One Wrong Step
March 2009

 

[Squall]

It is said that sharks can smell a drop of blood from over a mile away.  I wonder, then, what reporters smell such that a horde of them will descend upon the same police station in a feeding frenzy, demanding for information about the ugliest event happening in the nation today.

Keeping my distance, I watch from the corner of the street as a good fifteen or so vans clog up the meager parking area and the general area in front of the Fifth Ave Station.  Some of the reporters are clearly from out of town, the idiots dressed like eskimos for weather that is technically freezing, but there's no wind to make it feel as cold as it sounds.  Streams of visible breath can be viewed from the reporters, some speaking directly to their cameras while the others do their little routines before going live.  It'll be impressive if anyone has a decent dose of information to give their viewing public.

It's no surprise why they are here - serial killers are excellent for ratings, after all - but that doesn't make the spectacle of hungry reporters excusable in any sense of the word.  If they had addressed the situation with any amount of tact, I would tolerate their presence in this city of Garden.  As it is, I have already caught some of the more questionable reports, including one that went into great detail about the forensics being used on the case and how the serial killer could potentially avoid being caught by such methods.  Granted, the killer probably already knew to use gloves to prevent fingerprint detection, but honestly, who gives pointers to serial killers?

The horde of reporters shift excitedly when the door to the station opens, but murmurs of disappointment sound when the person isn't anyone of importance, at least in their terms.  Meanwhile, I straighten at the sight of a yellow beret that skillfully weaves through the collection of reporters, eventually emerging to reveal a rather petite woman wearing a coat which reaches her knees and shares the same bright material as her hat.  The brunette sends a withering glare over her shoulder at the reporters, but amazingly holds her tongue when she shifts her attention to the street.  Soon enough, she notices me with a pleased squeal that is easily heard despite the distance between us.

Trotting toward me with soft clicks from her low-heeled shoes, Selphie Tilmitt doesn't look much like a police officer, let alone her recently obtained rank of detective within the city's 'crimes against child' unit, but it doesn't take long for people to figure out that Selphie isn't a force to underestimate.  There are more than a few rumors going around about her dropping a man three times her weight and handcuffing him before he knew what was coming.  The state of his genitals afterward is of some debate, but I don't doubt that Selphie 'accidentally' stepped in the right place to gain some revenge for the children he had abused.

Her smile wide, though tired, Selphie doesn't slow down when reaching me.  Bumping against my side, she innocently wraps her arm around mine and looks up with warm green eyes.  "Squall," she says in an exhaled breath, "I can't tell you how happy I am to see that pretty face of yours."

I scowl down at the petite woman, silently announcing my displeasure with her attached to my arm.

"Oh poo, don't look like that.  I just want those vultures to think I'm meeting with my boyfriend and not my secret weapon for solving cases.  Got it?"

At the comment, I glance up at the horde of reporters and notice how more than a few eyes are upon us.  Vultures, indeed.  I place a hand on top Selphie's and nod my head in the direction away from the station.  "Shall I buy you some breakfast?  Maybe a few cups of coffee?"

Her eyes mischievous and bright, Selphie presses even closer to my side.  "I knew you were good for something."

The short walk to the diner that Selphie favors is surprisingly a quiet one.  Unlike her usual self, the detective leans heavily against my side in her exhaustion and yawns several times without reserve.  We gain more than a few glances from the occasional passersby, most of them probably wondering what a vibrant woman like Selphie was doing with a dour man dressed in an old bomber jacket and black leather pants.  It's none of their business, of course, but that doesn't make their stares any less bothersome.

The diner is a rather rundown place, but somehow maintains a classic mom-and-pop ambiance instead of appearing like the health hazard it probably is.  Selphie detaches herself from my arm and leads the way to the small booth located in the back corner.  Before I have the chance to sit down, an older waitress is there with a pencil tucked behind her ear, but no pad to write on.  At the question of 'whaddya want?', Selphie orders a light breakfast of fruit, toast, and decaf coffee; meanwhile, I shake my head at the suggestion of my own cup of liquid mud.

"No coffee?" Selphie questions with a raised eyebrow.  "I wake you up before noon and you don't need a caffeine crutch?"

I shrug at the idea.  "I had a stakeout the last two days and nights, and then you called before I found a bed.  I don't need something to keep me up for another several hours."

"Really?  Man, and I thought I had a late night," Selphie says as she rubs a hand over her face.  "I did a double shift with that 'Johnny Strangler' mess on our hands.  Another boy was killed, you know?  Barely nine-years-old.  And we're still trying to find the parents of the first three boys."

I shake my head at the information, now understanding the full reason as to why the police station was surrounded with twice the reporters compared to a few days ago.  Dubbed 'The Johnny Strangler,' an unknown person has been killing young boys who are either homeless, runaways, or otherwise unwanted since no one has claimed them.  Six months and four bodies later, the police have no apparent leads and no reported suspects.  While the victims thus far have been 'John Does,' the people of Garden have become nervous with thoughts about whether or not their child will be next and have only made things worse by attacking anyone who is a registered sex offender.  Such assaults have forced the police to divide their attention between protecting those perverts and actually investigating the case.  It's no wonder Selphie looks like she's about ready to collapse.

"If you need my help..."

Selphie smiles sadly at the offer.  "Thanks, sweetie, but there are so many people on the case that one more body may get in the way, especially when you're good at what you do.  We already have the Feds involved, and while most of us are grateful for the help, there are more than a few stupid men with sore egos who are making things difficult."

"The offer is standing as long as you need it," I insist, though I understand the situation all too well.  Those on the police force are a prideful sort with good reason and they don't particularly care for outsiders to show up and demand for the information that had been painstakingly gathered over several months.  The key is to know the right people and the right time to ask questions, but even I tend to hit resistance whenever I occasionally help with a case.

