For Nothing, For Everything
Standing with his back to a tall bookcase, Seifer gazed outside from his favored window in his study. The garden which held pale roses during the spring and summer months was practically bare, the cold wind of late autumn stripping the shrubs and trees of dead flowers and leaves. Despite that lack of beauty and the colder temperatures, Leander's new tutor had decided on a walk outside for her lesson. Something about walls and doors leading to closed minds. And so there they were, directly in view of the window from where Seifer watched silently as a third joined the tutor and student.
Though a month since his return, Squall hadn't gained back the weight he had lost during his absence from the Almasy Estate. The patched coat he currently wore hid the skinny form, but Seifer had heard from Edea that the difficult servant wasn't eating much. As the man reached the pair seated on a bench beneath a bare tree, Squall bowed and said something to the woman of creamy brown skin that spoke of her foreign origins. She smiled fondly at the comment and replied with a flip of her short dark hair. Though unable to hear those words, Seifer knew they were speaking in her native tongue. Leander's concentrating gaze of confusion testified to that. It was the reason Xu was hired, to teach the young boy various languages while his mind was still young. But it seemed thus far that Leander had inherited his father's lack of ability when it came to learning new languages.
A series of sharp knocks sounded, the unique rhythm telling Seifer the identity of the man before he was invited to enter. Without greeting the person, or even turning, the blond lord motioned for the lanky man of long hair and violet eyes to have a seat.
"I'm afraid that I can't stay for long," Irvine stated as he let the door close behind him, "But I know how crazy you get if I don't speak with you before leaving."
Pulling his eyes away from the scene outside, Seifer glared at the healer. "Is it wrong to make certain that I'm actually paying you for something?"
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that and won't be offended." With an exaggerated show of exhaustion, Irvine dropped down onto the small couch that faced the window and the nobleman. "Your servants are fine. They picked up some parasites from Hyne knows where, though I have my suspicions. I purged them of the worms and told them to be careful about what they drink from now on. Currently, they are under the watchful eye of Matron."
Seifer nodded, pleased to know that the young men would be fine. The three youths had been working with Cid in the stables since childhood, and in that time, they had become like sons to the childless man and his wife, Edea. The cost of a healer was nothing compared to relieving the worry of the two faithful servants whom Seifer trusted wholly.
"What's so interesting out there?"
Though startled to find himself gazing outside once more, Seifer didn't turn away. "The new tutor, Xu, is attempting to teach an Almasy how to speak the language of a different country."
Irvine laughed. "Poor Leander. Considering his lineage, I'm surprised that he has the bright mind he does, but I suppose fluency in other languages would be a step too far for the lad. I mean, his father was the man who mistakenly told a Dovorien prince that he smelled of bad fish and had the intelligence of a rock."
"I thought I told you to never speak about that again, Kinneas."
"No, you told me to stop telling others about the day you nearly instigated a war between two allied countries. Since no one else is here, I'm free to talk as I please."
Sighing in annoyance, Seifer focused on the dark-haired servant who had been grabbed by Xu, apparently being told to stay by the forceful woman. "Did you know that Squall could speak Niacian?"
Irvine hummed with interest. "He mentioned traveling in the years before settling here, but no, I didn't realize that he knew the language."
"He knows four languages fluently, according to Xu. She's been using him to teach Leander more about the flow of conversations." His eyes focused solely on the unaware brunet, the lord commented, "I'm in trouble, Kinneas."
"You're always in trouble. I thought you've grown accustomed to it."
"Not this sort of trouble. I think... I'm afraid that I may be attracted to him."
"To whom? Xu?"
"No, you deaf imbecile. To him. To Squall."
Instead of the laughter Seifer expected, Irvine replied in a rare cold tone. "Don't play this game, Almasy."
"I wish I was fucking playing around," the blond lord replied sharply as he moved away from the window and sat down in a seat across from the couch. "I didn't want this, and Hyne, this isn't how my fucked up brain is supposed to work in the first place. Usually I have to be falling down drunk to want a man, and even then it's only for the fuck I can't seem to have with women. Lusting after a servant who probably wishes I were dead isn't something I've planned."
"Then why do you want him?"
"If I knew, it'd make things easier."
Irvine shook his head in disbelief. "You are the most confusing man in existence. First you hate the man and accuse him of terrible crimes, and now you want him in your bed? What is rattling inside that thick skull of yours?!"
"I told you already that I don't know!" Seifer replied angrily, but then contained his frustration as he pressed his fingers against his forehead. "This is your fault. If you and the rest of you traitors hadn't yelled at me for driving that ill-mannered servant away and forced me to bring him back, I wouldn't be in this mess."
"I believe I told you to get Squall back for Leander. I didn't mention anything about you needing a new boy to fuck."
Green eyes brightly lit with offense glared at the healer. "You know I want nothing of the sort."
"Then what do you want?"
His anger faltering at the sensible question, the blond lord shifted his gaze to the rug-covered floor. "I really don't know, but... He made Leander speak to me."
"Seifer, if this is misplaced gratitude..."
"You don't understand. This man has some kind of connection with Leander, something I don't comprehend, and quite frankly, it scares me. But on the day I brought him back, instead of using his influence over Leander to turn him further against me, Squall made Leander welcome me home."
"While that is nice--"
"He didn't do it to be nice," Seifer interrupted. "And he didn't do it for some reward, either. But since then, I've gotten my son back, and I know that Squall has had a hand in coaxing Leander to forgive me. I can't figure him out, and I think that's why I've been obsessing over him."
"You accused him of molesting your son," Irvine reminded forcefully.
Frowning in thought, the nobleman looked to the window, but couldn't see the garden from his seated position. "Do you think Squall lost a child of his own?"
"W, what? Why think that?"
