Hearts Unchanged
January 2004

 

[Squall]

Waiting at the cliff's edge, I stared down into the valley thick with dark trees.  Just barely viewable given the poor light of the quarter moon, a large mansion rose well above the height of those pined trees.  Despite my tight hold on the reins, the black mare beneath me was reluctant to hold still, Ember most likely recognizing her surroundings as well.  It had been years since I last journeyed to the place, and even then it was for hardly a day's visit.  And so, for the first time in a very long time, I could finally say that I had come home.

"Squa-all, I thought you promised me a bed tonight."

I resisted an amused smile at the annoyed and tired voice, something I don't think I would have tolerated from anyone else.  "Only a mile left."

Riding the large stallion I purchased for him, Seifer left the shadows of the forest to stop his horse along side of mine.  "This better not be like your 'just a couple more miles' that you fed me earlier, 'cause if it is, I'm stopping right here.  Do you realize that I haven't been able to feel my ass for half of the fucking day?"

"You've mentioned it," I replied, figuring that the blond wasn't exaggerating given his inexperience with traveling horseback.  "You can see the place from here.  We're almost there."

I nudged my horse forward, and after a short pause to perhaps make certain that I wasn't lying, Seifer followed me at the painfully slow pace I had to set for this trip.  It was unavoidable given the shifter's condition and lack of experience with a horse.  The trip which typically took me one week to travel had taken over three weeks due to the slow pace and detours to avoid trackers, but I had to give the freed slave some credit.  Despite his ongoing complaints, he did everything I asked of him, which was in truth more than I expected of the blond.  Seifer was raised to be a sex slave, not a work slave, which meant he simply could not endure the rough touch of nature.

But those weeks together... it made things complicated.  Over the previous eighteen months, I had little contact with the shifter.  But despite what Seifer may have believed, he was the only reward which I allowed myself during that period of time.  He was someone I could treat the way I wanted to, someone around whom I could be myself.  During those brief times with the blond man, I felt human despite my crimes.  Crimes which I should have died for...  But then Seifer interfered with my plans.  And he didn't even do anything.  Just him being nearby gave me a bothersome reason for living, and so I took on that responsibility to lead the shifter to somewhere safe.  But I didn't imagine becoming further attached to Seifer.

"Squall, will you finally tell me what this place is, or do I have to keep guessing?"

"... Loire manor."  I heard the shifter straighten in his saddle at the response.

"Loire...?  As in Laguna Loire?"

I nodded.

"But Loire is... he's..."  Seifer chuckled with little humor.  "My Mistress despised him.  I was never allowed to speak with the man, but even I have heard about his hatred for your methods.  It sounded like he would kill you himself once the Queen's protection was gone.  And this is the man you expect to take us in?"

"He's my father," I stated simply.

There was a moment of shocked silence before the blond said, "That's not possible.  My Mistress--"

"Stop calling her that," I interrupted more sharply than I intended.  "You no longer have a 'mistress'."

"... Shit, it's hard to catch myself at times.  But as I was saying, the bitch would have never trusted a son of Loire.  I've heard her rant about his eldest son, the one who was made heir to the estate recently, and that kid is only ten--"

"Nine."

"Whatever, and stop fucking interrupting me.  The point is that he doesn't have an older son."

"Not that you know of," I said, already wishing that I had never mentioned my relationship to Laguna, but it wouldn't have remained a secret for much longer with the mansion already in view.

"What the hell does that mean?"

"It means you'll be safe here.  Now be silent."

A low growl sounded behind me, but Seifer obeyed the command without a stronger argument than that.  He learned early on in our travels that I would never order him around without reason, and while his loud ranting nearly got us killed that one time, I could understand his desire to no longer be submissive.  His words may have labeled him still a slave, but his spirit was already stronger with his recent freedom.

Instead of riding to the front gates, I took the back trail through dense forest to the servants' entrance.  Once reaching the large doorway, I dismounted from Ember and knelt to the ground next to the stone porch.  From experience alone, I found a loose rock and removed it from its position to uncover the thin rope hidden there.  I pulled on the rope four times before replacing the stone.  Standing back up, I turned to face Seifer, the blond already dismounted from his horse.  Green eyes stared at me with confusion and question, but I had no energy to explain everything to him.  It simply didn't matter.

In short time, there was the quick padding of feet before a faint light appeared through the cracks of the door.  The locks were undone rapidly and the door was opened wide to reveal a plump woman holding a ridiculously large knife in her hand.

Ignoring the quiet 'shit' from behind me, I attempted a small smile.  "Sorry to wake you, Mrs Kadowaki."

