For Nothing, For Everything


Green eyes were drowsy and unfocused against the early morning light, their owner fighting a defiant battle against the desire for restful sleep.  Settled beneath a tree of vivid red leaves, Seifer sat with his long legs stretched out and his arms folded behind his head as he distractedly watched his dark-haired lover tutor their young son.  A part of him recognized that the scene before him was something of a miracle, that Leander was able to practice his magic in open view without fear of retaliation, but Seifer had little awareness for anything beyond his drifting eyelids and the heat that simmered within his chest.

Less than two days had passed since joining souls with the sorcerer.  Two days and a lifetime ago, or so it seemed to Seifer, and his human mind was having a difficult time coming to terms with the magical event that had happened within the span of mere minutes.  He remembered only a few details of the joining ceremony, more specifically the gnarled staff pierced deep within his body, the flicker of flames between his hands, and the sight of iron-gray eyes as the sorcerer demanded for the lord to 'choose'.

It was a simple matter to remember the physical happenings of that evening, but the contact between their souls was a far harder concept to grasp.  As best Seifer could recall, Squall's core and soul had been cold, but not like the iciness of snow or winter winds that were generally associated to the Sorcerer Prince.  Instead, it was a coldness related more closely to a sword - lifeless metal used for no greater purpose than to injure and steal away another's life.  And yet, from that bitterly cold soul, fire had materialized from nowhere and grudgingly transferred to Seifer's chest.  The intense flame had been forever gifted to the blond lord, and in the same sense, forever removed from the sorcerer who had so little left to warm his battered spirit.

Seifer wasn't certain if he should feel honored for the gift or ashamed for his theft.

Lost in morose thoughts, Seifer jerked with surprise and his green eyes snapped wide open when the symbol of Sugenti Denynas abruptly flared to life at his chest and burned the air within his lungs.  The next moment Seifer heard a hoarse whisper that sounded with a forcefulness that resembled a scream, but the words were nonsensical, spoken in an unknown language.  Despite his confusion and the severe ache of his chest, Seifer felt the dire urgency of the broken voice and immediately trusted the sudden thought that he had to move.  Move very quickly.

Everything happening within the matter of seconds, Seifer lurched to the side and rolled away despite the arguments of his resting body and the painful press of Hyperion against his side, his action immediately followed by the sharp shatter of breaking wood.  Coming to a stop with his face down and arms above his head, Seifer waited patiently for the rain of bark and wood to end.

"Seifer!" Squall cried out as he ran close, and when Seifer peeked out from his defensive position, he watched as the panicked and unbalanced man nearly tripped amongst the broken bits of tree.

"Shit, be careful there," Seifer warned as he gingerly pushed up into a seated position, pleased to note that nothing felt dislodged or wet with blood.  "What the fuck hap--"  His mouth closed with a snap and green eyes went very wide when Seifer stared at the tree that had been his support only moments earlier.  A little over a foot remained of the trunk that Seifer had been resting against, and with a good two or three feet of the tree's trunk turned into splinters, the remainder of the tree laid on the ground several meters away.  Staring at the sight of destruction, Seifer identified the scattering of red leaves with the uncanny appearance of splattered blood.

Squall stepped close to the seated lord and placed a chilled hand on his shoulder.  "Are you injured?  Should I get Dzieden?"

Hearing the shaky edge of the typically firm voice, Seifer placed his hand over Squall's and squeezed.  "I may have a few splinters in my ass, but I'm otherwise in one piece.  What about you and Ander?" he asked while looking around Squall's leg to find Leander unmoved from his earlier position, the boy appearing in a state of shock.

"It's my fault," Squall said in a hushed voice.  "I thought he was ready to try magic without his staff, but..."

Surprised to learn that Leander had been the cause of the attack, Seifer glanced back at the tree in quiet awe before he pushed up to his feet and hurried to where his son stood.  His quick approach caused Leander to flinch back in part shame and part fear, something Seifer blissfully ignored as he scooped up the young boy into his arms and started to laugh from overwhelming pride.  Leander showed clear confusion at his father's reaction, the boy's soft green eyes vibrant with unshed tears and his cheeks flushed red.

"Oh Hyne," Seifer breathed as he gradually controlled his laughter.  "Look at what you did, Ander!  You could've taken out a whole squad of royal soldiers and they would've never known what hit them!"

Leander blinked slowly, his mouth gradually twisting into an anguished frown before the tears finally flowed.  "I didn't mean to, Daddy!  Squall told me to think about the boulder and only the boulder I was aiming at, but your eyes were closed and I wanted you to watch me, so I was thinking of you when I released the spell.  I didn't want it to go after you, b-but the wind... the wind was t-too fast for me to stop it!  And, and you c-could've... you could've..."

By the end of the explanation, Leander's words were hard to understand through hiccup-like sobs, an unsurprising reaction from a child of seven years.  Seifer held his boy tighter and spoke in a low, soothing tone.  "Yes, I could have been injured, but I wasn't.  You made an understandable mistake and now you're going to learn from it, right?"

"Uh-huh," Leander agreed as he rubbed his eyes and settled his head against a broad shoulder.  "I'm sorry, Daddy."

"Nothing to be sorry about, kid.  Just don't aim for me the next time," Seifer replied with a pleased smirk, his thoughts already drifting to ideas of how Leander would be able to practice such destructive power once they had returned to the Almasy Estate.  No matter the lord's wishes otherwise, Leander practicing his magic under the sun was a luxury limited to the safety of the Shumi village, but Seifer had no intention of letting that minor obstacle prevent his son from developing his skills.

A soft crack of wood made Seifer turn and notice the slow approach of the dark-haired sorcerer, his typically storm-colored eyes darkened to hard gray.  Concern for his lover replacing his excited state, Seifer asked, "Hey, is everything all right?  Are you feeling sick again?"

With a quiet scoff, Squall replied acridly, "Of course, because the only thing that could be possibly upsetting me at this moment is the urge to puke.  Idiot."

Seifer felt himself smile broadly at the man's words.  "Is that to say you were worried about me?"

"Worried," Squall repeated in a laughing breath, his expression anything but amused.  His hand settling against his swollen midsection, the sorcerer said, "I've being dreaming a lot lately, something that also haunted me during my first pregnancy.  But instead of reliving the Massacre as I did back then, my dreams have been filled with your death."  At the lord's startled look, Squall continued, "Oh yes, almost every night, I watch you fall from either Ultimecia's magic or from the blade of an Imperial Soldier, and on special occasions, you die by my own hands.  But even after seeing all of that, I have never, never imagined Leander accidentally--"

"Don't say it," Seifer interrupted sharply, hating the way the previously calmed boy was shaking in his arms.  Placing a large hand on top of Leander's head, he shushed quietly and assured his son that everything was fine.  Meanwhile, sharp green eyes glared at the sorcerer for the thoughtless words that shouldn't have been shared with their child nearby.

Squall sighed softly while rubbing the bridge of his nose.  "Sorry, I don't know what came over me."

"Hn, we'll talk about that and your dreams at a later time," Seifer said, his voice edged with anger at the important secret being withheld from him.  "In any case, it doesn't matter what could have happened just now.  You gave me enough warning to protect myself and nothing more has to be said."

"... Warn you?"

"Yeah, whatever you did to make this thing come to life," Seifer explained as he vaguely pointed at the symbol of Sugenti Denynas hidden beneath his shirt.  "But just so you know, while I'm extremely grateful to be alive, I'd appreciate you doing something a little less painful the next time I need to duck."

Silent as he considered the man's words, Squall stepped in close and placed only his fingertips against Seifer's chest, instantly igniting a variety of sensations that shouldn't have been caused by such a casual touch.  "Tell me what happened in exact details."

Seifer fidgeted against the searing contact, not certain if he wanted to pull away or if he wanted even more.  "Why?  Shouldn't you know?"

"Tell me," Squall insisted, his fingers pressing harder against the marked skin beneath soft fabric.

"Well, there isn't much to say, princeling.  Your symbol burned like fire beneath my skin, and then I heard someone speaking to me.  It was strange - a broken voice that spoke in a manner beyond my understanding, but somehow, I still knew to move.  So, I moved.  Nothing more than that."

The sorcerer frowned at the explanation, his stormy eyes shifting in quick thought.  "You trusted that voice enough to act without questioning it?"

Startled by the observation, Seifer stared at the shorter man and realized that obeying a disembodied voice did sound a touch unbelievable for a paranoid soul like himself.  Thinking back to that moment, he tried to recall the voice and the words it might have said to remove any doubt from his mind, but things had happened too quickly for that to be the answer.  His lips drawing into a small frown, Seifer felt growing irritation at the idea that someone or something had commanded him with such ease, and though it had saved his life, he wasn't excited to consider the next time the voice would control his actions.

"I guess that was pretty stupid of me," Seifer eventually replied.

Squall said nothing as he cocked his head slightly, his thick hair swaying away from his face to fully reveal the metallic shine of blue-gray eyes.  Entranced by the sight of magic in the storm-colored irises, Seifer almost groaned in disappointment when the sorcerer closed his eyes.  He waited patiently for Squall to speak the thoughts running through his head, but after nearly a minute of nothing, Seifer grew bored of the little game.  Lips parted with a half-formed question in mind, Seifer was unexpectedly and harshly shushed by the shorter man.  Somewhat surprised, and then offended by being silenced like a child, Seifer opened his mouth to vocalize his irritation, but was again silenced when the sorcerer's hand went flat against his chest and ignited a dull flame beneath his skin.  Inhaling sharply at the heated contact, Seifer was surprised by his body's instinct to lean into the man's hand and not recoil from the thing causing it harm.

And then he heard it.  It wasn't as loud as the whispers that had saved his life, but Seifer recognized the broken voice that spoke in a strange language mixed with words of the common human language.  Given the time to listen and focus on the perplexing arrangement of words, the blond lord held his breath to better hear the quiet message.  Leander moved against him, the brush of their clothing smothering some of the voice, but Seifer still managed to hear a collection of words he somehow understood before the voice faded away.

Opening eyes he never knew he had closed, Seifer stared down into cold blue-gray eyes, amazed that his stubborn lover could continue to show such shields when they had little worth.  With his free hand, he reached out and pulled Squall into a partial hug, Leander doing his part to keep the man close by fisting his hand into the available fabric of Squall's shirt.  The sorcerer showed an interesting expression at being held by his son and bonded lover, something between terror at having what could be easily lost and bitter gratefulness that he had anything left in his cursed life.