Not hearing the slight stutter, Seifer replied, "Matron likes to tell me that Squall treats Leander like a young brother, but it doesn't feel that way to me. The way he speaks to the boy and touches him gently... It was for that reason that I believed he was doing something inappropriate, but recently, I've caught myself saying those same words and acting the similarly toward my son. It made me wonder if Leander reminds Squall of someone he lost."
After a pause, Irvine stated softly, "He did lose someone years ago."
Seifer turned in his seat, surprised to get new information from the closed-mouth healer. "Are you telling me that I'm right?"
Somber violet eyes met green before the long-haired man breathed a laugh. "As hopeless as you are, yes, you guessed something right for once." Irvine pushed up from the couch and retrieved his wrinkled cloak from a nearby chair. "While this has been interesting, I really must leave. But Seifer, I'll warn you once more to forget this infatuation of yours. Squall wants nothing to do with you, and if it weren't for Leander, he would have never returned."
"I know that. But what did I do to warrant such hatred from him?"
Irvine shrugged at the question. "That is one thing I truly can't answer, though I have my assumptions. Either way, leave the man alone. Hyne knows he has earned his peace."
Resisting the need to prod for more information, Seifer commented, "I'll be in the city tomorrow."
"For business?" At the lord's nod, Irvine smiled with a glint of amusement to his eyes. "Well then, say 'hello' to Dincht for me, and tell him to stay out of my hospital. It's exhausting to heal his bones just so he can break them again."
"What, you're not going to invite me over to your place? I have yet to pay my respects to your bride," Seifer suggested with a grin.
"If you need the alibi, then by all means, come and visit. I have the day off tomorrow. Otherwise, I'd appreciate it if you weren't around to tell embarrassing stories about me before she is officially my wife."
"I didn't realize you were so shy, Kinneas."
"Only when I'm in love, Almasy," the healer stated while turning to the doorway. He then added, "Be certain to heed my advice, Seifer. I imagine that something like this can't lead to anything good."
Watching as the door closed, Seifer forced himself to stay seated instead of moving to the window where he could further observe the young man of penetrating blue-gray eyes. He hated himself for being unable to control himself around the difficult servant, at first with wild anger and now with confusing emotions. He wished he could take Irvine's advice, as if it were that simple to forget the unusual feelings the nobleman didn't want in the first place. But the morbid side of Seifer wanted to examine his situation, to understand why he desired Squall when no other man had caught his sober attention before. For a brief moment, he wondered if Irvine was right and that it was simply a case of misplaced gratitude.
Pushing such thoughts side, Seifer stood from his chair with an irritated sigh and a long stretch. When he moved in the direction of his desk, he purposefully avoided the sight of the window despite his desires otherwise. There were plans to be made before the winter snow could bring everything to a halt, and though Seifer had no desire to work, he located his reading glasses from beneath a fallen stack of papers and proceeded to bury himself in the lengthy reports.
Dressed in loose and stained clothing, Seifer walked down the streets that were covered in dirty water, discarded trash, and other unmentionables. Though the faint stench of urine was in the air, the blond noblemen was enjoying the brief escape into the dodgier corner of the city. As a soldier, he had frequented the area in search of drink and whores, and now in his current station, the lower district was one of few places where Seifer could venture and feel safe from the spies of the Emperor.
With the sun just past its midday point, Seifer reached his destination of a dingy building where a hanging wooden sign declared 'ALE' in a grossly simple manner. Ignoring the main door, the blond turned into the adjacent alleyway and walked down the set of stairs which led to the cellar door. Knuckles against dark wood, Seifer rapped in the rhythm of an obscurely known bar tune before the door was opened for him. The revealed man of deep wrinkles and wild white hair glared at the nobleman and grumbled in a near growl at the interruption to his work. Seifer smirked at the man's constant annoyance at the world and flipped a gold coin in the bar owner's direction.
"Is Chickie here?" Seifer asked once allowed inside the basement of the bar.
Before the old man was given a chance to answer, a streak of white caught the corner of Seifer's eye. Already in mid-step, Seifer pulled his foot back to lean away from the thrown punch. Using his lost balance as an advantage, he grabbed the arm of lean muscle before it could pull away. Twisting the arm downward, Seifer palmed his free hand against the straightened elbow, but held back from breaking the arm.
With a pained yelp at the handling and a clumsy fall, a young-looking man of spiky blond hair dropped to his knees before Seifer. "Fucking shit, man! Easy on the limbs!"
Unimpressed by the yelling of the blond, Seifer examined the hand still trapped in his hold and frowned at the bandaged fingers. "Damn it, Dincht, I thought you were actually using knuckles against me. What happened to you this time?"
Zell Dincht looked over his shoulder and flashed a child-like grin of excitement at the taller man. "It's the season for new recruits. A few of them needed the lesson that street fighting isn't the same as what we do in the army."
Shaking his head, Seifer released the fighter's arm. "A normal person would be bored with such things by now."
"Tch, you're starting to sound like an old man, Almasy," Zell stated as he jumped onto his feet and proceeded to massage his abused arm. The movement revealed a new tattoo along his upper arm, but it didn't compare to the tribal design present along the left side of the man's face, an attempt by the blond to age his youthful appearance that didn't match his twenty-three years. Dressed in the blue and gray uniform of an Imperial soldier with his jacket sleeves rolled above his elbows, Zell didn't look like much, but the dented shield of a first class Captain was proudly present at his right arm.
Satisfied that his arm wasn't injured, Zell smirked at the larger blond. "But I have to say that I'm impressed - that was the first time I wasn't able to smack you around a bit. Did you finally decide to get rid of your rich man's figure?" he asked while backhanding the nobleman's stomach.