"Squall...?"  The woman lowered her arm as brown eyes studied me for a brief moment, recognition quickly lighting the dark eyes.  "You horrid little boy.  We've been expecting you for weeks.  What kept you... oh, who's this?"

I stepped aside to look back at the large man.  "Mrs K, this is Seifer.  He'll be staying here for some time.  Seifer, this is Reika Kadowaki, the head cook and someone I trust completely."

Vague tenseness left the shifter's body as he stepped forward to my side and bowed respectfully.  "A pleasure to meet you, my lady."

Kadowaki smiled, obviously pleased.  "Oh, stop that.  'Mrs K' is just fine if you're a friend of this one.  And dear me, why am I keeping you out in the cold when there's a warm fire waiting for you in the study?  Come in, boys, come in," she said with an exaggerated wave.  "You know the way, Squall.  I'll alert Laguna, and don't even think of suggesting that I let him sleep," she said with a scolding finger, immediately making me close my mouth before I could make that very argument.  "You know how he is about these things.  And don't worry about your things or those animals - I'll have my boy take care of them.  The lazy bum gets enough sleep during the day..."

Parting ways with the plump woman, I led the shifter through the dark hallways.  "What was that about?" I asked him in a quiet voice.

"Hn?  What was what?" Seifer asked distractedly while eyeing his surroundings.

"That act of yours."

"Hmm?  With that lovely woman?  Oh, that wasn't an act.  One thing I've learned is that you should never get on the bad side of head cooks.  And getting on their good sides rarely hurts."

I glanced over at the blond, but I didn't comment that I had a similar viewpoint.  With my free time spent with servants of the household, I have heard plenty of tales about what they do to people who are overly rude to them.  Some of the most creative stories came from the kitchen and Kadowaki herself.

It didn't take long to reach the large study that would be better termed a library.  Large bookshelves reached up to the high ceiling, every shelf filled with books ranging from the recently bought and untouched to the well read and worn.  I walked easily through the almost maze-like placement of the shelves and reached the far wall which held a collection of mismatched furniture and a small fireplace.

"Have a seat," I told the shifter.

"Thank the gods," he muttered before unsurprisingly choosing my favored couch in the room and patting the empty place next to him.  Though it was logically impossible, that man somehow had the ability to identify and exploit my every weakness to his benefit.

I shook my head at his tempting offer before I stepped up to the fireplace to gain some warmth from the small fire.

"So... nice place."

I smiled vaguely at the attempt of conversation.  "Not as big as what you're used to."

"No, but it's warm here.  Alive.  In that castle, it felt like I was walking through a catacomb.  I think I'll like it better here."

Glancing back at the man, I looked directly into green eyes highlighted by the glow of the fire.  It felt threatening to stare into that open expression of trust, desire, and hope.  I didn't understand what I was afraid of exactly while looking into those vivid green eyes, but I was grateful for the interruption of a soft click.  I quickly faced the side wall and watched the hanging rug shake roughly before a man dressed in a nightgown and sleeping cap stumbled from behind the heavy fabric.

"Hyne, why are there so many loose stones in this place?" the man grumbled while brushing long, dark hair from his eyes.

A faint snicker sounded from the couch, Seifer ineffectively covering his mouth with a hand.  The noise immediately caught the older man's attention, dark green eyes first looking at the blond and then at me.  He said my name in a faint, relieved whisper before walking in my direction.  I didn't resist the arms which wrapped around me tightly, but I didn't return the hold either.

"Thank Hyne you are safe!  We had word about Adel's demise, and I feared the worst with you taking so long to arrive."  Leaning back from his hug, Laguna looked directly into my eyes.  "You should be ashamed to make us worry like that.  What took you so long, son?"

"There was an unforeseen complication."

My father blinked in confusion before he stepped back from me and looked at Seifer for a closer examination.  "Wait... I know this man.  He belonged..."  Dark green eyes snapped to my face, the shadow of suspicion painful for me to see.  "Why have you brought the Queen's personal pet here?"

"He had nowhere else to go," I replied simply.

"And it's not like you to bring strays home," he said quietly, obviously not wanting Seifer to hear.

For some reason offended at hearing the shifter compared to a street animal, I glared at the man.  "We've been traveling since sunrise, not to mention the past three weeks of riding here.  This discussion can wait until morning."

His eyes widened vaguely before his lips formed an odd smile.  "Forgive me.  You both must be tired after all of that.  Why don't you go to your chambers, and your guest can use any of the empty rooms next to yours.  I have nothing planned tomorrow, so sleep in all you like.  We can talk at length once you are well rested."  Cupping his hands around my face, Laguna made me bow my head so that he could kissed my forehead.  "Welcome home, my lost son.  And thank you."

