For Nothing, For Everything

Part 4

By Sukunami

With a meticulous rhythm, pale hands pushed a worn brush back and forth against scuffed wood.  It was a dreary task that left a man's back sore and angry, but in the same sense, it was a mind-numbing chore which Squall found himself preferring in the recent weeks.  And if the occasional worrisome thought did cross his mind, he quickly reverted to his favored tactic of silently reciting the more difficult incantations he knew by heart.  The mixture of the ancient language and the flicker of anticipating power rarely failed to cleanse his soul of its temporary concerns.

But even distracted as he was, Squall didn't fail to hear the clicking of shoes on wood.

"Leon, the Lady wishes to see you."

Halting in his chore of cleaning the ballroom floor, the dark-haired man sat back on his heels and gazed up at the intruding handmaid.  "At this moment?"

The young woman nodded with an amused smile.  "Don't worry about cleaning up your appearance.  You know the Lady doesn't mind things like that.  And she did imply that you should hurry to her sitting room."

Nodding, the man of tired blue-gray eyes dropped his brush into a bucket and stood from the hardwood floor.  As the handmaid led the way, Squall stretched his sore joints while he considered the reasons for his current summons.

For nearly two months, the sorcerer had spent his days in the Heartilly mansion, resuming his role as a servant in repayment for the Lady Rinoa's kindness.  She had discovered him on the road, exhausted and hungry over a week after his flight from the Almasy Estate.  While a true aristocrat in her appearance with raven black hair and creamy white skin, the Lady had the heart of a good person who cared too much about the wellbeing of others.  And for that reason, it had taken little thought on her part to offer the homeless brunet a job.

"Right in here, Leon.  And will I see you later at the after party?" the handmaid asked with a flutter of her eyelashes.

Squall glanced at the woman for whom he had no name.  It was somewhat distressing to look at the striking woman of blond hair and pale brown eyes and find no attraction for her.  He couldn't remember if it had always been that way, but he felt numb while meeting the gaze of the obviously interested woman.

Eventually, the handmaid saw something in his expression and frowned.  With a muttered, "I see," she turned and walked away before Squall could even think to apologize.

Sighing, the dark-haired man stared at the closed door, and with a last attempt to understand why he was summoned, he hesitated.  But unable to guess the mind of his Lady, he surrendered to the inevitable and rapped his knuckles against painted wood.  A woman's voice called for him to enter.

It wasn't the first time Squall had been in the Lady's sitting room, but he was still caught off guard by the brightness to the room.  Tall windows lined the far wall, welcoming in the sunlight as well as some additional lighting reflected from the small pond outside.  The white furniture of the room didn't help matters as Squall squinted to focus on the raven-haired woman seated in a cushioned chair.  The Lady smiled fondly at the sight of her servant and she motioned him forward.  Squall obeyed the silent command until his eyes were attracted to the movement of someone else in the room, the large figure standing from the sofa adjacent to Lady Rinoa.  Stopping in place, Squall stared at the unexpected guest.

Turning, the tall man of short golden hair focused his emerald eyes on the brunet.  There wasn't the hatred of before in those eyes, but instead a disturbing quietness to the expression of the typically arrogant lord.  And when the man spoke, Squall was surprised to hear the tone of relief in the man's low voice.

"Squall.  Thank Hyne, it's you after all."

As the sorcerer continued to stare at the man, Lady Rinoa sat up straighter in confusion.  "'Squall'?  Seifer, this is Leon.  Isn't he the man you wanted to see?"

Green eyes narrowed at the woman's interruption.  "Forgive me, Rinoa, but I need to speak with this man alone."

"For a reason you have yet to explain to me.  And I'm worried - are you planning to steal him away?  Because Claire is quite fond of him.  Good help is so hard--"

"Rinoa.  Please."

Startled by the defeated tone of the lord, Squall slipped a foot back a pace, but he couldn't prevent the reply of the Lady.

"Very well.  Use the veranda since I have letters to write," she said while standing and then approaching the tall blond to place an elegant hand on the man's cheek.  "Perhaps one of these days you'll come to visit me?"

Almasy smiled weakly as he gazed into dark brown eyes.  "You know I'm worthless, Rinoa.  Don't waste your heart on me."

While not appreciating the comment judging by her expression, the Lady surrendered with a nod.  "But you will stay and enjoy my party tonight, won't you?"