Seifer flung a side punch at the man's tattooed face, but the soldier being shorter by nearly a foot, Zell easily ducked under the attack.
"A-aw, you poor thing. Did the whores cost more when they had to deal with your extra fat?"
"Fuck you, Dincht. I'm not nearly that bad." But as green eyes glanced downward in a self-conscious action, Seifer realized that he had lost weight since renewing his training routine in the past several months. Scowling, he wondered if he had enjoyed a few too many sweet pies in the recent years.
The blond soldier simply laughed as he bounced around on his toes, coming near enough with a few wild punches to goad the nobleman into swinging another fist at the energetic soldier.
With a groaning sigh, the bar owner had reached his fill of the childish play and made way for the wooden steps leading back to his business. "No messes," was his final comment before he left the cellar and the two younger men behind.
When the door clicked in a sign of silence, Zell dropped flat onto his feet as his entire front of energy fell away into an expression of concern. "Listen, before we get into anything else, I just want you know that I had heard nothing beforehand about the Imperial Guards planning to use Ravages against you. When I overheard those regal fucks talking about how some new pups were 'accidentally' released onto your property, I nearly lost it. And then they mentioned hearing a kid scream for help... Let's just say that if you hadn't sent that message to stay put and do nothing, I would've shown those bastards what happens to baby killers," he stated with a raised fist.
Smiling softly at the man's concern for the young boy, Seifer told him, "Thanks for the sentiment, Dincht, but Ander is just fine. There was nothing done that Kinneas couldn't handle."
Blue eyes wide with surprise, Zell gaped at the lord. "No kidding? I mean, I thought they mentioned a full pack of Ravages being used. I know that back in the day you could've handled a couple of the stray ones, but five or six of them were enough to take down two sorcerers!"
Seifer held his tongue about the use of seven Ravages, the lord not wanting to dwell on the unusual situation that continued to befuddle him concerning the dark-haired servant. "We can talk more about that later. Business first. Why did you want to meet?"
"What, can't a guy miss his former Captain?" Zell asked with a satisfied grin.
"No. And judging by your look, you must have something good to share."
Glancing over his shoulder in an amusingly paranoid manner, the blond soldier undid the lower buttons of his jacket and removed a small stack of papers from their hiding place. Without a word, Zell handed the crumpled sheets to the larger man.
Not expecting much, Seifer skimmed over the first page, but noticing a few key words, he reread the page more carefully. A pale eyebrow raised in true surprise, the nobleman asked, "Where in the world did you get these?"
"Now, now, I can't divulge all of my secrets or you may try to make me retire."
Seifer chuckled as he continued to scan the papers. "Hn, then it was that girl of yours who maintains the palace library. When are you going to getting around to fucking her, anyway?"
"Like you're one to talk, Almasy. When's the last time you put your dick to good use, eh?" Not receiving a reply to the taunt, Zell huffed loudly. "Well, about the report, it looks legit to me, but I know you have better instincts about this sort of thing."
Nodding, Seifer silently agreed that he would have to carefully read the material in hand before he could believe a word of it. Raising his eyes, he looked at the youthful man. "Even with this, you know I that should ask you to stop playing spy. The Emperor doesn't like his secrets being given away to his enemies."
"Tch. What about you, huh? You could overthrow the bastard and take his spot without breaking a sweat. More than half of his higher ranked officers fucking belong to you and everyone knows it, and that's not to mention the outer cities you've saved from Deling. You have the support and the money to overthrow four Emperors."
"As always, you're exaggerating about things you don't understand. Even if I chose to dethrone the pompous prick, I'd make a terrible Emperor. It's simply not my place."
Grunting, Zell pointed at himself with his thumb. "And as long as you believe that, then my place is between you and Emperor Ding-a-Ling."
"Idiot." Folding the sheets in hand, Seifer placed the material into a hidden pocket of his worn jacket. "Well, if that's everything, then I should head off before I'm here for too long."
"No fucking way you're leaving yet, bastard. You haven't told me how you killed all of those Ravages." Fists waving in an imaginary battle, Zell asked, "Man, I wish I could've been there to watch your back. It would've been like old times."
Scoffing at the romantic notions of the younger blond, Seifer corrected him. "I wasn't there, actually. One of my servants saved Leander from the monsters."
Zell spun around to face the man. "One of your servants fought off five Ravages?"
"No, seven. Killed every one of them, too."
Light blue eyes wide, the soldier seemed at a loss for words before asking, "How in Hyne's name did you pick up a fighter like that?"
"I didn't," Seifer stated cynically. "The ass stumbled onto my property over three years ago and Ward allowed him to work as a kitchen hand."
Chuckling lightly, Zell commented, "Sounds like you don't care for the guy."
"It's not that I hate him," the nobleman argued as he roughly scratched his fingers through his short hair. "Lately, though, this servant has made everything difficult for me. And Hyne damn him, things would be better if Squall hadn't fucking entered my life and flipped the world upside down." Lost in his anger and distracting thoughts, Seifer almost didn't hear the strangled noise that came from the soldier. "What was that, Chickie? You've got to speak up."
"Y... you said, 'Squall', right? The guy's name?"
"Yeah. What of it? You know him?"
"No, it can't be... but to kill Ravages..." Shaking his head, Zell asked, "Just in case, what does he look like?"
"Well, he's a bit taller than you, though that doesn't take much. Dark, somewhat long hair. He's a skinny thing with pale skin. Oh, and somewhat unusual eyes - light blue with a hard edge of gray. When he glares at you--"
"--You feel like your soul freezes?"
Startled, Seifer looked at the smaller blond for the interruption. "So you do know him."
Zell stepped back, his hands rubbing along bare arms as if to drive off the cold. "Shit, Almasy, how could you not know him? If his name is really Squall... If he's really Squall Leonhart..."