Awkwardly, I nodded in reply.

"Good night, son.  I'll see you tomorrow... or perhaps I should say 'later today'."

I nodded again in confirmation before I faced Seifer, the shifter obviously annoyed about something, but he was thankfully silent about the matter.  I motioned for him to come with me as I left the large study and led the way to the wing of rarely used guest rooms.

"Are you ashamed of me?"

I wasn't surprised by the question asked in an angered tone.  "He'd have me talking until dawn if I gave him the chance.  It will best to explain everything when it isn't so late."  Looking over at the blond, I added, "And I believe that I promised you a bed tonight."

Seifer stared at me with tired eyes, and then slowly smiled.  "It better be a damn nice bed, too.  I want to sleep until my ass stops hurting."

The walk to the always readied rooms was longer than I remembered, suggesting that I was more tired than I had realized.  I wasn't certain what that implied about the shifter's current state, but he easily matched my stride without obvious struggle.

Reaching the first set of dark doors, I stopped there and place my hand against the cool wood.  "You can sleep here."

Seifer glanced at the doors and then met my gaze once more.  "And where are you sleeping?"

"The next door down the hall."

"Alright, then let's go there."

I sighed, half-expecting this argument.  "You are free now.  You get your own rooms."

Crossing his arms, Seifer straightened into a firm stance.  "I'm unbelievably exhausted at this moment, so I'm not going to bother with subtlety or pride.  You have destroyed my life and I'm fucking scare.  Right now, you are the only thing that is familiar to me and I'm not going to sleep in some bed alone.  Whether you like it or not, you are stuck with me."

I continued to silently examine the shifter after his admission of being afraid, something most people could never say without reducing themselves to excuses and whining.  Seifer didn't weaken under my watchful eyes, and instead determinedly met my gaze.

After a time, I was the one to break eye contact as I turned sharply to walk the short distance down the hall to my rooms.  The shifter hesitated before following me, his stride strengthening when I didn't turn him away.  I entered the suite first, pleased to find our travel gear already delivered to these rooms.  Leaving the bags there, I continued further into the suite in the direction of the bathroom.  After quickly cleaning my face and hands with a towel wetted from water in a bucket, I dipped another towel into the cool water and moved into the joined bedroom, but I stopped after a few steps.  Seifer had already removed his coat and shirt, his bared chest of golden brown skin almost glowing in the soft light of surrounding lamps.  He straightened after removing his shoes and thick socks, his green eyes brightening at the sight of me.

"Hey, is that cold?"

His voice woke me back into movement as I nodded and then stepped over to the shifter to hand him the wet towel.  He quickly rubbed it against his neck, sighing at the touch of coldness as he arced back in bliss.  I couldn't stop watching him as I resisted the need to reach out and feel his heated skin.  Sharp green eyes glanced over at me, and his lips formed a knowing smirk.

"See something you like?"

My blood froze at the familiar tone of fake seduction, and I turned around to walk to the other side of the large bed.  I grabbed a pillow and the top quilt, but before I could remove the heavy sheet, a hand was at my wrist with a strong grip.  While I knew that I could easily break that hold, I didn't move and only stared at the interfering hand.

"What are you doing, Squall?"

"Don't ask if you know."

"Alright, then why?"

I shook my head, wondering why I should have to explain everything I do.  "Let go."

"No."  Seifer yanked at my arm, but failed to pull me onto the mattress.  "Shit, how can a small guy like you be that strong?" he muttered before saying, "Listen, this is your fucking bed.  If anyone should sleep on the floor, it's me for refusing my own room."

"You need the bed more than me."

The shifter paused before moving onto the mattress.  "And why do you think I need it more?"

I sighed before meeting his gaze.  "Because of your condition."

"And what's my condition?" he asked with a smirk while moving closer to me on his knees.

"You know," I said quietly, uncertain about the situation.

Seifer scoffed.  "Of course I know why my body is temporarily fucked up, but I want you to say it."

"... You're pregnant."

"With?" he asked in a whisper while leaning in closer.  His intention was obvious, but I couldn't make myself move away.

"My child," I barely replied before he pressed his lips against mine in a soft kiss, and then lightly licked my dry lips as he pulled back.

His face close to mine, Seifer looked directly into my eyes.  "Come to bed, Squall."

I wanted to comment that it wasn't his place to order me around, but I easily saw the determination in those bright green eyes.  Any argument at that point would have only kept us both from greatly needed sleep, and I could imagine myself ending up in this bed anyway.  I knew when to chose my battles and this was one that simply held no gain.