His chin on the shorter man's shoulder, Seifer asked quietly, "How is it that I know what 'Haete ria igavenise rraegre' means?"  Once realizing what he had said, the lord breathed out a hard laugh of surprise before adding, "Fuck, and how can I even speak it when I don't know what the hell language it is?"

"That's... interesting," Squall said with his own amount of surprise.  "It isn't one language."

"But you know what it means."

Squall hummed the affirmative.  "You say you understand it, as well."

With a soft smile against the sorcerer's ear, Seifer said proudly, "You promised me your heart for all of eternity."

The lithe man shivered at the words, pressing closer to the larger body while also placing a hand at Leander's head.  "All I wanted was for you to feel the connection between you and our children.  I never planned for our souls to be so intertwined that you could hear its voice under the right conditions."

Verdant eyes widened at the declaration and Seifer briefly considered what it meant for the voice of Squall's soul to sound torn and tired, but he pushed aside the thought for another time.  "Well, at least you know what is happening.  Am I to assume that this is another unexpected side effect?"

"No, it shouldn't have been a surprise.  Your passion runs too strong, too deep for me to believe that my soul would be safe from you."

"Why do I feel like you're trying to insult me?" Seifer commented as he placed a kiss against dark hair.  Savoring that softness against his cheek, he hesitated before requesting, "Tell me that this is something good and not something you'll regret."

Instead of replying directly, Squall pushed back a short distance and took a moment to study the lord's face.  Full lips quirked into a vague smile when he finally said, "You won't let me regret it."

Dumbfounded by the statement made in a confident tone, Seifer found his mind drifting to thoughts about depositing his son with Kehrei and his vie'taos, Peirra, for the rest of the day and about how best to convince Squall to submit to more sex after the previous two days of little more than sleep, sex, and food.  As if hearing those thoughts, a feat Seifer abruptly realized could be possible, Squall lifted a dark eyebrow in a scolding manner.  Feigning an innocent expression, the large blond considered his luck with blaming the excitable piece of soul trapped within his body and suggesting that it required more 'heat' before it could settle down, but Seifer didn't have the opportunity to try the excuse.

A small hand fisted at his shirt collar and pulled in a near choking manner, causing Seifer to look at his son.  Soft green eyes were wide with fear, a sight Seifer felt too common in the past year.  Moving his own gaze in the direction of Leander's stare, Seifer whispered a stunned curse when he set eyes on an injured Moomba stumbling into trees a short distance away.  Nearly dropping Leander in his rush to set the child on the ground, Seifer followed behind Squall as the sorcerer was able to react faster to the boy's stunned expression.

The Moomba turned sharply and snarled at their approach, but then quieted once recognizing the dark-haired man.  "Leonhart..."

Squall moved in close and helped to steady the large feline covered in dark mud, bits of ice, and fresh blood.  The sorcerer spoke to the Moomba in the Shumi's language, human vocal cords unable to form the growled words that the Moomba would respond with.  As the two exchanged words, Seifer eyed the injured cat and eventually recognized him as one of the Moomba that had first 'greeted' them over a month past.  The line of white fur at his shoulder suggested that he was the cocky feline that had described Squall as having a 'fat belly'.  Seifer hid his smirk at the idea that he hadn't seen the Moomba since that fateful day, the cat most likely afraid of further punishment from the violent sorcerer.

Seifer jumped slightly at the unexpected feel of a small body pressing against the back of his leg.  Reaching back, he pulled Leander to his side and placed his fingers in dark hair.

"What's wrong with him, Father?"

"Don't know, kiddo.  Looks like he got on the wrong side of a sword again."

Overhearing the words between father and son, Squall added, "It's worse than that.  His scouting group was ambushed by a fair number of humans.  One of them is severely hurt and can't move.  The other two of their group are protecting the fallen one while Mureh escaped in search of help."

Seifer placed a hand on the hilt of Hyperion as he considered the information.  "His group... Wasn't Sekre in this pussy cat's same group when we first arrived here?"

Blue-gray eyes were quiet as they looked at the blond swordsman.  "Sekre was the one to tell Mureh to leave and find Kasir."

His hand tightening around cold metal, Seifer felt a dull burn in his chest at the news that Sekre, Kasir's second son, was in a life threatening situation.  Compared to the other felines he tolerated on a daily basis, Seifer had a soft spot for the relatively small Moomba who spoke very little, but used the human language as fluently as his sire.  In return, Sekre seemed to enjoy the lord's company during their frequent hunting trips, several of which becoming more eventful whenever the cat decided to have fun at the blond's expense.  Despite the numerous humiliating situations, Seifer was forever indebted to the beast for introducing him to the Treranja fruit and Squall's seductive love of its sweetness.

Seifer glanced over the battered Moomba and asked, "Hey, fleabag, are you strong enough to lead me to the fight?"

Mureh stared with open disbelief at the large human, perhaps thinking he misunderstood what Seifer wanted.  Meanwhile, Squall showed clear displeasure at the foolhardiness of the blond lord.  "Seifer, don't you think it would be wiser for you to wait and leave once Kasir is prepared?"

"It'd be a waste of time for me to return to the village and you know it.  You can relay the message just fine without us; meanwhile, minutes could mean everything for that idiot fur ball."

With a sigh of exasperation, Squall reluctantly nodded before looking to the injured Moomba and repeated the lord's question in the Shumi's language.  Mureh's eyes narrowed in reflexive distrust of humans, but at added words from the sorcerer, he directed an approving glance at the large blond and replied something in a grumbling mess of words that Seifer couldn't imagine understanding.

"He'll lead you there," Squall said as the Moomba moved back and struggled to remain standing without the sorcerer's support.

Seifer grabbed a furry arm and placed it around his shoulders, allowing no room of argument from the injured cat.  "Do you know where to direct Kasir?"

"Mureh gave me enough details," the brunet replied as he stepped close and pressed his fingers against Seifer's chest, causing the mark of Sugenti Denynas to burn softly.  "I want to join you."

With a knowing gleam to emerald eyes, Seifer moved his free hand to the man's curved stomach.  "And I wish you were the one fighting by my side, but we both know you have someone more important to protect right now."

"Bastard," Squall cursed in a breath.  "Why must you always remind me of my condition?"

"Because one day I'll convince you that us creating this life is a blessing and not a curse."

"That day is not today," the sorcerer replied with soft disappointment, whether from his inability to change his beliefs or from the lord's sacrilegious determination, Seifer couldn't be certain.  At the Moomba's impatient growl, Squall said, "We are wasting time.  Don't do anything stupid out there without me to protect you."

Seifer offered a smirk as his reply, a clear message that their definitions of 'stupid actions' differed greatly and Seifer wasn't about to limit himself to what the sorcerer considered safe for a powerless human.  That smirk widened when Squall huffed and muttered to himself about wasting his breath.  Adjusting his hold on the fur-covered arm, Seifer watched as Squall stepped to their son and automatically took Leander's raised hand into a firm hold.

Unable to help himself, Seifer called out, "Be good, Ander, and make certain your mother doesn't get too lonely without me."

While the boy agreed despite his confusion about the overall situation, Squall glared at the blond and made a subtle gesture with his free hand, a sign for Seifer that his manhood was in serious trouble the next time they were alone.  Suppressing a wince, Seifer found it pathetic that he hoped the coming fight would injure him to the point of earning the sorcerer's sympathy compared to his current ire.  Unfortunate for him, Seifer was fairly certain that he would have to be near death before Squall would show him any mercy.

Parting ways with the sorcerer and child, Seifer supported the Moomba as they walked to the nearby caverns.  Mureh struggled to prevent being a burden for the smaller human, but an injured leg and general exhaustion forced the cat to depend on the man's strength.  Silence held between them until stepping into the cooler air of the mountain caverns, magically formed such that only the Shumi could navigate safely to the hidden valley.

His rumbling voice echoing off dark stone, the Moomba asked in a heavily accented voice, "Was Leonhart true?  You kill h'men for us?"

"I kill anyone who hurts family, and in Squall's eyes, the Shumi are family."

Yellow eyes glowed in the darkness of the caverns as Mureh stared down at the blond.  "You fear for Sekre, not others."

Seifer frowned at the comment that felt dangerous in some unknown fashion, as if siding with the H'rugur's son meant opposing another nameless faction within the group of Shumi.  Choosing his words, Seifer said, "I am merely doing what Kasir would do if my son were in danger."

After a silent moment, the feline snorted in disbelief, but didn't press the matter.

Despite the Moomba's injured state, they made decent time through the maze of dark stone and didn't slow their pace over the snow-covered ground that greatly clashed with the warmer climate of the secret valley.  Even so, Seifer hardly felt the change in temperature, his attention more focused on strategizing for the several possibilities that laid before him.  In all accounts, there was no information as to why the humans decided to attack the group of Shumi.  It was by Mureh's word that it was an ambush, but Seifer held little trust in the human-hating Moomba.  For all Seifer knew, the humans could have been the ones threatened by the cocky group of cats, only Sekre smart enough to enjoy the tentative peace between the local human villages and the Shumi.  Seifer would fight as needed, but he had long ago outgrown the need to attack first and ask questions later.

Several miles from the mountain slope, Mureh was the first to hear the yells of the fight, his low growl warning Seifer of their approach.  After a brief and heated argument, Seifer managed to convince the injured Moomba to stay in place and hide amongst some bushes covered in snow.  Alone, the blond lord walked toward the sounds of loud yelling and he carefully stepped past a clump of leafless trees to observe the battle scene.

With a scattering of bodies in the snowy clearing, at least nine men stood in a disorganized knot at the back of the clearing, most bearing a variety of injuries that colored their clothing in blood.  Their choice of weapons ranged from scythes to battered swords, visibly identifying each man as either a simple farmer or a former soldier in the Emperor's army.  Curious at their rising chants of 'kill the beast,' Seifer moved further to witness Sekre in mid-fight with an oversized brute who wielded an ax that was more suited for felling a tree than beheading a cat.  While holding his own, Sekre was far from peak strength with his crimson fur matted from unseen injuries.  Even so, his curved blade kept the heavy ax from his neck, the feline patiently waiting for the best opening to dispose of his grunting opponent.

