For Nothing, For Everything
The East Wing of the Imperial Palace was designed with an aura of warm elegance - the tiled floors alternated between white and rose marble in symmetric designs, the high ceiling of gold-lined archways supported elaborate chandeliers decorated with golden leaves, and wide windows of stained glass brightened the hallway with colored light and the imagery of gods and heroes. Compared to the methods and morals of the inhabiting royalty, the East Wing was a beautiful facade for a corrupt Empire.
It was for that reason Seifer didn't mind adding a touch of blood and grime to the pathetic shell of beauty that surrounded the Emperor and Empress.
His upper arms supported by the meaty hands of barbarian guardsmen, Seifer let his feet drag as he was escorted to the Empress' private chambers. His body bruised, but not broken by the rough hands of the grunts, Seifer fought against a smile that would prove he wasn't as injured as the guardsmen believed. Kasir had done more damage during their frequent spars, then followed by Sekre happily taking his father's place in the subsequent months whenever time allowed. The blond lord had learned the art of taking a punch without sustaining anything more than a deep bruise, but his captors had no reason to believe him anything more than an indulgent nobleman who hadn't seen the better side of a blade for over seven years.
His left eye bruised and swollen to uselessness, Seifer glanced with some pain at the windows of stained glass, attempting to determine the time of day. He had met privately with the Emperor and Empress shortly at the end of her birthday celebration, but it had been a brief encounter with Seifer's refusal to answer any question demanded of him. With an eager gleam to dark eyes, Emperor Deling had promptly suggested that the lord deserved a humbling experience in the dungeons, a recommendation his wife was visibly reluctant to grant, but she owed the man thanks for his generous present.
Once able to determine it was closer to sunset than he first believe, Seifer purposefully tripped over his own feet and fell down onto hard marble, trying to gain every spare minute he could before nightfall.
The guardsmen chuckled at the apparent clumsiness of the proud loud and hauled him back onto uncooperative feet. Before Seifer could fake another fall, he was taken to a closer set of double doors compared to the night before. After a guard's heavy knock against white wood, the double doors parted without visible means and revealed an immense room of two floors that greatly contrasted the soft elegance of the hallway - dark bookcases displayed faded titles of unknown languages, statues of odd creatures decorated the room, and parchments of harsh script were scattered across the floor. What was once a lovely library had been changed to meet the needs of the sorceress and her pursuit of darker magics.
Seated at a large desk made of polished ebony, Empress Ultimecia wore a simplistic gown of dark gray silk that clung to her perfect form and complimented her lengthy silver hair. Eyes of pale amber studied the presented prisoner, her satisfaction apparent by the curl of darkly painted lips.
"Lord Almasy, why don't you have a seat?" Ultimecia asked pleasantly and waved her hand toward a heavy chair. The piece of furniture was skillfully crafted and made of fine materials, an incongruous sight to the old chains and shackles that draped over the carved designs of flowers and vines.
Not allowed to refuse the offered seat, the battered lord was hauled across the room by the escorting guardsmen and dropped roughly into the wooden chair. Without resistance from Seifer, the guardsmen hastily secured his wrists and ankles in weighted shackles, and then proceeded to wrap the length of chains across his chest in an exaggerated effort to restrain the young lord. Once finished with the task of delivering their captive, the heavily built guards bowed to their Empress and silently departed the library without ever turning their backs, something that would have been comical if Seifer hadn't known the deadly abilities of the deceivingly frail woman.
"Are you comfortable?" Ultimecia asked as she turned her attention to the desk at her side, a small drawer discreetly opened.
Since it was a part of the game, Seifer tested his restraints despite the knowledge that nothing short of a key or lock pick would free him. "I've been worse off," he commented with a smirk, uncaring of the aggravation it caused to his bruised and torn mouth.
"How delightful," she said lightly, as if complimented for first-class accommodations. "Given your tone, shall I assume that you are determined to pretend that no sorcerer lives under your control?"
"As I attested last night, Empress, I served years within the Imperial army and helped to rid this continent of those dangerous magic users. I have no reason to shelter a sorcerer who would more likely kill me than obey my word."
Ultimecia smiled at the argument, an expression that should have been lovely, but Seifer could only see the woman's inner darkness. Lifting from her seat, the silver-haired woman stepped with an unnatural grace toward the chained lord. "Foolish man, do you think I can't feel him on you? His magic taints the world around him and you are no exception. All I ask is for his name and I will let you live."
Humor lost to a sterner expression, Seifer boldly met her golden-eyed gaze. "If his magic taints the world, then yours is a plague upon the innocent."
Visibly startled by the declaration, Ultimecia stopped in place before a light, careful laugh sounded. "You've been informed about my abilities? That is quite unexpected, but not the disadvantage you assume." She lifted a hand and curled her fingers sharply, an action immediately followed by Seifer's chair jerking forward and sliding across the few steps remaining between them. As the lord recovered from the sharp movement, Ultimecia placed a hand against his swollen cheek and drew her long nails against injured flesh. "Now, my dear Lord, I can be myself."
Jerking away from that touch, Seifer glared up at the mocking woman, but was stunned into silence when she revealed the item she had covertly removed from her desk. Held between long fingers, she dangled before his eyes a decorated glass vial containing red liquid that shone with a sickening light.
"Do you recognize this, Lord Almasy?"
Green eyes unmoving from the etched glass, Seifer inadvertently showed his confusion at the question when it seemed obvious that he knew the identity of the merciless potion. He realized too late that Ultimecia had no living witness, and thus no knowledge from the day when the blond lord was force-fed the Lengen ni Werlogh poison that should have taken his life. For all the Empress could assume, her agents had been killed before the potion had met his lips and threatened his life.
"Are you afraid?" she whispered in a soft purr. "Do you fear what will happen if you taste this nectar?"
Seifer glanced at the face that was too close and recognized the searching nature of her eyes. Though confident that the sorceress had no certain knowledge about his previous taste of the potion, Seifer knew it meant nothing when he was about to taste it for a second time. "Only a fool wouldn't fear something fed from your hand."
"Then it is a fortunate thing that I am surrounded by fools," Ultimecia replied, her smile proud with a feral edge. Her fingertips at the stopper of the vial, she twisted it slowly such that sound of grounding glass reached the lord. "You should be relieved to know that I sent a messenger to your elusive sorcerer last night. He has been given the opportunity to show himself and spare your life from the effects of this delicious potion."
Unable to restrain his emotion, Seifer let his horror show, but not for the reason Ultimecia could assume. In all other circumstances, Squall would have played events safely and remained at the Almasy Estate along with their son, but for the Sorcerer Prince to be singled out and told his presence was necessary to save the lord's life, Seifer knew the stormy-eyed man would appear without fail. It wasn't a matter of worrying the sorcerer's life, a futile attempt with their joined souls, but Seifer didn't want the man to suffer in death as he had throughout life.
"Do you fear that your pet will not come, Lord Almasy?" Ultimecia asked with unconcealed joy at the reaction.
Restraining further anger, Seifer glanced up dolefully with his one good eye. "You summoned him last night and he has yet to appear. Obviously he wishes to be free of me."
"If that is indeed the situation at hand, then why don't we grant your pet his heart's greatest wish?"
Seifer wanted to refuse, wanted to show some form of resistance, but the sorceress used the wind to pull the red liquid from the glass vial. Like a thread of blood, the potion slipped past bruised lips before Seifer could firmly close his mouth. The fluid tasted as he remembered and he knew he needed to spit out the poison as soon as possible, but it continued to flow to the back of his throat and it became a matter of swallow or choke on the measure of liquid.
"How does the blood of a murdered sorcerer taste?"
Coughing despite the uselessness of the action, Seifer looked up in surprise at the casual statement. He had never considered what ingredients were used to create the merciless potion, but staring into the pale amber eyes that seemed to dance with delight, Seifer couldn't ignore the metallic tang of blood that filled his mouth.
Replacing the stopper into its vial, Ultimecia said a conversional manner, "It's quite amazing how many sorcerers are still alive within our lovely Empire, but they aren't the ones you would expect. Instead of the rugged warriors of old, most are quite young and hold little to no awareness about the extraordinary powers they possess."
Seifer choked at the implication that he had been fed the blood of an innocent child, blood that had been used to create a terrible poison used in the sorcerers' ancient past.
The Empress placed the emptied vial onto her desk and removed a lengthy coat of white furs from the back of her seat. Draping the costly coat over her shoulders, she smiled pleasantly at the bound and chained lord. "While I would love to stay and watch every moment of your slow death, I must attend to my husband and our guests. But do not worry, my dear Lord, I'm not abandoning you. You should still be very alive by the time I return, even if you beg the gods to strike you dead."
Stepping past the seated man, Ultimecia raked her long fingernails through his golden hair spiked with sweat, grime, and blood. Seifer snarled at mocking touch and the aggravation to his injuries, but the reaction was hardly threatening to the Empress as she chuckled with clear gratification.
