tightly around her.  He eyed the other end of the couch, unable to see the spirit sitting with her hands moved to her lap in a more relaxed pose.  "Grandmother," he started in an awkward manner, "Why did you make Verena hide this?"

Dark eyes gazed at the young heir when Astrea replied, <Tell him that he already knows why.>

Pouting at the fact that her brother yet again knew something more than her, Verena twisted in his arms and looked up at him when she asked petulantly, "Ander, how come you know when Grandmother won't tell me?"

Leander said nothing for a long moment, his eyes staring at the empty cushions with an almost pained expression.

Worried by that expression, Verena asked, "Is it bad, Ander?"

Though immediately glancing down at his sister, Leander replied hesitantly, "There is nothing wrong with you or your powers, Vera, but sometimes, people aren't going to understand that.  Remember Faer's stories about the Massacre and why we can't show anyone our spells or our cores?"

"Uh huh," Verena said solemnly, not able to understand why people would hate her if she was revealed as a sorceress, but it was enough to know it was true.  "But why can't I tell Father or Faer about seeing the white people?  Would... would they hate me?"

"No," Leander said sharply to the whispered question.  "They love you so much, but this power of yours would... confuse them when there's nothing to be confused about.  You're a good girl and I won't let them think any differently."

<You are lucky to have such a caring brother,> Astrea said with a hand placed against her chest and above her lost heart.  <He's like a young knight protecting a princess.>

Verena grinned at the comparison, her eyes sparkling.  "Ander would be the best knight."

"A knight?" Leander asked curiously.

"Yeah, and I'll be a beautiful princess."

His amusement fading some at the choice, Leander glanced back at the woman he could never see.  "What does Grandmother think of Faer?"

The former Lady said nothing while staring at the young heir, her dark eyes serious and her lips set into a thin line.

"Grandmother?" Verena questioned worriedly.  "Don't you like Faer?"

Bowing her head in thought, Astrea replied, <He is a good man who has suffered much for the sake of his children, and it is because of his unique blood that I'm able to speak with my precious grandchildren.  ...However, he is a man.  It would have be best for you both to have a true mother, a refined woman of stature who could teach-->

"We don't need a woman," Verena stated with a deep frown.  "We have Faer."

Leander hugged his sister close to his chest.  "I take it that she doesn't approve."

<I never said that I didn't approve.  I'm not as blind as my husband who refuses to see that your... 'Faer' is the one responsible for transforming Seifer into a fine Lord, but...>  With a sigh of frustration, Astrea added, <If only he were a woman who didn't have to hide her pride and love for her children, but as it is, Seifer has no one to stand openly at his side and you both have been labeled as bastard children.  Neither you nor your brother deserve such a burden in your lives.>

When Verena continued to scowl at the spirit, Leander asked, "What is she saying, Vera?"  The girl wiggled out of her brother's hold and moved onto her knees to cup her hands around the boy's ear, whispering a paraphrased version of their grandmother's words.  Leander showed little expression at the information, but his eyes remained focused on the empty side of the sofa as he coaxed his sister into sitting back on his lap.

A corner of his lips curling into a harsh smile, Leander questioned, "Forgive me, Grandmother, but what does any of that matter?"

Taken aback, Astrea straightened into a tense pose.  <You are young and naive in the ways of the world.>

When Verena relayed the comment, Leander laughed sharply.  "Young, maybe, but not as naive as you want to believe.  I've felt the breath of a Ravage against my skin and I've witnessed magic that should have torn apart my soul, but Faer saved me from certain death at the risk of his own life.  What is the burden of a name or a thoughtless comment compared to that sacrifice?"  Pausing to hold onto one of Verena's hands, Leander continued, "Faer may not be able to stand with us during formal events or other ridiculous parties, but he will always be there whenever we need him.  What about a mother is more important than that?"

As Astrea gazed at the dark-haired boy, a single silver tear streaked down her cheek.  <You are your father's son.>

Confused, Verena said, "Of course Ander is Father's son.  Why wouldn't he be?"

At the implied statement from the spirit, Leander said, "What Grandmother probably means is that I'm a lot like Father.  Faer says the same thing on occasion, but Father likes to argue that I should be better than him and learn from his tragic mistakes."

