This was a mistake.
A big fucking, man-am-I-going-to-regret-this mistake and I haven't a clue what to do about the situation.
My knee throbbing in pain and an old duffle bag strapped over my shoulder, I stand at the threshold to Squall's place, not yet entering the clearly expensive condo. Places are funny things. Most are just that--a place made from wood and brick and nothing really special. And then there are homes, places that are heavy with... importance, I guess. It's hard to understand what makes a home different than other places, but it's impossible to miss, and despite the visibly sterile appearance of the condo with hardwood floors, dark furniture, and nothing out of its place, this is clearly a home.
Normally that wouldn't be such a bad thing, maybe even a quiet relief after years of living in whatever crap apartment I could afford, but since the moment Squall unlocked the door and stepped inside, this home accepted me without wariness or question. That isn't how this sort of thing is supposed to work, especially for a person who is basically a stranger in Squall's life. I can only assume that such an event means that I missed something important when it came to this guy's motive in helping me out and I'm probably not going to like it.
While I try to understand Squall's benefit in all of this, the man in question casually removes his leather jacket to hang it on a nearby coat stand. Beneath the old jacket, he wears a gray sweater that fits snugly to his body and shows every line of lean muscle when he removes his boots, the sight of which suggesting that Squall had continued the regiment from his track-and-field days in high school. If I remember right, the brunet could run a five-minute mile and hardly break a sweat in those first several miles of a marathon. He could've done amazing things with more training, but as Squall already informed me today, only idiots with foolish dreams place all of their hopes onto physical ability. Squall never was a fool, which makes me wonder what kind of game he is playing now.
"Listen, Loire" I say while adjusting the strap of my duffle bag, "I really appreciate the offer to stay here and all, but after seeing this place, I'm thinking that it's too rich for my sort. There's no way I can pay rent or anything like that and--"
"I don't expect you to pay rent."
I frown at the statement that contradicts our earlier agreement about me staying with him. "We agreed that I would pay you back for all of this."
"And that's fine, but you're the only one to mention rent. That room is here and paid for whether you're around or not. Rent is pointless."
"Don't fucking split hairs with me, Loire. Any normal person would charge rent for someone staying with them."
"Maybe, but..." Squall runs a hand through his thick, chestnut hair and exhales a long breath. "Would you, instead, consider this as my attempt to repay you?"
"Repay me? You don't owe me anything."
"You saved my mother," he states, impressively without much inflection either way despite the pain it must cause him.
With a curse at the reminder of the past, I correct his view point, "She and those kids wouldn't have needed saving in the first place if I had done something sooner."
Squall shrugs indifferently. "You didn't have to come forward at all, especially when there was no reason for anyone to believe you."
"... You did."
He nods without truly understanding what that simple fact means to me. "And your information saved her from death."
I scoff at the idealistic point. "That would imply her life since then has been worth living."
A harsh sheen enters blue-gray eyes before Squall abruptly turns and steps toward his kitchen, soon pulling a pot and pan from the hanging rack over his stove. The clang of metal against metal when he drops them onto the stovetop makes me wince at my thoughtless words. Fucking hell, it's no wonder that I've managed to chase away all of my friends in the past several years.
Squall pulls out an armful of food from his refrigerator before glaring at me, as if wondering why I'm still around. "If you want to leave, Seifer, then leave. You aren't doing me any favors by staying here."
Despite the harsh words, I can still feel the strength of this home around me, welcoming me like I'm a missing piece to some mysterious puzzle. It makes little sense, but maybe... maybe this is just Squall's silent way of accepting me as his mother's savior and my sleep deprived mind is trying to make connections which don't exist. At the end of the day, I haven't a fucking clue how Squall's mind actually works, especially when he seems logical to a fault, but he's still willing to trust a medium with a shaky reputation like mine. For all I know, Squall has a bad habit of taking in strays, but prefers people over pets since they tend to be cleaner and actually understand when he yells at them for shitting in his shoes.
... Fuck it, I'm so tired that my thoughts don't even make much sense anymore. I don't know how I have the energy to keep looking at this gift horse in the mouth.
With a careful step forward, I reach back and close the door, but leave my hand on the knob when my knee stiffens to the point of stealing away my balance. Squall glances over his shoulder at the sound, a flicker of some unidentifiable emotion crossing his face before he frowns deeply and places the tomato he had been washing onto the counter. When the brunet strides purposefully from the kitchen, I realize that I had been grimacing at the pain of my knee. I try to relax my expression, but it's too late. Before I can speak a word edgewise, Squall steals the duffle bag from my shoulder and promptly takes its place at my side before forcing me to use him as a support once again.