Left alone in the sorceress' library, Seifer relaxed within his restraints and considered his current position. Even if he could move the chair weighted by thick chains, there was no visible tool that could free him from the restraints and escaping with the chair strapped to his body wasn't an option. From the visible cracks between drawn drapes, Seifer determined that it was nearly sunset, still hours away from the complete darkness that his forces needed for their ultimate attack that night.
There was no question that his plans would move forward that night, Seifer trusting Dincht to deliver the message that nothing was to be delayed by his capture, but Squall was an unknown factor. Despite the lord muting his part of the bond to protect Leander from residual pain and anger, Seifer felt certain that he would feel his lover's death, which mean the sorcerer was safe after Ultimecia's delivered message. That knowledge suggested Squall knew the lord's current situation and was prepared to meet the Empress' demands in the chance to spare Seifer from a grisly death. The only matters that remained were when the dark-haired sorcerer would chose to attack after already waiting the length of a full day and how he would present himself given his current weakened condition.
Inhaling deeply against the chains surrounding his chest, Seifer breathed out a long sigh at his fate to be restrained to the point of worthlessness when his lover needed him most. While most of his words had been filled with bravo and false assurances, he had truly believed that he would survive to witness the birth of his daughter and live to see the day when she could use her magic and perform a song from her grandmother's flute. Seifer closed his eyes to better envision a girl of bright eyes and a teasing smile, not expecting exhaustion to catch up to him even after a night's worth of beatings and the general lack of sleep since the previous morning.
At the sound of a closed door, Seifer jerked to full awareness and looked with his uninjured eye toward the library entrance, but didn't see the sorceress dressed in silver like he assumed. Instead, in the poor lighting of the room, he could barely make out a lean figure dressed in dark robes and a wrapped scarf covering his head. The intruder stepped soundlessly across the rugged floor, and at the glimmer of metal appearing in the man's hand, Seifer breathed a soft laugh at the idea that the Empress was about to lose her prey to an apparent assassin.
"Do you find this funny, boy?" the man demanded in an accented voice that identified him as a foreigner from beyond the oceans that surrounded the continent.
"A little bit. I never realized there was more than one person who would go to extended lengths to be rid of me." With a harsh smirk, Seifer asked, "Who are you, my assassin friend?"
"I'm not here to kill you," the man stated succinctly as he knelt next to the chair and immediately began work on a shackle.
With the man up close and his wrappings shifted from his movement, Seifer stared at the familiar face that he couldn't place a name to. It wasn't until the dark-skinned man cursed at the sight of broken fingers and rested his hand over the injured hand that Seifer knew the man, the healer next to him. Though they had met only once in the past, the lord clearly identified the Dark-Eyed Shaman who had attested to Leander's Almasy blood without revealing the boy's sorcerer heritage.
Hissing through the pain of his fingers being set right, Seifer said, "You're Kiros Seagill."
"That is one name I've used," the dark-eyed man commented before returning to his task of freeing the blond lord.
Dumbfounded by the composure of the healer, Seifer demanded, "Are you going to explain what the fuck you're doing here?"
"I would think that quite obvious, but if you must know, the Empress plans to poison you with something that no man should have to endure, especially when said man is the father of a sorcerer."
Seifer almost smiled at the tenacious loyalty that sorcerers promoted from their followers. "Well, she already gave me mouthful that Lengen ni Werlogh poison, so unless she has another poison--"
"Impossible," Kiros interrupted critically. "She left almost an hour ago. At this moment, you would be blessing the arrival of an assassin if she had given you..." The shackle abruptly popped open, but instead of commenting on his success, the healer asked, "How do you know the correct pronunciation of its name?"
"I've tasted it before," Seifer replied as his explanation, and then frowned as he looked to the covered windows and noticed that, indeed, the sun had already set. "That's odd, I should've felt something long before now. Could I be immune because I was saved the last time?"
The dark-eyed gaze gaining a harsh edge, Kiros demanded, "Don't tell me that you stole the blood of your own child to save your life."
At first confused and then angered by the accusation, Seifer defended, "Even if I had known those were the means to purge the poison from my body, I would have never harmed my boy like that."
"Then how were you saved?"
Seifer said nothing for a time while he considered how far to trust the healer. While the man had protected Leander's identity as a sorcerer, it seemed horribly convenient for Kiros to appear when he was most needed. Seifer didn't hold it beneath the Empress to somehow gain the cooperation of a former friend to Laguna Loire, all for the sake of ousting a rogue sorcerer. "Before I answer that, why don't you explain how it is that you've appeared to rescue a man you hardly know?"
Instead of showing irritation at the accusatory question, Kiros smiled with a vaguely pleased glint to his eyes. "Do you think I don't know the games that are about to take place tonight?" At the lord's attempt to smother a look of surprise, the healer's smile broadened. "Ever since I learned that you had a child bearing the blood of a sorcerer, I've been keeping an eye on you and your activities without revealing myself. You are fortunate Ward vouched to protect that boy, or else I would've taken him far away from a drunken bastard like you."
"Ward never mentioned anything about that."
"Of course not. He was as eager as I was to protect one of few remaining sorcerers left in this world. If you learned of someone else willing to care for the child, Ward feared you would have handed over the boy without a moment to spare."
Seifer stared at the kneeling healer and wished his left eye wasn't injured so that he could clearly view upon the man and better judge his character. "Why do you refuse to say Leander's name?"
Lips setting into a frown, Kiros declared, "I don't care for the name you chose."
"Because you didn't like the man or because you think my son isn't worthy of a name from the Loire clan?"
The frown changing to one of thought, dark eyes stared at the lord's face with a searching gaze. "You not only know how to speak with a sorcerer's tongue, but you also know of Leander Loire?"
Seifer smirked lightened at the deepening lilt to the man's voice, surprise taking away the careful composure that the lord more associated to his stoic lover. Deciding that not enough time remained for games, he took a risk and asked, "What if I said I also had knowledge about your beloved Prince and that he was alive and well?"
The healer went stiff to the point that Seifer feared the man wasn't breathing, and then a startling tear trailed down dark skin. Before the lord could offer consoling words, Kiros shook his head to silence him. "Don't speak his name and say nothing else. It's enough to know..." Abruptly lifting a hand, Kiros placed callused fingers against Seifer's swollen eye and directed his healing energy into the sore flesh. "It seems I've underestimated you like everyone else in this Empire. You're young, which others dangerously assume to mean foolish."
Wincing from the sharp pain of healing, Seifer commented, "You seem to know a lot about me."
"As I said, I've been watching from a distance and noticed that you were procuring key holdings within the Empire that would give you the necessary materials to build up a resistance against the Emperor. He's a fool to not see it himself, but I imagine his bride has him quite entranced and she's blind to your true abilities. It's quite incredible how a man can change right before everyone's eyes, but because he continues to play the jester, they rather believe him an imbecile than someone who should be feared." Removing his hand, Kiros checked the healed eye when asking, "Was being a drunken bastard part of the ruse, too?"
"Unfortunately, no. But I lost the taste for alcohol when I became a real father."
Kiros stared with an ageless look to his dark eyes, but didn't ask anything further of the young lord. With the muttered declaration that Seifer needed to be returned home as soon as possible, the healer bent down to work on the lock that kept the chains wrapped around his chest. The metal pick worked into the old lock, something Seifer decided was a nice trick in the darkening room. The lock popped open with a clang and loosened chains slipped to his lap, but before the healer could move onto the next restraint, the room abruptly burst into light.
Momentarily blinded, Seifer first heard the opening of a door and the click of shoes before he could force his vision into focus. Innumerable candles burned with too tall flames, hurting the lord's eyes as he looked to the Empress. Her gaze flared with a golden light as she stared beyond her captive and focused solely on the kneeling healer. Kiros stood and crossed his arms to reach for the paired swords at his sides, but he wasn't given the opportunity to unsheathe the weapons. With a wide wave her arm, Ultimecia created a harsh wind that threw the lean man against the wall, the impact causing his concealing scarf to fall from his face. Before he could regain his breath, the stone of the wall reached out to encircle Kiros, efficiently restraining him to the wall while pinning crossed arms to his body.
"You," Ultimecia snarled before regaining some of her poise. "I banished you from my Empire."
The dark-skinned healer smiled with a striking show of white teeth, appearing nothing like a man in a life threatening situation. "It's been years, Ula. Have you missed me?"
"Don't call me that," she demanded with a squeeze of her fist, the action echoed by a strangled cry from Kiros as the stone tightened around him. "Why are you here, old man?"
With no breath to answer, Kiros continued to smile at the Empress, though the curl of his lips became tenuous under the strain of constricting rock. His reply wasn't necessary, however, the sorceress' gaze shifting to the seated lord and his partially undone restraints. Painted lips twisted into an irritated frown and golden eyes flared with a dark light that should have instilled fear in the bound man, but Seifer instead felt a dose of pride at bringing the woman's true nature to the forefront.
Ultimecia stepped close with the grace of a stalking lioness, her expression slowly softening to one of puzzlement as she studied the chained lord. "You should be screaming in pain by now. A healer's touch couldn't have saved you from the poison's effects."