"'Leonhart'? Why does that sound familiar?"
Laughing with a hysterical edge, Zell said, "That's right. You never faced him during the Massacre, did you? Our group was split up when that one room was set on fire... You weren't with us when we encountered him, the Sorcerer Prince himself - Squall Leonhart."
"Wait right there, Dincht. You can't convince me that the scrawny servant I have back at home is the man who was killed along with the rest of his 'royal' family."
Apparently not hearing the lord, Zell stared forward with vacant eyes. "We came across this room filled with kids - eleven or twelve-year-olds down to newborns. The guys I was stuck with wanted to kill them, and it was our order to kill every moving thing in the castle, but they were fucking kids! I tried to stop the others, but they pushed me aside. I was sitting on my ass while I watched one of them raise a sword against this wide-eyed girl. But no one noticed the frost on his leg until it was too late. The sword never fell and the bastard froze solid on the spot with a terrified look that put the girl's fear to shame."
Seifer stood silently as he listened to the man talk. He had never heard the tale amongst the other war stories they had shared over the years. Zell had always been quiet about the day their unit was split into two groups, when only the young blond out of fifteen returned without a serious injury. The disturbed look to the once innocent eyes prevented Seifer from questioning the younger man about what had happened, and he had never asked since.
"It had happened so fast. This... blur of black moved across the room, leaving dead or dying bodies in its wake. Some were frozen, others cut cleanly in half, but most had seemingly... exploded from the inside. It was like their brains and guts had tried to escape their bodies."
The nobleman straightened at the description, remembering the odd state of the killed Ravages.
"In no time, I was the last soldier left moving. I nearly pissed my pants when a short man dressed in black stepped in front of me, but he didn't do anything. He stared at me with those fucking eyes of death before he revealed his face. I couldn't believe it when I saw he was a kid, no older than me. One of the younger kids called out his name, and that's when I knew I was facing Squall Leonhart." With a tight laugh, Zell said, "At that moment, I did piss myself."
Though the other man paused in expectation of laughter, Seifer didn't mock the humiliating occurrence. Hardly fourteen back then, Zell was the babe of their group, a boy who was forced into the army by his overzealous uncle. He couldn't blame the one time youth for fearing a sorcerer who could brutally kill several men without a fight.
Realizing that his former Captain wasn't going to say anything, Zell smiled weakly in gratitude before continuing, "A bunch of the kids laughed at me, but Leonhart didn't. Instead, he actually glared at them for it and said something like, 'This one wanted you to live, and you ridicule him?'. When no one talked back, he dismissed them, telling the older children to led everyone through some passageway. As they left, Leonhart turned to me and bowed his head in a type of thanks, I guess. He then had a long staff in his hands - y'know, those weird ones sorcerers always carry around - and before I can blink, he's gone."
Recalling Leander's words about the servant using a 'stick' to fight the demonic wolves, Seifer fell into his thoughts as he reexamined the recent events that were connected to the mysterious servant. The Ravages on his property had been killed brutally, suffering from far more damage than a simple man with a large stick could have caused. Ward, a friend of the deceased 'Sorcerer King', was overly protective of the ill-mannered servant and always seemed to know more about Squall than he would tell. And with a vague smile of disbelief, Seifer remembered the odd tricks of the servant, how several plates had been saved from destruction by the unique skill of the brunet.
But the lord's slight smile disappeared as he realized that another person had played a role in protecting Squall's identity. As sickening anger flooded through the nobleman, Seifer turned on his heels and called back, "I have to go, Dincht. I'll be contacting you."
"Wait a moment! Is the guy really--"
Seifer didn't listen to the soldier's question, and in fact hardly heard the man as he stepped hurriedly outside and jogged up onto the main level of the street. Refusing to run like a common man in distress, the green-eyed lord walked with a purposeful stride as he silently warned himself that he couldn't strangle the life out of a friend he trusted. However, light torture seemed forgivable enough, and with a sneer, Seifer began to consider the possible items he could use that wouldn't leave a noticeable mark.
At the thirteenth pound against resilient wood, the double doors opened inward to reveal an older man of slicked back hair and a pinched face that complemented his expression of annoyance and disgust. With a forced note of helpfulness to his voice, the servant declared, "All appointments with Lord Kinneas should be handled at the hospital, sir."
Seifer sneered at the man. "Don't give me that, Percy. Tell me where Kinneas is hiding or I'll find him myself."
Dark eyes widened vaguely before the servant stepped to the side and bowed. "Forgive me, Lord Almasy. I did not recognize you in that... attire."
"Stop groveling and tell me where your master is."
"He is having supper with his lady, my lord. If you would like, another plate--"
Not waiting for the offer of diner, Seifer headed in the direction of the dining room and warned himself to not punch the traitorous healer in front of the man's fiancée. That spark of restraint, however, vanished when the blond lord stepped through the open doorway and his eyes settled on the smiling face of his friend. In a wild moment, Seifer believed Irvine's laughter was the healer mocking him for his months of ignorance.
The golden-haired woman seated at Irvine's side was laughing lightly, but as her azure eyes shifted to the entrance of the broad-shouldered man, her amusement swiftly transformed into stiff apprehension.
Irvine followed her gaze and straightened at the sight of the nobleman. "My, Seifer, dressed for a masquerade at this time of the day? How unusual."
"Don't start with me, Kinneas. We need to talk. Now."
"Very well." Standing, Irvine bent down to brush his lips against the pale brow of his fiancée. "Forgive me, Quistis, but you know the stories of my friend's anger."
The woman nodded, a faint blush appearing at her cheeks from the public display. Turning her eyes to the larger man, Quistis glared with a regal haughtiness. "Lord Almasy. I expect you to display the behavior befitting a lord during your stay here."