Seifer briefly shifted his gaze to the far end of the clearing and scowled at the sight of Sekre's companions, neither appearing battle worthy as one sat limply against a tree trunk and the other knelt in front of the possibly unconscious feline.  Seifer recognized the kneeling cat as the supposed leader of the small group and he felt mild respect for the Moomba who couldn't stand, but still held a blade steady in front of his chest.  He was prepared to attack anyone who dared to come close, and judging by the two bodies slumped at his side, at least a couple humans had thought the injured cat was easy game.

A roaring yell drew Seifer's attention back to the fight, just in time to witness the bald brute attempting a wide swing of his ax with the intention to slice through the feline's midsection.  At the foolhardy move, shadows flickered within Sekre's amber eyes and the tip of his tongue licked dark lips in anticipation of a kill.  When the ax held in two hands swung close, he arched back with the impossible flexibility of cats, something the brute did not expect judging by his questioning grunt.  Immediately taking advantage of that confusion, Sekre raised his curved blade behind his shoulder and then stepped forward with his attack, the sword slicing cleanly through one meaty forearm and burying partway into the other.

The brute screamed and twisted in his agony, the spray of blood from his mortal wound forcing Sekre to reflexively close his eyes.  Recognizing the moment of weakness, Seifer reacted immediately when he saw movement from the corner of his eye.  His legs stretched out into a fast sprint across trampled snow as Seifer focused on the two men who were bright enough to take advantage of Sekre's momentary blindness.  Hyperion removed from its sheath, Seifer targeted the faster of the two men, recklessly moving in front of the scythe-wielding farmer with the hope that his sudden appearance would startle the inexperienced man into inaction.

Hyperion held to his side, Seifer waited until the last second before skidding to a halt and use the full weight of his momentum to swing the blade forward and up.  The heavy blade connected with the unsuspecting man in the throat and decapitated him with such force that the body and head landed in opposite directions.  Spinning on slick ground, Seifer held Hyperion in front of his chest to defend himself from the second man, but found the farmer ridiculously flat on his ass and staring dumbly at the intruding blond.  Seifer silently thanked Hyne for protecting him in the maneuver that wouldn't have worked against trained soldiers.

The dark-haired farmer, more of a boy than a man, stared up from his fallen position, frozen as his young eyes focused on the sharp blade dripping blood.  Those eyes then darted upward to gaze behind Seifer and at the approaching Shumi that had several inches on the tall blond, and with a choke of fear, the farmboy rolled onto his hands and knees in the effort to scurry away.  Seifer scoffed at the youth's gutless nature, the farmboy ready to kill when someone had charged ahead of him, but unable to move when he was on his own.

"It is surprising you are the first to arrive," Sekre said softly, a near purr compared to the deeper rumbles of his sire.

Looking over his shoulder, Seifer retorted, "Isn't it more of a surprise that I'm here at all?"

Sekre seemed confused by the statement, the odd tilt of his head better suited to small kittens that weren't covered with blood.  "You came.  That says enough."

With a shake of his head, Seifer wondered what he had done to convince the feline that he was the least bit trustworthy.  Returning his attention to the cluster of armed men, the blond fighter snickered at their gaping expressions, as if a human standing next to a Shumi was the first sign that the end of the world was near.  "Who was the first to attack?"

"They set a trap and Rekir did not see it," Sekre replied, nodding toward the unmoving Moomba guarded by their leader.  "He breathes, but needs Dzieden's help.  They attacked after Rekir fell."

Seifer scowled at the information, irritated at the humans' treatment of the Shumi, as if they were wild animals to be hunted.  Worse, he could imagine his younger self joining that group, not understanding the intelligence of the supposed monsters and childishly wanting to be a hero who rid the world of a dangerous evil.  His grip tight on Hyperion, Seifer told the Moomba, "Leave one alive."

A growling purr sounded from the large cat, Sekre then barking something over his shoulder to his companions.  Their leader grunted in return, the last word on the matter before Sekre launched forward without waiting for his human partner.  Forced to chase behind, Seifer cursed the inconsiderate nature of cats, tempted to take a swipe at the feline's defenseless tail.

Surprised by the offensive attack from the Shumi that had been forced to defend his companions, the group of men wasted several seconds from hesitation.  With Hyperion's first bite into the flesh of an older man, Seifer felt his body take control as his thoughts wandered to memories of similar battles that had involved heavily trained soldiers crushing the occasional peasant uprising.  As a young soldier, he had reveled in the easy defeat of those who had no reason to learn how to handle a weapon, let alone defend themselves from an aggressive attack.  It was with a bitter taste in his mouth that Seifer realized how little had changed for Hyperion to still be soaked in the blood of those weaker, but he hoped that Hyne would understand the difference between his intentions.

Claws and blades made short work of the disorganized cluster of men, and though a disloyal pair made for a fearful escape, the limits had been set that only one was to live.  Two knives flew through the air - one with a silver handle landing at the base of a thick neck, and the other formed of a single piece of dark metal sliding deeply into the lower back of the second man.  Standing side by side, Seifer glanced at the feline that stood taller than him by several inches, and yet was still small compared to the average Moomba.  Sekre met that gaze, the darker shade to amber eyes giving the cat a dangerous look that Seifer feared on an instinctual level, but his trust for the Shumi outweighed that simpleminded fear toward something with claws and fangs.

A whimpered sob drew Seifer's attention, his smile anything but friendly as he turned and looked at the farmboy who had attempted to attack Sekre earlier.  His right hand missing three fingers, the youth knelt in muddy snow while he cradled his arm to his chest and eyed the smirking blond.  Fear and resignation dulled the farmboy's eyes, a sight that didn't earn any pity from the former soldier.

Navigating his way past fresh corpses, Seifer knelt next to the young man and flashed a wide smile.  "What's your name, boy?"


"Well, N-N-Nida, it's your lucky day.  Care to guess why?"

"... Will you... let me live?"

"Hey, look at that, Sekre.  We picked a smart one here," Seifer said with false excitement.  For his part, Sekre appeared uninterested while watching the two humans, but the faint twitching of long ears suggested otherwise to the observant lord.  Seifer leaned in closer to the brown-haired man.  "Now, tell me why you were attacking my friends here."

Wincing at the demand, the farmboy replied shakily, "They... they kill our livestock... and stole land that should be ours... and... other things."

Seifer snorted with irritation.  "Don't blame the Shumi whenever wolves attack your stray sheep.  As for 'stealing your land', why do you need this scrap of mountain territory?  It's not like you can grow crops or do anything else productive on this rocky soil."

Dark eyes wide, the young man appeared dumbfounded by the concepts Seifer tried to push on him.  "But... but they don't deserve it.  They eat babies," Nida added in a serious whisper, as if the simple statement would answer every argument the blond could put forth.

Seifer burst out laughing at the declaration.  "Hyne's fucking cock, do you actually believe that something this big can survive on a diet of babies?" he asked with a thumb jerked back in Sekre's direction.

For his part, the young man glanced at the looming Moomba before muttering with uncertainty, "But everyone says it's true..."

"Too many bones, not enough meat," Sekre commented dryly, only the rapid swish of his long tail revealing his amusement in the matter.

"You're not helping," Seifer said while he barely smothered the desire to laugh at the farmboy's horrified expression.  "Now to your fate, Nida.  Usually the Shumi kill all trespassers, but you're going to be our special little messenger.  I want you to go back to your village and tell everyone that the pathetic lot of you couldn't handle a handful of young Shumi and that the only reason you're alive right now is because we allowed you to live.  Understood?"

The farmboy nodded his head in a jerky manner.

"Good, because as you can see, the Shumi have human friends, and if one of them hears you spreading lies about how the Shumi attacked you first, or that they had stepped beyond their territory, or that they had stolen a Hyne-damned baby, I will personally kill you piece by piece, starting with your remaining fingers."

Nida shook in fear as he held his injured hand closer to his chest, nearly hiding it beneath an armpit.

Seifer grinned as he lifted from the snowy ground.  "Get going and hope that we don't meet again."

Not wasting the lord's patience, the farmboy struggled to his feet, a task made more difficult without use of his bad arm and with the apparent fear of turning his back to the human and Shumi.  Stumbling back several feet, Nida didn't move too far before he incredibly matched gazes with the blond fighter.  "S-s-sir, the b-b-bodies... c-can we... I mean..."

While understanding the implied request, Seifer knew he had no authority to release the Shumi's trophies for the sake of a proper burial.  He looked to Sekre, the large feline staring back with a half-lidded gaze of disinterest.  "Well, kitten?  Will Kasir allow them to collect their dead?"

Sekre glanced at the bodies in snow, his nostrils flaring as if assaulted by a foul smell.  "There is nothing to learn from their flesh."

The green-eyed lord smiled at the composed reply, something that seemed against the animalistic nature of the Moomba.  But by the look of dark eyes, Seifer was certain that the farmboy wasn't of the same opinion.  "You heard him - these bodies are tainting Shumi land.  If your people want proper burials, collect them by sundown tomorrow.  Otherwise, I'll have myself a little bonfire."

Nida looked warily between the cat and human, his voice reluctant to sound when he asked, "I-is it a t-trap to k-kill more of us?"

"Come now, boy, if the Shumi hungered for the taste of human flesh, they know exactly where to find your village."

Dark eyes wide, the farmboy looked about ready to faint or cry, but instead clutched harder onto his injured arm.  He muttered a hasty 'thank you' and stumbled back several steps before gaining the courage to turn his back to the watching Shumi and hurried off in a limping run.  Seifer wasn't too certain that the young man was meant to last long in the world.

With the fight finished, Seifer returned to Mureh's hiding spot and helped the injured Moomba to the scene of the bloody massacre.  The large cat purred in brief approval before he pushed aside Seifer's aid and hobbled on his own power to the unconscious Moomba.  Keeping respectful distance from the four cats, Seifer watched silently as the warriors licked at each other's wounds.

A loud roar sounded from the surrounding forest, the call answered by the three conscious Moomba as they stared to the east with their long ears lifted high.  In short time, Kasir immerged from the cluster trees, the beast's expression causing Seifer to instinctively place a hand on Hyperion's hilt.  Golden-green eyes immediately took in the sight of carnage before he looked to the wounded group of cats.  His expression hardening at the sight, the H'rugur then howled with a sharp edge to the almost musical note.

After an echoing howl sounded in the near distance, the leader of the small group began a growled tirade to Kasir, his stubby fingers pointing at the bodies of humans and then at Sekre.  Unable to understand the feline's language, Seifer scowled as he made easy assumptions about the discussion at hand.  When Kasir turned to his son and Sekre withstood a harsh reprimand from the H'rugur, Seifer decided to make his presence known.