Seifer smirked at the accusatory tone. "I'm very sorry to have disappointed you."
Eyes of pale amber narrowed in stern thought, but nothing more was said when sharp knocks sounded at the library's entrance. Turning with a flare of her white-furred coat, Ultimecia looked to the doorway and demanded for the person to enter. With a cautious opening of the door, a young guardsman came inside with visible reluctance, but still managed to find his voice in front of the powerful woman.
"E-Empress, there is a man at the gate who claims you summoned him. He said this would serve as proof," the boy relayed as he held out a cloth bundle in his shaky hands, then lifting the covering to reveal the charred remains of something that appeared like a small monkey.
"Excellent," the Empress purred at the sight of the destroyed creature. "Show him to this room."
"As you demand, Empress," the guardsman stated, some of the frightened paleness to his face fading at the woman's obvious pleasure. "Also, he is accompanied by three men. What should we do with them?"
Ultimecia laughed with a mocking edge. "What a pathetic man he must be to bring protectors! And to think, I was expecting a worthy opponent, but a coward has appeared in his stead. Very well, let him have his guards, but make certain that they are all stripped of weapons."
"Yes, Empress. We will escort them here immediately."
While the young guardsman made his escape, Ultimecia returned her attention to the seated lord. "It appears your pet values your life after all. Are you surprised?"
Seifer said nothing to the taunt, his mind instead racing with thoughts of possible actions to best help his approaching lover. His right hand freed, he considered the possibility of strangling the slim sorceress, but he knew better than to believe that mere physical force could dominate the woman.
"If he values your life now, then perhaps he valued it in the past," Ultimecia considered out loud, her eyes bright while staring at the lord. "And if my men were successful last winter to feed you this poison, then your pet's blood would have spared your life. But that would have been true in that time, not at this current hour. What is keeping you alive, my dear Lord?"
Seifer shrugged at the question he was the least competent to answer. "Maybe I'm just that hard to kill."
A pale eyebrow lifted in surprise, the sorceress' attention moved to the lord's chest and his torn shirt that had shifted from his movement. Reaching out in a sharp motion, Ultimecia grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled at the delicate fabric until it shred down the center in a mess of loose threads.
Her lips set into a disgusted sneer, she glared at the dark brand forever burned into firm flesh. "Ludicrous. The gods should have never allowed a sorcerer to join with another man. And to think, his magic has protected you despite the sin of..." Her rant trailing off to silence, Ultimecia lost all expression when she held out a hand until nearly touching blackened skin. In a whispered breath, she said, "Sugenti Denynas. No, that cannot be. Only one other dared to match me and learned this spell in revenge, but he is dead."
Knowing everything was about to be revealed, Seifer smiled playfully and asked, "Are you certain about that?"
Just as amber eyes went wide in disbelief, a knock sounded at the library entry and the Empress was too startled to answer until the second series of knocks against wood. Regaining her regal poise, she stepped away from the seated lord and granted the permission for entrance. The same young guardsman from earlier opened the door and allowed in his wards per the Empress' earlier command. The first to enter was the dark-haired sorcerer, dressed in his favored fur-collared cloak to cover his body, but no other disguise. Following him were the predictable presences of Sekre wearing his wolf mask and dark robes and Ward dressed in his uniform from his days as Laguna Loire's personal guard. Less expected was Irvine's entrance, the auburn-haired man wearing his hospital uniform of white and soft gray along with an empty sheath that didn't belong with a healer's dress.
Though afraid for the stubborn man, Seifer gazed fondly at his lover and was surprised by the forceful desire he felt for the stormy-eyed sorcerer. Though his hair had been shortened a month past, the chestnut-colored strands had grown out such that the back of his long neck was covered and ragged bangs hung over his left eye. Full lips were set into a soft line that showed no fear, a facade of indifference toward his meeting with the woman who had destroyed his family and capital. In contrast, his blue-gray eyes shone with the threat of an old sword that had been polished like new, but still bore the scratches and chips from innumerable battles.
The hoarse voice momentarily distracted the sorcerer, an eyebrow arching in surprise at the sight of the Dark-Eyed Shaman trapped in stone. Though unable to answer Kiros' call, the brunet's eyes softened vaguely before Squall was forced to return his attention to the thus far speechless Empress.
Once finding her voice, Ultimecia declared, "I killed you."
The upfront statement caused full lips to twitch into an almost smile. "Good evening to you as well, cousin."
Straightening at the calm reply, the Empress stared intently at the dark-haired man before she slowly shook her head. "No, you aren't him. This must be some absurd ploy of yours, Lord Almasy," Ultimecia stated when shifting her gaze to the seated lord. "Did you really think I could be fooled by some... street magician who can barely make the elements do his bidding?"
"He isn't that resourceful," Squall argued dryly, then purposefully shifted his cloak back over his shoulders to reveal his altered appearance and the reason for his suppressed magic. "I had no desire to fight, but you forced me to appear for the safe return of my lord."
Silent and unmoving, the Empress seemed beyond simple surprise as her eyes focused solely on the pregnant sorcerer. Slowly such that it was unnoticeable at first, her darkly painted lips curled into a smirk, eventually followed by quiet chuckling that grew in volume until the woman was forced to place the back of her hand against her mouth to quiet the near hysterical laughter. While Squall endured the mocking reaction with his typical nonchalant expression, Ward snarled in offense for his prince and was subtly held back by the covered arm of the disguised Moomba.
Regaining a sense of self-control, Ultimecia stepped closer to the dark-haired sorcerer. "What a shameful appearance for the infamous Sorcerer Prince. You once damned me as an abomination who should die by your blade, but now here you are, carrying another abomination within your own body. Tell me, cousin, how can you stand to live?"
Seifer nearly spoke out for the honor of his lover and child, but his breath caught at the harsh sting of ice and he glanced down at his shackles that had gained an unrealized layer of frost. The green-eyed lord scowled in frustration, wanting to defend his family, but he recognized that it would be disastrous to draw the sorceress' attention when Squall was using his limited powers to destroy the old restraints.
Appearing unbothered by the woman's gleefully viciously tone, Squall replied, "This child has nothing to do with you. You are the product of a siring father who was a traitor and a coward, qualities you have inherited in full."
With a disregarding wave of her hand, Ultimecia declared, "I have no care about that beastly man who died with his back turned in retreat. At least your precious uncle faced me without fear in his mortal heart. And I must say, the color of your eyes remind me of his gaze during those final moments in life."
Though Squall maintained a stony expression, Seifer had to bite back a yell when the coldness of his restraints abruptly intensified.
"What do you want, Ultimecia?" Squall demanded, his exasperated tone reflecting years of enduring a life caused by Ultimecia's destructive actions.
"It's not a matter of what I want, but what is owed to me," she responded as if it were an obvious statement. "I have spoken with the demons of Hell and I know that my blood should demand the loyalty of the greatest force in this world, but every time I summon him, he ignores my call. And now I understand the reason why - you are supposed to be dead."
Her coat of white furs fluttering behind her, Ultimecia slashed an arm in front of her body and directed a wide wind attack at the small group of men. Trained to fight and defend against magic, Ward and Sekre moved sharply at the first sign of the sorceress summoning the powers of the wind element. Recognizing the limitations of the healer, Squall grabbed the collar of Irvine's uniform and pulled the taller man to the ground while managing a more graceful kneeling position for himself. Though the arc of wind swirled harmlessly above them, the pair's stance should have been subsequently vulnerable and foolhardy, but Sekre was fast on his feet and had already covered the distance to force the sorceress' attention on his revealed claws instead of the two grounded men.
Seifer struggled against his restraints, irritated that they refused to crack despite the lingering frost. So focused on his seemingly futile effort, he jumped at the light touch at his shoulder and stared up at his lover, bewildered at the man's ability to move so quickly when burdened as he was.
Squall moved in front of the chained man and placed a hand on top of the arm still shackled. "This will hurt," was his only warning before a flash of fire met icy metal, shattering the restraint in addition to bruising the wrist beneath.
While Squall bent down to remove the leg shackles, Irvine came from the other side to place a hand on Seifer's neck. "Is there anything you need from me?"
Inhaling sharply when Squall released a second burst of fire, Seifer said in a weak voice, "Seagill handled everything that would stop me from fighting. Do you happen to have a blade for me?"
Irvine shook his head. "We were stripped of our weapons. That cat friend of yours should be fine, but the rest of us are rather helpless."
Standing up, Squall looked Seifer in the eye and stated firmly, "Don't move far. I'll give you a weapon."
The golden-haired lord stared dumbly at the sorcerer who had already moved to the darkly-skinned man trapped in stone. Deciding that it was easier to trust his lover without question, Seifer removed the wrapped chains from around his body with Irvine's aid, all the while keeping an eye on the situation at the other end of the room. Compared to past sparring sessions, Sekre appeared a true demon that was described in the legends about the Shumi clan. His hood back and mask lost, the Moomba attacked with bared teeth and extended claws, impossibly weaving between the sorceress' spells. But despite his feline dexterity, crimson fur already bore blackened areas where a fire spell had come too close for comfort.