Caught between disbelief and outrage, Seifer let his anger recede into the background as he chuckled at the audacity of the onetime slave. Bowing, he took an elegant hand in his and pressed his lips against slender fingers. "I swear to you that no murder will happen tonight, my lady. Merely a discussion between two old friends."
Quistis nodded, though uncertainty was still present in the hard eyes. "Then take him, but do not be long. He has promised to listen to my music tonight."
Amused by the beauty's controlling nature, the blond lord smiled warmly at the woman. "Thank you, my lady. I shouldn't take much of his time."
As the two men left the narrow dining room, Seifer held his tongue until he was certain that they would not be heard by the young woman. "She's grown bolder since the last time I met her."
With a proud smile, Irvine replied, "Quistis has a strong soul. It was the only thing which kept her from breaking under the ownership of Sloan, that sadistic healer I once told you about. But she hadn't regained her confidence until recently. Despite my aunt's arguments, I believe that Quistis will make a perfect Lady for this household."
Seifer scoffed. "She already has the attitude of a noblewoman, that's for certain."
Irvine only chuckled in reply, and then held opened the door which led to his private room. Seifer stepped into the small den, accustomed to the sight of a lit fireplace, a collection of large comfortable furniture, and a few bookshelves that contained selected books amongst random pieces of art. Moving to a nearby wall, Seifer stood in place while staring at a new painting of the lord, his eyes not seeing the thick swirling lines of black as he waited tense and prepared. At the sound of a final click of the door being locked, Seifer moved with a turn and a lunging step, then shoving the lanky man hard against the door.
His muscular arm pressed against the healer's throat, Seifer glared directly into shocked and panicked eyes. "How fucking dare you allow a sorcerer to live under my roof and not tell me a damned word."
Understanding flickered in the violet depths, but Irvine quickly covered himself with look of ignorance. "Seifer, I told you from the beginning that Leander had the blood of a sorcerer. Is your memory truly that bad?"
Growling, Seifer jerked his arm in a quick and hard thrust against the man's throat, causing the healer to choke. "I won't be messed with, Kinneas. You knew about Leander with hardly a touch, so you must have discovered Squall's secret when you saved his life. What I want to know is why you lied to me?"
"I didn't lie."
Tempted to seriously hurt the man, Seifer instead backed up a step and grabbed the healer by the throat. Emerald eyes glared at unresisting friend, and once seeing the lack of fear in the violet eyes, Seifer snorted with disgust as he threw Irvine against the door for a final time. Purposely turning his back on the coughing man, the blond walked to the fireplace and stared into the burning embers.
"I didn't lie," Irvine repeated in a hoarse voice, "And the secrets I held from you weren't mine to tell."
Seifer fingered a poker of solid metal which hung next to the hearth. "Don't hide behind that excuse, Kinneas. That 'secret' endangered both Leander and myself. The fucking 'Sorcerer Prince' on my property... The Emperor would have killed us all to assassinate one man. Did you ever consider that?"
"Yes, but Squall has been a member of your staff for years. Obviously, he is quite skilled at hiding his heritage. What would it matter now to learn that he's a sorcerer?"
The green-eyed lord didn't answer the question, Seifer uncertain about what angered him more - that his friend had betrayed him or that he had been unknowingly sheltering a sorcerer.
A groaning sigh sounded as Irvine took a seat in one of the chairs. "When I was summoned to your Estate that day months ago, the last thing I expected was to find a dying sorcerer. Stepping into that room, I was practically smothered by the power that radiated from Squall. His innate magic was trying and failing to keep him alive, and even in that state, he refused to be touched by me. He didn't realize that I could already sense what he was, and instead of being discovered, he opted for death. To save his life, I had to swear to protect his secret. He wouldn't let me help him otherwise."
Eyes closed, Seifer recalled that day, envisioning the limp body lying on the stained mattress while blood flowed from too many wounds. The bright red blood had contrasted sharply against ashen skin, and though his very life was pouring away, the brunet had spoken clearly and sharply that no healer was to be summoned. Green eyes snapped open with a flash of remembered anger at the stubborn man. But with more thought, Seifer realized the man hadn't feared death that point. There were far worse things for a rogue sorcerer to fear more than death.
Still, the anger burned. "Did you really believe I would hand him over to the Emperor?"
"Of course not. But unlike myself, Squall doesn't believe he can entrust you with his life and wellbeing."
"But why doesn't he--" Seifer didn't finish his question as he turned around and looked at Irvine with a startled gaze. "The Massacre... Is that why he hates me so much? Because I was a soldier back then? But you must have told him how I... how all of us were sickened by the whole thing."
"I told him that, but Squall just scoffed and asked, 'then for what reason did my family die?'. How the Hell do you answer a question like that?"
Seifer glanced away and ran an unsteady hand through golden hair. "He would ask something that has no answer, wouldn't he?"
"The part that disturbs me the most is that there should be an answer. His family, his capitol, and his people were all destroyed and devoured by flames." With a frustrated sigh, Irvine moved in his seat and said, "Squall has nothing left but his life and his secrets, and without a choice on his part, he entrusted both in my care. I couldn't betray that kind of confidence, not even to you."
Continuing to avoid violet eyes, Seifer glared at a nonexistent spot while conflicting thoughts fought in his mind. He wanted to hate and blame Irvine for choosing a stranger over their friendship, but instead, the blond lord found himself remembering his first run-in with Squall. The servant's eyes were defiant and cold, but beneath it all, Seifer had seen the gleam of fear in the stormy depths. Thinking back, the nobleman realized that every one of Squall's actions since then had held the same hint of terror, a fear Seifer had once thought was unfounded.