"Hey now, kittens, what are you talking about?" he asked with a sneer.

Without looking in the lord's direction, Kasir replied, "Not your business, human."

"So, it's going to be like that," Seifer murmured to himself before saying, "If that bastard is talking about the decision to let the humans gather their dead, Sekre only allowed it because I asked."

Kasir turned sharply and directed a harsh glare at the blond.  "You had no right."

Sekre interjected, "He asked, but it was my choice.  Most of the bodies are diseased and none of their flesh holds knowledge.  Eating these bodies would only sicken us."

The H'rugur glanced at his son in a moment of hesitation before he stood and moved to the scattering of human bodies.  After a brief examination of the corpses, the large cat said lowly, "While your words are true, you still allowed a trespasser to live and gave free passage to the humans who would take these bodies.  I cannot save you from this offense."

Seifer felt cold at the rumbled words, afraid for what the implications meant for the young Moomba.  "He did it with good reason, Kasir.  To kill all of these men would have only sent more in their wake.  To allow one to live and have him tell his people about the horror that took place, it'll make them think twice about invading your territory."

"Even so," the H'rugur maintained, "He defied our laws."

"Fuck your laws!  Surely you understand--"  The nobleman's argument was halted by a large and bloody paw-like hand placed against his chest.  He stared at Sekre for the interruption, but when the feline shook his head in resignation, Seifer realized that his words had little worth in the world of the Shumi.

Kasir snorted with irritation before he grumbled something to Sekre.  The younger Moomba wasn't allowed a response when several cats appeared from the surrounding forest, protecting the two Shumi who struggled to maintain pace with the large felines.  Dzieden was the first to hurry to the unconscious Moomba, his long fingers examining every inch of bloodied fur while the other gray-skinned creature moved to the kneeling leader.

Sekre stepped in front of Seifer and pushed gently with his paw-like hand.  "Come, I will guide you back to the village."

Refusing to be moved, Seifer argued, "You're injured.  Let Dzieden examine you first."

"My wounds are not serious.  And H'rugur wishes for us to leave."

Angered at the games that were being played around him, Seifer glared at the young Moomba with the silent message that he did not appreciate being treated like a bystander.

Dark lips pulled back into a slight smile.  "Come, Leonhart waits for you."

Seifer growled under his breath, irritated at the cat knowing the one thing that would lure him back to the hidden village without much resistance.  Sensing his victory, Sekre chuckled with a sharp swish of his tail, and then turned to lead the way out of the forest.  A hand tight on Hyperion's hilt, Seifer followed behind the feline of crimson fur darkened with deep stains of blood.  Eyeing the matted fur, Seifer silently asked Hyne what he had done to deserve such troublesome allies.  When his mind offered suggestions in terms of his role in the Massacre and Squall's worse events in life, the green-eyed lord sighed and realized that he didn't have much right to be selective with his friends.

~ > < ~

"How does that feel?"

Seifer replied with a soft purr, unable to put to words how it felt to have his lover wash his wounds and warm his body.

During the trek back to the Shumi's village, Seifer's body had come to the unfortunate realization that it was the final weeks of winter outside of the protected valley.  Without coat or gloves, the lord had been shivering by the time he exited the dark caverns and was greeted by the unexpected sight of Squall waiting nearby with a thick blanket in hand.  Squall then ordered both the human and Moomba to the hot springs, neither warrior daring enough to disobey the pregnant sorcerer.  Unaffected by the winter cold, Sekre had been quick to rinse the blood from his fur and reluctantly allowed Squall to bandage the worse wounds, but left soon after with the excuse that he had no desire to intrude.

Still thawing from cooler temperatures, Seifer relaxed in the steaming water that lapped against his chest and he gazed with half-open eyes as Squall tended to the single wound of any real concern.  Several scratches and fresh bruises decorated the man's body from both the battle and the burden of carrying the injured Mureh, but only the cut that sliced into his shoulder required attention from a steady sewing hand.

"This isn't the best position to help you," Squall commented from his perched spot on Seifer's lap, managing to maintain his balance while threading a thick needle.

Pale lips curling into a hungry smirk, Seifer strengthened his one-armed hold around the man's waist, the same hold that had pulled the elusive sorcerer into his current position.  "You aren't going anywhere, lovely."

"Stubborn fool," Squall murmured as he grabbed a nearly empty bottle of alcohol and poured the liquid over the gapping wound.  His smile at the lord's pain-filled hiss didn't go unnoticed.

"Don't enjoy this too much," Seifer warned between clenched teeth.

Squall's response was to begin the first stitch, his smile unmoved by the lord's exaggerated grunts at each pull of the thread.

"Say, Squall," the lord prompted after the first several stitches.  At the brunet's questioning hum, Seifer continued to ask, "Is it a problem for Sekre that I get along with him compared to the others?"

"... Why do you ask?"

"It started with that bastard Mureh seeming annoyed by me wanting to help out Sekre, and then there was his supposed father who wouldn't give the kid a break.  During the walk back, I got to thinking... It may be my imagination, but I've noticed how the others keep a distance from the fur ball, like they don't know what to do with him.  This village is too close-knit for that to happen, so the only thing I can figure is that the beasts don't like one of their own getting friendly with a human who isn't a sorcerer."

Squall said nothing while finishing the last stitches, the thick thread cut with a small knife.  Turning his attention to green eyes, he told the blond, "It's not your fault they treat him like that."

"What, you knew?"

"I noticed it the first day when we arrived and Dzieden said that Sekre would guard him while Kasir led us to the caverns.  It was... unlike Kasir to doubt the abilities of a son he trained himself.  I asked Dzieden about it the next day."

Testing the limits of his shoulder, Seifer glanced up at the sorcerer's unfinished explanation.  "So, what's the story?"

Squall sighed in a manner that suggested a lengthy explanation was required.  "Sekre is... different.  When I knew him in the past, I assumed he would take the path of a future Eahler, but apparently he fell in love and wanted to share his life with her, which meant becoming a Moomba.  According to Dzieden, everything went wrong from the being.  She didn't embrace him from Ifrit's flames and she was easily frustrated by the needs of a young Moomba, the responsibility overwhelming her to the point of frequently abandoning Sekre in their home during the first important months."

"Wait, that doesn't make any sense.  I thought the transformation ceremony required complete love between the two Shumi."

"It's a rare occurrence, but Sekre's single-minded love was enough to prompt his change.  And for her part, the female thought she was in love, but she wasn't suited for the responsibility associated to the status of vie'taos.  For almost a year, she was haunted by her inability to support and love her kri'sange.  The other Shumi failed to recognize her depression until it was too late - under the cover of night, she left the safety of the village with the knowledge that she could not survive.  Kasir found her the next morning, her body torn to shreds by wolves."

Eyes wide and shining in the light reflected from the springs, Seifer could barely find his voice.  "Blessed Hyne, I didn't know... I mean, I never even noticed that he didn't have someone waiting for him at home.  But even so, what does that have to do with Sekre?  It wasn't his fault she was weak."

Somber blue softening his gaze, Squall placed two fingers at the symbol of Sugenti Denynas, tanned flesh shivering at the contact.  "They were bonded in life, which meant they should have been bonded in death.  Because Sekre lived, the Shumi consider him soulless and cursed."

Seifer stared at the sorcerer with an expression of sickened disbelief and heated anger.  "They blame him for living?"

"You don't understand - he shouldn't have survived without his other half.  It would be the same as a man walking down the streets with his heart torn from his chest."

Seifer shook his head, water dripping from his hair.  "In that case, they should be happy that he lived, not afraid."

"And you would embrace a man with a hole in his chest?  Let his blood stain your skin?"

Teeth clenched in anger, the lord argued, "That isn't the same thing as having a child, your child, beating certain death."

With a fond smile, Squall said, "I know, but you are a man who doesn't fear everything he should."

At the words once used to explain why he didn't fear his sorcerer child, Seifer felt some calm return to his mind.  It wasn't a peaceful calm, but a measure of resignation that he couldn't change the world to suit his ideology.  Green eyes gazed down at the sorcerer's curved stomach and a rough hand pressed against the wet skin, his thumb stroking softly near the man's navel.  "Will you blame her for living?"

Taking the large hand in his, Squall replied, "I suspect you won't let me."

Seifer smiled weakly at the answer that wasn't a declaration of love, but something closer to fearful acceptance of their daughter.  While disappointing, the lord was determined to prove that it was safe to love the unborn girl.

"Alright, you've been soaking long enough and Leander should be awake from his nap by now, so I'd appreciate you releasing me."

His smile shifting into a childlike frown, Seifer briefly debated the consequences of denying the sorcerer his freedom.  He let his hand at the man's back drift to lower regions, the action immediately causing a dark eyebrow to lift in a manner that asked, 'Are you that stupid?'.  Defeated before allowed his play, Seifer sighed while he helped Squall slide off his lap and exit the pool of heated water.  Following close behind his lover, Seifer watched with some disappointment as the body he adored was covered by a silk robe brought with them from the Almasy Estate.

With a second robe in his hands, Squall stepped to the taller man and draped the sleek material over broad shoulders.  The edges of the thin fabric clutched in his hands, the sorcerer pulled Seifer close and said with a smirk, "Stop looking so pitiful.  For two days straight, you had your way with my body.  What will it take to satisfy you?"

"More," Seifer murmured before stealing a chaste kiss.  "I'll always want more."

Squall hummed in reply, a vague invitation for a deeper kiss that the blond lord could not refuse.  His hands sneaking past the edges of Squall's robe, Seifer grabbed the brunet's bare waist and pulled the shorter man against his body.  Lips came together in a soft press that continued into a lasting kiss that didn't involve the typical sharpness of teeth or loss of breath.  Instead of rough passion, the kiss was filled with a sense of timelessness, as if they had all of the time in the world to enjoy each other's taste, touch, and heat.

It was for that reason Seifer growled loudly when their moment of eternity was interrupted by a gurgling sound, an attempt by a Shumi to clear his throat and gain their attention.

Squall pulled away as far as the large hands at his waist would allow, a few inches at most.  Eyes of bright silver directed a brief glare at the demanding blond, Squall not looking at the unwanted visitor when he asked, "Was there something you needed, Dzieden?"