I released my hold on the pillow and quilt so that I could remove my outer travel wear which would have been too warm to sleep in.  As I readied for bed, Seifer moved back to the center of the large mattress and laid down to stretch out his lengthy body.  Once comfortable, he rolled onto his side and purposefully watched me as I walked around the room to extinguish the lights.  That task finished quickly, I moved onto the bed and attempted to set boundaries for the current situation by lying down at the near edge of the mattress with my back to the shifter.

A disappointed sigh sounded behind me.  "Good night, then."

"... Good night, Seifer."

~ > < ~

Once again waiting in the study, I stood next to a window and stared out at the side garden filled with trees of new leaves and budding flowers.  Watching that sign of the coming spring, I let my mind blank completely as I avoided thoughts which I didn't have the energy to analyze.  I simply leaned against the window frame and stared at the beginning cycle of life.

After some time, the sound of footsteps on stone echoed in the large room and I turned my head to watch the entrance of Laguna and another man of dark skin who walked at his side.  The sight of the master swordsman made me smile vaguely.

"Squall," my father started in a scolding tone, "I thought I told you to sleep in."

"I did," I said while I pushed up from the wall and stepped forward to meet the two men.

Laguna took me into a strong, lasting hug.  "Hyne, it feels so good to have you home at last."

I didn't reply, though I knew the man was desperately waiting for me to say the same.  I simply couldn't lie to him like that.

When Laguna finally stepped away, Kiros quickly took my hand to pull me into hug with a fisted hand pressed hard against my back.  The dark man said nothing, though.  He was more logical than my father and understood my dislike of meaningless words.  Once he stepped back, Kiros looked directly into my eyes and then nodded his head in a form of silent praise for my completed mission.

"Come and sit, the both of you," Laguna said while taking his favored chair.  Kiros took the seat next to my father, while I sat on the worn couch to face the two older men.  "Did you sleep well last night?  After so many nights on the road, I'll bet it felt nice to be in a real bed again."

I nodded, trying to not think about waking to Seifer pressed tight against my body and my own traitorous arm wrapped around his broad shoulders.  To think that I could sleep that way, and that I actually slept later than I had intended... it greatly bothered me.

Laguna sighed.  "Alright, I won't attempt small talk for now, but we will speak of better things over breakfast."  The longhaired man leaned forward in his seat and his dark green eyes took on a more serious gleam when he asked,  "Did everything go according to plan?"

"More or less," I answered, and then I detailed the events in the warded room, though I omitted Seifer and his role completely from the short description.

"I knew she wouldn't destroy Celestine's Tear," Laguna stated with excitement.  "She wouldn't give up the chance to destroy Edea like that.  Do you still have it?"

I nodded, and then removed the pouch attached to my belt.  Leaning forward, I handed the object to my father.

He opened the pouch reverently, his eyes widening at the revealed orb.  "Blessed Hyne, it's still humming with her magic.  She must have been difficult to entrap for her energy to still be active after so many weeks."

I shrugged, having no knowledge about the orb except for its purpose and how to activate it.  The finer details meant nothing to me.

Smiling at the proof of the sorceress's ultimate demise, Laguna replaced the orb into its pouch and closed it tightly.  "Excellent.  You've done more than I could ever dream."  He softly laughed in disbelief.  "You've done more than anyone could imagine, to actually assassinate an 'immortal' sorceress without fear or hesitation.  Finally, after so many years, your mother can rest in peace."

For some reason that final thought pained me.  Perhaps it was because it meant nothing to me, that I only completed this mission because it was my one purpose in life.  In my mind, it had little to do with my murdered mother, but I could never reveal that to my father.  He placed too much of his heart into his need for revenge, and I wouldn't hurt him that way.

Leaning back into his chair, Laguna became serious once more.  "But you have yet to explain this companion of yours."

"He had nowhere to go and... Seifer is pregnant."

Both men straightened in surprise at the comment, my father then asking, "Is that even possible?"

I shrugged.  "He is a shape shifter and apparently their males can be impregnated."

"A-ah, I think I've read about it..." Laguna stated distractedly.  "But I don't understand.  What does that have to do with why you decided to take him under your protection?"

Before I could reply, Kiros groaned.  "Are you that blind, Guna?  The child must be Squall's as well."

Dark green eyes flew open at that and my father stared at me.  "Is this true?"

I nodded.  "Seifer was ordered by Adel to have my heir.  My replacement, as it were, if I died in the mission to assassinate Edea."