The clatter of gravel falling to the ground drew the lord's attention to Squall and the dark-skinned healer, Kiros using his first moment of freedom to wrap a sword-wielding arm around the sorcerer in a brief hug. Something was whispered into Squall's ear before Kiros hurried to the fight, his second sword tossed and caught by Ward without a missed beat, the former friends easily slipping into a familiar rhythm despite past conflicts.
"He approves of you," Squall said softly, the simple statement drawing green eyes to the sight of the sorcerer standing with outspread hands. The staff of gnarled red wood appeared with a visible wince from the brunet, his expression becoming more pained when the staff transformed into the sword of blue metal and dark lettering of spells best used during battle. His stormy eyes bright with restrained energy, Squall breathed in a slight pant when lifting the wide blade toward the lord.
Eyebrows furrowed, Seifer stared incredulously at the sorcerer and his apparent offer. "You're insane."
Full lips curling into slight smirk, Squall asked, "Is there a better weapon I could give you?"
"That's your fucking soul, princeling. Don't assume that I forgot about when you described how a sorcerer's core can be broken and its energy stolen, leaving the man soulless and in a state worse than death."
"Then make certain that Ultimecia dies before she thinks to take my core as her own."
At the confident tone, Seifer felt his resolve waver and his eyes inevitably drifted down to look upon the pale metal he hadn't seen in months. Compared to that last time, the two symbols for Sugenti Denynas had changed color to bright silver, mimicking the transformation that had happened to its staff form. Despite himself, his hand itched to touch the wide blade he revered as the physical form of everything dangerous and beautiful about his lover.
"Seifer, she wants something I can't give her because I unthinkingly gave it to my son," Squall explained in a sobering tone. "She intends to dominate Griever, which will force her to kill everyone of the Loire line before she can gain the demon's loyalty. I will do anything in my power to stop her, but that means little in my current state. Let me make you stronger when I'm unable to do anything else."
Returning his gaze to stormy eyes, the lord almost argued that the man was far from helpless, but that was clearly beside the point. Squall was the type of man who battled with nothing to lose, willing to risk everything for a killing strike. The same reckless techniques that had helped him survive the Massacre and destroy innumerable Ravages meant nothing when he held a child within his body, a daughter he wanted to live more than his fear of what that girl may become.
Recognizing that truth, Seifer reached out his hand and wrapped his sore fingers around the hilt of the magical blade. The fire of sapphire and crimson ignited instantly as in times before, but instead of limiting itself to the lord's fisted hand, it spread to the cover the length of wide sword and danced around the long-fingered hands still supporting the blade. Squall smiled warmly at the sight of the flames, an expression that far differed from his glower of silent horror and betrayal when the fire had first appeared at Seifer's touch.
"Will you be safe without this?" Seifer asked, his tone hoarse at the memories associated to the stunning flames.
His smile shifting into a subtle smirk, Squall removed his hands from the blade, the sapphire fire loosing some of its strength within bright crimson. "Lord Kinneas will watch over me."
At his name, Irvine looked over from the fight across the room. "It's all a part of the rescue plan, Almasy. Now get moving before we're all dead."
Though hardly relieved at the idea that Squall had planned to loan his core from the beginning, Seifer knew a lost battle when he saw one. Reaching out with his free hand, he cupped the side of Squall's face and stared into silver-blue eyes for a long moment. Afraid that anything he could say at that moment would be taken as a goodbye to his lover, Seifer said nothing before bending down to steal a chaste kiss from the stoic brunet.
It wasn't until Irvine had pulled Squall aside and the blond lord began his sprint to the ongoing battle that Seifer realized his question hadn't been truly answered.
As he approached, Seifer took in the sight of the powerful sorceress - long hair of bright gray swayed as if in a constant breeze, her coat of white furs lost to reveal her silken dress of silver that clung to the curves of her body, and pale amber eyes glowed with a golden light that seeped into the air around her. Despite defending herself against a Moomba and two former soldiers, Ultimecia appeared the majestic cat toying with an amusing group of mice, waiting for a moment of boredom before killing the irritants. In contrast, Kiros and Ward were visibly hurt with burnt clothing and various cuts, but Sekre had earned the worst of Ultimecia's ire. His robe removed at some unidentified point, it was plain to see the Moomba's numerous injuries - soft fur was matted with blood that oozed from small spikes of ice that covered his chest and the back of his arms, burnt flesh was visible along his right leg and side, and his swaying tail dripped blood from its halved length. Regardless of his wounds, Sekre stood firm in front of the sorceress with no flicker of defeat in his amber eyes.
Ultimecia turned at the approach of the green-eyed lord, her broad smile faltering at the sight of Seifer procuring a weapon. That cautious expression, however, quickly darkened with hunger once recognizing the sorcerer's core for what it was. Taking advantage of the woman's diverted attention, Sekre pounced from the opposite direction with a lifted paw and extended claws. Knowledge of the attack was visible in golden eyes and Ultimecia moved with fluid grace as she turned to face the Shumi. Her arm moving in a wide arch from the ground to the ceiling, the tiled floor groaned and cracked as pillars of earth shot up with pointed ends. The Moomba snarled at the attack, his flexibility sparing his life as he moved his body and limbs to avoid the large spikes, but the same maneuvers left Sekre momentarily trapped within the stone.
Before Ultimecia could call upon more earth to finish off the struggling Moomba, Seifer had gained enough ground and speed to launch into the air for a risky attack. The flames on the wide blade flickered harshly at the lord's fast movement to lift the weapon over his head and, with a two-handed hold, slash it downward at the seemingly vulnerable Empress. Seifer saw a flash of gold the moment before his blade connected with something, the impact making a similar sound to an ax against wood. Ultimecia's resulting scream of pain quickly transformed to one of rage as a wall of wind abruptly formed to knock back the lord before his feet could touch the ground.
Thrown off balanced by the defensive spell, Seifer was relieved when he fell back into a solid body, unsurprised to find that it was his faithful steward to set him right. His gaze focused on the sorceress, Seifer stared at the appearance of a thick staff that had the coloring of black ash wood and was riddled with lettering of all sizes and angles, a strong contrast to the precise carving of spells that covered Squall's core. Amongst the clumsy lettering were areas of visible rot and divots that had the distinct shape of bite marks. But of greater interest was the fresh gash into black wood and the dark crimson fluid that oozed from the wounded core.
Seifer grinned smugly at the blood that slowly pooled onto the pale hand that clutched desperately to the dark staff.
"You insolent boy, do you believe this cut means anything? I've endured worse from the hounds of Hell and survived victoriously to command their powers." Despite her confident words, the golden shine to her eyes had dimmed to a tenuous light. "You dare to attack me in my palace and foolishly assume that I will allow you to live. The time for play has past, young lord. Guards!"
After the harsh cry that was amplified by her use of the wind, stark silence followed for a long minute, during which Seifer's smirk grew to roguish proportions. He had been fairly certain of their favorable situation given the lack of support for the sorceress after the commotion caused by her magic, but the failure of anyone, even the boyish soldier from earlier, to respond to the Empress' call proved that other plans had already been enacted.
"It appears you are alone, your Highness," Seifer commented lightly, holding out the blade that burned vibrant red with undertones of frozen blue.
A flash of fear crossed Ultimecia's face before her expression hardened with the appearance of a predator backed into a corner. The air around her shimmered with frost before numerous icicles in the shapes of daggers appeared. With no opportunity to escape the onslaught, Seifer held his blade in front of his face and body, and with his free arm, grabbed onto Ward's torn shirt to prevent the man from making a nobly stupid move to defend the lord. He heard the steward's angry curse before the frozen daggers took flight, but in the moment Seifer tensed in preparation of pain, the sapphire flames of his blade flared to life and created a brief wall of fire in front of the lord and servant. Blinded by that light, Seifer could only hear the sizzle of water for each dagger that the sorceress had created.
The azure flames returned to the sword, nearly smothered by the crimson fire that never left the pale metal. It was a sight that didn't settle well with the nobleman, but he promptly turned his attention to the Empress who had already closed her eyes while silently mouthing her next spell with bared teeth. From the corner of his eye, Seifer watched Sekre escape the healing hands of the Dark-Eyed Shaman and move in to attack the seemingly vulnerable sorceress, an opportunity Seifer wasn't about to leave to the Moomba alone. His hand tight around the long hilt of his borrowed blade, Seifer sprinted forward in a race against the cat to be the first to cut down the chanting sorceress.
Though injuries made them fairly matched in speed, Sekre had the head start and reached within two feet of the Empress. Golden eyes snapped open before the Moomba could lay a claw on the woman and a harsh wind knocked him back against the stone spikes he had earlier dodged. The wind didn't stop there, however, but instead began to swirl around the sorceress as she lifted her arms to the ceiling and laughed freely within the quickly growing tornado.