A faint whistling chuckle sounded from the entrance to the hot springs.  "Forgive my intrusssion, but I am here to essscort you both to the temple."

Seifer frowned at the sudden tenseness in his lover's body.  Looking at the gray-skinned creature, the lord asked, "Does this have to happen now?  Leander should be waking soon."

"Do not worry - Peirra and Kehrei are with him.  Come, the Eahlersss are not made to wait."

"Dzieden," Squall spoke before Seifer could speak his mind about being made to hurry for the sake of others.  "What is this about?"

The Shumi smiled with an awkward curl of nonexistent lips.  "It isss time for you to learn if your travelsss here have been in vain," he replied, and then with a raised arm, Dzieden said, "We ssshould hurry.  It isss not wissse to offend the older onesss."

"We aren't properly dressed," Seifer pointed out.

"Unfortunately, promptness is valued more than appearance," Squall replied as he slipped from the lord's hold and readjusted his robe.

Reluctantly taking the silent suggestion from his lover, Seifer slipped his arms through the sleeves of his robe and tied the belt in a loose knot.  While proud of his body, the flimsy material of the robe made him feel exposed and vulnerable in the face of the coming challenge, and he held the suspicion that the Shumi had planned for just that effect.  Glaring at his robe, Seifer almost missed the movement of the sorcerer, Squall stepping close to pull apart the upper portion of the robe, revealing the dark symbols of Sugenti Denynas.

"Leave it open," Squall said while brushing a finger along the very edge of burnt skin.  "This will remind them that you are important to me."

"Is that so?" Seifer commented in a near purr.

With a light scoff to say that they didn't have time for games of seduction, the sorcerer pulled away from the larger man and stepped to the waiting Shumi.  Following behind, Seifer allowed himself a free moment to grin and savor the rare words from his reserved lover, but with every step closer to the temple built to honor Ifrit, the nobleman composed his expression and steadied his heart for the purpose of facing the Shumi elders.  He hadn't met with the collection of gray-skinned, black-eyed creatures since the day they had arrived over a month back and that had lasted no more than a matter of minutes.  Given the events that already taken place that day, Seifer felt rather certain that he wasn't about to be welcomed by the ones who had created the laws he disobeyed.

The late day sun slowly dipped behind the surrounding mountains, causing an orange-ish glow to cover the Shumi's temple in a manner that made it appear touched by Ifrit's fire.  Dzieden waved aside the guarding Moomba, the oversized felines eyeing the entrance of the humans with disinterest.  The inside of the temple was only lit by sparse candles, so it took some time for Seifer's eyes to focus on the gathering of Shumi.  Five ordinate chairs stood at the far end of the temple, four of the seats occupied by the oldest of the Shumi, the Eahlers.  After directing something like a wink to the lord and sorcerer, Dzieden took his place at the empty seat, the master healer not as tall as the other elders, but leaner with a sharper gleam to his dark eyes.  Next to the Shumi elders, Kasir knelt on the ground with perfect posture, and at his side was his second in command, a larger Moomba who couldn't match the poise of his H'rugur.

Standing in front of the court of Shumi leaders, Seifer became very aware of the silken touch of the flimsy robe against his skin and he cursed Squall's nature to be proper and politely follow the rules of their hosts.

Seated in the middle, the largest of the Shumi in both height and width began speaking in a slight wheeze, the words purposefully in his own language.

After a slight nod to the lead elder, Squall turned to Seifer and said, "While Eahler Reis fully understands the human language, he dislikes using it.  I will translate his words, but you are free to speak as normal."

The moment Squall had finished his explanation, the large Shumi started into the purpose of the meeting, the sorcerer supplying a prompt translation in a soft voice not meant to overwhelm the elder's words - "Seifer-Almasy, you stand before us as you did many days ago, requesting for the strength of our honored Moomba in your fight against your Emperor.  Since that day, you have lived with us, taken part in our meals, and aided in our hunts.  And now today, you shed the blood of humans in order to save the lives of our young warriors, for which we thank you.  However, you shamelessly coerced one of those young warriors to let a trespasser live and give that human permission to collect his dead.  This is against our laws, laws that--"

Squall broke off in his translation to stare incredulously at the blond lord.  "Did you really say that their laws are worthless?"

"I believe the actual quote was, 'Fuck your laws'," Seifer stated with complete seriousness.

The sorcerer sighed at the man's recklessness, but wasn't allowed further comment when the Shumi elder continued to speak - "You disregard our laws and disrespect our people, and yet you ask for our help.  How is this acceptable?"

Meeting the black eyes of the lead elder, Seifer replied, "What kind of monster do you think I am to murder witless humans for the sake of people I don't respect?"

Reis leaned back further into his chair at the rebuttal, his eyes unblinking in his surprise.

Seifer continued to say, "Those humans who attacked your sons were scared idiots.  Someone got it into their heads that everyone's life would be rainbows and sunshine if they killed off a few Shumi.  Over twenty men were made to believe this and they died from their stupidity.  Now, imagine if all of them had been killed without anyone to give an account of the battle.  Do you really believe they would give up and let over twenty husbands and sons die without reason or retaliation?"

"They have before," was the lead elder's reply, something the Shumi to his left seemed to argue and Reis was forced to admit, "But this is the first time we have killed so many humans at once."

Green eyes shining, Seifer insisted, "A hunter or two would go unnoticed as a matter of Fate or bad luck, but twenty murdered men means war.  The village would have sent pleads to their king, who would then in turn request help from the Emperor.  He and his bride have already rid this continent of sorcerers - do not think it beneath him to kill off some overgrown cats, too."

"And you believe that a single spared life will prevent this war of yours?"

The lord grinned darkly at the question.  "We did more than spare a life.  That boy has returned to his village and has already told his story about an entire group of men falling to a handful of Shumi, and worse, they were helped by a human.  Can you imagine their horror?  As of this morning, they had the noble intention to rid the world of man-eating monsters, but tonight they have the face the reality that a human can live and fight with the Shumi.  It may not be much, but it's a seed of doubt that will make them reluctant to seek help from others.  After all, they can never certain which humans became your allies."

The elders muttered amongst themselves at Seifer's words, the long minutes wearing at the lord's already thin patience.  While Squall's voice had been a soothing force during the translations, Seifer had never enjoyed the trouble associated to negotiations.  He was a soldier at heart, and faced with such opposition, his hand itched for the weight of his blade.

Eventually, Reis lifted a hand of long tentacle-like fingers, and once silence was regained, he asked, "We believe we understand some of the reasons for your actions, so it would be best to move on.  You have asked for the strength and lives of our sons - what is our gain in such a sacrifice?"

Unexpected anger swelled in Seifer's chest, an emotion he smothered as best he could.  "Laguna Loire requested for your protection, but his city and people were destroyed before any of you had the chance to save the sorcerers from their fate.  Three days.  That is all it took to remove a possible threat to the Empire, or so the story goes.  We, of course, know the truth that it was the Empress Ultimecia who wanted the sorcerers dead and her besotted husband obliged with a smile on his face.

"Now, what happens when the Empress decides she wants a pet Moomba for her birthday?  It's only a matter of time, so you have a choice - attack before you gain her interest, or else defend your home from the same fire that stole everything from the sorcerers."

Coal black eyes shifted to glance at the symbol of Sugenti Denynas, the same 'Burning Ocean' that had covered the sorcerers' capital for days and chased away the night with its brightness.  "It has been many years since those tragic days and we have been left in peace.  Why would that change?"

"I'm not one to question the mind of an insane sorceress.  Hell, she once had her minions feed me Lengen ni Werlogh for the single-minded purpose of revealing the sorcerer under my protection."

At the name of the poison, all eyes shifted to Squall in a tense moment of surprise, a scrutiny that the dark-haired sorcerer withstood with complete dignity despite his attire.  Eventually Kasir was the one to speak for all of them - "Is that why he smells of your blood?"

Eyes quiet and proud, Squall replied, "He didn't deserve death, and certainly not that death."

Seifer smiled at the words that were similar to the ones the sorcerer had said on that fateful day, and though Seifer knew he had tasted death in that moment, he preferred to focus his memories on the first kiss he had stolen from the man he once thought unobtainable.

While the elders conversed in whispered breaths, a mild commotion sounded at the entrance to the temple.  Curious, Seifer glanced over his shoulder to discover that the guarding Moomba were having a sharp discussion with an unmoved cat.  Eventually the others in the temple took notice of the interruption, forcing one of the guards to explain the problem.  The large feline grumbled out something in his own language, only Sekre's name apparent in the mess of growls.

With a lazy wave by the lead elder, Sekre was given entrance into the temple despite the apparent reluctance by the guards.  The bandaged Moomba stepped directly to Seifer's side, and without glancing at the lord or sorcerer, Sekre knelt down with pained grace before addressing the group of Shumi leaders.

"Eahler, H'rugur.  Forgive my intrusion," Sekre said in the human tongue, Seifer knowing he did so for his sake.  "But I just now learned of this meeting and I cannot allow this human accept the blame for my actions.  I knowingly spared the trespasser's life and I gave permission for him to collect his dead.  Almasy is not at fault."

With fondness and pity, Reis gazed at the kneeling Moomba and replied with a soft wheeze, "You are young and easily deceived."  When Sekre looked about to argue, the lead elder continued to say, "What other words you have prepared do not matter.  That discussion has come and gone and Seifer-Almasy did well to defend his motives."

Surprise brightened amber eyes, the feline glancing at Seifer with a questioning gaze.

"It's alright, fur ball," Seifer said with a conspiring wink.  "I've got us covered."

Sekre blinked once at the blond human, disbelief apparent in the open expression as if he couldn't understand someone defending him, but the Moomba wasted little time on the topic that the Shumi elders considered closed.  Instead, Sekre returned his attention to the other Shumi.  "It is said the other reason for this meeting is to make the humans leave."

Reis showed brief hesitation before his reply, Squall's voice showing some regret during his translation.  "Leonhart and Seifer-Almasy have come here for one purpose, and once our decision has been made, they will leave.  They are welcome to return in time of need, but their world is not ours and it would be best for our worlds to remain separate."

Seifer had no response for the classic situation between differing societies, whether divided by magic, religion, or race, but looking down at the battered Moomba, he was interested to note the faint sneer of dark lips.

"I owe Almasy my life," Sekre said in a low tone that wasn't common for the feline.  "When they leave, I want permission to leave with them."

