Niles feels betrayed.
“And... what, my king?”
Xander just raises an eyebrow, showing him that he isn't here to play games.
“What are your plans? Will you continue to be my brother's retainer or actually take responsibility?”
Niles wishes that he could complain about King Xander cornering him. Unfortunately he wasn't cornered but summoned and he doesn't know – even though suspects – the reason behind that. At least they are in his study room and not the great hall. It had too many bad connotations, memories when he had to face Garon for the first time and realised how powerless he was when it came to protecting Leo in front of him. Here it's easier to pretend, to feign innocence.
“For what? I do not see -”
“Niles! You watched after the child my brother tried to hide from me because he feared I would force him to give it away. God knows why he even took it in.”
Hearing him raise his voice, even just slightly, makes Niles more uncomfortable than he'd like to admit. It's been a few years since the war was over and yet raised voices still alerted him. Maybe because the peace they were aiming for was in some parts difficult to execute. It's easy to talk about change, but even easier to revert to old habits.
“I simply did my job as his retainer and followed the order to.”
“No. I know you and what you feel about my brother -”
“With respect but I doubt it.”
The words come out harsher than Niles intended them, but Xander just furrows his brow. Stares at him, before he lets the topic slide and just massages the bridge of his nose.
“Fine. Taking care of a child is a maid's job.”
Niles wants to disagree, to tell him that should know it better with little Siegbert, but Xander raises his hand to stop him and continues.
“It's what we believed so far and if he still thinks this way by giving it you and not taking care of it himself this shows me he is not ready yet.”
Niles bites his tongue. Even if he'd refuse and confront him with his view of things, he doubts it would mean anything. Besides, even Niles didn't know what was going on in his lord's head, why he refused to share with him more than the name of the boy and that he is going to take care of him until some things were resolved.
“I see. I will tell him that.”
“You have to understand that I don't mean it in ill will. I simply want to protect him. The child – any child – is no burden, but if you're not ready to deal with one, you give it the feeling that they are. And this won't help them.”
Niles understands. But he can't tell Xander that he wouldn't have taken the boy in. That he isn't as kind as his lord. If they were closer he might have even teased him, asked his king if he is really talking about Leo's action and not himself. Instead, he nods again and bows.
“Thank you for your words, my majesty. Am I dismissed?”
Xander sighs. He seems to be aware that this is no matter which can be resolved this easy. There is one thing left he can still ask though.
“What is his name?”
“I see. You can go.”
He doesn't have to tell him twice.
Niles doesn't bother to be extra careful when he makes his way to the guest room where the boy stays. It's in a part of the castle which is not often visited in the first place and sneaking around would be more suspicious.
He finds the boy sitting in an arm chair, too small for the big furniture, just like he left him. He is very quiet so Niles doesn't feel like talking as well. He doesn't even want to be here in the first place but the boy wouldn't allow anyone else to touch him – why him of all people he doesn't know. Otherwise he might have left the task to one of the maids. He is loyal to Leo and even outside of his obligations as a retainer would he do a lot for him, but bathing and brushing a scared child is really not a job he feels comfortable doing.
“Forrest. I'm going to cut your hair”, is all he says just to give him a warning.
The boy tenses though he doesn't do anything to stop him. Niles lifts him up – he doesn't weight much, yet – and sits him on a chair in the middle of the room. It's the first time he cuts hair which isn't his own but he could care less about a perfect hair style and simply tries to get rid of the split ends.
(He chops off a bit more, just to be sure and with his blond hair barely past his chin, he starts looking less like a boy from the streets and more like a proper young lord.)
“There. Now you look presentable. Not that he really cares. Lord Leo has the quirk to take people by his side which will only bring him trouble. Ah, but with lord Xander as a new king, there is no need to worry.”
Forrest just seems confused by his words though there is some curiosity so he stops – no need to tell a young boy of past mistakes and politics. Or more importantly, don't get him interested in this stuff when he is still young and could do more important things. Astronomy, maybe. Though this came down to studying again as well.