"You're a good man, Squall Loire, but I need your patented skills for something else."

The waitress appears to set food and hot coffee in front of Selphie; meanwhile, I frown at the suggestion that the detective had contacted me because of my glorified ability to find people, something that is unfortunately the cornerstone of my business.

In all honesty, I never meant to become a private investigator when growing up.  Hell, I went to college to become an accountant, but when my father decided to retire from the PI business several years ago, he gave my name and number as a sort of 'forwarding address' for anyone who needed help.  The bastard never asked if I wanted this in my life, but I couldn't say 'no' to the more pitiful cases, especially those involving children.  It started as something small, a side business of sorts that blossomed into an unexpectedly viable occupation.  Word of mouth is an amazing thing, as I've discovered; however, it also means that I can't easily escape the reputation that has been built around me.  I dread the day someone will inevitably ask me to look for Elvis.

Selphie steals a large bite of her toast before saying around the mouthful, "So, I should probably warn you that you aren't going to take this case."

With a raised eyebrow at the statement, I ask, "Then why am I here?"

"Because I know all about your weakness and I'm not afraid to abuse it," she states with a impish smile.

Like I said, never underestimate this woman.

After another quick bite of toast and a mouthful of coffee, Selphie sighs in relief at momentarily sating her hunger.  "Well, I guess I should start at the beginning.  And I know, I know, you hate unnecessary details, so I'll try to keep it short."

Selphie takes a breath in readiness before beginning, "A couple months ago, I was assigned to a side project to organize and clear out some of the backlog for the Anonymous Tip Line and move the recordings to a server in California or somewhere.  See, you may not know this, but the thing is basically an answering machine and, man, all sorts of people leave messages.  There are the typical pranksters, as well as some confused people who report a crime that they had a dream about, a couple of drugged up idiots who don't know what they are saying, and on rare occasions, someone who actually has good information.  It gets pretty messy sorting through it all, thus the reason behind the project, and well, I needed the overtime," she admits.

"About forty messages in, I screened this one tip that detailed a date rape scheme at a popular fraternity, which I recognized instantly since it was the first case I worked when I became detective.  The guy had it all right - how high school 'good girls' were being lured to parties, the effects of the drugs given to the victims, and even a description for one of the bastards.  He told us about it almost two weeks before my department had gotten involved and no one thought to pass along his message because..."  Selphie hesitates, her eyes flicking away from my gaze when she says, "While he hasn't out right admitted it, it sounds like the guy might be a psychic."

Before my skepticism is shown with anything more than a raised eyebrow, Selphie hurries to argue, "I know it sounds crazy, and trust me, I've heard from my share of con artists who claim to know where bodies are buried and will only tell us for the right price.  But this one guy... He gets to me.  He had details that only the victims and rapists should've known, details that we learned about when two of the girls came forward."  Her eyes tired, Selphie rakes a hand back through her shoulder-length hair and clutches onto the strands.  "The worse part is that those sweethearts were raped in the two weeks after we had received the anonymous tip.  If someone, anyone had listened to him and believed..."

"And would you have believed him before you knew he was right?"

Selphie glares at me for the inconvenient question, but she doesn't try to lie, no matter how much she wishes she could have saved those girls.

I sigh and lean back in my seat. "Did you consider that this person was one of the rapists?"

"Of course!  It was my first thought when I was listening to the recording, but I worked on that investigation and he wasn't among the bastards."

"How would you know when the messages are supposedly anonymous?"

"I'd recognize his voice anywhere," Selphie declares as she reaches into the inside pocket of her coat.  The retrieved Ipod is set onto the table between us and Selphie challenges, "Tell me that isn't one of the sexiest voices you've ever heard."

I stare at the bright pink Ipod decorated with a vast assortment of red and white hearts.  "I'll take your word for it."

"Not good enough.  See, that's a new message from the guy and it came just this morning.  The answering system was down last night, and with this 'Johnny Strangler' case blowing up in our faces, we had to do things by hand until they fixed the thing.  An hour before the system came back online, I got that call," Selphie states with a finger pointed at the player.

I hesitate before I pick up the set of earbuds and place them in my ears.  Lifting up the Ipod, I glance at the playlist, and then look incredulously at the detective for the highlighted title of "Handsome #4".

Her grin innocent, Selphie says, "He never leaves a name, so I call him 'Handsome'.  I recently found two other calls by him, but those cases are closed.  Sadly, his information would've helped, but it's too late for all of that.  This call," she says while tapping the player, "needs your help now."

I frown lightly at her tone that is frustrated and worried, proving that Selphie has gotten her heart involved yet again.  It's a wonder that she's still sane after her last few months in the 'crimes against children' department.  Even so, I don't like it when she tries to drag me into her crusades.  "Don't assume that I'm taking this case."

"Just listen to it," Selphie demands while picking up her coffee.  "We'll talk about conditions later."

I glare at her for a long moment, a silent note of protest before I ultimately hit the play button.

The recording starts with a woman's voice, instantly recognizable as Selphie.  <"You've reached the Anonymous Tip Line.  What do you have for me?">

After a long pause with the muffled purr of street noise, a rough male voice eventually stammers, <"Uh, sorry, I think... I must've dialed wrong.  I wanted...  Usually, I leave a message...>

<"Nope, this is the right place.  The system is down, so we're doing things the old fashioned way until it's fixed,"> Selphie says, sounding friendly but bored with the explanation that she had probably given numerous times prior to this call.  <"Don't worry, it's still anonymous and your information is important to us.">

<"...Shit...">

My breath leaves me at the hissed out curse, the single word bringing back a rush of memories that were only vague feelings with the previous stumbling sentences.  I immediately glance at Selphie, worried that my sudden tenseness would be caught by the observant detective, but it's obvious that the brunette is lost in her own thoughts, her eyes unfocused on the nearby window.  Though my unwanted reaction went unnoticed, it takes several seconds to school my expression, a fact that irritates me as only one person could throw me off like this.  One person... and all I can think is that he sounds incredibly tired.