The declaration caused an immediate reaction amongst the Shumi leaders, all of them speaking at once to the point of nonsense.  Dumbfounded, Seifer looked to his lover in search of council, the stormy-eyed man smiling faintly at the young Moomba.  When Squall recognized the bewildered gaze of the blond, he glanced up and arched an eyebrow with the unexpected statement, 'is there something wrong with his request?'.

"He's a Shumi who makes children run away screaming," Seifer whispered as quietly as possible, hoping Sekre wouldn't overhear.  "I already have to protect two sorcerers and a coming sorceress, not to mention my own ass, and at least magic-users look like ordinary humans.  What am I supposed to do with an overgrown cat?"

Squall shrugged with a bare lift of shoulders.  "You'll manage.  You always do."

In irritation, Seifer raked his fingers back through damp hair, the thoughts in his mind running too fast to put them to words.

"Don't play stupid.  Short of collaring one yourself, you would do anything to have a personal Moomba around to protect our family."

His fingers still in his spiked hair, Seifer stared at the faintly amused expression of his lover, surprised to discover that Squall was correct with the piece of information that the lord had yet to consider.  A skilled guard in the form of a fearsome 'monster' had an incredible appeal, especially when said guard could most probably snack on a Ravage for breakfast.  Eyes wide in that revelation, Seifer glanced at the kneeling Moomba who was already looking up with harsh golden eyes and his ears lifted in a sign that he had unavoidably heard every word.

Sighing, Seifer lowered his arm and asked, "Is this really what you want, kitten?"

Sekre nodded once with certainty.  "I considered it before today.  And Kehrei asked me to watch over your son."

"Kehrei?  I didn't realize the little monster could string together two words."

The Moomba smiled with a vague show of teeth.  "He could not say the words, but his actions were enough.  Leander seemed to like the idea."

"He would," Seifer muttered before returning his attention to the gathering of Shumi.  Their talk hadn't lessened since Sekre's request, but one set of black eyes were intently focused on the pair of humans and the young Moomba.  Apparently seeing something he liked, Dzieden smiled his awkward smile and pressed his hands together with a strange dance of long fingers.

"What great luck!" Dzieden abruptly announced in the human language, silencing the heated discussions around him.  "Not only do we have a volunteer to protect our honored Leonhart during thisss difficult period for him, we have a ssskilled warrior who can ussse the sssummoning ssstone for when we are needed in the fight againssst Ultimecia."

"Dzieden," the lead elder hissed in anger that turned his skin white, a fury that Dzieden disregarded with perfect calmness.

"Do not fool yourssself, Reis.  We all believe that Shezva lovesss our Leonhart.  And if he isss indeed her messsenger, then the children of Ifurit cannot deny him any request.  Unlesss, isss our H'rugur of a different mind?" Dzieden asked while leaning forward to look at the kneeling cat.

Golden-green eyes narrowed with thought, Kasir replied, "It would be dangerous to fight along side humans.  However, Almasy has shown me his strategy and he has offered us the freedom to act as we desire within his plans.  In the end, this would give us the best chance to avenge those we failed to protect."  Looking to Squall, the large feline added, "We owe it to the dead and I owe it to Leonhart, rya prahtr."

The lead elder huffed in annoyance at his lost control, but didn't dispute the Moomba's belief.  He muttered something that Squall didn't bother to translate, but at the subsequent raising of three long-fingered hands and the H'rugur's furry paw, Seifer realized that a vote was taking place.  Being one of the two Shumi to keep his hand lowered, Reis sighed at the decision that had been made.  He made a motion with his hand, an action that made both Sekre and Squall place a fisted hand to their chests, a movement Seifer mimicked before Squall subtly signaled that they were to leave.

Once outside the temple and walking toward their temporary home, Seifer asked, "Why exactly did we run out of there?"

Squall explained, "They voted to support your cause.  With the decision made, there was no need to talk any further, so it was proper etiquette to leave immediately in respect of their choice.  The same would have been true if they refused to help you."

Seifer scoffed quietly.  "Just as it was 'proper etiquette' to appear in robes?  It's a damned good thing their skill is worth the humiliation I endure every time I bother getting out of bed in this place."

A soft huff of laughter sounded behind them, Sekre following at a respectable distance.

"Well then," Squall prompted, "it should please you to know that we only have one morning left here."

Surprised, Seifer stared at the sorcerer.  "What?  When was that decided?"

"As Eahler Reis stated, with their choice to support you, we have no reason to stay here and disrupt their way of life."

"But... so abruptly?"

"That is why Sekre was forced to interrupt the meeting - he knew there wouldn't have been another chance to receive permission to leave with us.  It's nothing personal and we are welcomed to return, but we have been informally asked to leave as soon as possible."  Squall then sighed softly.  "Leander will be disappointed to leave Kehrei behind, but perhaps they'll meet in the future."

Reaching out, Seifer placed a hand a the man's long neck and squeezed firmly.  "I'm more worried about you.  Compared to the person I knew before coming here, you seem relaxed and at peace.  Would it... be better for you to stay?"

"Idiot," Squall breathed while enjoying the massaging touch.  "If you suggest that a second time, I will arrange it so that the last piece of clothing to your name is the robe you're wearing."

Unrealized tenseness evaporated at the response and Seifer flashed an unrestrained grin at the dark-haired beauty.  "Is that a proposition?"

The sorcerer growled quietly, and though no flame appeared, Seifer could feel the fire element stirring within the lean body.  While the lord felt fairly certain that he should fear that movement of volatile magic, he instead explored the sensation that suited the fearsome Sorcerer Prince.  It was awkward for Seifer to understand what he was doing when he search the bond between them, the experience akin to coming across a familiar smell without knowing the memory it was associated to.  But despite the required effort, he was determined to locate the small life that was hidden amongst the chaotic forces, the small flame that Squall swore Seifer would be able to feel in time.  Time, however, meant patience and the blond lord was never one who liked waiting for the things he wanted most.

"You're trying too hard."

Startled by the simple declaration that implied the sorcerer had felt his prodding, Seifer stuttered out, "Shit, sorry, I didn't mean to... I should've asked... Wait, what did you say?"

Squall slowed to a stop and took the befuddled lord's hands in his.  "You're acting like a bull rampaging through the city streets - completely unsubtle, lacking in direction, and terrifying small children into hiding."  The brunet placed the large hands at the curve of his midsection, an action that made Seifer lift an interested eyebrow given the man's typical annoyance with any attention being placed toward his pregnancy.  "What do you feel right now?"

Reluctantly closing his eyes for focus, Seifer replied, "Fire.  I always feel the fire within you."

"That is because you're searching too deep.  Imagine stepping back a pace and force your mind to see more."

Seifer frowned at the instruction that seemed beyond his experience, but after a few failed attempts, he gasped at the sudden difference when he felt himself figuratively pull back from the dark-haired beauty.  The heat of fire still filled his senses, but there were also hints of a swirling breeze that conflicted with a sense of sturdy ground, Seifer easily identifying them as the air and earth elements playing against each other.  Awed by the new sensations, Seifer almost missed the flicker of a flame that differed from the raging fire of his lover.

"Shhhh, don't move too fast," Squall whispered as his hands squeezed Seifer's.  "You're too different for her to accept easily."

Though bothered by the concept that his baby girl was terrified of him, Seifer took heed of the words and tried to imagine holding out a hand to the wisp of fire.  As Squall had predicted, the flame shied away with a small shiver.  Forcing himself to be patient, Seifer waited for his daughter to show the common curiosity of naive children.  After several loud heartbeats, the small blaze reluctantly shifted away from Squall's comforting fire and seemed to study the waiting 'hand'.  Seifer found himself humming a quiet lullaby, an instinctive desire to calm her fears and coax her closer.  Embarrassed by his break in composure, he was distracted and unprepared for when the tiny flame reached out and brushed against him.

With a harsh gasp, Seifer's eyes snapped open and he stared with wonderment at his lover.  "She's... She's beautiful."

Squall smiled faintly and attempted to remove the man's hands, an attempt that was immediately thwarted as Seifer wrapped his arms around the smaller man in a tight hug.  Sighing in surrender, Squall placed a hand on the man's bent head and stroked his fingers through golden hair.  "She knows you now.  It'll be easier in the future."

Seifer pressed his face against the sorcerer's neck and kissed the bare exposure of shoulder.  "Thank you.  Thank you for everything.  I can never repay you for everything you have given me."

"You can," Squall argued as he encouraged the blond to meet his eyes.  "Promise me that Verena will be everything you say she could be."

His stunned expression slowly turning into a pleased smile, Seifer pressed his forehead against Squall's.  "I swear to you that she will be an angel among mortals - beautiful in her strength, fearsome in her power, and wise in her compassion.  Our little Vera will make us proud, just like Ander does with every new spell and every new technique that he learns to make himself stronger.  And he'll love her and show her all of things we'd rather hide from our baby girl."  His smile wide and proud, Seifer finished with, "Together, Leander and Verena will have the power to dominate the world, but they will learn from you how to cherish life with all of their soul and being."

Squall said nothing for a long moment, completely lost in his thoughts in a way that Seifer found lonely.  When the sorcerer did speak, it was in a quiet voice that was almost stolen away by the wind.  "I want to believe you."

"You will, my love.  You just need time."  With a crooked smirk, Seifer added, "So don't move too fast or else you'll spook yourself into believing it's impossible."

The dark-haired man breathed a weak laugh and nothing more as he stood silently within the larger man's sheltering embrace.

A soft smile teasing his lips, Seifer was amused to find himself the only one awake in the small confines of his carriage despite the rattle of wooden wheels on dirt and the constant creaks of the coach while in motion.  Across from him, Sekre was dressed in a black robe and laid in a bent position that didn't seem comfortable in least, but given the flexibility of cats, Seifer assumed the Moomba was perfectly fine with his head tucked in a corner and his legs bent at odd angles.  Curled within his hold, Leander was kept in a precarious position on the padded bench, only the brace of a furry arm across his chest and the clawed paw at his shoulder preventing the child from landing on the wooden floor after a good bounce.  While at first bothered by the dangerous feline holding his child so close, Seifer had been quickly won over by Leander complaining that he missed Kehrei and that the Moomba's warmth kept him from feeling cold.  Squall's harsh glare had also been helpful in forcing Seifer to make the right decision.