After coming to a fast halt, Seifer stared at the fast winds that had already begun to lift papers, books, and bits of rock into the air. Unable to consider a possible counterattack, Seifer was stunned by Ultimecia's singular intent to her destroy her enemies even if it meant bringing the palace down with them. Slowly backing away from the approaching winds, Seifer found himself focused on Squall's claim that it took more skill to create a song from a flute than a destructive windstorm. Though he appreciated the meaning of those words, he also knew that killing a man wasn't necessarily a matter of skill.
Despite the howl of the strengthening storm, Seifer stopped at the abrupt sound of a whisper that instantly chased away his fears with a simple promise spoken in a jumble of languages, but still understood as the voice of his lover - "I won't let her harm you."
Standing his ground as the winds came towards him, Seifer didn't need to glance at the blade in his hand to know that the sapphire flames had gained strength. Green eyes burned with magic gifted from Squall, the lord unmoving as debris from the library beat against his bruised and sore body. Unlike the flash of fire that defended him from ice, wisps of azure magic flowed in front of the lord, gaining in thickness and speed to match the ferocity of the sorceress' windstorm. When the wall of air finally hit, Seifer smirked as his Prince's magic smoothly directed the cutting winds around his body such that only a soft breeze could be felt. He stepped without fear, that step followed by a faster one until Seifer was running at the Empress.
The moment he burst through the torrent of air, Seifer lifted the heavy blade high at his side. He hardly noticed the sapphire wisps pealing away from their protective shield, fading into nothing as he gazed directly into the incredulous stare of burnt gold. The next second, the sword covered in bright scarlet fire pierced through Ultimecia's chest and lungs, stealing away her breath as the force of the attack pushed her back into her own fierce magic. Winds tore into silver hair and ripped the fine material of her dress before the magic died out along with fading life.
"... no... my right... owed to me..." Ultimecia declared in no more than a whisper.
"You're confused, Empress. This is exactly what's 'owed' to you," Seifer said as he placed all of his anger into the flames that licked at his fingers. Crimson fire burst from the wide blade and engulfed the sorceress in the magic of Sugenti Denynas, the same fire that had lit the skies during the length of the Massacre and destroyed everything Squall had loved.
To her merit, Ultimecia didn't scream at the caress of magical flames, but stared down at the floor with wide eyes and a horrified expression. She attempted a final breath, but could only mouth a tremulous 'no' in the moment before the fire covered her entire body. Seifer stood without fear of the flames, watching as the fire element tore into her physical form and left nothing behind, not even the remains of ash. Though the magical blaze hungered for more than the taste of a single life, Seifer called to the entrancing flames and pleaded in Squall's name that no other life was to be lost in his revenge. Stubborn and angry, the fire still obeyed the request and returned to the blade of pale metal, though it lashed out at its master in the last moment, searing the flesh of Seifer's upper arm.
Hardly acknowledging the burn along his sword arm, Seifer stared at the sword still held in front of him. The pale metal was covered in the red flames that he dully recognized as his own, but his chest felt heavy and cold when he couldn't see a flicker of the blue blaze that he desired more than his own fire. Squall's name on his lips, Seifer turned sharply to hurry where he had left his lover, but knocked into his large steward in his rush. When Ward placed a large hand onto his master's shoulder, Seifer could barely voice a statement that something was wrong before he brushed off the concerned hold and moved directly into a fast run.
Seifer almost missed the forms hidden behind the Empress' large desk, Kinneas covering the both of them in his dark gray cloak. Violet eyes peered out into the dim light of the room, relief apparent in his expression once recognizing the blond lord. "Is it done?"
Seifer nodded distractedly before dropping to his knees and pulling aside the dark cloak. Even in the poor lighting, he noted the deathly pale color to Squall's pallor and felt ill when the lithe body responded limply to his touch. "Hyne in Heaven, what's wrong with him?"
"He exhausted his power to protect you," Kiros replied from behind, the man most likely overhearing the lord's worrisome statement to Ward. The dark-skinned man motioned the younger healer aside and took his place next the unmoving brunet. His fine eyebrows immediately furrowed when he touched Squall's neck. "Boy, how long has he been like this?"
If he was ruffled at the condescending reference, Kinneas didn't show it as he knelt nearby. "A few minutes. Since before that windstorm died down."
Kiros swore under his breath, and then directed a dark look to the hovering lord. "You need to return his core."
"Return it?" Seifer asked with a glance to the fire-lit sword still in his hand. "How does that work when he's unconscious?"
"Unconscious," Kiros repeated in a scoff. "If he were anything but a sorcerer, he would be considered dead and a lost cause. As it is, he can't be revived without his soul."
"Dead...? But our baby--"
"First things first, Lord Almasy. That blade is a piece of him - it will never bring harm to his body or life when you return it."
Worry preventing him from proper thought, it took Seifer a precious moment before understanding the healer's implied suggestion. Lips set into a thin line of displeasure, Seifer continued to support Squall's head with one hand buried into dark hair and used his other hand to lift the borrowed sword such that the tip pressed against the brunet's chest. Curling his hand around the long hilt, Seifer focused solely on the face of his lover before placing his weight against the blade and piercing it into Squall's chest.
The sorcerer's body jerked into a taut arch and azure flames burst from the entry point of the sword, and with Squall's first deep breath, the weapon shattered into nonexistence. Seifer had a fool's smile while gazing down at the revived man, but when a pained expression crossed the handsome face, the lord felt his heart go cold.
Eyes still closed, Squall whispered, "... Verena... I can't..."
Kiros hesitated before explaining softly, "You've been lost for many minutes, Squall. I don't know what means for your unborn child."
The sorcerer wearily shook his head before grasping for Seifer's hand that rested on his chest and moving it to his raised stomach. Eyelids opening enough for a sliver of blue to stare up at the blond lord, Squall pleaded simply, "Help her."
Seifer's first instinct was to remind the brunet that a renowned healer would be more useful than a fighter to save their daughter, but the nobleman knew better than to doubt his lover. Closing his eyes for better focus, Seifer searched for the small life that didn't fear his overwhelming presence like she had during the first few attempts. While reaching for that life, the lord first noticed that the fires within the sorcerer felt tamed, like struggling flames in a fireplace that hungered for additional wood. Distracted by that sign of weakness, Seifer almost overlooked an even weaker flame within the low fire.
Nothing like the bright blaze that had been growing in the past weeks, his daughter's light was yellow with dark blue undertones of a dying flame. Moved to inaction by the terror of losing his baby girl, Seifer flinched when his hand was squeezed strongly by the sorcerer. Before he could ask what the man wanted from him, the lord inhaled sharply when Squall manipulated their bond and coaxed the lord's own life fire to the surface. It felt unnatural and painful to the nobleman, his common human life resisting the sorcerer's demands extent further than the shell of flesh. Seifer growled at the irritating pain and pressed his forehead against the brunet's chest in the hope to strengthen the bond between them. The extra contact seemed to help, Squall able to draw on the harsh fire of the lord and direct a small flame to the suffering blaze.
Choking from the effort of giving out that piece of life, Seifer lost his connection as he coughed painfully against Squall's chest and tightened his hold on dark hair. Worried that he had ruined Squall's attempt to help their daughter, Seifer didn't move from his position until a hand rested on top of his head and rubbed in a familiar stroke. He peered up at the exhausted gaze of blue-gray and was overwhelmed with relief at the man's quiet smile.
Unashamed of the tears that slipped down his face, Seifer laughed in disbelief. "We're alive. We're all alive and I'm going to have a daughter."
Squall's smile widened vaguely before he said in a hoarse voice, "Don't forget that I'm the one who saved you."
"Never," Seifer agreed with a proud smirk. "After all, this proves that you like me better alive."
Stormy eyes flickered with mischievous silver light, a silent declaration about the reasons why he preferred the arrogant man to remain in his life.
Clearing his throat, Kiros gained the reluctant attention of both men. "While this is something that needs to be explained to me, I think it would be wiser to leave before a group of soldiers stumbles upon us."
Squall placed a hand on the healer's arm. "Then, do you plan to stay with us at the Almasy Estate?"
"Only if I'm welcomed," Kiros stated as dark eyes shifted not to the lord of the estate, but to the large man supporting Sekre.
Ward grinned at the careful tone. "You realize that you'll be sharing space with a traitor."
With a frown, Kiros said, "You may be a traitor, but it seems you found someone as idealistic and moronic as Laguna. I can forgive you for that."
Seifer wasn't certain if it was a critique or compliment to be compared their lost king, but when a heavy hand slapped the healer's shoulder, he was resigned to reality that Squall had regained a piece of his destroyed family and Seifer could never deny him that measure of peace. Lifting up from the ground, Seifer held back a groan at the reminder of sore muscles and angry injuries. Though he wanted more than anything to carry his lover away from the palace, Seifer understood his limitations and wasn't about to risk Squall's safety for his own comfort. He motioned for Ward to take the pregnant sorcerer, and in exchange, Seifer supported the heavily wounded Moomba.