“You can let them grow back. Anyway, I doubt that Leo would like me to teach you fighting. Let's see if we can get you something to read. Are you even old enough for it? You look like you are. Ah, some letters never hurt. We should get something with pictures first, I believe.”
Forrest looks hesitant but Niles doesn't care and puts a hand on his back, pushing him forward. He just has to endure that, after all he himself had been trough that as well. Huh. Maybe this is why Leo choose him. He had to deal with all these foreign procedures, surrounded by people who looked down on him. Maybe he is understanding Leo's choice a bit better. Still not happy about it though.
“I'm teaching you, not demanding you to read to me.”
The boy seems to relax. At least something, Niles things, small steps were better than none.
Leo looks over the clothes which wear spread over the bed, nodding. He had found them in the room Forrest had stayed until he assigned him a room closer to his. They looked like they were from a few years ago, but hardly worn. Most of the clothes were no happy reminder, sentimental things from his childhood. Letting go was hard, but he had no reason to keep them. He wanted to look ahead. He might get his own child something brighter. Lavender sounds nice.
“Let's see if we can bring these to the orphans. Can I trust you with that, Niles?”
“Good. Take Forrest along, the air will do him some good.”
Niles doesn't say anything when his lord leaves, though he digs his nails in his palm. It's not his job to babysit even if he used to joke that Leo had been a handful. At the moment there is just Odin by his side and as much as he respects his skills he'd rather be the one who protects their lord. War is over but assassination doesn't need it to persist.
While Niles is busy thinking, Forrest takes a dress which Leo had absently in his hands just mere seconds ago. When he realises his interest, he doesn't hesitate to point it out.
“It belonged to his sister. She loved it. Do you want to have it?”
Forrest looks him in the eyes. Probably wondering if he is serious or joking. Eventually, he nods.
“Let me get a maid to help you with it. It's easy getting someone out of them but even then I mostly tear it.”
In the end it's not a maid but Camilla who they meet on their way. The boy seems shy, but her smile helps him. Niles wonders if Leo had talked to her or if on of her retainers caught wind of it. Probably the last, when he considers Beruka. There is nothing to fear though. She simply regards the boy in a moment his eyes are averted. Whatever she found, it's enough to be friendly towards Forrest.
“He looks pretty”, she says after helping him to put on the dress and maybe Niles is just a bit annoyed when the boy blushes in response.
“Not as pretty as you would.”
Camilla just laughs.
“It wouldn't even reach to my knees.”
“Oh my, you should be glad that the boy is around, otherwise...”
Niles doesn't dare to push his luck, taking the boy by his hand and apologising. Married or not, Camilla was a women to be reckoned with.
“Say thank you, milady.”
Forrest looks at Camilla and gives her a small smile, bowing when he feels Niles' gentle touch against his shoulder.
“T-thank you, milady.”
“Already teaching him some manners, I see. Let's hope he doesn't get your bad habits.”
Before Niles can ask her what's that supposed to mean, she waves at them and leaves. Well, at least Forrest seemed happy. It's a first, seeing him smile like this. Hopefully not the last time.
Leo is pacing, doesn't pay him much mind. It happens, from time to time and Niles was a patient man. Or could be one if it was asked of him. But when he was the one Leo had summoned and still didn't tell him why he was called, his patience ran thin. Maybe he should have taken Forrest along. The boy was slowly warming up to him, though he was also a bit worried that he came too dependent.
Eventually, Niles loses his temper.
“Leo, will you stop this and talk to me?!”
He flinches, eyes widen and Niles immediately regrets his small outburst.
“I'm sorry”, Leo says, pinching the bridge of his nose, “I shouldn't have kept it a secret.”
“Forrest. I wasn't sure and I'm still not convinced, but... I believe he could have royal blood.”
That came unexpected. Niles takes a moment to understand what he just told him. Leo waits a moment, until he continues his explanation.
“He... there was a rumour that one of father's concubines lost a child. It wouldn't be the first time that someone did. But there were also rumours that she didn't and simply ran away with it.”