At a quiet murmur, Seifer glanced down at the dark-haired beauty resting with his head on the lord's lap, a position the sorcerer fought against during every day of their travels until the nausea would become too bothersome to maintain a sense of pride.  Lying down helped some, but only so much could be done given the rough ride on poorly traveled roads.  Seifer brushed his hand through thick locks of chestnut before he replaced it at the small mound that was hidden beneath a heavy blanket to keep away the early spring cold.

Moving his glance to the dust smeared window, Seifer felt some relief at the familiar sights of barns and stables that belonged to the Almasy Estate.  There were still many miles to travel before reaching the manor and then further to the lake where a small summer house sat near the shoreline.  The building had been vacant since the death of his mother, Seifer somewhat fearful of her ghost residing in the place of her final breath, but the private nature of the house made it a necessity for Squall's safety during his pregnancy.  The addition of their unplanned guest made privacy even more important.  Seifer could only hope that their ruse of Leander catching a contagious disease and being forced into quarantine with Squall to watch over him would keep the more curious servants away.

Lost in disjointed thoughts about his mother and the safety of his lover, Seifer didn't notice the difference in time until a cold hand grabbed onto his and their fingers entwined.  Green eyes shifting down, he smiled at the sight of the drowsy brunet and wished that he could always keep the man in such a docile state.

"How much further?" Squall asked as he closed his eyes against the glare of sunlight.

"It can't be long now.  The other carriages will proceed to the main house and we'll continue to the summer house."

Squall hummed his understanding as his eyebrows scrunched in a fashion that Seifer recognized well as a sign of nausea.  With nothing he could do to help, Seifer squeezed the hand in his and rubbed his thumb across chilled skin, hoping to give Squall something else to focus on in the last minutes of the carriage ride.  Eventually, the gates to the Almasy Estate came and went, and the clatter of additional carriages from their entourage separated toward the main house while their coach headed toward the lake in the distance.  The surrounding trees gradually grew denser with the addition of budding bushes that were prepared for the good weather only weeks away.

Knowing they had nearly reached their destination, Seifer coaxed Leander and Sekre into wakefulness, careful to not startle the cat in order to avoid an accidental mauling of the young boy.  Once properly seated, the large feline adjusted his black robes to cover all of his features, including a heavy hood to hide his lengthy ears and overly long sleeves to cover his paw-like hands.  A metal mask in the guise of an ornamental wolf covered his face while comfortably accounting for his snout.  To a person who didn't know about the beast underneath, the complete outfit made him appear a tall human bodyguard with an odd interest in masks.

Once the carriage came to a halt, Leander jumped from his seat and opened the door to let in sunlight and dust, the eager boy rushing outside to smack full on against the solid form of the waiting steward.  Ward laughed deeply when he prevented the youth from falling to the ground and then lifted the boy into his muscular arms.

"Well now, young master, did you already forget it's my job to open the door?"

"Ward!"  Hugging his arms around the man's thick neck, Leander said excitedly, "So much happened.  It was boring at first with all of the stuffy people Father made us meet, but then we stayed a long time with the Shumi.  They tried to eat us at first, but they were just scared.  We gotta watch Kehrei become a Moomba and we played all of the time.  Oh, and Squall did something to Father so that I can feel him all of the time now!"

Ward chuckled at the rapid string of words, his split eyebrow lifting in interest at the final comment.  Meanwhile, Seifer helped the stubborn sorcerer out from the carriage, earning himself an icy glare for his aid.  Moving behind the smaller man, Seifer captured Squall in a one-armed hold before he could get too far and vanish within the two-storied summer house.  Last to exit, Sekre stepped carefully such that no cloth caught on the wood of the carriage and stood tall near the steward of the same height.  At Ward's surprised and somewhat horrified expression, Seifer silenced him with a subtle look and then waved off the coachman with the instruction to enjoy a few days off.

Once freed from the interfering eyes and ears of strangers, Seifer told his steward, "I know this wasn't exactly in our plans, but Sekre wanted the honor of protecting 'Leonhart' and he's a hard fur ball to refuse."

"Wasn't in our plans?" Ward repeated in disbelief.  "You brought a Shumi to your home when we're in the middle of finalizing our attack against the Emperor and you thought it was a good idea?"

Squall spoke out first in reply.  "Sekre will call upon the other Shumi whenever we need them using a special summoning stone.  It'll be faster than sending a messenger who may end up eaten if he isn't careful enough."

Though the steward didn't seem convinced by the argument, he waved aside the issue with the realization that the cautious sorcerer seemed to support the presence of the feared Shumi.  Leander still in his arms, Ward walked to the entrance of the vine-covered house.  "The place has been cleaned and refurnished where needed, though we only anticipated Squall and Leander staying here for the remainder of the year.  Another room will have to be prepared for your new friend."

"Do not be troubled over me," Sekre said, his voice muffled by the mask.  "I can sleep on any ground."

The steward stared back at the Shumi as if offended by the concept of the large cat curled in some random corner of the house.  "We will prepare a room."

"Ward, what exactly do you mean by 'we'?" Squall asked with suspicion.

"Well, of course it'll take more than just me to watch over you," Ward stated as he freed a hand and opened the door for the small group.  "Welcome home."

Pushing the reluctant sorcerer forward, Seifer followed him over the threshold.  Eyes adjusting to the darker lighting, the blond lord was surprised by the amount of memories that came back at the sight of worn rugs, vases filled with fresh flowers, and a forgotten portrait of his mother seated in her garden.  Relieved that he couldn't sense any malevolent force in the old place, Seifer released his hold on Squall and stepped to the portrait to remind himself of her eyes.

Meanwhile, Squall faced Ward and demanded, "How many people are included in this 'we' of yours?"

"Just one other, child," a female voice replied from a connecting room.  Dressed in an apron smeared with flour and other foods, Edea Kramer walked into the entryway.  Her golden eyes immediately settled on Squall with her gaze slowly lowering to his curved stomach, the sight of which causing a tremulous smile to overcome her features.  "So it's true.  Ward told me everything he knew, but I couldn't begin to imagine..."

Seifer nearly laughed when the sorcerer placed his arms over his midsection, as if able to hide his pregnancy from the woman who already knew enough.  Stormy eyes lowered in shame, Squall told her, "It wasn't that I didn't trust you, Matron, but--"

Edea quickly hushed his words while stepping forward.  Taking his hands in hers, she coaxed his arms apart so that she had a clear view of his body.  "Sweet child, how could I expect you to reveal something that is so terrifying for you?  A sorcerer living so close to the capital and a young man who had given birth to the son of a fool lord... I'd be more disappointed if you had told me those secrets without fear of the consequences."

Full lips twitched into a weak smile, the brunet unable to maintain his guilt against the motherly woman.

Edea smiled warmly at the break in composure, but then a different sight caught her eye and she gasped at the immense form in dark robes.  "Oh my."

Leander snickered at the woman's shock.  "It's alright, Matron.  Sekre is really nice."  As if to prove his point, the boy wiggled out from Ward's hold and tugged at the black robes, the Moomba humoring the child by picking him up.  "See, he's not scary looking either."

Seifer inwardly groaned as the naive boy removed the wolf mask, Sekre unable to stop the action while holding the active child.  Edea bit off a startled scream, the woman apparently not warned about the possibility of meeting a Shumi in her lifetime.  Sekre gave a commendable appearance of embarrassment, his hood slipping free to reveal long ears bent back as far as they could go.

Edea remained speechless for a time, but her tenderness shone through when she forced a small smile and told Leander, "You are quite right, young master.  Your friend... Sekre, if I heard right, has a kind face."

Leander beamed at being prove right and knocked his head against Sekre's.  "I told you that Matron was really nice."

The Moomba nodded at the young boy's statement before he set Leander down onto the ground, freeing his arms such that he could place a fisted hand at his chest.  "I apologize for frightening you; it was not my intent.  Please allow me to stay and protect Leonhart."

"Hey now," Seifer interrupted while Edea stared in shock at the oversized cat speaking the human language.  "I'm the master of this estate.  She's not the one who can have you removed from this place, you damn fur ball."

Sekre glanced at the blond, and after a slight smirk, redirected an eager gaze to the long-haired woman.  "Do I have your permission?"

Her surprise fading, Edea laughed lightly at the clear insult to her lord and master.  "It's good to know that someone has the right sense to know who holds the real power around here.  But I must insist, if you are to stay, I hope that you will do your best to protect the entire family."

Amber eyes firm, Sekre's replied, "With the last of my strength."

"Then, yes, you have my permission to stay.  A room will have to be made, but first," Edea looked to the silent sorcerer, her golden eyes soft with worry.  "You look pale, child.  Is there something I can do for you?"

"Traveling was hard, that's all," Squall replied before adding, "I'll be fine," for good measure.

At the woman's distrustful look, Seifer spoke up for his lover.  "Don't waste your breath, Matron.  The same thing happened to him while we traveled out east.  Give him a day with a warm bed and no traveling beyond the bedroom to the kitchen, and he'll be able to hold his food again."

Edea hummed at the reply.  "I suppose that is understandable, but Lord Kinneas should still be summoned.  All of this traveling isn't good for someone in such a delicate state."

"Matron," Squall all but growled.  "I'm not helpless.  I've done this before with far less attention."

"That's a discussion for another time," the golden-eyed woman stated in part warning to the secretive man.  "For now, allow us to dote our attention on you.  Knowing that you are healthy and comfortable is the only way the rest of us can have any peace of mind."

Squall seemed dumbfounded by the concept, his blue-gray eyes shifting to Seifer in the need to know if it was true.  Seifer smiled at his occasionally naive lover and decided that there was far too much distance between them.  With a long stride, the blond lord crossed the room to stand in front of the smaller man.  His smile mischievous, Seifer placed hand at the brunet's lower back and kissed just above a dark eyebrow.

"Matron is right, princeling.  The more you fight, the more we worry that you're hiding something.  Why don't you give in for once and prove us wrong?"

A deep scowl in place, Squall struggled with the challenge before saying, "You can't summon Lord Kinneas for every minor thing."

"If that's the compromise you want to make, but in the end, it'll be Matron's choice," Seifer said with some regret, knowing that their time together would be cut short in the future months.  While Squall needed to remain hidden, Seifer had appearances to uphold and plans to finalize, which meant spending a good portion of his time at the manor.  The nights would be theirs, but accustomed to spending all of their hours together, Seifer already felt lonely at the idea of leaving his lover and child behind at the summer house.