"You should take a shower and get some sleep," Squall says as he pulls me toward a short hallway with two doors--one is wide open to reveal the sparkling clean bathroom beyond, while the other door is pushed open to reveal a bedroom that is almost the same size as my entire apartment... rather, my former apartment. "I'll wake you up for dinner, unless you think you'll need more sleep than that."
With a shake of my head and a mutter that, "Dinner sounds good," I slide my arm free of the shorter man's hold and hop to the Queen-sized mattress that sits on a frame made of real wood. Hell, the last time I had a mattress on a frame was back in college and living in the dorms. I never would've guessed how something like that could be considered a luxury.
"Do you have clean clothes?" Squall asks as he begins to unzip the bag hanging off his shoulder.
"U-uh, I'm good," I state lamely while trying to grab my duffle, but the brunet is too fast for something like that.
"Oh God, Seifer, these reek," Squall complains with his nose wrinkled in disgust. "You can borrow some clothes until I get these washed."
"Thanks for the offer, but you're not my size," I point out and try a second time for the bag.
Stepping just out of reach, Squall turns and heads out of the room while saying, "My uncle keeps some clothes here. They'll be too big on you, but at least they're clean."
I punch the mattress before I force myself into standing and hobble after the neat-freak. "If they belong to your uncle--"
"He won't mind," Squall assures from beyond the kitchen, where he then turns sharply into an unseen area of the condo.
"Damnit, Loire, I have shit in that bag that isn't laundry. Can't you wait a fucking--" I stumble around the corner to find Squall squatting in front of a closet that holds his washer and dryer. At his feet lies my duffle bag, wide open to reveal the embarrassing collection of stained and torn clothes, and smack in the middle for anyone to see is a foot-long, royal purple, stuffed dragon with once-shiny silver horns and wings. Incidentally, his name is 'Dog'. ... I wasn't exactly the brightest kid back when I got the thing.
Glancing up at me, Squall lifts a dark eyebrow in open question.
"Like I said, it's not all laundry," I say, unable to make my voice firmer than an embarrassed mutter.
Full lips quirk into a near smile, the first I've ever seen from the quiet brunet. Frankly, I didn't think the guy had it in him.
Unable to determine if Squall was silently laughing at me or not, I defend Dog's existence amongst my other saved possessions. "I got the thing from my mother, alright? She won it for me at some cheap-ass carnival when I was a kid. It's the only thing I have left of her and I'm not ready to get rid of the stupid beast just yet."
Squall hums lightly at my explanation. "And why would you get rid of it?" The question stumps me as I watch the brunet carefully remove the stuffed dragon from its hiding place, and soon after, he huffs in angered disappointment. "It smells worse than your clothes. I'm going to have to wash the thing by hand."
Dumbfounded by the declaration, I struggle to put together a decent argument against Squall going the extra mile for my freeloading ass. "You don't... I mean, it's not... It's just a stuffed animal, for fuck's sake."
"It's a memory of your mother and it should be treated with respect," Squall states with no room for opposition. He then returns to his previous task of sorting through my clothes. Suspiciously, he makes two piles that have nothing to do with colors, but I can't quite determine his apparent system.
"Y'know, Loire, I can do my own laundry later--"
"Go take a shower. I'll bring you some fresh clothes and a heating pad for your knee in a moment." When I hesitate at the appealing order, Squall glances up at me and asks in a softer tone, "Unless, do you need help getting there?"
More from pride than honesty, I shake my head at the offer and push up from the wall to hobble towards the guest bathroom before Squall does something else to frustrate the shit out of me. This is one of the reasons why I never became friends with the guy back in the day--he confuses me like no other person I've met. He's always been quiet, which others automatically assume to mean he's introverted; meanwhile, I know that his silence is due to his habit of watching people. No one else seemed to notice or care when those pale eyes would settle on them, but I felt it every time. It was like Death judging me and fuck if I know how I passed that judgment each time.
Stepping into the bathroom, I move directly to the counter and brace my hands at the cool tile to remove some of the weight from my knee. I take a few breaths to calm my hurting body, and then glance up at the wide mirror to stare at the reflection that I've grown accustomed to in the past several years. The circles under my eyes are darker than usual, but it's no surprise given my recent nightmares over that baby girl who was about to be deserted by her almost step-father. Rubbing a hand at my jawline, I sigh at the stubble that has gotten thicker in the three days since I gave up on my last razor, the cheap thing reaching the painful point of lopping off more skin than hair. That along with my unkempt hair, I sadly fit the role of a homeless bastard. I don't know whether to be worried or relieved that Squall had recognized me in this state.
"Look at ya, preenin' like a fuckin' queer... In a queer's bathroom, at that."