"If I may ask," Irvine questioned quietly, "how did you discover his identity?"
"If you can believe it, Dincht was the one to make the connection."
With a surprised hum, the healer commented, "I forgot about Zell coming face-to-face with the Sorcerer Prince. He was in shock for days after that experience."
"Well, he was only a chick at the time." Frowning in sudden thought, Seifer straightened. "Fuck me, Squall couldn't have been over fourteen himself back then and he was fighting and killing like an aged soldier? Maybe the Emperor was right about sorcerers being a threat."
"Don't even think it, Almasy. We all fight differently when our home is in danger. And just because Squall is a powerful sorcerer, don't mistaken him for a deadly threat. Sweet Hyne, he's been a servant for the past several years without your knowledge, and the only trouble he's been involved in hasn't been his fault."
"Hn, I suppose that's true. ...So, this is the reason, isn't it?" At the healer's questioning look, Seifer elaborated, "That damned connection between Ander and Squall, it exists because they both have the blood of sorcerers."
"In part, but Squall has told me that Leander is reacting more on instinct than anything else. Without training, I suppose that isn't much of a surprise."
"Damn it to Hell, if I had known earlier about this, then I would have never..." Seifer cut off his own ranting as he suddenly realized what it meant to have a trained sorcerer under his command. Green eyes bright and hopeful, the blond lord asked, "Say Irvine, do you think that Squall would be willing to teach Ander? I've always wanted the boy to improve his powers, but since the Massacre, no one would dare to offer himself as a tutor in sorcery. And if this 'Sorcerer Prince' is really the warrior I've heard rumors about, then he could also train Ander to defend himself."
After staring at the blond for an unbelieving moment, Irvine laughed. "You are impossible! You walk into my home, prepared to strangle me for holding secrets from you, and now you want to take advantage of those secrets?"
With a shrug and a grin, Seifer replied, "I was angry and I got over it. You should know that I can't stay upset with you for too long. Otherwise, I would've killed you at least ten times over the years we've known each other."
The healer shook his head. "What a benevolent friend you are."
"You still haven't answered my question - would Squall be willing to train Ander?"
Hesitating in thought, Irvine eventually replied with a lazy smile, "It depends on how nicely you ask."
Returning to his Estate shortly after nightfall, Seifer walked through the hallways with his lips curled in a faint smile and his favored sword, Hyperion, clinking at his waist. His entrance into the main kitchen caused the hustle of cleaning servants to slow, but the dissipating noise was replaced by soft, questioning whispers. The nobleman paid little mind to the handful of women, knowing that his unchanged clothing and the weapon at his side made him quite the sight. Instead, he glanced around the room, disappointed to not find the familiar mop of dark hair.
The scolding voice made the blond turn and face the unhappy expression of the head cook. "Matron. Just the person I need."
"Never mind that, young man. Where were you this evening? Leander waited a full hour before having dinner without you. You were supposed to be home hours ago, and look at you, you haven't even cleaned up yet."
"I know, I know, but some unexpected business arose while I was in town. I promise to make amends with Ander in the morning. But first," Seifer began while leaning in closer to the tall woman, "where is Squall?"
"Why do you want to know?" Edea asked, her wary golden-eyed gaze shifting down to the nobleman's sword. "Do you mean to drive him away a final time?"
"No," Seifer replied with a charming smile. "I simply have some questions to ask him."
Though hesitant, Edea sighed. "He finished his chores a short while ago, so I doubt he went to bed just yet. He's probably somewhere near the meadows."
Pleased at getting an answer with little trouble, Seifer placed a kiss at the older woman's cheek and said his thanks before rushing past the startled matron. Though the night air was cool, it was an unusually pleasant autumn evening with no wind to chill the bones. But the nobleman hardly noticed the world around him, his green eyes instead focused on the moonlit trail that led to the pastures behind the manor.
Once reaching the open land of long grass, Seifer slowed to a stop and looked for his hiding servant. Not seeing anyone along the fence, however, the lord wondered if it had been a bit too easy to gain an answer from the motherly cook. Then a loud neigh followed by a calming whisper made Seifer look out into the meadow and quickly set his eyes on an immense black horse that was standing a short distance beyond the fence. Before the animal, however, was the more interesting sight as Seifer stared at the dark-haired man who was stroking his pale hands against ebony fur. Standing next to the warhorse, Squall appeared smaller and more fragile than usual, and for a moment, Seifer doubted the word of his friend that the brunet was the so-called 'Sorcerer Prince'. But recalling the sight of the bloody man left alive amongst the mutilated bodies of several Ravages, the blond lord reminded himself that he couldn't underestimate the servant.
Squall turned, his gray eyes flashing like cold metal in the pale light of the moon. He said nothing, perhaps hoping that he wasn't the object of the nobleman's search, but there was still a stiffness of fear in the man's stance. The fear of a man who didn't want to be discovered.
But then, in a strangely playful manner, the warhorse nickered softly and bumped its massive head against Squall's chest, an obvious demand for more petting.
Seifer smiled at the sight and commented, "Fritz typically doesn't care for strangers like that."
With an uncertain frown, Squall looked into the dark eyes of the horse. "I haven't been a stranger here for a long time, my lord."
"Hn, I suppose not. You've been here for, what, almost four years now? But still, that beast doesn't like most people. I'm impressed that you could charm him."
Sighing, the brunet stepped back from the warhorse and waved him off, the trained animal snorting as he turned and trotted in the direction of the stables. After watching the horse leave, Squall stepped to the fence and hesitated before slipping through. With his head bowed in a submissive fashion, he asked, "Is there something you want, my lord?"
Seifer didn't answer directly, his eyes instead studying the lean form of the servant. There was no visible strength to the man, nothing to consider a threat, and yet, Seifer knew that there was plenty to fear within the thin body. He stepped closer to the smaller man, but then stopped when the brunet became more tense with his presence.