<"Sir, I assure you--">

<"Don't say anything,"> the man demands in a growl.  <"I just... I have to tell you this and I don't need somebody fucking around with me.  If you say a Goddamned word, I'll hang up and never call this number again.">  He pauses after the threat, as if wanting Selphie to say something and give him the convenient excuse to discard all responsibility associated to whatever he knows.  Selphie, however, is a stubborn woman, and while I can imagine that the brunette had stuck her tongue out at the phone in childlike pettiness, she would do anything for information that may help others.

When Selphie complies to the demand of silence, the man sighs irritably.  <"Listen, I didn't want to know this.  I didn't want to know any of this, but...  There's a girl, a fucking angel of a baby girl who's two, maybe three-years-old.  She's going to be dumped in the middle of some forest by some guy in a large red pickup.  She keeps calling for her mother, but there are only huge pine trees around her, so no one hears her cries and screams.  There's also a sign, but she...">  A sharp bang of metal sounds over the recording and I can imagine the man hitting the side of a public phone.  <"I don't know what it says.  There's a fucking sign that could tell me, 'you are here,' but I can't...">

I frown when muffled and excited words can be barely heard over the recording, something that would've gone unnoticed if the caller hadn't suddenly gone quiet in his anger, not to mention the inconvenient drop in street noise.  I recognize the use of 'Handsome' in the faint discussion and I close my eyes at Selphie's poorly timed impatience.

The strained laugh that I was expecting comes over the line.  <"You're laughing at me.">

<"Wha...?  Wait, no, we aren't.  I swear we aren't.  We just recognize--">

<"No, fuck you.  I didn't have to call--">

<"Please, what does the girl look like?"> Selphie asks in a rush.  <"Do you have her name?  When is this going to happen?">

There is a long pause which could have easily ended with a disconnected line, but the man eventually answers in a cold tone, <"I don't know her name, but she has creamy brown skin and will be wearing a fancy white dress.  It's too flimsy for the cold, and if the weather report is right, it'll be snowing on her sometime tomorrow night.">  His clinical reply ends with the harsh declaration, <"And for your information, I don't like being the ass-end of a bad joke.">

When the caller hangs up with a harsh clang, Selphie mutters something about 'screwing up big time' and the recording ends.

Despite the finished track and the Ipod moving onto some vaguely recognizable pop song, I stare at the playlist and wonder what it would take to get copies from Selphie.  Technically, these should be police property and I bet she would get into trouble if anyone found out that she had made her own recordings, but I want them.  And if I was honest with myself, I need them.

"So?" Selphie questions, gaining my attention.  "Will you find her?"

Removing the earbuds, I point out, "There was no real information.  I don't know how I'm supposed to find some infant when an entire mountain range of trees covers the west side of Garden."

"You've worked with less," Selphie claims with a pout.

"Not in my terms."

"But... But we can stop this one."

I scowl at the comment.  "Isn't that what the police is for?"

"Mo-oh, nobody will do anything when everyone wants that 'Johnny Strangler' in front of an execution squad, especially when the only lead to find that girl is someone claiming to see the future.  Captain Kramer wants to help, but he has Mayor Norg breathing down his neck and watching his every move."

"You went to Cid about this?" I ask in surprise.

"Of course.  How do you think I got these recordings?  I'm not tech savvy enough to steal them without anyone noticing."  In a more serious tone, Selphie adds, "The chief says he hasn't been spooked by a guy like this in a long time.  While he hopes Handsome is wrong, he also hopes that you'll do something to help that little girl."

I close my eyes, irritated at Selphie's refusal to pull the punches.  She first lands me with a praying-for-a-miracle case where a child's life is threatened, and then casually throws Cid's name into the mix.  Logic would say that I've paid off my debts to the police captain; instead, Cid has innocently abused the fact that some debts can never be repaid.  I have no doubt that he told Selphie to mention his support for the case if I seemed reluctant to accept it.

"I want my normal retainer," I eventually state, and then open my eyes to meet Selphie's instantly cheered expression, as if my acceptance meant the girl was practically saved.  One of these days, I need to remind both her and Cid that I'm not a magician.  "I also want these recordings."

She blinks at the last condition.  "Well, that's easy enough, but why do you care?  I already told you that the other messages are about cases that have been closed."

"Those are the conditions.  No negotiations."

Selphie hums in consideration, a slow smile reaching her lips.  "Didn't I tell you that he has a great voice?"

I scoff at her assumption, but I'm not about to explain my reasons as to why I'd need these recordings.

A warm hand settles on mine, squeezing my fingers around the player I had yet to set on the table.  "Keep my Ipod and give it back whenever you're done.  Just promise me that you'll do everything in your power to find that girl.  I think... I'm almost certain that he needs it."

I stare at the brunette, uncertain what she means.

"Handsome," she replies to my unspoken question while clutching my hand tighter.  "Those other cases I mentioned, they didn't end well.  All of his messages, these four recordings and who knows how many others, were for nothing.  And because I messed up, he may never call again.  So this one... it has to mean something."

Though logic dictates that I have nothing useable to save the unknown girl, I find myself nodding at the detective's request.  "It'll mean something."