"Or perhaps a hostage to motivate you to accomplish such a dangerous task," Laguna suggested, something I had already considered as well.  "Not to offend this man, but are you certain that he is truly pregnant?  That this child is even yours?"

"Yes," I hissed out, irrational anger once again burning within me.  I had no urge to explain my certainty about the matter, that before our first time, Seifer's eyes had changed color and shape given his more extreme emotions.  His eyes glowing in the faint light of his chambers that night were awe inspiring.  But since then, his eyes haven't changed in the least.  And then, during our run from the castle, I was mystified when every morning Seifer would stare at his hand and smile relieved.  That was when I learned from the shifter that with pregnancy, his kind completely lose their ability to transform since the change in body function could threaten the growing child.  Shortly after his explanation, I was struck by the sudden realization that Seifer had been checking to see if he had miscarried while riding horseback.  Once I realized that, I was then tempted to ask him why he seemed relieved that he still bore my child, that he wasn't disgusted by the situation, but I couldn't.  For the first time I could remember, I was afraid.  I didn't want know.

After studying me for a time, Laguna said, "May I ask you something personal?"

"... ..."

Taking my silence as acceptance, my father asked, "Are you concerned about this man's... Seifer's safety?"

"Of course," I replied, annoyed that I would have to state the obvious.  "Why else would I bring the shifter here?"

Laguna nodded.  "And is that because you love him?"

I stared at the longhaired man for the question, something that was a foreign thought for me.

With tired eyes, my father then asked, "Do you love me?"

After a hesitating moment, I shook my head.  Not in refusal, but in the silent statement that I didn't know how to answer such a question.

Laguna smiled weakly while speaking to himself, "Raine will never forgive me for this."  Then standing with a loud sigh, he held out a hand to me.  "Don't worry about the questions of a foolish old man.  Come, breakfast should be waiting for us by now."

"... I... I'm sorry..."

"Shhh, don't be.  This is my fault," he stated before kissing my forehead.  "You must be hungry and that food will only get colder."

With that said, I let myself be dragged from the study, and I remained silent as we walked through the hallways.  Laguna, on the other hand, spoke rapidly to Kiros as they discussed the repercussions of Adel's demise.  Most importantly, they were concerned about who would fill in that vacuum of leadership.  While Laguna speculated on various competent noblemen, I noticed how Kiros didn't offer any suggestions himself.  I had my own suspicions about whom he imagined replacing the former ruler over the southern realms.

Once stepping into the dining room, I nearly ran into my father when he suddenly slowed his pace.  As I stopped in place, he instead resumed his stride to the long table.

"Well, I guess we have one more for breakfast.  Good morn, Seifer," Laguna said in a surprisingly cheerful voice.

I didn't move from my place at the doorway as my eyes locked onto the shifter's face.  He was perplexed by my father's attitude, which was understandable given the rather poor reception the night previous.  Hell, even I was confused by Laguna sudden decision to address the man directly.

Seifer stood up from his chair.  "Sorry if I'm interrupting, but Mrs K--"

"A-ah, she sent someone to wake you for breakfast, did she?" Laguna asked while taking his seat at the head of the table.  "I should warn you now, she's quite the tyrant about making certain everyone eats well.  Sorry, I should have thought about that last night and told her to let you sleep."

The shifter shook his head.  "I was already up," he said with a brief accusing glance in my direction.  "And truthfully, I'm starved."

Laguna chuckled.  "As you should be.  Especially for a person in your condition."

Seifer looked in my direction with widened eyes.  "You told him?"

I nodded, and then finally moved from my position at the doorway.  As Kiros was already seated to Laguna's right, I sat to my father's left side and then motioned for Seifer to take the seat next to me.  The blond smiled broadly at the offer and moved to that chair without hesitation.

Leaning in close to me, Seifer whispered directly into my ear.  "Don't leave me again without saying a word."

"You were asleep," I reminded him.

"Doesn't matter," he stated while straightening in his chair.

At that moment, the doors from the kitchen opened wide as several servants carried in trays of food and pitchers of water and juice.  There was no formality as the four of us selected food from the overly large plates filled with relatively simple dishes, at least compared to the dishes Kadowaki would prepare if guests were present.  While I took my time with the meal, Seifer wasn't nearly as reserved.  The shifter ate like the food could be taken away from him at any moment, which could have been a true possibility under Adel's control.

"So, Seifer, how much have you heard about our family?" my father asked, the longhaired man smiling amused at the former slave.

After a sip of juice, he shook his head.  "Nothing.  I just found out last night that you're his father, which completely stunned me.  I didn't believe Squall at first."