Scowling at the raspy voice, I shift my gaze along the mirror to see an older man standing behind me. The prick is nothing special, a ghost of a man in his late forties who wears the army fatigues that he had earned during some war, probably Vietnam. He's tall and lean with some decent definition in his muscles, his dirty blond hair sticks out at all ends, and his pale blue eyes have little humanity left in them. While he may have been handsome at one point when alive, his current appearance makes me think of a coyote--wild and hungry--and I hate how I've been starting to look more and more like the bastard with every new night of lost sleep.
"Gettin' ready to bend over for yer food, boy?"
"It depends," I bite out in irritation at his sharply mocking tone. "Would me being gay ruin your afterlife?"
Frozen blue eyes narrow at the suggestion, any previous humor lost when the phantom declares, "No boy of mine is queer. And ya better leave here if ya don't wanna get infected."
"I'm not your boy," I ground out at the homophobic bastard, his words nothing new after his rant from earlier today when Squall and I were standing in front of my old apartment building. It didn't matter that I was officially homeless, in addition to penniless--accepting Squall's offer of a clean bed was somehow unacceptable. Normally, I'd laugh at causing this man any amount of pain, but he stepped over the line with some of the things he called Squall. I didn't like it when the other jocks called Squall those things back in high school and I definitely don't like a raping bastard using the same words.
"Yer my blood," he argues with a crazed smirk.
"I was a mistake," I say quietly, hating that I have anything to do with this bastard. Twenty-nine lives were ruined by his existence--thirteen women raped by his cock and sixteen men nearly beaten to death during his so-called robbery attempts. No one cried when he was killed in prison. The bastard deserves an eternity in Hell, but he somehow dodged that bus. Meanwhile, I'm unlucky enough to be shackled with his ghost simply because he raped an innocent and beautiful psychic.
"Yer mine, boy, and no kin of mine is goin' to associate with a faggot fuck."
Instead of the anger I should feel at the demand, my lips slide into a strange smile and I nearly succumb to laughter. "You know, Loire has a nice face and plenty of experience. I'm certain he'd be gentle if I asked him to associate with--"
A light knock sounds at the door, startling me as I jerk back a step and stare at the dark wood. Once I realize that Squall had promised a clean set of clothes, I curse at my lowered defenses and prepare myself for inconvenient questions from the brunet. Standing just outside, Squall shows nothing in his expression, but I recognize the slight tilt of his head that makes me think of a cat ready to pounce.
"Were you talking to yourself?"
And leave it to Squall to be straightforward about a matter that others wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. "Yeah... kind of..."
A dark eyebrow lifts in a curious arch, and with eerie accuracy, he glances to the side of the bathroom where the phantom had been standing the moment before Squall's interruption. In fact, it's interesting that the old man had bolted instead of sticking around to insult the brunet further. In his quiet way, Squall hums lightly as if understanding everything and doesn't ask for additional details when he holds out the folded clothing in his hands.
"The pants will be too wide for you, so I included one of my longer belts. Let me know if that doesn't work. I also left the heating pad on your bed."
I accept the clothes with a muttered thanks, but when Squall begins to move away without demanding anything more from me, I speak out in a rush, "It was a dead prick who drives me crazy and I don't like talking about it."
Squall stops at the confession, but doesn't appear overly concerned by the implication that I speak with dead people. Instead, he glances at me in brief thought, and then asks, "Earlier, in front of the apartment building, was he saying something to you?"
Stunned, it takes a moment before I can ask in return, "How...? How did you figure that out?"
"I happened to notice when you, for no reason that I saw, became upset while I was on the phone," Squall replies, and then shows that slight smile of his. "An irritating ghost makes more sense than you being angry at empty air."
My surprise slowly fades to something akin to amusement and I find myself smiling back at the brunet. "You're pretty damn impressive, Sherlock. I keep forgetting that I shouldn't underestimate you."
"I doubt that. Instead, maybe you forgot how to handle someone who believes you," Squall corrects in a soft tone. When I have nothing to say in response, he bows his head in understanding and changes the subject, "There are extra toothbrushes and razors in the drawer if you need them."
"Is that a suggestion?"
His smile broadens slightly, but he doesn't answer either way. "Enjoy your shower, Seifer. I'll wake you for dinner."
When Squall walks away, I watch him for a few steps and think about everything I may have lost by deciding years ago to avoid the dark-haired man. It was a stupid decision made by a stupid kid, but I know that it couldn't have gone any other way. I had a heap of unwanted powers to stress my young mind, not to mention an unforgiving ghost trailing after me, and the idea of befriending a known homosexual was too much to bear. It didn't help that Squall was... well, Squall. He has always been too honest for his own good and I knew that he'd drag me down with him into that righteous existence. He would've forced me to do right by my powers and that wasn't a part of my grand plan... for all the good that plan did me in the end.