As they crossed the room, Seifer grinned at the sorry sight they made - Sekre leaned heavily on his shoulder, wincing with every step from agony of broken ribs; Squall rested with closed eyes while carried by his surrogate father; and Kiros accepted Irvine's offered arm when his limp became too much for an extended distance. Despite the pain and exhaustion, victory was plain in everyone's gazes and Seifer couldn't decide which god to thank for granting him such allies.
The door to the library burst open with sudden force, momentarily disheartening Seifer with the thought that kid soldiers were about to finish off what Ultimecia had begun, but at the sight of bright crimson fur and a curved blade, the lord released a long breath and scolded, "Hyne damn it, you overgrown kitten. Don't scare us like that."
Kasir's eyes shined bright green as he took in the sight of the destroyed room and the injured fighters, his expression darkening once he noticed that Ward held the limp brunet. "Is he...?"
"Squall exhausted his powers, nothing more," Seifer replied gently, understanding the bond of brothers between the sorcerer and Shumi. "I suppose we're as healthy as can be expected for people reckless enough to attack a murdering sorceress. What of the world beyond these doors?"
"The coward Emperor is dead, though his guards still fight. Some of your men are dead, most injured, but we will be victorious tonight."
At the good news, Seifer glanced at the man resting in Ward's arms and smiled at the knowledge that their daughter would be born into a safer world.
With no further questions from the lord, Kasir moved his focus to his son, his keen gaze identifying each injury without comment. His steps silent, the far taller Moomba approached the young fighter and lifted his paw-like hand to cup Sekre's face and pressed his snout at the cat's neck. Seifer recognized the greeting from when Squall met with Kasir months earlier and was unsurprised when Sekre attempted to lift his arm to return the greeting. Injured ribs drew a quiet whine from the feline and Kasir promptly placed his free hand at his son's wrist to prevent further movement. The H'rugur spoke growled words to Sekre in their own language, the message brightening amber eyes and coaxing a subtle purr from the young cat.
Eventually Sekre interrupted those words and spoke in the common human language. "I do not wish to return, not yet. Verena has not been born and... I like it with these humans."
Kasir sighed at the comment, and then shifted his gaze to the blond lord. "Tell him that you cannot continue to shelter a Shumi in the world of humans."
Without the need for consideration, Seifer shook his head. "It's not a problem to watch over this fur ball. Ander loves him and I think Matron would be upset to lose our family's protector. More importantly, we would have failed without Sekre here to serve as a distraction and drain the Empress of her powers. I owe him everything and he will always be welcomed in my home."
Though Kasir straightened with fatherly pride at the praise toward his son's abilities, his cat-green eyes were still cautious when gazing upon the young Moomba. "Your home is with us."
"But my life is here," Sekre argued. "I cannot change what I am and that does not matter when I am here."
With a snarl of irritation, the H'rugur turned his back and stalked out of the library. He barked something at the two Moomba waiting in the hallway, never halting as he moved deeper into the palace and toward the remaining fight. Though confused by their leader's anger, the two large cats stepped to the doorway and grumbled something in their own language.
"They will guard our escape," Sekre interpreted softly, a strong contrast to his father's rage.
"Are you certain it's best to leave things like this?" Seifer questioned.
"He is angry at the truth, not at me," the Moomba replied with an air of wisdom beyond his years.
Seifer shook his head at the troublesome cat, wondering if Sekre had spent too much time around Dzieden when the other Shumi felt awkward around the Moomba whose only crime was to live. Adjusting his grip on the furred arm, he looked over at the others in his group. "I think it's time for us to get our asses out of here. Matron must be worried by now."
Ward huffed with an amused curl to his lips. "Knowing that woman, she'll have a feast waiting for our return, and more likely than not, she'll scold us for making her wait."
Seifer grinned at the easily imagined scene. "And unfortunately, she's been given plenty of time to plan suitable punishments for our roles in dragging a pregnant man into a dangerous situation."
"Hn, a valid point, my Lord. It will take some time before Edea forgives any of us," Ward agreed with a rumbling chuckle, and then stepped for the open hallway. "Cid is waiting for our signal beyond the back gates. If he hasn't been discovered by a stray soldier, he and a carriage equipped with medic supplies should be ready for us."
Seifer followed behind the immense man, amused to note that the former soldier had a couple inches on their Moomba escorts and the cats seemed wary about that fact. But green eyes didn't settle long on the broad back of his steward, Seifer's gaze shifting to the chestnut-colored hair that swayed along Ward's torn and burnt jacket sleeve. Though they were still in the heart of the palace and their bodies were worse for wear, Seifer craved his lover's closeness with a deep hunger that even Sekre seemed to sense judging by the feline's curious stare.
With no energy to hide his desire, Seifer ignored the intuitive cat while continuing to gaze at the teasing strands of hair and imagined a hard earned night with Squall at his side, nothing left to separate them in life or death.
Not truly awake, but certainly not asleep, Seifer laid stretched out under thin sheets and fought against the nagging urge that he should get out of bed despite the late hour.
Compared to the tedious months of planning and then rebuilding solid plans based on new information, the two months following the downfall of Emperor Deling and Empress Ultimecia felt like mere weeks to the blond lord. Predictable chaos had taken over the capital on the day after the Emperor's assassination and the families of nobility wasted no time before starting into the games that were required to select a new Emperor. Seifer found it amusing how quickly Deling was discarded as a poor ruler, a view point strengthened by the rumors that beasts of Hell had invaded the Imperial Palace. The latest story was that Deling had promised Diablos his firstborn's soul in exchange for the title of Emperor, but with no child produced after so many years, the King of Hell decided to take back everything gifted to Deling and took the lives of the Emperor and Empress as punishment for Deling's failure to uphold his end of the bargain. While Seifer knew it would offend Kasir to be associated to Diablos' minions, there was some pleasure at the sense of cautiousness that had taken hold of the nobility, all of the families terrified at the possibility of being the next pillar to fall.
Aside from the political games of pushing the Alexandros family toward the throne, Seifer was enjoying a frivolous lifestyle with late nights and even later mornings spent with Squall. The days involved too many intruders with Leander showing his needy side after nearly losing both his parents, Kiros assuming the role of Squall's personal healer, and Edea fussing over everyone within her reach. While Sekre and Ward were calmer presences within the summer house, they were also of no help when it came to stopping either the Shaman or Matron from going too far with their self-appointed roles. It took less than a week for Squall to grow tired of the people crowding his precious space, but his moodiness in the subsequent weeks did little to chase away the people who feared for his wellbeing.
Those thoughts all known to the blond lord, Seifer couldn't focus on a reason as to why sleep was evading him. Everything was moving as planned, no vindictive sorceress was after his family, and life had been relatively peaceful. And then a quiet moan sounded from beyond the bed.
Startled, Seifer immediately opened his eyes and pushed up onto his elbows to stare across the room, confused to find a slumped form at the doorway with a key in hand. "Squall? What are you doing?"
"Locking the door," was the reply through clenched teeth, then followed by the harsh click of the lock setting into place.
"And why would you need to do that?" Seifer asked as he hurriedly slid off the bed and walked toward his lover dressed in a loose shirt. In the darkness of the room, the lord stepped directly into something wet and warm, the unexpected event causing him to jump back with vocal disgust.
Sighing at the man's childish reaction, Squall said, "My water broke."
Green eyes grew wide at the statement. "Your water... But doesn't that mean...?"
"Your daughter is about to be born."
After a moment of stunned silence, Seifer blinked hard to snap out of his haze and reached for the door. "We need to get Matron and Kiros and--"
"No, I don't want them here."
Abruptly remembering that the sorcerer had locked the door, Seifer stared in disbelief at the stubborn man. "Are you insane? They're here to help you or did you somehow manage to forget that?"
Squall shook his head, his inability to speak apparent when a suppressed groan still managed to pass through tight lips. Forgetting his argument for the moment, Seifer wrapped an arm around the hurting man's shoulders and used his free hand wipe building sweat from Squall's forehead. For what seemed like too long to the inexperienced lord, Squall stood in tense pain until abruptly breathing out a harsh pant and resting his head against Seifer's shoulder.
In a tired voice, Squall explained, "The last time I did this, it was impossible to control my body. The mess, the noises... It's mortifying. I can barely endure you witnessing me like this."
Threading his fingers into damp hair, Seifer tried one last time, "What if something goes wrong? They'll help you and minimize the damage to your body."
"I can't... Don't make me..."
Seifer nearly laughed at the suggestion that he could force the impossible sorcerer into anything, but when a hand grasped at his arm and held tight, the lord abruptly realized that Squall wouldn't have the ability to protest once the birthing process eventually progressed to the next stage. Though he feared for the man's safety, Seifer also mourned Squall's destroyed life in which a proud prince became a beggar on the streets. Unable to cause further damage to his lover's battered honor, Seifer nodded in surrender and nudged the hurting man to their bed, an action Squall instantly resisted.
Confused at the brunet's unwillingness to move, Seifer stared down at the face partially pressed against his neck. "I may not know much about this, but I imagine that it should be easier with you on the bed."
Stormy eyes gained a gleam of silver as Squall glared at the lord. "Did you not hear what I just said, or do I need to describe in vast detail about what will be coming out of my body?"