Selphie smiles brightly while pulling back her hand.  "Y'know, I didn't think you'd agree that easy.  You seem like the type to scoff at the idea of psychics and the supernatural.  Why are you playing along with this?"

"You'd be surprised," I supply with no additional information.  Standing up from my seat, I pocket the player and retrieve my wallet to drop a ten-dollar bill onto the table.  "I'll keep in contact as best I can, but... Selph, you know that I can't promise anything."

"Somebody is doing something - I can get some sleep knowing that," the brunette says with a tired smile.

I sigh at her overly hopeful nature, but I don't try to dissuade her.  Wishing her a 'goodnight', I leave Selphie to the rest of her small breakfast and the cup of coffee that had been refilled by the waitress when Selphie didn't wave her off fast enough.  The door jiggles quietly at my exit and the immediate brush of winter air is a welcomed relief, almost providing a sense of clarity after hearing that voice from my past.  Almost.

Doing my best to hide the heart-covered Ipod from view, I select the track named 'Handsome #1'.  Placing an earbud into my right ear, I briefly close my eyes at the low voice that doesn't hold the same passion or anger that I tend to associate to the speaker.  Granted, the last time I knew him, we were both teenagers coping with our own life problems, but it's hard to hear him like this - tired and resigned.  At least there was some comfort in the live call with Selphie, the man proving that he still has a short fuse, as well as proving that he isn't as beaten as he sounds.

While the voice describes a teenaged girl drinking a spiked bottle of water, I look down the street in the direction of my condo and consider the usefulness of getting a few hours of sleep before anything else.  It's extremely tempting, but the wind already has a feel of approaching snow.  Thinking of the terrified infant sitting God knows where, I turn around and walk in the opposite direction of my bed and shower.  While the information was sparse, there are reasons why children are left behind in remote areas, especially young children.  It's a long shot, but if I'm lucky, I'll find one of those reasons that also happens to own a red pickup.  After that... I should have enough free time to use on some investigating of my own.


Seated at a small table with an empty paper cup in front of me, I fiddle with the new Ipod that I was encouraged to purchase after a week of using Selphie's player.  Compared to the packed playlist the brunette favored, I only have about twenty tracks thus far and not a single song among them.  Instead, I had used a media program to dissect the recordings Selphie had given me as best I could, hoping to find details within the background noise to figure out the speaker's location.  Open on the table sits a notepad covered with messy handwriting and many scratched out lines, but I haven't added to the notepad in over a day.  The main lines contain the spoken warnings from the recordings, but I'm more interested in the slanted lines where I had added details about street noise, people's discussions, and other identifying features that could indicate where the anonymous calls had taken place.

It's amazing how many people practice their personalized coffee orders before actually entering the store.

Hardly listening to the track of rumbling cars that I've already heard more times than I can count, I stare out the window toward the icy street beyond and at the public phone standing innocently within view.  This isn't the first location I've considered, nor the second one, but the previous ones weren't quite right with the passage of buses.  Realistically, I imagine that I have about ten more potential targets in the weeks ahead of me.  I never noticed how many coffee shops exist within Garden, and the requirement of a public phone didn't limit things much.  It's almost as if the man was being difficult on purpose.

When the nine-fifteen bus comes and goes with the retrieval of a single passenger, I come to the acceptance that nothing is going to happen this morning.  Frustrated, but not discouraged, I close the notepad and slip it into the inside pocket of my jacket before I glance at my empty cup and debate the matter of getting a refill.  In that moment of indecision, I barely notice a pair of women leaving the cafe, but the minor collision at the door catches my attention.  Not when it happens nor when one of the women apologizes profusely, but when a man replies, "Don't worry 'bout it.  Happens more often than you'd think."

I gaze up at the entrance and watch as a tall man with shaggy blond hair and a sharp smile holds open the door for the two women.  They whisper excitedly after passing him by, but the man doesn't seem to care as his smile fades and he steps inside, his attention focused on the counter.  My first thought is that he looks older than his twenty-eight years, most likely contributed to the stubble at his jawline and the dark circles under his eyes.  He also has a lean look that surprises me given my memories of the onetime football player.

It's a simple matter to assume that the last ten years haven't been good to Seifer Almasy.

While the blond goes to order his drink, I hit the stop button on my player for the first time in hours and wrap the headphones around its width before tucking it into a pocket.  Grabbing my cup, I move to the condiments bar and toss the piece of trash before leaning back against the solid support to watch Seifer pay with a handful of change for his large coffee.  Just as the server finishes counting the last pennies, the door opens to release a pair of young boys into the store.

I have a nasty feeling at the first sight of the energetic kids and how the taller one was playing keep-away with some action figure, but before the mother can finish her warning to stop the roughhousing, the younger one runs smack into the unaware blond.  At the hard jolt, Seifer unintentionally squeezes his recently obtained cup and the lid pops off just as it tilts forward, allowing the steaming coffee to pour out.  Showing speed of old, Seifer jerks aside the kid before hot liquid can fall on the boy's face, but that leaves the man's pants covered in the dark brew.

"Son of a--" is all Seifer gets out before he remembers the impressible youths around him.

While the woman behind the counter promptly asks Seifer if he's alright, the mother grabs her son and scolds him for causing trouble, and then forces the teary-eyed boy to apologize.  Seifer waves off the apology, but readily accepts the offer a replacement drink from the server.  He gets his new cup of coffee, gives the concerned mother a patented smile to assure her that he's fine with the matter, and walks away from the counter.

It takes him four steps before he notices me.