"A party, huh?"  Green eyes shifted to the servant.  "Thank you for the invitation, my Lady, but I may have more pressing matters to attend to."

Her eyes narrowed with hurt, Lady Rinoa removed her hand and forced a smile.  "Very well.  At least say 'goodbye' before you leave this time."  Receiving a quiet 'of course' from the nobleman, she turned and walked to her decorated desk at the other side of the room.

That left the two men alone and Squall felt his pulse quicken as Almasy motioned for the servant to join him outside.  Ready to fight and flee if necessary, the sorcerer clutched his hands into tight fists and followed the lead of the larger man.  But once standing in the cool air of mid-autumn, Squall was surprised when the blond lord simply moved to a wide pillar and leaned against the solid support.  After a length of time without words or actions, the sorcerer found himself bored and distracted as his eyes turned to the tranquil scenery of the lush garden and its beautiful pond.

"You know nothing about me, either."

The sudden words made Squall frown.  "Excuse me?"

"When you left, you said that I knew nothing about you.  And while that is entirely true, you should realize that you know nothing about me, either."

"Why should I care?"

Almasy turned sharply at the question, his startled expression transforming into one of amusement as loud and brief laughter flowed from him.  "Damn, I've already forgotten about that tongue of yours.  In a different time, I think I would've enjoyed your candid nature."

Not finding the same amusement in the situation, Squall glared at the man.  "Why are you here, my lord?  Is there not enough distance between your son and myself?"

Humor gone, a guilty look overcame the lord's features.  "That's not why I'm here.  I came to apologize, actually.  It appears that I was wrong about you."

Squall stared at the blond, recognizing the true effort the man was making given his tight voice.  The brunet figured it wasn't a common practice of the arrogant lord to apologize to his servants, but that didn't make the nobleman's accusations any easier to forgive.

"But you have to see this from my eyes," Almasy added quickly.  "A servant comes out of seemly nowhere, a man who has befriended my only son behind my back, and then I find that servant in my son's bed of all places!  How else was I supposed to react?!"

"This is an apology?" Squall muttered, unmoved by the lord's returned anger.

Exhaling a deep breath, Almasy placed a hand over his eyes.  "Forgive me.  It's been a long couple of months.  Ward has returned to the surly man he was when he first served me.  Matron purposely doesn't sweeten my food anymore, though she says otherwise.  And Kinneas..." With a short laugh, he continued, "The bastard actually punched me, if you can believe it.  He ranted on and on about vouching for you and what kind of friend am I if I didn't trust his word."

Though surprised that those people were reacting so noticeably to his departure, Squall couldn't feel any pity for the blond lord.

"But worse than all of that - Leander hates me.  The son I was trying to protect fucking hates me and it's killing me!  He doesn't ride with me anymore, he doesn't eat during our lunches, and as of last month, he doesn't even speak to me..."  Removing his hand, Almasy turned his emotion-filled eyes to the servant.  "Why have you turned him against me?"

Stormy eyes narrowed to threatening slits, Squall growled, "I never turned him against you, bastard.  You did that yourself."  Done with being accused further, the sorcerer turned to the glass doors, but his arm was grabbed by a strong hand.  He wanted to knock away the offensive touch, but the lord spoke first.

"You're right.  It was wrong of me to say that," Almasy said while gently releasing his hold.  "And I know that I don't deserve any favors from you, but what will it take to get you back?"

Breathing a cynical laugh, Squall shook his head as he kept his back to the lord.  "No."

"No?  Are you implying that nothing will convince you to return with me?"

The sorcerer didn't reply, knowing that he could never explain his reasoning to the nobleman.  Over the years of residing at the Almasy Estate, Squall believed that he was slowly approaching insanity.  Aside from the everyday worries of being discovered as a sorcerer, there was Leander, his son who would never recognize his birth parent and who would always call Squall by name.  And at the same time, there was Almasy, an oblivious idiot who did nothing to warrant the child his seed had created.  The pair of them would talk and play together as only blood could, and they protected each other as only father and son should.  To watch them from the shadows and to recognize that he'd never receive that same devoted love... It was slowly draining the life from Squall and he didn't know how to rescue himself aside from leaving altogether.

"You saved Leander's life," Almasy commented with returned firmness to his voice.  "Surely that means something."

"Think what you want."