<That is quite the task,> Astrea replied, and then glanced back over her shoulder with a weak smile.  <It appears our teatime must be cut short, darling one.  Tell your brother that we should speak again soon.>

As the spirit faded into nonexistence, Verena was about to repeat the message when a single knock sounded, followed by the door opening without permission.  Squall stepped inside as far as his hold on the doorknob would allow, his eyes of blue-gray immediately settling on his two children seated on the sofa.  Full lips quirked into a near smile at the sight of Leander holding tightly onto his sister.

"And what have you two been up to?"

While Verena lifted an anxious hand to her necklace, Leander grinned at the onetime prince of sorcerers.  "Vera invited me for some 'tea'."

A dark eyebrow lifted at the statement.  "Tea for two?"

"Do you see a third?" Leander questioned, his eyes reflecting the mischievous green of his father.

Squall glanced at the tea set on the short table, observing the placement of a single cup in front of both children and the second cup set at the opposite end of the table.  If he found the discrepancy troublesome, he didn't speak of it when he returned his gaze to his son and daughter.  "Well, your tutors are waiting for you both.  Hopefully Verena's 'tea' will keep for another time."

"Yes, Faer," Leander said as he helped his sister to the ground.  Slipping off the sofa, he stretched briefly when Verena grabbed onto the hem of his shirt and tugged strongly.

"Can we do this again?  Please?"

Leander smiled before leaning down to press a kiss against her golden brown hair.  "I'll be happy to share 'tea' with you whenever you wish."

Flashing him a relieved grin, Verena turned with a flare of her dress and hurried to the waiting sorcerer.  Her arms spread, she knocked against the slender man in her eagerness to hug him.  Still, she held on tight to his clothes and pressed her face against his leg.

Though at first surprised, Squall placed a consoling hand at her back.  "Is something wrong, princess?"

Verena shook her head as she stepped back, then raising her arms in a sign to be held.  Though sighing at the request, Squall bent down to lift the growing girl and braced her against his side as she clung onto his shirt.  He eyed her in an attempt to guess the reasons for her actions, but Verena avoided that gaze by resting her head against his shoulder.  A chilled hand brushed the hair from her face and behind her ear, a tender touch that made her nudge impossibly closer to her sorcerer father.

"You're better than a dumb woman," Verena muttered peevishly.

Squall went still at the declaration, his baffled gaze shifting to Leander when the boy stepped close.

"She overheard someone say that it's a pity we don't have a mother to raise us," the young heir said with distaste, an implied agreement to his sister's simply stated opinion.

The dark-haired sorcerer stared at the young man of serious green eyes, and eventually reached out to place a firm hand at his shoulder.  His lips slowly curling into a sardonic smile, Squall said, "Don't tell your father about it or else he may do something stupid."

"Doesn't he always?"

An eyebrow lifted, Squall replied, "You're not supposed to know that."

"Then tell him to hide it better," Leander retorted with an amused smile, then slipping out from the man's hold.  "Anyway, that person didn't know what they were saying.  It should be obvious that we have a mother."

Squall had no opportunity to reply as the young heir moved past and walked down the hallway, assumedly toward his lessons.  Hefting his daughter into a better position, he turned his head and whispered into her ear, "You have an amazing brother."

"Uh huh, I know.  And he told me that I'm a good girl."

The arm around her tightened briefly, but relaxed again when Squall rested his head against hers.  "If he says so, then he must be right."

Verena smiled at the support toward Leander's words, never seeing the flicker of doubt in the blue-gray eyes that also held the desperate desire to hope.  And as Squall stepped with her into the hallway, Verena closed her eyes and imagined the day when she would be able to ask him to join her and her grandmother for tea.  She didn't know how long it would take for that day to arrive, but she hoped Matron would let her have the good cookies when it finally happened.




Author's Whining -- And that's Seifer's mother.  Try not to hate her - she wants to like Squall, but it's just too strange to wrap around her head.  She's the type of noblewoman who loved the social scene, something Seifer can never do with Squall on his arm... Well, at least not until Seifer is an old man and can as eccentric as he wants. ;)  Anywho, I hope you liked this, Azurelle.