Seifer stares at me as if seeing a ghost, his lips forming my name without making a sound.  And then his large coffee slips through his fingers to splatter onto the ground.  The second hit of steaming liquid against his legs makes the blond jump back a couple steps, breaking him out of his previous stunned state.  The glare he directs at me is hot with anger, as if I were somehow responsible for his lost coffee, but his expression quickly changes to an embarrassed winced as he glances back over his shoulder and at the server who had appeared with a mop to clean up the first spill.

"Sorry, I didn't mean... I mean, I like the coffee here and would never waste it intentionally..."

The young woman smiles with honest sympathy.  "It's alright.  With that snow and salt outside, I had to wipe down the floors sooner or later.  But if you want another cup of coffee, you'll have to do something real nice for me."

"I think I've had enough coffee for today," Seifer mutters as he glances down at his ruined pants.  With an exhaled breath, he lifts his head and brushes aside the strands of hair that had fallen over his eyes.  "So, Loire, what are you doing in these parts?"

"Looking for you," I say casually, not caring how bad it sounds.

Eyes of bright sea-green shift warily at my declaration, but Seifer eventually smirks with sharp arrogance.  "Well, you found me.  Congrats and goodbye.  I have work."

I nod in understanding and allow the blond to walk two steps past me before I announce, "We found the girl."

Seifer stops at the words, but after a quiet moment, he tries to play stupid.  "The 'girl'...?  I don't know what--"

"The two-year-old you warned the police about.  She's safe with her aunt."  When Seifer doesn't say anything in denial or otherwise, I offer the man, "I could treat you to breakfast and tell you about it."

Seifer seems to consider it, but shakes his head.  "I can't... If I'm late again, even a minute past nine, the foreman is going to send me packing, so I have to pass."

I frown at the excuse.  "Nine?  It's already twenty after."

Seifer turns sharply at that information, his eyes wide in disbelief.  "What?  But I just looked..."  He glances at his watch and an odd shift of emotions crosses his face - vague hope, to anger, and ending with resignation.  "Of course.  Why wouldn't my watch stop?  It's not like nothing else has gone horribly wrong today."

Knowing that words would only upset the man further, I say nothing when he jerks at the leather strap of his watch and chucks it into the trash.  He runs a clawed hand through his hair and grits his teeth at the apparent loss of his job, looking about ready to punch something or someone.  After a tense moment when I consider how I'm within the range of his fist, Seifer abruptly turns his back to me and moves toward the glass door, which he opens with a surprisingly light touch.

Pausing halfway through the entrance, Seifer asks gruffly, "Are you buying me breakfast or not?"

"... Lead the way."

~ > < ~

I have offered many meals to a variety of informants in the past.  Some demand for high quality dining at the city's most respected steakhouse, others are satisfied with good food and good wine at a locally owned restaurant, and then there are the handful of people who want nothing more than an open tab for a night at whatever club they prefer.  I've probably been to every restaurant in Garden during my six years in this business, but I can honestly say that this is the first time I've been to a Denny's.

While I pass on the option of breakfast, Seifer orders a 'Grand Slam' with an extra side of bacon and a plate of hash browns.  Bravely, he also asks for some coffee to go with his meal, but notably moves the mug to the edge of table so that the elderly waitress wouldn't have to reach when pouring that first serving.  I can't blame him for that touch of caution.

"So," Seifer begins once the waitress wanders off to the kitchen, "Squall Loire became a cop.  That's somewhat surprising."

I smirk at his assumption.  "Not quite.  I took over my father's business some years ago, which includes being a consultant to the police."

"He-eh, you're a PI?" Seifer says lightly, but his gaze has an appraising edge.  "Y'know, while you don't look the part, I'll bet that you have a field day doing the investigator thing.  You can do stakeouts by your lonesome, expose lies for what they are, and hunt down cheating husbands and lying crooks.  It suits you in a weird way."

With an unconcerned shrug, I comment, "It pays the rent."

Seifer snorts out a laugh.  "Right, I forgot who I was talking to.  Anyone else would be talking about carrying a concealed weapon and taking pictures of large breasted mistresses, but you, you're just doing a job."

I don't bother defending myself, especially when the man's assessment is close enough to the truth.

At my silence, Seifer shifts his gaze away from mine and clears his throat before asking warily, "Earlier, you mentioned... that girl..."

"Hn, she's fine thanks to your warning."

Green eyes narrow into a harsh glare.  "My 'warning' was crap and you know it."

"And yet we still found her."

That reminder calms some of his frustration, but he still doesn't look in my direction when asking, "How...?  Just, how?"

"You were focused on the wrong part of the situation.  Because you saw that vision, you were worried about the 'what', meanwhile I was interested in the 'why'," I explain while removing a folded piece of newspaper from my pocket and set it on the table.  The obituary clipping is relatively short, but the picture of a beautiful woman with dark skin and a kind smile goes further to suggest her loving nature.  Sadly, the child on her lap shares the same curl of lips.

Seifer doesn't say anything, but the odd light to his eyes suggests that he recognizes the young girl.

"On a hunch, I visited a source who works the obituaries at the newspaper and learned about that woman who had died recently, leaving behind a two-year-old child and a fiancÚ.  My source instantly remembered that the man had been distraught, and when I asked about the child, she claimed that her 'woman's intuition' had sent off warning signals with his handling of the girl.  Not cruel, just reluctant somehow.  I decided to check out his address and found the red pickup in the driveway."

After glancing over the obituary for a second time, Seifer breathes a laugh and covers his face with a large hand.  "Shit, that simple, huh?  Goddamn it, I never even thought..."

"You were too involved," I offer logically.  "You saw that infant in the snow and became frustrated with the idea that you couldn't read the sign and figure out where she had been left.  It's not surprising that you were too distracted to think about the bigger picture of the situation."