Laguna didn't hide his surprise at the statement.  "Nothing?  Then, my son didn't tell you about his background?  Or about his purpose for infiltrating Adel's higher ranks?"

With an unreadable gaze, Seifer looked at me.  "Squall didn't want to tell me.  At first he said I had no role in it, and then for the past few weeks, he's been hiding behind his favorite phrase, that it doesn't matter."

I glared back at him, just barely resisting the urge to insist that it really didn't matter.  The past was past, and everything had been finished.  What use was there in talking about it?

"A-ah, I recognize that phrase well enough.  But now I'm interested - you've only know Squall as 'the Storm of Death', a general who is responsible for thousands upon thousands of deaths.  And yet you trust him enough to bear his child?"

I spoke in reply.  "He had no choice."

My father hummed at the answer.  "Perhaps, but I think I remember reading about shifters and their pregnancies.  No, I'm nearly certain of it since I was intrigued by the theory that shifters could only be impregnated if they completely trusted their partners to protect them during such a helpless state."

I turned to Seifer, waiting to hear him laugh at my father for the romantic notion, but the large man only shrugged.

"I don't know if there's any truth to that.  I wasn't exactly old enough to learn anything before I became a slave.  But I do trust Squall, if that's what you want to know."  Then grinning without shame, he added, "How could I not like a guy who always spoils me?"

I looked away sharply from the man, only to notice the interested and amused gazes of both Laguna and Kiros.  Feeling oddly trapped, I stared down at my plate, but I no longer felt like eating the well made food.

"Well, since my son is being typically closemouthed, would you like to hear the story from me?"

After a moment of staring at me and coming to the decision that he may never hear about it otherwise, Seifer looked to my father and nodded.

Before Laguna could start, I warned the man, "Keep it short."

With a weak laugh, my father asked, "I don't ramble on that much, do I?"

"Yes," Kiros and I said at the same moment, him far more amused about the fact than myself.

Laguna laughed hard at our response.  "Alright, alright, but what's wrong with indulging in a good story?"

"Takes too long," I muttered.

Smiling far too innocently, my father said, "I'll try to restrain myself then."  After a sip of water, Laguna sat back in his chair.  "Well, the best place to start would probably be with my first wife - Raine Roussel.  It was an arranged marriage, and I'm not ashamed to say that it was awkward at first, but I fell deeply in love with the kindhearted woman.  She was full of life and wit, and she never held back on any opportunity to tease me.  But her opinionated nature quickly brought her to the attention of Adel.

"Without going into too much detail," Laguna said while eyeing me, "Raine suddenly became weak and ill after a brief meeting with the sorceress.  And it was shortly after that when we learned she was also pregnant.  The pregnancy was hard for the small woman, but Raine fought for the life of our son.  It would be impossible to put words to her determination to defeat the spell placed on her, but her body wasn't as strong as her heart and Squall was born by a doctor's knife."

Pausing in a moment of silence, Laguna took a deep breath and continued to say, "I decided that moment that Adel must die.  While Raine was my selfish reason, the sorceress had been the source of too much pain and fear in this world.  I wanted to end it as much as Raine did.  But I wasn't arrogant enough to believe that I was capable of defeating a sorceress who was rumored to be immortal.  And so, I placed my hopes on my newborn son.  Once I decided upon that path, I knew that any son of mine would be suspicious to Adel, and for that reason, a funeral was held for both Raine and our supposedly unnamed son.

"Since that day, Squall was hidden away, and eventually was considered nothing more than a servant's son in the estate he should have inherited.  Once old enough, Kiros taught him how to wield a weapon while Ward, another dear friend of mine, taught him battle strategy and how to fight with only his hands.  While I tried to limit contact with my son, I couldn't resist tutoring him.  How I loved those hours spent in the study with only the two of us - it was the only time I could treat him like my son.  And then, when he was of age, he joined Adel's army under the name Squall Leonhart."

I sighed loudly in the sign that the longhaired man was taking to long to tell the simple story and I took the lead.  "In short, I worked myself through the ranks while my father discovered legends about Celestine's Tear.  I learned how to activate it, and then I waited for the opportunity to find the orb and use it.  That's it.  You know the rest."

Seifer laughed at my attempt to quickly sum everything up.  "Now wait a moment.  Celestine's Tear?  Is that the white stone she gave you?"