"Then, is it only because of me?  Do you really hate me that much that you'd further injure Leander?"

Turning, Squall glared questioningly at the lord.

"He's been depressed and quiet ever since you left.  And while he won't speak to me, I overheard him with Ward.  Leander kept asking if you would ever return and if Ward would bring you back.  I don't understand any of this, but you are important to him, and damn you to Hell if he isn't important to you as well," Almasy added in a near snarl.

"You don't know me."

"And you don't know me," the lord replied immediately.  "But we've already covered that ground.  For whatever reason, Leander wants you, and I can't deny my son anything which benefits him."

With a dark eyebrow raised, Squall stared incredulously at the blond.

"Don't give me that look.  I've already admitted that I was wrong about you.  And though I can't trust you yet, I realize that you have never and will never harm Leander.  What more do you want from me?"

Suddenly tired, Squall had no desire to point out that the lord had yet to officially apologize for his accusations.  With a quiet, "Whatever," the brunet stepped to the glass doors and made his exit before he could be stopped.

"Sq-, I mean, Leon," Almasy called out while trailing behind the servant.  "We're not done yet."

"Forgive me, my lord, but I have chores to finish before the Lady's gathering tonight."

"Leon, don't you think--"

"Seifer, what is the matter?"

Both men stopped at the concerned question of Lady Rinoa, Almasy being the first to recover as he replied with a charming grin.  "Do not worry yourself over us, dear Lady.  You know how men are - we enjoy our arguments more than civil conversations."

As the raven-haired woman smiled in relief, Squall felt disgusted with the fawning tone of the nobleman.  Bowing his head to hide his face behind longish strands of dark hair, the servant spoke a clipped, "Lady Rinoa.  Lord Almasy," before departing the sitting room.  No one argued against his leave, but Squall felt the sharp gaze focused on his back and heard the quiet order from the blond lord -

"Don't you disappear on me."

Stacking dishes on a sturdy tray for his final trip to the kitchens, Squall enjoyed the relative silence of the dining room.  With the rest of the servants busy entertaining guests in the ballroom and the others preparing extra beds for those too indisposed to return home, Squall was left alone to the task of cleaning the dining room.  He didn't mind, and in fact had volunteered for the hated chore which kept him out of the sight from those with noble blood and gave him rare time alone.

"Careful with those."

The warning failed in its purpose as Squall turned sharply and tipped over a stack of dishes.  Automatically calling upon his powers, air condensed around the plates, keeping them in a stack while slowing their descent to the floor.  With quick hands, Squall caught and lifted the dishes in a smooth arc such that the stack rested safely on his spread hand.

"That's the second time I've seen you do that.  Have you spent time in the circus for such reflexes?"

After a calming breath, Squall lifted his eyes to glare at the intruding nobleman.  "All guests are supposed to be in the ballroom, my lord."

Almasy scoffed.  "And you know that I didn't come here to entertain the Lady.  I came for you."

After momentarily meeting vibrant green eyes, Squall moved to return the dishes to the tray.  "I'm busy."

"Why were you in my son's bed?"

The sudden question ignited a flame of anger within the sorcerer, but Squall had no desire to satisfy the lord with the emotional response the man obviously wanted.  Clutching onto the handles of the tray, he lifted the dishes and exited the dining room.  Once entering the kitchen, he sat the plates heavily onto the counter next to a wide basin, but despite the clatter of dishes, Squall still heard the footsteps that had followed him.

"It's a simple question, 'Leon'.  Make me understand."

Needing to keep his hands busy before he could slip and punch the blond, Squall selected a plate and began to wash the expensive dinnerware.

"Were you cold?  Do the servant quarters need more firewood?"

One plate done, another taken in hand.

"Were your sleeping arrangements unsatisfactory?  Perhaps I should consider better mattresses for the help?  I'd hate for servants to suddenly end up in the guest chambers in search of decent sleep."

Harder than needed, the cleaned plate was placed onto a drying rack, but before Squall could grab the next dish to be washed, a large hand clamped onto his forearm.

"Was Leander dreaming again?"

The serious question amongst sarcasm caught Squall off guard, making him react to the thought of Leander being plagued by nightmares before he could properly school his expression.  Almasy, however, had seen the look of concern and promptly smirked at getting a reaction from the silent servant.  Releasing his hold, the nobleman shifted to lean casually against the counter.