Hating the discord between them, Seifer asked, "How do I apologize for something that was out of my control?"
"... Excuse me, my lord?"
"The Massacre. It should have never happened." As puzzled blue-gray eyes gazed at him, Seifer growled with frustration and ran a hand through his hair as if the action could better organize his rampant thoughts. "I admit that I was a part of the Imperial Army back then, but I was only sixteen and wholly believed the lies of the Emperor concerning the threat of sorcerers. By the time I realized the truth, we were too deep into their capitol and it became a matter of 'kill or be killed'. I truly didn't hate sorcerers back then, and I never wished for their extinction."
Metallic eyes narrowed as Squall asked carefully, "Why are you spouting this nonsense?"
"Because... it's something I want the 'Sorcerer Prince' to know."
There was a flash of surprise before an icy mask overcame the man's expression. "Your guilt means nothing to me."
Though offended at the harsh words, Seifer contained his anger with the knowledge that he deserved the sorcerer's ire. "Yes, well, I suppose there is no undoing the past."
"Easy words for someone like you," Squall muttered as he stepped forward in an attempt to leave, but an unsheathed blade blocked his path and made him look questioningly at the lord.
"You aren't escaping tonight, Leonhart," Seifer stated with a smirk.
"Then, I suppose the Emperor has already been informed."
"Of course not."
Confusion returned to the gray eyes as Squall glanced down at the sword, and then back to the excited gaze of the nobleman.
"I never faced you during the Massacre," Seifer started as his explanation. "And truthfully, I still find it hard to believe that you are the feared 'Sorcerer Prince'. You seem too scrawny to bear the weight of that title."
"What are you suggesting?"
Hearing the tinge of anger to the controlled voice, the lord smiled and rested his weapon on his shoulder. "A friendly spar. Give me that, prove to me that you are worth the trouble, and I'll assure your safety here."
With a disapproving frown, Squall asked, "Have you been drinking?"
Seifer laughed. "I'm not drunk, and I'll have you know that I haven't been drunk in well over four years. But if it assures you at all, I do have my reasons to fight you. Reasons that could benefit you in the end."
The dark-haired man said nothing for a time, his eyes of cold metal unfocused as he considered his options. The lull quickly wore on the nobleman's patience as he sighed loudly and ran a hand through his pale hair to noisily scratch his scalp. Still, no sound came from Squall. Near ready to demand an answer from the brunet, Seifer almost didn't notice the faint tingling of his leg. Cursing at his inattention, the blond stomped his foot hard against the ground and shook the crystals of frost from his leg before glaring at the servant. Squall smiled softly at the look of irritation.
Breathing out a laugh at the smug expression, Seifer moved his blade in front of his body. "I suppose that was your acceptance to the match?"
The man's faint smile vanished into a neutral line as the sorcerer held out his hands and a dark staff materialized from the night air. Resting the weapon at his shoulder, Squall stroked the carved lettering with a type of reverence before looking up at the blond. Gray eyes flashed pale blue, the sight entrancing Seifer in the moment before a howl of wind made him jump and lunge to the side. Looking back at the sound of scattered dirt, Seifer stared at the gash that had been created deep into the meadow ground.
The dry words of the servant made Seifer look up, and after a startled moment, he laughed at the apparent compliment. Changing his grip on his sword, the nobleman launched at the smaller man. The direct attack became a poor decision as an unseen shield slowed the lord's strike, giving Squall enough time to twist away and move his staff in a counterattack. Seifer allowed the strike to occur, and despite the loss of breath, he managed to trap the staff against his body. That more than anything caused a reaction in the sorcerer, his gray eyes going wide with a flash of blue fire before he stepped forward with a raised knee. Releasing the staff, Seifer blocked the groin attack, but a sudden gust of wind shoved him him back several paces.
The sorcerer breathing hard, Squall lifted his staff before him, and with a hand at the very end, he abruptly swung the long weapon in a downward arc. Expecting the staff to land against the ground, Seifer was surprised at the new sight of a wide sword held in a steady hand. Dark lettering was present along the pale metal of the blade, but Seifer wasn't given a chance to examine the new weapon any further before he was forced to defend himself from fast and numerous attacks by the sorcerer. Squall drew first blood with several minor hits along the lord's body, Seifer being surprised by the smaller man's speed. However, the blond was more accustomed to sparring given his recent sessions with his large steward, and eventually, Seifer found an easy rhythm to block the rapid attacks.
In short time, the strikes of the servant became noticeably weaker, something that disappointed the lord, but given Squall's recent eating habits, Seifer knew the man couldn't have much energy left within his body. Deciding to test his theory, the blond used harder blocks and made the smaller man reach further for every strike, hoping to wear down the brunet. Soon, Squall stumbled with a long step, the surprise obvious on his face in the moment he realized his mistake. Seifer wasted no time in taking advantage of the opening, but as he moved in with his blade, the sorcerer suddenly twisted during his fall and ran the fingers of his free hand along the lord's side. Heat burned at that spot, but nothing more, and Seifer was allowed to finish his downward strike as Hyperion cut through skin and continued further into the soft ground of the meadow.
For a long moment, there was only silence as Seifer stood over the fallen sorcerer. Squall laid on his back in a limp position, as if a blade wasn't cutting deep into the top of his shoulder and preventing him from standing. His sword was gone, vanished into the night, but Seifer knew the sorcerer was far from defenseless.
Green eyes focused on the attractive face set in a weary expression, Seifer stroked a hand along his side and winced at the remaining tenderness. "You could've killed me just now."
Squall didn't react to the comment except for a slight narrowing of his eyes.