"Right, not surprising at all," Seifer says in a self-depreciating tone.  "If you hadn't... Hey, wait a minute, how did you get mixed up in this mess?"

"A detective by the name of Selphie Tilmitt suckered me into taking the case.  She was the one who talked with you on the tip line, and by chance, she recognized your voice from your previous tips that had proven true.  She contacted me the moment after you hung up on her."

He frowns at that information.  "But, she was mocking me.  I heard her talking with others."

"She's rather... excitable.  Once she recognized your voice, she was eager at the chance to use your information for a change, instead of someone else ignoring it."

At that moment, the waitress delivers a collection of plates and sets them out in front of the silent blond, just after he manages to take the newspaper clipping from the table and tuck it away into his pocket.  She asks the halfhearted question if we needed anything else, and is promptly on her way before Seifer finishes the shake of his head.  The man doesn't start directly into his breakfast, but instead stares at the hot food as if uncertain what he was supposed to do about the meal.  Eventually, he picks up a piece of bacon and bites into the greasy meat.  Grinning at the taste, he picks up a fork and digs into the rest of his breakfast.

Between mouthfuls of egg and hash browns, Seifer asks, "Can you guess the last time someone bothered believing me?"

I shrug, never one to enjoy guessing games.  "I haven't seen you in years."

"Exactly."

Stunned, I stare at the blond while he continues eating as if his comment was nothing of great concern.  I suppose that it's ultimately unsurprising that no one wants to believe a man who claims to see visions of the future.  Compounding the issue is Seifer's reluctance to share whatever information he learns, but that caution is understandable when others have been institutionalized for less.  And yet, despite that risk, he still tries to reach out when it matters.

"Let me give you Selphie's direct number," I offer, but Seifer stops me before I manage to reach into my inner pocket to find one the cards Selphie had forced on me shortly after her promotion.

"Don't bother, Loire.  I know what you're trying to do, but I'm not interested in dealing with the police.  The moment something goes wrong, that lady of yours is going to call me up and demand for information that I don't have.  I'd rather live without that extra pressure."

"Then, what, your plan is to continue calling that tip line and hope your messages are heard in time?"

He shrugs and eats more of his breakfast before saying, "Frankly, I have bigger worries in my life.  I can't afford to continue playing this superhero game with helping people I don't even know.  And fuck, it's not like I'm actually helping anyone."

"That girl--"

"You saved that girl, Loire.  Not me.  And don't argue," Seifer demands with an egg-covered fork pointed in my direction.  "I had the same information as you, maybe even bit more, but you made the connections.  You protected her, while I..."  He laughs bitterly and says, "I could only dream about her frozen body and open eyes."

I say nothing while watching him eat, noting how he seems to fill his mouth with every forkful.  My eyes then drift to his clothing that is clearly meant for construction work, but they seem more worn than they should be, too many holes and tears that would let in icy winter air.  Of course, the bags under his eyes speak volumes about his sleeping habits, but more than that, his hair is longer than I've ever seen it at four or five inches and there isn't an ounce of product in sight.  I can't remember his hair without some level of gel since the eighth grade.

Considering all of that and making myself see the truth, it becomes painfully obvious that Seifer had stopped caring at some point in his life, and that realization terrifies me.

With a final mouthful of hash browns and a dangerous chug of coffee, Seifer drops his fork onto a cleaned plate and leans back in his seat to let loose a quiet burp.  "Man, I was hungrier than I thought.  I suppose it's a good thing I was fired today - it would've been a bitch to work on an empty stomach."

"Seifer..."

He slaps a large hand against the table, efficiently silencing my words and startling the waitress who was approaching with the bill.  Seifer directs an apologetic smile to the older woman before giving me a cooler glance of guarded green.  "Well, thanks for the meal, Loire, but I'd really appreciate it if you would stop stalking me.  Nothing personal, of course," he adds with a false smile.

Refusing to accept his request, especially when I know something is wrong, I ignore his stare and reach for the bill.

Seifer huffs at my lacking agreement, but doesn't press the point as he slides out from his seat and pushes up to his feet.  I half-notice him lift a hand to his forehead as if massaging a headache, but I glance away to pull a few bills from my wallet.  The sound of a short curse and a dull thump immediately draws my attention, and I stare dumbly at the sight of Seifer on the ground.

Seifer hisses through clenched teeth and rolls onto his side to clutch at his leg.  "Fucking Hell, why the knee?"

I frown at his obvious pain, but don't feel particularly forgiving of the man who confuses me more than any other.  Seifer has never done anything to suggest that he hates me, but he has always played this game of inviting me along, and then keeping me at arm's length.  The ridiculous part is that I continue to fall into his trap, even though I know how it's going to end time after time.

Dropping a few bills onto the table, I push out from the booth and stand over the blond.  "Need help?"

Seifer barks out a laugh.  "Nah, I'm just fine.  Can't you tell?"

I bend down and hold out my hand, a simple offer that Seifer considers warily before accepting.  Though the man is nearly a foot taller than me, it doesn't take too much effort on my part to pull him up from the ground, and when he sways dangerously on his good leg, I use my grip on his hand to wrap his arm around my shoulders.

"Damn it, Loire, I'm not--"

"You're hurt.  Let me help before you make it worse."

Seifer glares down at me for a long moment before scoffing and jerking his gaze elsewhere.  "Fine, do whatever floats your boat."

Nudging him forward, I lead the limping blond outside of the diner, some of the staff watching us carefully as if waiting for a lawsuit to happen.  Seifer shivers at the first brush of winter air, but says nothing while focusing on his steps.  We reach the curb of the sidewalk where I stop and look up at the blond, asking the silent question of 'where to next?'