"It's for the best," Squall said in a consoling tone, unsurprisingly sensing the lord's abruptly depressed mood.  Placing a hand at the dark letters beneath thin fabric, the sorcerer reminded, "We're always together."

Warmed at the man's desire to comfort him, Seifer reluctantly agreed, "Always, no matter how far you may run."

Squall directed a halfhearted glare at the lord, but didn't correct the opinion.

Eventually Edea coaxed the sorcerer toward the kitchen with a promise of pastries that would settle his stomach and Leander followed quickly behind with Sekre in tow, the boy doing his best to explain the joys of sugary treats to the interested Moomba.  Seifer reluctantly held back while watching the small group disappear to the far part of the house, the blond lord left alone with his large steward.

"You wanted to talk," Seifer asked, referring to an unsubtle look Ward had directed his way when Edea had first mentioned a treat.

The steward didn't speak directly, his pale blue eyes focused on the younger man with a critical edge when he stepped close.  Eyes lowering to the lord's chest, he demanded, "Open your shirt."

An eyebrow lifted high, Seifer felt amused at the servant giving his master an order, but he didn't dare to deny the man his request.  Some part of him recognized that he wasn't currently speaking with his faithful steward, but instead Squall's surrogate father.  Unlacing his shirt, he revealed the fist-sized area of burnt flesh that drew attention to the symbols of Sugenti Denynas in unharmed skin.

Ward frowned at the evidence of Squall's final trust in the arrogant lord.  "Then, it's done."

"Hey now, old man, I didn't plan for this to happen.  Hell, I didn't even know about this binding ceremony until Squall asked me to join souls with him.  If I had known, I swear that I would have asked for your approval first."

His split eyebrow raised, the steward asked, "Squall was the one to initiate this?"

"He didn't plan it either.  One of the Shumi scared the shit out of him with the information that we're about to have a daughter and Squall came to the abrupt decision that he couldn't handle the weight of that knowledge without my support."

"A sorceress?" Ward whispered in surprise.  "Holy bones of Hyne, he must have been devastated."

"Don't you encourage him," Seifer stressed in threatening tone.  With a finger pointed at the dark mark, he continued, "Because of this thing, I was able to feel that life in Squall and she is definitely our baby girl and she is beautiful.  A month ago, Squall was willing to believe her a murderer before her first breath, but I've slowly convinced him that we can make her better than her supposed fate.  So whatever you do, don't remind him about those bullshit sorcerer laws that'll make him fear his own daughter."

Despite the accusatory words directed at him, Ward offered a small smile.  "When have I ever said that I believed a sorceress could only become a destroyer as told by the legends?"

Seifer huffed at the man's rational tone.  "I haven't had the pleasure of debating the specifics of sorcerer law with you, so I wasn't certain where you stood on the issue."

"Then let me say this - Leander Loire may have loved his daughter, but she never knew of his love.  It was Leander's greatest and perhaps only regret in his life and he believed with his last breath that things would have been different if he had been allowed to love his daughter.  While I can't share his same certainty, I am able to reserve judgment until I see with my own eyes what becomes of a sorceress born from the blood of my prince and my master."

Pleased to find an ally in his mission, Seifer grinned at his steward.  "The more I hear about that guy, it makes me proud that Ander shares his name.  I wish I had known him personally."

"He wouldn't have liked you much."

Seifer stared at him for the statement that had no hint of humor and couldn't consider an argument before Ward abruptly leaned forward to place a heavy hand on his shoulder and flashed a dangerous smirk.

"You stole the heart of his beloved nephew, not to mention impregnating him twice.  You would have been lucky if old Leander didn't slice off your cock and feed it to his pet wolves to give them a nice taste of your flesh."

With a breath of uncertain laughter, Seifer said, "You can't be serious."

"Completely.  Leander had a kind heart when it came to family and children, but don't let that fool you.  He was a devil and Squall learned everything from the vicious bastard."

"Hn, oddly enough, that makes better sense," Seifer commented as he remembered the winter day in the capital when Squall had killed five men in the matter of minutes, none allowed the chance to beg for mercy.  The sorcerer had been efficient, coldhearted, and deadly in that moment, and it was strange to associate that man to the one who tutored their son with incredible patience and kissed away bruises without second thought.

Ward leaned back and straightened his clothing before stating, "Though I was not consulted beforehand, I know what you are to Squall and I approve his choice.  I only wish there had been more time for him to move at a slower pace and be certain with his choice, but given the circumstances..."  With a quiet sigh, the large man said, "I don't want to be wrong about you."

It should have been an offensive statement, but Seifer remembered the last time those words had been spoken to him, shortly after Seifer had broken every bottle of alcohol in the mansion no matter its worth.  Hitting Leander had been the first time he lost face with the large steward, and though Seifer knew that he never deserved forgiveness from the man, Ward decided to do just that with the statement that he hoped that he wasn't wrong about the young lord.

In the years since, Seifer didn't dare ask if Ward ever thought that he had been wrong.

"Squall looks good," Ward eventually commented to break the silence.  "Well, aside from his paleness, but that is to be expected given the amount of traveling he had to endure.  Overall, I can't remember the last time he seemed... comfortable with his life."

"I'm working on that," Seifer replied with a distant look.  It didn't take much effort for him to remember the overly thin servant who would hide in the kitchens and keep his head bowed despite the fierceness of storm-colored eyes.  "I was horribly naive about the amount of pain he has endured in his past, but I'm helping Squall to realize that he's allowed to heal.  The scars will always be there, but it's better than letting those old wounds fester and grow until they poison his heart."

"A lesson you haven't quite learned yourself, if I'm not mistaken," Ward commented with a sharp gleam to his pale eyes.  Before Seifer could retort, the large steward knocked a light fist against the lord's jaw.  "Don't mind the words of an old man.  Do your best to help Squall and the rest will come in line.  But if I discover that you've made Squall unhappy, you'll wish that it was old Leander after your life."

His warning given, Ward walked off in the direction of the kitchen to leave Seifer alone in the entryway.  Amused and heartened by the former soldier's desire to protect his prince, Seifer resisted the urge to follow in his wake and be with his complicated family.  Instead, he turned and gazed at his mother's portrait, remembering the day nearly two decades past when she had posed in her beloved garden.  Dressed in a white summer dress and wearing a large hat decorated with feathers, the golden-haired woman looked younger than her years, though Seifer had a good feeling that the painter had hidden the signs of fatigue that had started to plague her by that time.

A locket was visible in the painting, Seifer recalling her promise that the locket would be passed along to his future wife.  Seifer laughed to himself at the vague memory of fake puking at the idea of marrying a girl, a common reaction by clueless seven-year-old boys, but amusedly appropriate given his current choice in a partner.  With more thought, Seifer then considered that the locket would be the perfect memento for his baby girl and decided to have Edea search for the piece of jewelry.

"Well, Mother, I never found that bride you promised me, but I think you would agree with me that I found something even better.  Let's just hope that little Vera doesn't give me as many headaches as you gave Father."

The portrait didn't argue while continuing to smile in her gentle way, something Seifer decided to take as acceptance from the woman's ghost.


Seifer turned at the voice of his son, Leander partly hidden behind the archway that led to the deeper parts of the house.  "Hey kiddo, what is it?"

Green eyes curious, Leander stepped to his father and asked, "Who were you talking to?"

"Your grandmother," Seifer replied as he placed a hand on a small shoulder and directed him to the large portrait.  "She passed away before you were born, but she would have spoiled you like no other."

"Oh," was Leander's response, the child too young to understand the matters of speaking to those no longer a part of the living world.

Smiling at his boy, Seifer asked, "So why aren't you enjoying dessert with the others?"

"Oh, because, because I had five cookies and Matron said I couldn't have no more, and then Squall said I should get you and tell you that you haveta eat something before you get hungry because he doesn't like it when you get too hungry."

"Is that so?" the lord asked with an amused glint to his eyes.

"Uh-huh.  But Matron and Ward laughed when he said it, so maybe it's a joke?"

"Something like that," Seifer replied with gentle push of the small body in the direction of the kitchen.  "So, what else did they talk about?"

Leander hummed in deep thought before relaying, "Matron says you look a lot stronger and that's she worried about you hurting Squall, but I told her that you promised that you wouldn't hurt Squall no more.  Oh, and, and Sekre said something about you and Squall sleeping for two days and made Matron really red!  It was funny.  Then Squall said..."

Seifer grinned at the information from his little spy, amused at the assumption of adults that Leander wouldn't retain any information when bribed with treats.  And as they walked side by side, Seifer wondered about the future and imagined the day his daughter would innocently repeat the damaging words spoken by adults.  It seemed an eternity away, but as he glanced down at his son, Seifer realized that in seven short years, the boy was already level with his waist and wasn't about to stop growing.  So many years ahead, so many adventures for his son to conquer... With a small smile, Seifer felt like a true father in that moment, placing his child's future victories and escapades over his own.

But fanciful thoughts were pushed aside, Seifer recognizing that his children's future first depended on the success of his greatest mission.  The Empress' existence threatened more than their safety, but also their ability to live a peaceful life, one that Squall had been denied due to his cousin's actions.  It couldn't continue, which meant the final execution of plans that had been laid in place over years of subterfuge, gaining trust, and creating a secret army.  After so much time, Seifer felt a measure of anxiousness at enacting something that only existed on paper.

Following Leander into the kitchen, the lord's eyes immediately settled on his pregnant lover.  Squall was focused on Matron's accounts of the past several months while he leaned against the back counter and a hand rubbed casually along the bulge of his midsection.  Seifer smirked at the unconscious action by the sorcerer, the sight reminding him of Squall's wish for their child to be born in a safer world.

Stepping next to the dark-haired man, Seifer rested his hand over Squall's and whispered against an ear, "Soon, my love.  Soon I'll make this a better world for our son and daughter."

"... I know you will," Squall said quietly in reply, his thumb moving to stroke Seifer's fingers.  "Just don't do anything stupid."

With a brush of his smiling lips against the brunet's temple, Seifer answered, "I can't promise the impossible, my Prince, but I will do my best."




Author's Whining -- Lo and behold, I think I'm only a couple chapters from ending this bastard.  Yay!  Before I started this story, I knew it would be a long sucker, but I never thought it'd reach this many chapters.  Anywho, after over three years of nonsense, everything is finally setup up for the ending.  It looks like I'll be able to keep my promise to finish FNFE in 2008. =P