"That was it, wasn't it?"

Glaring at dirty water, Squall bit out, "What does it matter?"

"As a father, I have to know.  And while I may not currently trust you, that doesn't mean I don't want to try for the future.  Especially if you're going to be spending more time with my son."

Stormy eyes narrowed further.  "You assume too much."

"Do I?"  A heated finger caressed the back of Squall's neck.  "Right here, you have the scars from a full set of teeth.  Did you get this while shoving Leander in the direction of the mansion?  I can't imagine you being stupid enough to show your back to a Ravage otherwise."

Knocking away the searing touch, the sorcerer stepped back from Almasy, but couldn't escape his words.

"I can't protect Leander from everything.  You were the one to tell me that, and I think I finally understand the deeper meaning of those words.  I meant to protect him, but in the end I caused more harm than good.  I hurt my own son through my presumptuous actions.  I recognize that, but I don't understand why you won't let me heal him.  Why won't you return with me?"

"Because..."  Squall bit off his retort, not nearly angry enough to let loose any secrets to the nobleman.

"'Because'?" Almasy mocked with a smirk.  "That isn't much of an argument."

Hands clenched into tight fists, Squall silently questioned why it was so wrong to punch the blond lord.

"I'll bring Leander here."

The fight instantly drained out of the sorcerer as he stared forward in disbelief.

"You hate me, thus you can refuse me all you want without fail.  But can you treat him as coldly and say those same words to Leander?"

Terrified to know the answer within his heart, Squall looked away from the lord.  "Don't use him against me."

"Now, Squall, you should know the rumors about me - I exploit every resource I control."

The sorcerer shook his head, tired of fighting, tired of everything.  "I have my responsibilities here."

Almasy scoffed.  "I saved Rinoa's life years ago.  Her father's a famous general, you know, and she once thought it'd be a great idea to visit him on the battlefield.  While her rescue led to her bothersome infatuation with me, I don't mind abusing that for certain favors, including the return of a misplaced servant."

"And if I don't want to return?"

"Then you're only lying to yourself," Almasy stated as he pushed up from the counter.  "I'm leaving after breakfast.  You can pack tonight and meet me out front."

"I haven't agreed to go."

An unexpectedly warm smile crossed the nobleman's lips.  "Don't work too late tonight.  I'd hate for you to oversleep and delay our trip.  Oh, and if you get a moment, pack us something for lunch."  With a turn and a small wave, Almasy headed to the doorway and said, "Good night, 'Leon', and see you in the morn."

Watching the large blond leave, Squall felt rooted in place.  He lost.  He didn't want to return to his silent Hell, he didn't want to face Leander, and most of all, he didn't want to be manipulated by the green-eyed lord.  But in less than a day, Almasy had figured out his weakness and discovered how best to exploit it.  It was unbelievable to the sorcerer that the nobleman held any dose of intelligence behind his front of idiocy and pride.

With a sigh at his vulnerability, Squall turned with the intention to finish the dishes, but found himself staring into greasy water instead.  Gazing into the gray eyes reflected in the basin, the sorcerer recalled the words of Lord Kinneas.  The onetime Sorcerer Prince had fallen far, both in status and in spirit, and there was no way to escape that reality.  And with his surrender came the knowledge that there were few places he could hide from the eyes of the Emperor.  Kinneas hadn't been exaggerating when he mentioned that the Almasy Estate was probably the safest place for a rogue sorcerer.  It was something Squall already understood well after years spent on the property no matter how much it sickened him to rely on the blond lord for that protection.

Frustrated, Squall slammed his palm hard against the water surface, but the spark of enraged energy vanished and left him exhausted as he slumped over the basin edge and let his head hang in defeat.  His words hoarse with emotion, he declared, "I hate that man."

Uncomfortable and frustrated, Squall ascended the front steps of Almasy Manor as he trailed behind the tall form of the impossible lord.  The daylong ride spent with Almasy had been overly stressful, the blond wanting Squall seated next to him within the luxurious carriage instead of allowing the servant to ride with the coachman.  The lord had then attempted to initiate various forms of conversation with the brunet, but eventually surrendered to the fact that he wouldn't receive anything more than single syllable answers, if an answer at all.  It was a minor comfort to Squall when the nobleman had fallen asleep, but the day of traveling had still left him frayed and anxious.