Seifer blinks at the request.  "What, don't you already know where I live?"

"If I did, would I have been looking for you in coffee stores?"

He considers that fact before pointing at the intersection down the street.  "I'm a couple blocks that way.  If you see a rat, it's probably heading to my place along with the rest of the vermin in the city, so just follow the plague ridden bastard."

We move slowly down the sidewalk and its patches of ice, Seifer's hold on me gradually strengthening as he surrenders to the fact that he needs my support.  For the first time that I can remember, my thoughts are quiet as I simply feel this moment - his rough hand held within mine, his natural heat felt despite layers of clothing, and his quiet growls of frustration caressing my ear.  It's a cruel, temporary reality that will haunt me for the rest of my life... but that assumes the fact that Seifer hadn't already cursed me years ago.

"It's a football injury."

Stopped at the corner while waiting for the light to change, I glance up at Seifer for the statement made without prompting.

"My knee," he clarifies.  "It happened in the middle of my freshman year.  I had just thrown the winning touchdown when I got trampled to the ground by some steroid-fueled fucker.  I twisted my knee and that was it.  Goodbye football, goodbye scholarship, goodbye future."

The light changes and I pull Seifer forward.  "You were stupid to place all of your hopes on a physical sport."

"You don't have to tell me, Sherlock," the blond scoffs.  "I just wanted to make certain that you didn't get it into your brain that I'm a fragile flower who'll fall apart with a strong breeze."

"Why would I think that?"

I can feel the sharp stare of green without meeting his gaze, but Seifer refrains from his typical sarcasm.  Instead, he places a little more of his weight onto my shoulders and gives better directions about which apartment building was his.  As suggested by his rat comment, the building has the look of a place that is a year or two from being condemned, which is a shame since it would have been a decent place if an ounce of effort had been put into general maintenance.  We take the stairs to the third floor, Seifer making the statement that the elevator was a deathtrap.  It's a minor help that the handrails are sturdier than they look.

Once we reach the third floor, I pause with the intention to take a quick breather, but Seifer doesn't seem to share that mindset as he mutters a quiet series of no's before pulling his arm from around my shoulders and hurries down the hall.  Curious at his sudden urgency, I take a closer look at the stretch of hallway, but only notice an old man entering his apartment and a group of movers hauling a ratty couch from the last door on the floor.  However, when Seifer hobbles directly for the end of the hallway, I have a vague feeling of what could be happening.

"Hey, hey, what're you doing?" Seifer demands as he places a hand on the old couch.  "I have another day!"

"Today is the 29th," a man with a clipboard announces, his marshal badge displayed on a chain around his beck.  "Your stay of execution expired yesterday, and since you didn't move out, we're here to 'help' with the process."

Seifer stares at the marshal, disbelief dulling his gaze before he steps back and runs a hand through his hair.  The loss of anger suggests that the blond knows he's in the wrong somehow, whether miscalculating the days he had within his stay of execution, or because he didn't realize what day it was.  Deciding that it was embarrassing enough for Seifer to be caught in the middle of an eviction, I don't move further than the midway point in the hall and lean back against the wall to watch and wait.

With a tired sigh, Seifer asks the marshal, "What will it take to get my stuff back?"

The man flips a page and holds out his clipboard for Seifer to read.  By the widening of green eyes, it can't be a pretty number.

"But... my shit isn't worth half of that."

"Moving and storage fees," is the explanation he gets.

"You haven't moved or stored anything!"

The marshal directs a critiquing eye at the blond.  "Do you have any money on you now?"  At Seifer's silence, the man huffs and says, "By the time you get cash, everything will be moved and stored.  Now, unless you want something, I suggest letting us get our job done in peace."  At the declaration, the two movers with the marshal do the 'intimidating brute' routine with arms crossed and teeth bared, prepared for a fight that they've probably endured many times before in their profession.

Seifer sneers at the act, but doesn't take the bait.  "Fine, whatever, then I'll just grab a few things.  Cloths and shit.  Is that alright with you?"

The marshal shrugs and motions the movers to take a short break.

Seifer enters his apartment and takes his time gathering whatever belongings he deems savable.  Meanwhile, I stay in place, unconcerned with the odd glances from the movers who were probably waiting from some kind of sermon about being evil, heartless bastards who kick out poor souls onto the streets.  Frankly, if a person can't pay the rent, they shouldn't be in that apartment.  It's an unfortunate situation, but people tend to forget about the landlords who also have mortgages and bills to pay.

After about fifteen minutes or so, Seifer appears with a duffle bag strapped over his shoulder and his limp a bit more pronounced.  He looks past the marshal and movers, obviously protecting himself from the urge to punch someone for this latest collapse in his life.  His guarded eyes barely glance my way as he continues down the hallway, leaving the decision to me whether I want to follow or not.  As if I could choose anything else.

I don't offer any help as Seifer climbs down the stairs at a slow pace, his knuckles white on the railing.  Surprisingly, Seifer is silent during the trip down three floors, only once cursing when he nearly loses his footing.  He slams the flat of his hand against the door leading outside and continues down the last few steps to the sidewalk.  While I stay near the building entrance, Seifer walks to the curb where he stops and casually lowers his duffle bag containing the remains of his life to the cement ground.

"Have you ever felt like you took the wrong path?" he asks seemingly to no one, his back held to me.  "Like you took a wrong step somewhere, which led to another wrong step and another, until you're way off track and you don't know how to get back to where you were?"

"... Everyone gets lost every now and again."

Seifer snorts at that.  "You didn't.  You never do.  You just take all of the shit in your life and manage to keep walking forward like it was nothing."