"Then we'll burn the mattress afterward. The whole bed, too, if needed. What do I care about the cost in exchange for your comfort?" At the uncertain look from the sorcerer, Seifer insisted, "Do you want our second child to be born onto the harsh ground like Leander was made to endure?"
Eyes closed tightly, Squall whispered a lengthy curse in a language the lord didn't understand, but Seifer wasn't about to ask for a translation. With a steadying arm at the brunet's back, Seifer guided the unresisting sorcerer to their shared bed, halting partway when sharp pains nearly dropped Squall to his knees. Once helping the hurting man onto the mattress, Seifer hurried to the bathing area to collect a small basin of water and strips of cloth before returning to sit at his lover's side.
Green eyes glanced over Squall's shaking body, but Seifer knew better than to battle a lost cause. Wetting a soft cloth, he wiped the man's flushed face and sweaty neck, earning a grateful look from the sorcerer. Pillows were then arranged per Squall's reluctant instructions to help lift his legs and support his back, but with the simple task finished in little time, Seifer found himself with nothing to distract his thoughts from everything that could go wrong without the proper supervision. The thought that Squall had survived the experience once before didn't bring any comfort, especially when it made Seifer imagine the sorcerer shivering from both debilitating pain and icy coldness while hidden in an alleyway.
Unable to comprehend the strength of the stoic man who had become everything to him, Seifer pressed a hard kiss against Squall's temple and started to whisper nonsense about their daughter's future. The unplanned litany surprisingly helped to soothe the hurting sorcerer, a fact made apparent when Squall contributed haltingly with a description of the unborn child's education and magical abilities.
Moonlight was eventually replaced by early sunlight, the sight of which ensuring that people were beginning to wake within the summer home. Just as Seifer started to imagine what Edea would do once she discovered the locked door, Squall clawed into the lord's forearm and threw back his head with a particularly bad contraction that left the brunet breathless and Seifer bleeding. Once able to speak, Squall told the blond to get a clean blanket and be ready to handle the coming babe. Seifer didn't hesitate to follow the order as he jumped off the bed and retrieved one of his formal shirts, wanting his daughter to have the softest cloth available. Squall glared at the man for his choice, but didn't have the spare breath to scold Seifer that he was about to ruin a very expensive shirt.
Seifer did his best to arrange soiled bed sheets to make a place for him to kneel in front of the sorcerer. As Squall had warned, the bed was a mess of shit, urine, and vomit, but the spots of blood made Seifer feel sicker than anything else that stained the white sheets. Squall abruptly lifted his leg to the lord's shoulder, regaining the man's attention from the dark red blotches on fabric. The brunet's lower back was already supported by a thick pillow, lifting his hips so that everything was visible to the green-eyed blond. The man's asshole was swollen deep red and unnaturally large, but more surprising was the sight of dark hair on reddened flesh that was visible within the anal cavity. Seifer lost his breath when realizing that he was seeing the top of his daughter's head and he grinned at the physical proof that he was about to be a father for a second time.
With his shirt draped over one hand, Seifer followed the sporadic directions from Squall to be ready to cradle the girl's head. After a series of heavy breaths from the brunet, Squall pushed along with a rough contraction and released his first scream of the birth when the baby's head finally crowned. Seifer did his best to ignore the tear that had formed and focused on the emerging child, his concern about the oddly shaped and bruised head silenced with a harsh command from the panting sorcerer. The next press came faster than Seifer expected, the slide of shoulders remarkably easier than the girl's head, though no less painful for Squall judging by his choked cry.
The rest of the baby girl slid free along with a thick mixture of feces, blood, and other goop Seifer wasn't about to identify as he wrapped Verena in soft cloth. Holding his daughter close, Seifer felt himself go pale when he announced, "She isn't breathing."
Winded, Squall nodded at the comment. "Happened... to Leander... Hold her tight..."
Barely given the chance to comprehend the command, Seifer jumped when fire burst at the umbilical cord mere inches from the newborn, both severing and cauterizing the cord in seconds. Dumbfounded by the unexpected use of magic, Seifer almost missed the sight of Squall's outstretched hands. Verena was placed into her birth father's arms, and despite his pain and exhaustion, Squall smiled softly at the unmoving newborn. A steady hand lifted to her mouth and Squall called upon his magic as evident by the flash of silver in tired blue-gray eyes and the slight sway of dark bangs. After a long second, the baby girl seemed to choke and a thick mess spilled out from her mouth and onto the sorcerer. With that blockage removed, Verena immediately began to cry with the full force of her tiny lungs.
Squall's smile widened briefly at the piercing sound, but a pained wince stole away the moment of happiness. Though visibly reluctant, he held out the struggling babe to her other father. Seifer happily took the offered girl, but showed his confusion with a lifted eyebrow, a silent question Squall answered with a shake of his head and a grunt that echoed those from the birthing process.
At that moment, a loud knock sounded and was followed by an attempt of opening the locked door. The muffled voices beyond the bedroom ranged between concerned and angry, the dark-skinned healer surprisingly being the loudest voice demanding for the door to be opened. Seifer eyed Squall at a particularly crude command from Kiros and received another harsh shake of the head while the sorcerer breathed through obvious pain. Glancing down at his filthy babe and the growing stains of blood on bed sheets, Seifer scowled at the obvious decision that had to be made.
"I'm sorry, Squall, but they have to be let in sooner or later. I promise you, this mess will be the last thing on their minds."
The brunet tightly closed his eyes and eventually bit out a bitter, "Fine."
Hurrying as best he could with the crying newborn held to his chest, Seifer grabbed the key from the nightstand and spoke out vocal assurances that the door was about to be open. The moment the lock clicked, the door was jerked from Seifer's hand. Kiros spared a brief glance at the babe in the lord's hold before he rushed to the bed and checked on his former prince. In contrast, Edea moved directly for Seifer and pulled him in the direction of the bathing area, the older woman holding a fresh bucket of water and new cloths in her other hand.
"Really," Edea began directly into her reprimand, "What were you thinking to do this alone? You know that Sir Seagill and I were perfectly prepared to be wakened late into the night."
It was with slight reluctance that Seifer let the experienced midwife take the baby girl from his hold. "It wasn't my choice. Squall locked the door before I had any say in the matter."
Sighing, Edea nodded. "Sir Seagill guessed that was the situation. He is quite upset over the matter, something about being unable to help Squall's uncle in the past and now this has happened. I believe he was hoping to redeem himself."
Seifer sighed at the information which he knew in greater detail from Squall. When the sorcerer's uncle was pregnant, Kiros was forbidden from helping his close friend. Instead, the king personally selected a callous healer to monitor the denounced prince through a pregnancy endured behind iron bars and an excruciating birth where the babe was due to be executed once identified as a sorceress. Kiros blamed himself for being unable to help his friend, and for that reason, he was determined to make the ordeal of birth far easier for Squall.
With his daughter in capable hands, Seifer shifted his concern to Squall's condition and approached the bed to witness something rather grotesque coming out from his groaning lover. "Holy Hyne, is that normal?"
"It's the placenta, and yes, it's normal," Kiros explained tersely, his dark-eyed gaze then lifting to glare at the exhausted sorcerer. "I should have been here. I could have prevented some of the tearing, not mention helping you with the pain."
Squall frowned irritability. "It's embarrassing."
"It's the birth of a child," Kiros insisted as he placed a hand on the brunet's stomach. "No amount of shit or tears can make that miracle 'embarrassing' and I'm disappointed that you think so lowly of me."
Blue-gray eyes opened to mere slivers, Squall shook his head and his lips moved, but no words seemed to form. At that sight, Seifer spoke for the exhausted sorcerer. "It has nothing to do with you, Shaman. I've managed to convince him that our baby girl isn't a plague on this world, but some of the old teachings are still ingrained in that head of his. I don't know if he's shown you, but he has his grandfather's chess set and I think it serves as a poor reminder for him."
The healer's hard expression softened at the mention of the chess set, the man clearly knowing about the scratched face and midsection of the white bishops that were made in Leander Loire's image. With a warm look directed at the fading brunet, Kiros said, "Gods, I sometimes forget that you were once a boy who was constantly reminded that your uncle was an embarrassment to the Loire clan and the entire sorcerer race. I thought... I assumed Laguna managed to convince you that it wasn't true."
"He's getting there," Seifer said as he placed an affectionate hand into dark strands and endured a half-formed glare from the sorcerer. "Hang on a little longer, princeling. You should be healed before you bleed to death."
Allowing the skilled healer to continue his work, Seifer sat at his lover's side and stroked his fingers through damp hair while his other hand found Squall's and squeezed with wordless support. The brunet scoffed lightly at the gesture, but still used the large hand as a point of distraction whenever the dull pain of mending wounds became too much. Throughout it all, Verena whimpered at being cleaned and occasionally cried out despite Edea's soothing hum while she worked. It was an oddly ordinary moment after the incredible birth of his daughter and Seifer found himself gazing at the man lying next to him, the person most responsible for the existence of his present and future life that Seifer had never imagined before meeting the Sorcerer Prince.