The low call of his name made the brunet lift his eyes to find the large steward holding open the front door.  Ward's surprise passed quickly into an expression of relief as he nearly left his position, but then remembered himself as he bowed to his lord and master.

Almasy smirked at the taller man.  "Told you that I would bring 'Leon' back."

Lips tightening into a grimace, Ward replied, "So you did, my Lord."

Stormy eyes narrowed on the steward.  "You told him...?"

When the large man didn't respond, Almasy spoke for him.  "Don't be too hard on the old man.  He admirably resisted my interrogations until a certain child broke his resolve.  Even so, he only offered a short list of names that he thought you would use and 'Leon' topped that list."

The feeling of betrayal burning through his chest, Squall focused on the large man until pale blue eyes finally met his.  There was a familiar gleam of shame in those eyes, but there was also a hardness which told the brunet that Ward didn't regret his decision.  Unable to hold his anger against the man's decision, Squall released a breath of air and looked away in a wordless sign that Ward would have to explain himself later before the brunet would consider forgiving him.

Oblivious to the silent exchange, Almasy asked, "Where is Leander?"

"In his room.  Allow me to fetch him for you."

Hesitating, the lord grunted his agreement.  "Bring him to my study."

As Ward walked in the direction of the main stairs, Almasy looked over his shoulder to the dark-haired servant.  "I don't believe that I have thanked you yet.  That you were willing to return despite my poor treatment towards you, I truly appreciate it.  If there's anything I can do in repayment..."

Squall said nothing as he met bright green eyes.

Though annoyed at not getting some kind of response, the blond lord didn't press the matter as he proceeded in the direction of his study.  The sorcerer followed behind, keeping a suitable distance between him and the nobleman.  Several servants in the hallway showed their surprise at Squall's presence, and as he watched one of the women run off, the brunet knew that the entire kitchen staff would be prepared for his return.  But before that reunion was a more important matter, and as Almasy led the way into his private study, Squall mentally readied himself for the sight of his son.

With the door closing behind them, Almasy asked quietly, "Do you know how Leander came to be here?"

Confused by the seemingly random question, Squall stared at the blond who had stepped to a large window and leaned against a nearby bookcase.

Almasy scoffed at himself.  "That was a stupid question, wasn't it?  Surely Matron or some other gossip in the kitchens must have told you by now about the tiny babe who was left on the steps of the servant's entrance.  But make no mistake - Leander is my son.  Two healers have testified to that."

"As you say, my lord, I know these things," Squall said with the implied question of why the nobleman was rambling on about nonsense.

"You and everyone else may know the details, but I need you to understand something more.  Frankly, Leander wasn't supposed to exist.  I never imagined myself marrying, never imagined children, and certainly never imagined being a father.  And then out of nowhere, a bastard child invaded my life."

Squall scowled at the lord for his blunt words, and though they were true, the sorcerer didn't care for the man stating that his son shouldn't have lived.

"I won't say that I've been a good father," Almasy continued.  "Those first years were ugly, but since that time, I've done my best to raise him.  And then, at some point, Leander became very important to me."  Emerald eyes hardened as they focused onto cold blue-gray.  "If this turns out to be a mistake to bring you back, I swear to Hyne that you won't escape a second time."

Meeting the serious gaze, Squall said nothing, but his thoughts mirrored that of the blond lord.  He knew some vague details about how Leander was treated in his infancy, but because the nobleman had changed his ways by the time Squall had returned after years of traveling, the sorcerer had chosen to let Leander stay with his father.  But even so, Squall was always ready for the wrong word or the wrong action toward Leander, something that would give him an excuse to destroy the green-eyed nobleman without earning the child's hatred at the same time.  It was almost disappointing that Almasy was a decent father when he tried.

Sharp, rapid knocking broke the tension between the two men, and the door to the study flew open before a call to enter was made.  Unbalanced by the confrontation with the nobleman, Squall couldn't completely mask his emotions when he first set eyes on the breathless boy standing in the middle of the doorway.  It had only been a couple months, and yet Squall saw the subtle changes in the growing boy, as well as noticing his lost weight.  Concern flared within the sorcerer, but he couldn't move as he stared into soft green eyes.

Suddenly, angry tears slipped down reddened cheeks as Leander sprinted forward and wrapped his small arms in a surprisingly strong hold around a leg.  "Why'd you go?!"