I frown at the unfair assessment.  "It's never nothing."

The blond slumps slightly at the declaration, almost looking back at me.  "Sorry, I didn't... Your mother... Is she still at that institution?"

I don't reply, but it's an answer enough for him.

"Shit, I... I'm really..."

His unspoken words and hints of guilt help to settle a decision I had avoided making while waiting for him to collect his belongings.  Funny how it seems so obvious now.  "I have a spare room."

Seifer hesitates before asking, "Why do you give a fuck, Loire?  It's not like we were ever friends.  We just kind of... grew up at the same time and in the same place.  You're going overboard with helping me out and I don't get why."

Because it hurts to see him when I feel so little with everyone else around me.  Because I'm driven to help him even when he doesn't want my aid.  Because he is the exception to every rule I have made in my life.

But there's no use in saying those things, not when they'll mean nothing to Seifer.

At my silence, the large man turns slightly to look back over his shoulder.  "Are you still gay?"

I suppose it's technically a reasonable question given my offer, but it doesn't stop me from retorting, "I don't know.  Are you still blond?"

Green eyes narrow before Seifer looks away from me again and runs his fingers deep into his hair.  "Fuck, you know that I never harassed you about that back in high school.  It's not like I cared, but in this situation, it has a different meaning."

"Why should it?"

After a brief pause, Seifer chuckles at my question.  "Look at me, a stray dog on the street being picky about the handouts he gets.  It's no wonder that no one wants to take me in."

Sighing at his tone, I step down the cement stairs and move next to the larger man.  "You need a place to stay.  I have extra space.  It's nothing more than that."

Eyelids drooping, Seifer continues to avoid my gaze.  "It's always something 'more than that'... But I don't care.  I'm so fucking tired right now that I'll strip down to my birthday suit and sleep in your bed if that's what it'll take to get a few hours rest."

"That won't be necessary," I reply as I pull my cell phone from my pocket, prepared to call a taxi.  My motorcycle was left at the coffee store, but it would be burdensome for the both of us to ride it.  I purchased the thing for my own convenience, not to play carpool with Seifer and his duffle bag.

As 411 directs me to a local taxi company, I glance at the blond and notice the odd focus of his eyes on the street in front of us.  His lips tighten in an angered grimace, an expression usually reserved for people who have done something to earn his ire.  It's strange seeing the same expression directed at empty air, but I'm quickly distracted by someone answering my call and asking for a pick-up address.

When I put away my phone, Seifer abruptly announces, "I'm going to get another job, ASAP, and I'll pay you back.  One way or another, I'll pay back every cent you've wasted on me."

I almost tell him to stop being ridiculous, that the room is there whether he uses it or not, but I stop myself before saying the words.  Though pride can bring a man amazing strength, it can also be a surprisingly fragile thing.  To tell him that his honor and money are worthless to me would relay the wrong message to this prideful man.  It could also further the misunderstanding that I expect some other form of payment for my help.

Instead, I nod and inform him, "I know you will."

Seifer blinks and finally looks at me, his lips curling into a vague smile.  "You're full of surprises, Loire.  It makes it hard to guess your next move."

I shake my head, unable to believe that I could be as complicated as Seifer.

His smile widening, the larger man moves close and places an arm around my shoulders, his weight instantly felt.  "Damn, my knee hurts.  I hope you have a heating pad in this place of yours, Sherlock."

Stunned by Seifer using me as a support without prompting, I stare up at him and take more than a moment to understand what he had said.  Before I can reply that I have a heating pad, as well as large bath for him to use at his leisure, a yellow cab pulls up in front of us and the driver asks if we're the ones who called for a ride.  Too quickly Seifer's arm pulls away from my shoulders and he exaggerates his limp when grabbing his duffle and climbing into the back of the taxi.  Right, can't look bad in front of the driver.  However, when Seifer sighs once seated and strongly massages his knee, I wonder if he had overdone it to walk out of the apartment building without some help.

Slipping in next to the larger man, I give the driver the intersection close to my building, and then lean back in my seat to think about what mess I've gotten myself into.  I started the day thinking about my meager chances at locating Seifer in a random coffee store, and now I'm somehow taking him home like the stray dog he claimed he was.  But I know better than to believe that.  More than a stray dog, I'm letting a wolf into my home, and once he is fed and well rested, he'll tear me apart with his claws and teeth.  I know that, but my mind refuses to suggest any other option that could help Seifer in this situation better than I could help him.

While I stare out the window in thought, the taxi makes a sharp turn and Seifer, already drifted off to sleep, slides up against me in an awkward slump.  With a whine of complaint, but not really waking, Seifer adjusts his body to rest more comfortably in his seat and nudges his head against my shoulder.  I look down at the man and feel some regret that his face is mostly hidden by his golden hair, but I quickly realize that I'm getting too deep into a fantasy, one that will end sooner than later.  Even so, I'm unable and unwilling to push Seifer aside, especially when the erratic driving of the taxi would more likely than not land the blond back against me, or else in my lap.  Or so the excuse goes.

Returning my gaze to the world outside of the cab, I endure the heavy weight of the blond and curse myself for enjoying the heat of the wolf that I stupidly dragged back into my life.

 

{Continued}

 

Author's Whining -- So, it's the infamous story I've been wanting to write since over a year ago.  The funny thing is that, now that I've started writing it, I'm thinking that this is going to be a fairly selfish story.  Maybe it's because my last couple of stories (FNFE and GR:NP, not to mention requests) have been prompted by other people, but I feel like this story is something I want to write for a change and I'm not certain if the rest of you will enjoy this one.  I hope so, but no promises.  And if not... well, just remember that you're getting your money's worth out of me. ;)