With a slight grin, the green-eyed man bent down to press a kiss against a flush cheek and whispered for Squall's sake alone, "My heart along with my life belongs to you, my Prince, and it's not enough to repay you for everything you have gifted me."
Stormy eyes shone with silver light, Squall's reply of fond satisfaction remaining unspoken, but felt through the link they shared.
His grin widening, Seifer added, "I'm never going to let you escape me again."
Squall fought against his own smile when commenting in a weak voice, "I'd like to see you try."
"So cruel, princeling. Do you want to leave me?"
"No," the sorcerer replied with no need for thought. "But it could be fun."
Seifer laughed lightly at the retort, surprised at his own interest in the idea of chasing down his stray lover and then 'forcing' Squall to return home. "Fine by me, but I hope you realize that you'll lose every time."
Full lips forming a ghost of a smile, Squall faded completely into sleep, unable to fight against the exhaustion caused by hours of labor and the constant mental stress associated to bringing an impossible life into the world. Seifer looked to Kiros when the sorcerer breathed in comfortable sleep, afraid that he would need to wake the man from well-deserved rest in order to further the healing process.
With a shake of his head, the dark-skinned healer said, "The worst has been mended and the rest doesn't require him to be awake. At this point, sleep is more important than some minor tears."
"Poor thing," Edea said as she stepped close to the bed, the freshly washed and dressed Verena cradled in her experienced hold. "We should wash him thoroughly and move him to the next room with a clean bed to sleep in."
With Verena given to her father, Seifer watched while Edea and Kiros efficiently stripped the sorcerer of his shirt and wiped down his body with warm water and clean rags that Edea had brought with her. After dressing Squall in a fresh nightshirt, Kiros lifted the younger man with a carefulness that Seifer associated to a father caring for his son. Never waking, Squall was carried to the next room down the hall that was prepared as the original birthing room. Kiros gently laid the sleeping man onto the bed and placed a thin bet sheet over the body, his hand then tousling dark locks of hair.
"He's more like his uncle than his father," Kiros commented without moving his gaze from the former prince. "So serious, so afraid to be a burden... Laguna never really understood his own son."
"Ward mentioned that once." Taking a seat at the other side of the mattress, Seifer stroke a finger over the tiny hand that clutched onto the soft blanket wrapped around Verena's body. "Even so, Squall still loved his father. I imagine some of Squall's anger came from the fact that the Massacre happened before he could prove his love to the old man."
"That's good to know," Kiros murmured before his eyes narrowed in thought. "When Squall went missing from the Shumi village after the Massacre, I thought I had lost him for good. So many years passed without word or sign of him that I assumed Ula had finished her revenge. Not once did I imagine that he had made himself a new family, that he found someone to trust and love. I thought it an impossible fantasy..."
Seifer looked at the man who had gained recognition as a skilled healer in his lifetime, so respected that no one faulted him for his association to the sorcerer clans. Instead, rumors began shortly after the Massacre that the Dark-Eyed Shaman had befriended the sorcerers to aid in their downfall, that he had personally escorted Imperial soldiers to assassinate the Loire family. The truth was far different which involved Kiros saving one Loire life while the others were lost to the madness of the sorceress, a woman who was given the nickname 'Ula' by her birth father.
Knowing that it was pointless to lie, Seifer told the healer, "Squall's life right now is rather recent. At some point, you should sit down with him and hear about his trials in life."
Kiros scoffed out a laugh. "It's been nearly two months and I've been too afraid to learn what pain he has endured because Leander was forced to give up his child, because I did nothing to help my friend."
"Enough of that," Seifer admonished with an annoyed glare. "You should know damn well that Squall is the type to blame people only for their direct actions. What you could have done in hindsight means nothing to him."
The healer glanced at Seifer with an amused light to dark eyes. "This is why he loves you, isn't it?"
With a shrug of shoulders, the blond shifted his attention to the babe in his arms, not wanting Kiros to see anything in his gaze when he considered how Squall had never used the word 'love'. The emotion could be easily assumed, but there would always be the seed of doubt until the sorcerer freely used the word without the lord's prompting.
Seifer looked up at the cautious call and smiled at the sight of his sleep rumpled son. "So you're finally awake, huh? Did you want to meet your sister?"
Soft green eyes went incredibly wide when Leander realized that the buddle held in his father's arms was in fact a tiny baby. He walked hurriedly to the seated lord and lifted to his tiptoes to better see the new life. Leander stroked his fingertips across a bared arm and gasped when the newborn reflexively clutched at one of his fingers. His smile filled with wonder, Leander declared, "She likes me!"
Chuckling at the announcement, Seifer decided to let the boy believe that baby had grabbed him intentionally. "Just look at that - she recognizes her big brother. Are you ready for that responsibility?"
"Uh huh, I'm going to play with her all of the time and I'll teach her everything she wants to learn."
Seifer gazed down at the young boy who wore his grandfather's necklace with pride, the pendant of Griever prominent against his white sleep shirt. The blond lord remembered the day they had purchased the dark silver necklace and briefly recalled paying more than he had planned for the item. It had been horrifying when he learned shortly after Ultimecia's defeat that the pendant was a type of key to gain the support of a powerful demon, but Squall assured him that Griever was a lazy creature, only willing to appear at times of great need. During the Massacre, Laguna Loire never dared to summon the beast, fearful that Griever would kill his own people in addition to the Imperial soldiers. More so, Griever was forbidden to attack those of Loire blood, which would have made him useless against the greater threat of the Massacre, Ultimecia.
"Can I hold her?" Leander asked eagerly, breaking his father out of darker thoughts.
"I don't see why not. Come up here and sit next to me."
Eyes bright, Leander scrambled onto the bed and crawled such that he sat between Seifer and Squall, incredibly doing so without waking the sorcerer. With a stern warning to always support her head, Seifer placed the bundle into small arms and smiled at how much larger Verena seemed against her brother's chest. The little girl fussed briefly in the new hold, but eventually settled down to breathe noisily in fitful sleep. Seifer ruffled his son's dark hair, earning a brief goofy smile from the boy before he returned his rapt attention to his sister.
Kiros eventually whispered that he would return later, the healer then closing the door behind him to ensure the family had a peaceful moment alone.
Seifer wrapped an arm around his young son and adjusted the blanket to better cover his daughter. Watching his resting girl, he couldn't imagine holding any amount of fear toward the defenseless babe. Verena was a child like any other who would be faced with the challenges in life that could take her to either greatness or ruin. Seifer understood those choices more than most and he hoped that he could pass along the crueler lessons to his children so that Leander and Verena wouldn't have to experience the harshness of betrayal or the shame of realizing that a good act was instead something ugly and wrong.
But potential madness was a completely different matter, something that couldn't be contained or controlled. Seifer prayed that it wasn't a true potential and that Verena would be healthy in both mind and body, but if that wasn't what Fate had planned for his daughter, he would uphold his promise to Squall. Even if it destroyed him in the end, Seifer knew it would be worse if she was allowed to bring ruin upon humankind, each drop of spilt blood another stain on Squall's soul. He wouldn't let that happen, no matter the cost to his own soul, but he would first do anything in his power to raise Verena right and prove the legends wrong about sorceresses.
"Don't let me down, baby girl."
Leander glanced up at his father, his eyes suddenly older than his seven years. "Verena will be a good girl, Father. You don't have to worry about that."
Remembering that the young boy had heard his promise to Squall, Seifer smiled weakly and pressed a kiss against dark hair. "You keep on believing that, kid, and don't let Squall or I forget it. Not for a single moment."
Leander agreed with a quiet hum, and then leaned heavily against his father. "Was I ever this small?"
"Hard to believe, isn't it?"
"Uh-huh, but..." Biting at his lower lip, the boy asked, "Is Mommy going to leave like when he left after you and him made me?"
Seifer stared at his son, surprised at the connection Leander had made between the birth and Squall's lengthy absence. Eventually breathing a laugh, the lord grinned and shook his head. "Squall isn't going anywhere, I promise you that. We're going to be a whole family from now on."
All anxiousness vanished from the boy's face and he matched his father's grin. "That's good."
Relieved that Leander hadn't asked the next logical question about the reason why Squall had been missing for years, Seifer held his boy close and brushed a large hand on top of Verena's head. One day they would both have to be told the truths of their pasts, though Seifer could imagine Squall wishing to keep everything from their innocent children. The lord considered the eventual fight over the matter and his lover's reluctance to contribute to the retelling of old stories. With his bad memory, Seifer decided that he would have to start a journal of sorts to document the accounts as he knew them and hopefully coax more details from Squall in the future years. It'd be his neck if Squall ever discovered those notes, but Seifer knew it was worth the risk to help his children appreciate the life that the Sorcerer Prince endured for their existence, their happiness, and their future.
And with their understanding of that life, Seifer would have his young allies to prove to Squall that his suffering wasn't for nothing, but for everything incredible and beautiful in their lives.
Author's Whining -- See the notes after the epilogue.