"May I answer?" my father asked, knowing that I understood little about the orb.  At my surrendering grunt, Laguna began to happily explain, "Well, the immortality of sorceresses' isn't a fable.  Their power somehow strengthens their spirits such that even if their bodies die, their soul can travel to another suitable body.  Adel is proof to how long a sorceress may live with records of her tyranny dating centuries back.  Though you should know that there are benevolent sorceresses as well.  For instances, there is Edea Kramer of the northern realms, and in the long past there was Celestine.  She poured her power and soul into that orb to grant magicless humans the ability to defend themselves against sorceresses.  But reading about the artifact, I learned it went missing after a knight attempted to use it against Adel.

"Now, it was my theory that Adel kept the artifact for the chance to use it against Edea.  But a sorceress cannot activate Celestine's Tear without risking her own soul.  For that reason, I knew Adel would enlist someone, but given the powers of the orb, it had to be someone she could trust for both loyalty and skill.  And so, Squall became the dark knight who followed her every order with her preferred taste of cruelty.  Meanwhile, I played the role of making his deeds infamous among those in the nobility, which then helped to gain him favor under Adel.  Though I'm surprised she decided to enlist Squall's aid so quickly.  I didn't think it would be for years yet."

Seifer breathed a laugh.  "She was afraid.  She knew Edea was planning something, but none of her spies could figure out those plans.  I guess she was looking in the wrong place."

"A-ah, Edea has been anxious as well," Laguna said while nodding.  "She's been tired of the pain the war has caused between the two realms, and she wasn't certain about Squall's loyalty after so much time under Adel's command.  Given Edea herself trained Squall to resist the mind reading abilities of sorceresses', as well as taught him the method to activate Celestine's Tear, she's been more than nervous."  Meeting my eyes with unhidden fondness, he added, "While I was never worried about your loyalty, I wasn't certain that I would see you again after the assassination."

It was hard to meet that gaze, but I wasn't surprised that my father had guessed the hatred I held for my sins and my life.  Perhaps Seifer was an attempt to make up for something, but that deed was tainted by my desire for him.  It was pathetic.

"Squall...?"

I couldn't look at the shifter as I stood up abruptly.  "I'm going out."  Before Laguna or Seifer could stand, I said, "I'll be back.  I just... need some air."

I left the table quickly, barely catching my father's words to the shifter that he shouldn't worry and that I typically enjoy riding horses to clear my mind.  I didn't care how weak I must have appeared to the men at the table.  I suddenly felt numb, as if I were beyond caring about anything.  As I walked to the stables, I wondered which was worse - the unnerving numbness or the aching pain that I could still feel despite that deadened sensation.

~ > < ~

It was late when I had finally returned Ember to her stall and rubbed her down before returning to the main house.  Walking through the empty and dark halls of the mansion helped to maintain my mood, but I knew that it wouldn't last.  And a part of me didn't want the numbness to remain.  I just wanted it to end.

Reaching the doors to my chambers, I wasn't surprised by the glow of light from below the dark wood.  Still, I hesitated before opening the door and stepping inside.  Not finding anyone in the front room, I sighed and locked the door behind me before I walked to the bedroom.  I slowed to a stop at the doorway to that back room, and leaning against the wooden frame, I smiled softly at the sight of Seifer sitting on the floor against the bed with his head lulled to the side in sleep.  Bastard.  He knew I wouldn't let him sleep like that.

With quiet steps, I approached the man and knelt down in front of him.  After first allowing myself a brief touch of soft golden hair, I placed my hand at his shoulder and shook him gently.  Green eyes snapped open at the action, the immediate fear in them quickly fading once his eyes focused on me.  Placing a hand on his neck , he massaged the unsurprisingly sore muscles.

"Shit, what took you so fucking long?  Now my ass hurts again."

I can't stop my smile at his tired grumbling.  "You should've gone to bed."

"And miss you?  Never."  With a grunt, Seifer pushed himself up from the floor and stretched out noisily.  "Though next time, using a pillow could be a better idea."

I stood up, bewildered that he was already thinking about the next time, and then I felt irritated that he was making me feel guilty about it.  But before I could say anything, he turned to crawl up onto the mattress and pull down the sheets.

"Get the lights, won't you?"

I stared at him for a moment, briefly considering that it would be safer to escape my chambers tonight, but I didn't want to leave.  And so, I walked around the room to extinguish the few lamps that had been lit.  I then slowly removed my sweat and dust covered clothes in exchange for clean sleepwear.  I moved over to the bed and tried to take the same position as the night before, but Seifer obviously had other ideas and wasn't going to let me stop him.  With some effort, he coaxed me to roll over and face him as his arms wrapped loosely around my back.  Convincing myself that I couldn't get comfortable otherwise, I placed an arm around his waist.

"You were going to kill yourself."

I stiffened at the statement, but I couldn't reply.