A simple question, an obvious question, and yet Squall didn't dare answer the child.  Instead, he placed a hand into thick hair.  "I'm sorry."

The reply made the boy squeeze the leg even harder in frustration and anger, but Leander then leaned back to tug onto the coarse material of the servant's shirt.  Obeying the silent demand, Squall knelt down and allowed the child to renew the hug as Leander buried his tear-wetted face against his neck.  He held the boy gently while whispering more apologies, and eventually calmed his son enough to stop the tears that were his greatest weakness.

"Squall came back for you," Almasy stated, reminding the two of his presence.  "He didn't want return to after what I did to him, but he missed you."

Pulling back, Leander looked at the servant.  "You're going to stay now, right?  Father says he won't be mean to you anymore."

Squall stared into the blinking eyes still wet with tears and replied, "I can't stay here forever."

"But why not?"

Smiling weakly, the sorcerer bent down and whispered to the boy, "I will always be near whenever you need me."

With an admirable pout, Leander nodded vaguely.  "Alright.  But you have to promise."

Placing a fist to his chest, Squall bowed his head.  "I swear it on the source of my life."

Satisfied, Leander leaned forward against the sorcerer and rested his head on a thin shoulder.  "It hurts when you're gone."

The sorcerer closed his eyes at the statement and wrapped a comforting arm around the child.  Meanwhile, he silently cursed himself for reentering the life of his son and accidentally forming a bond with the young boy.  Though weak compared to the connection he held with his own father, Squall prayed that Leander hadn't suffered from the sensation of loss.  Without training, his child would never understand that emptiness, nor that it was better to feel that loss instead of nothing at all.

Pulling Leander back, the sorcerer gazed into soft green eyes.  "You look hungry.  Why don't you come to the kitchens with me."

"Alright.  But you have to make my sandwich."

Squall nodded with a slight smile, wondering what it was about their bloodline that made them enjoy sliced liver and apples between two pieces of bread slathered in butter.  Pushing up from the ground, Squall was startled when a heated hand rested on his shoulder.  He looked back with wary eyes and questioningly stared at the blond lord.

"Make certain he eats whatever he wants."

"Yes, my lord," Squall replied cautiously, waiting for Almasy to spout a new threat for good measure.

But the large blond didn't react as expected as he instead gazed down at Leander and smiled softly.  After a short moment, Almasy turned without an additional word and proceeded across the room in the direction of a large desk.

Seeing the tired slump to the broad shoulders, Squall inwardly sighed at pathetic sight of the blond lord.  Though he knew the man deserved his punishment, the sorcerer didn't wish the anger of a child on any parent.  Bending down, Squall looked directly into muted green eyes and stated quietly, "I didn't hear you welcome your father home."

Leander pouted at the implied order.  "I'm mad at him."

"I know, but you can't be mad at him forever.  He made a mistake.  Haven't you made a few mistakes that angered your father?"

Reluctantly, the dark-haired boy nodded.

"And didn't he forgive you in the end?"

Eyes lowered, Leander nodded again.

"Well, then, I think you know what to do."

With a deeper frown, the child looked to the tall man across the room who had already put on a pair of narrow reading glasses and was skimming through a set of papers.  Though he started with slow steps, Leander walked to the large blond and pulled on the lightly colored slacks the man wore.  Surprised, Almasy glanced down with widened eyes at his son.

"Welcome back, Father," Leander said drearily, as if announcing to Squall that he was doing it only because he had to.

After a startled moment, Almasy swooped down to lift the small boy in his arms.  Papers fluttered to the ground as he held the boy tight with a large hand buried in dark hair and his other arm supporting the child against his body.  Almasy then whispered something to Leander before kissing the boy's temple and renewing the desperate hug.

"I'm still mad at you," Leander stated, unable to sound completely upset with the father he loved.

Almasy grunted his understanding, but didn't release his hold on the boy.

"You haveta be nice to Squall."

Another grunt sounded in agreement, though the servant doubted the man cared what he was agreeing to.

"Can I go now?"

Almasy didn't reply, though the strength in his hold had increased judging by the squirming of his son.

"Father, I'm hungry.  Let go."