“Right. But it's no secret that father didn't saw concubines as something shameful and he lost more children through intrigues than you'd like to have. Forrest lost a parent who could be one of my siblings. To be honest I'm still not sure.”
“And what gives you the reason to keep him? You're not so stupid as to take in a child because of simple assumptions.”
“He had a crest with him... It's an old emblem which went missing years ago, I believe.”
Niles replies with a simple 'Okay', which confuses Leo. He looks at him, finally stopping his pacing and eyes slightly widen.
“You don't doubt my words?”
“Well, someone could have stolen it out of the royal palace... but I know better than anyone how difficult this can be, so it's more logical that he got it from his grandmother.”
If he remembers correctly, his former 'friends' didn't manage to steal something. Even if they used him as a decoy. A pity, they could have used the chance and steal something while he had asked for death.
“I'd advise you to tell Xander.”
“I don't want to bother him, he has enough problems to deal with. And he has his son to look after, hearing he might have a nephew might cause him some conflict who to take care of. He already fears he isn't spending enough time with Siegbert.”
“Yet he has enough time to chew me out.”
“He did what?”
Leo looks alerted. Worried. Maybe scared. That's why Niles hadn't mentioned it before. But there was no point in hiding it further.
“He knows about the boy and that he has to be more than someone you took pity on.”
“You're right. I...”
“Leo”, Niles says, softer this time.
He stands up taking his hand in his and gently pulling him towards himself. The prince sighs, relaxing a bit.
“Come sit down. Let me take care of you.”
“Is with Sophie. Jacob said he'd bring him to bed later, along with Dwyer.”
“Did you plan this?”
“Did I? You think too highly of me – making strategies is your duty, not mine.”
“I love you.”
Niles replies by leaning forward and kissing him.
“You don't look pleased”, Niles remarks.
“With his hair cut short and washed, I hoped he was a presentable young boy. We even got him fitted clothes. But now that he is wearing a dress there might be gossip.”
“He is a child. It shouldn't matter what he wears. Hell, even if he is older and decides to dress like your sisters it wouldn't matter. Lord Leo I thought you of all people would understand that.”
“Is it? He is a royal child. People will see him.”
“Do you know why he picked that dress? Not because Elise wore it. It's because when you looked at those to give away, it was the only one which you had in your hands for a longer moment. Because you smiled when you looked at it. I wouldn't be surprised if the boy thought you'd be happy if he wears it.”
Leo remains silent and Niles takes it as a cue to continue.
“Have you ever showed the boy that you're happy to have him here? Did you smile at him?”, Niles wants to know, thinking back to Xander's words, “Don't you think he might consider himself a bother?”
“I'm... no maybe you're right. Forgive me. It's too much lately.”
“I don't need your forgiveness. You better believe that he doesn't hear. The boy went trough a lot he doesn't need his saviour to degrade him.”
“I'm not his... I just think he deserves the family he is from.”
“I never understood why blood ties were this important to you. But I guess it's not too bad. It saved the boy.”
“Pure luck. I heard a rumour. Went to the city with Elise for shopping and saw the children. It could have been different. If Elise's wet-nurse hadn't proven the rumours in a way, I wouldn't have spared the boy another glance.”
“But you did.”
“Yes. But it had been his friend who had the crest, said he'd sold it to me. And only if I asked who it truly belonged to did he admit to have stolen it from Forrest. Because he was scared of the consequences.”
“Children can be like this, watching how the adults survive and adapting.”
“Let's hope we can avoid it in future. I don't want to expose the boy to any more unnecessary violence.”
Niles smiles. He doesn't see much sense in sheltering someone from the harsh reality they have to face eventually, but... maybe he was a bit fond of the boy who slowly put his trust in him. So if his lord demanded it, he would protect the boy.
And with Leo's request he can ignore that he would have done it any way – a guy like him had to protect his pride after all. Couldn't admit that a little child was important, otherwise people might use this weakness.
(It had certainly nothing to do with the fact that the boy – royal blood or not – reminded him of someone.)