"When you stood over my Mis... When you stood over Adel, with that knife in your hand, you were going to take your own life, weren't you?"

My breaths grew faster, more shallow as I thought about that moment.  That moment I was so close to freedom.

"But you didn't."  His arms tightened around my back, pulling me slightly closer to him.  "Was it for me?"

"... You wouldn't have been safe there.  Anyone... anyone could have taken claim of you... and enslaved you again... and hurt you... and..."  My thoughts were running faster than words could match, and I couldn't stop the imagery of Seifer being beaten and raped by any man who wanted the 'pet' for himself.

"Squall...?  Are you--"

Furious at emotions trying to escape my hold, I pushed at the larger man's chest in a weak attempt to escape, but Seifer wouldn't release me and I wasn't able to use my full strength against the shifter.  Feeling overwhelmed and defeated, I let my body go limp as I pressed a hand against my face and forced myself to take long, deep breaths.

"Squall..."  My name was whispered soothingly before a large hand stroked back in my hair and soft lips pressed against my forehead.

I recoiled from his touch.  "Don't.  Please don't.  I've killed... I've murdered again and again.  I don't... deserve this anymore."

Seifer laughed lightly.  "You don't deserve the touch of a slave?  A nonhuman sex slave at that?  Gods, you're really fucked up if you actually believe that."

"You don't understand."

"Hn, maybe not, but you don't know Adel like I do.  If you hadn't killed those people, someone else would have.  And frankly, they were probably lucky to have you kill them instead of people like Biggs and Wedge.  You killed quickly and cleanly, while they preferred rape and torture as a form of entertainment."

Unable to speak louder than a whisper, I told him, "That means nothing."

"... Have you ever been tortured, Squall?"

My eyes widened at the question spoken in an emotionless tone.

"Have you ever seen your own intestines being pulled from your body?  Or what about rape?  Have you had a grime covered cock shoved down your throat, choking and nauseating you at the same moment?  Do you even know half the things people can do to make sex the most unpleasant thing you have ever experienced?"

"... no..."

"Then don't tell me that granting someone a merciful death means nothing."

There was no reply for such a statement, but while it did help to calm my emotions back under my control, I still didn't allow myself to believe that my sins could be forgiven.  "I'm not a good person."

Sighing, Seifer loosened his hold and moved back to look me in the eyes.  "When I was a child, there was a time when I was afraid to change my shape.  I thought that I would no longer be myself if I shifted into a man or a girl or anything that wasn't me."  He closed his eyes and smiled fondly.  "Eventually my mother sat me down, gave me a piece of my favorite candy, and then told me that no matter what form I take, one thing would always remain the same - my heart.  Nothing could change it, and for that reason, I'll always be able to return to my true form.  I'll always be me."

He moved one of his arms to slide beneath my shirt in order to place his warm hand against my chest.  "You became the dark knight, forcing yourself to play that role to get close to Adel.  But all this time, your heart has remained unchanged."  Leaning in close, he pressed his forehead against mine.  "It's time, Squall.  It's time to take your intended form."

"I... I can't.  I don't even know what that is," I said in a bare whisper.

"You will," Seifer replied, moving his hand to once again wrap around my back, but under my shirt instead, depriving me of the barrier of cloth to protect me from his heated touch.  "Just stop trying to fight it."

For a long time after that, there was only silence until the shifter's breaths turned into his soft snores of deep sleep.  And still, I continued to lay there in his comforting arms while I tried to understand his words.  I wanted so desperately to believe him, but the greater part of me demanded that I no longer had the right to live.  And yet...  I placed a careful hand at the man's stomach, wondering if this could be my penance for so many lost lives.  Or was that just a selfish, hopeful thought on my part?

"... n-nh, Squa-all... there..."

I glanced up at the mumbled words, and I was amused by the incredibly lecherous grin of the larger man.  Carefully I moved closer to the shifter, and then I lightly kissed the heated skin exposed from his shirt collar before I rested my head against his shoulder.

"Help me," I pleaded in a whisper, but there was no response from the unconscious man.  And so, with a bitter laugh at my foolishness, I closed my eyes for sleep.

 

{Continued}

 

Author's Whining -- Bleh, sorry about jamming all that background/plot into one long Laguna rambling, but alas, that's the only way to explain everything while keeping this story short and sappy.  I hope that clears up everything in some detail.  And now hopefully the death of Adel doesn't seem quite as sudden if you think of it from Squall's pov, him waiting his whole life for that single moment.  Anywho, the next chapter should be the last one, but these characters tend to decide that they want longer stories than I do.  Big meanies.