With a more disappointed grunt, the nobleman slowly lowered Leander to the ground and eventually allowed the child his escape.  Once released, the boy jogged to the waiting servant and grabbed for his hand to pull Squall in the direction of the doorway.  Purposefully avoiding eye contract with Almasy, the sorcerer turned his back to the man and let the dark-haired boy drag him out from the study.  There was no 'thank you' or anything else from the lord as they left, but Squall didn't expect words of gratitude from the proud man.

The long walk to the kitchen was filled with the rushed and jumbled talk of Leander as he attempted to describe everything that had happened over the past weeks, including every bump and scratch he had received to the new things he had learned from his lessons.  Squall smiled at the resulting nonsense as he wondered if the child actually understood the things coming out from his mouth.  Even so, the sorcerer appreciated the simple moment of listening to Leander ramble as new topics occurred to the young mind.

Eventually reaching the room of heat and controlled chaos, Squall quickly became stiff and uncomfortable when everything came to a stop at his entrance.  The various people in the room stared at the brunet, no one moving or speaking until an older woman shoved her way through.  The appearance of the long-haired, golden-eyed woman was an oddly welcoming sight.

"My poor dear," Edea Kramer said as she stepped directly in front of the lithe man and placed a flour smeared hand at his cheek.  "I didn't think you would return after what happened.  I couldn't believe it when I heard Lord Seifer had accused you of harming the young master.  It was so ludicrous, I thought Leila was playing a cruel joke on me!"

Wary, Squall lowered his eyes.  "I didn't--"

"Oh, hush.  No one agreed with Lord Seifer's fool ideas.  We've all seen you with the young master and watched how you treat him like a younger brother.  I wouldn't trust his care with anyone more than you.  How that idiot boy thought you were up to worse things with his son, I don't know.  His father was the same, paranoid as a loon."

Assured by the soothing tone, the brunet dared to look into lightly colored eyes and saw the honest warmth of the straightforward woman.  In a whispered voice, Squall said, "Thank you, Matron."

Edea smiled softly as she patted his cheek.  "No need for that, child.  I'm just relieved that you've returned.  And look at who you've brought to us," she said while turning her gaze to Leander.  "Is there something I can get for you, young master?"

Shaking his head, Leander replied, "Squall has to make my sandwich.  You don't do it right."

Stifled laughter ran throughout the room until Edea glared at the other cooks, the servants promptly returning to their tasks with overly loud motions and muttered apologies.  Looking back at Squall, the head cook sighed, "Why in Hyne's name this boy enjoys those concoctions of yours, I'll never know.  And don't you try to explain why the intestines of wild geese are considered a delicacy.  I don't want to hear it."

Unable to stop his smile, Squall asked, "Would I be intruding to make us dinner?"

"No, no, use whatever you need as long as I don't have to watch," Edea replied with a disgusted expression, but in the next moment, her eyes softened as she gazed down at Leander.  "It'll be good to see you eating again, young master.  You can't grow up strong without the proper food."

"I know," Leander replied in an irritated whine, implying he had heard that particular comment one too many times.

"You, as well, child," Edea added while pressing a long finger again the chest of the sorcerer.  "I spent years trying to fatten you up, and now look at you!  All of that hard work wasted in just two months.  What am I supposed to do with you?"

"I missed your cooking," Squall said, hoping to appease the motherly woman.

Edea smiled happily at the comment, but her sharp golden eyes suggested that she wasn't fooled in the least.  "Well, no sense in talking further.  You have a hungry boy to feed, and I have everyone else to look after.  Once you're done here, I'll see about putting you back to work in the morning."

Squall nodded, the woman running off at the sound of a crash before he could vocalize his appreciation for being allowed to stay in the kitchens under her care.

"Squall," Leander called with a tug on the hand in his hold.  "I'm really hungry."

"Of course you are, cub," the servant stated as he led the boy to a small table in the nearby corner and helped Leander onto a chair.  "Anything else you want besides the sandwich?"

"Milk.  And cake!"

Smiling at the expected request, Squall bowed his head and replied, "Your word is my command."




Author's Whining -- Another chapter that leads nowhere, but I had to open Seifer's eyes to the real Squall, not the pervert he thought he saw.  And I love it when Seifer gets scolded by everyone for being an idiot.  That should be a common theme in this story. ^_-  Anyway, as I thought, 'FNFE' should be another monster since I'm hardly a third of the way through the storyline I had in mind for this story.  Hope you enjoy the ride as it continues forward.

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