"All this time, you haven't concealed your hatred for my existence, and yet, you didn't take the chance to be rid of me. Why not?"
Pale lips parted as if to answer, but then closed tightly as Squall turned his face away from the lord. "This hurts, you realize."
Startled into action, Seifer knelt down and helped the servant to remove himself from the blade. At the flow of blood, the nobleman pulled off his shirt and cut it into strips with a knife before binding the fairly deep wound. Squall didn't resist the aid as he sat silently while the blond tended to him.
"How badly does this hurt? Should I contact Kinneas?"
The sorcerer scoffed with disgust.
"Enough of that. You can't think the worse of him for this situation. You should know that he didn't tell me anything about you until I figured out things for myself. And even then, I had to threaten his life before he confirmed my theories."
Squall shifted his eyes to the lord, uncertainty clear in the frozen orbs.
"Believe me or not, but for people like us who need a confidant, Kinneas is a trustworthy man. An ass, but a loyal one."
"Either way, this cut is deep one. If you don't want Kinneas, Matron has a steady hand with sewing. And though she'll have my head in the morning, you should have her treat this once you return to the manor."
Looking toward the meadow, Squall nodded vaguely in a sign that he would do just that.
Seifer finished his bandaging with a small knot and sat back on his heels. "I didn't intend for you to get injured, but you startled me with that touch of yours. I'm truly amazed that you didn't take the opportunity to kill me."
"It doesn't matter."
The nobleman wanted to argue that it mattered greatly, but decided to save it for another time. "As you know, there was a reason to all of this, and since you've proven your worth... Do you know that Leander also has the blood of a sorcerer?"
Squall stiffened at the question.
"Isn't that why you protect him? Because he is one of the last of your kind?" Taking the man's silence as a confirmation to his beliefs, Seifer explained, "For a long time, I've been listening for any rumors about rogue sorcerers. Ander... Well, his mother left him in my care, but I know nothing about sorcerers. Someone needs to teach him about his heritage, and preferably, I want someone who can show him how to defend himself. You can be that someone."
The sorcerer shook his head as a harsh laugh left his lips. "Don't lie."
"What reason would I have to lie about this? You have no idea how much I fear for Ander's life and--"
"I don't mean that." Turning to the blond, Squall said, "His 'mother' didn't abandon him. His other father did."
At first stunned into silence, Seifer smiled weakly. "I suppose there's no use hiding that fact from a sorcerer. But that doesn't change my request."
Eyes of cold metal studied the nobleman. "You're serious."
"Of course I'm serious. You've already gotten a taste of what trouble the Emperor can cause, and he has yet to learn about Ander's background. As you once told me, I can't protect him from everything, but I can make certain that he is ready for the worse. And for that, I need you to teach him the ways of sorcerers."
Squall sat in thought for a long moment before pushing up with his good arm and standing above the blond lord. "I can't promise much. I was able to write my first spells before I was six; meanwhile, Leander can barely call upon a cold wind. It may be too late for him to learn properly."
"What...?" Seifer whispered in a fearful moment, and then demanded while standing, "If that's true, then why haven't you tried to teach him already? Why have you left him defenseless?"
"I was trying to teach him without being noticed, but my... involvement in Leander's life was taken as something else entirely."
"Fucking Hyne, why does everything go back to that?! I didn't realize--"
"I know," Squall interrupted softly, his somber calm dowsing the lord's heated anger. "You only wanted to protect your child."
Staring at the youthful sorcerer, Seifer watched as a slight wind caused dark locks to sway against pale skin. Not for the first time, the lord wanted to reach out and brush aside the hair that always seemed to hide the man's eyes. And then suddenly, he was doing just that, his touch along cool skin making Squall jerk back and glare at the nobleman. Instantly, Seifer was entranced by the faint blue glow that highlighted the gray eyes and he didn't think to pull back his hand until it was roughly knocked aside.
Realizing what he had done, the lord stuttered, "Ah, sorry, I thought... I thought there was something... in your hair."
Though scowling for a moment longer, Squall huffed and turned his back to the lord. "I'll do it."
Seifer looked at the servant as if trying to understand his words. "You'll do it?"
The sorcerer sighed. "Despite his father, yes, I'll train Leander. But in secret and without your interference."
With a broad smile at getting his way, the blond lord replied, "I won't swear to that last condition, but if there's anything else you want in payment for your services, it's yours."
Squall gazed over his shoulder, and with an odd look to the softly glowing eyes, he said, "Everything I want, I can't have."
The statement left Seifer with no reply, and with his voice gone, he simply watched as the injured man headed to the manor. Once the sorcerer stepped out of sight, Seifer moved his gaze higher to view the rooftop of his mansion that rose just above the trees. For a moment, he tried to imagine the only home he ever knew set ablaze and the people within being slaughtered simply because they were associated to the Almasy name. It sickened him only in thought, and yet, Seifer was present when merciless flames had fed on the family, home, and life of the 'Sorcerer Prince'. He was there and he had done nothing.
A gust of cold wind woke Seifer from his thoughts, reminding him of his shirtless state. Rubbing a hand along a bare arm, the blond lord moved to retrieve the sword that was still upright in the ground, but then stopped in place when his eyes noticed the shimmer of blood on the blade. Kneeling, he ran his finger through the cooled blood and stared at his stained skin.
His lips forming a soft smirk, Seifer said distractedly, "If you bleed, then you're still alive, sorcerer. And I think it's time you learned to appreciate that."
Author's Whining -- And this story inches forward. There's still plenty to be done with the story, so I'm still uncertain about how long this thing should be. Yes, Seifer is an oblivious idiot still, so don't hold any high hopes for him just yet. Squall, of course, isn't going to be any help to the poor blond. =P
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