After closing the door, I break into the stash of toothbrushes and paste, and though I finger a new razor, I decide that I'm too tired to navigate a sharp object; I'd sooner end up with a sliced throat instead of a clean shave. I turn on the shower to a near scalding temperature before I strip off the layering of clothing I had piled on this morning, back when I thought I'd be doing construction work today. Easing under the showerhead, I sigh at the caress of water and try to remember the last time I had a truly hot shower. I decide to enjoy the occasion for everything it is worth and lazily brush my teeth for the two standard minutes, maybe a bit longer, before I get to work on the rest of my body. Stealing from the shampoo and conditioner containers already in the shower, I get a good lather going in my hair that has gotten too long for my likes. Maybe I'll get myself deeper into debt and ask Squall for a few bucks to cover a barber's fee.
I haven't a clue how long I stay in that shower, but eventually I yawn deeply enough that I nearly choke on the flow of water. Deciding that sleep has finally become the greater necessity, I step out from the shower and grab a deep blue towel hanging nearby. I rub down my body, somewhat satisfied by the rosy red color of my skin from the heat of the shower. Once dry, I pick up the pile of folded clothes Squall had left for me, and I'm somewhat surprised to discover that he definitely wasn't exaggerating--the shirt and pants are definitely too big for me. Shit, and I'm not a small guy. It's hard to believe that some kind of ogre exists in Squall's bloodline... and I hope to God that this 'uncle' won't actually mind me borrowing his clothes
After slipping on the blue bowling-style shirt and a pair of khakis held up with one of Squall's belts, I fish through my discarded clothes to find the newspaper clipping Squall had given me. I study the face of the smiling mother and the baby she had left behind, both of them so beautiful in a moment they'll never share again. I bet it was the mother who brought me those visions of her child, at the same time placing her fears and worries onto my tired shoulders. While I can't blame her much, the situation certainly wasn't pleasant from my end.
I tuck the clipping into the front pocket of my shirt, and after gathering my clothes, I open the bathroom door to release a cloud of steam into the relatively cooler hallway. Shivering at the difference in temperature, I glance at the guest room at the end of the hall, but hesitate when the first smells of tomato sauce reaches my nose. I look over toward the kitchen, and though the view is slightly blocked by a wall, I can still see Squall sliding his fingers down the length of a wide piece of pasta that looks surprisingly fresh. Huh, when Squall mentioned dinner, I thought it'd be something... not complicated, but it seems lasagna is on the menu for tonight. I never considered that the brunet actually knows how to cook, but by the smell in the air, he seems to be doing something right.
Despite the breakfast from barely an hour back, my stomach rolls with hunger at the thought of the warm meal, but that is quickly followed by a jaw-cracking yawn. Well, it's not like dinner is ready yet, so sleep should come first. Scratching my fingers through wet hair, I stumble toward the guest room and lightly close the door behind me. After dumping my clothes into a corner, I gaze briefly at the bed and the heating pad already plugged in for me. I swear, Squall thinks of fucking everything. I flop onto the mattress and fumble tiredly with the pad before tying it around my knee and switching the heat to 'low'.
Once set up, I drag a large pillow from under the comforter, and though I pull the pillow close, I don't lie down straightaway. Instead, I twist in odd angles to check every corner of the room, but there doesn't appear to be any unwanted visitors around to ruin my plans for sleep. While not a rare event for spirits to give me some peace, I'll be more impressed if they leave my dreams alone, too. Dog used to provide a barrier against interfering ghosts, but my mother's 'magic' on the stuffed toy has faded such that I can barely feel it anymore. Despite being powerless, it still helps my mental state to keep Dog close. The stupid thing reminds me of my mother and how she was so much stronger than I know how to be.
Curling around the large pillow, I rest my head at the crook of my arm and close my overly tired eyes. In the silence of that moment, I can hear Squall doing his thing in the kitchen. The occasional clangs of metal and other sounds of cooking merge into something like a lullaby, and with my mind free of all other thoughts, I drift off into blessed sleep.
~ > < ~
Good dreams are rare for me. It's not that I necessarily have bad dreams all of the time, but rather, I don't have many dreams altogether. Visions of the future, glimpses of the past, and anything else a wandering spirit feels like showing me, yes, but not dreams. Even when I do dream, there are typically a mess of images and memories of things I should have never seen, and things that I wish I could forget. As if I could be that lucky.
But I do have one good dream, one I've had on sporadic occasions since I was about sixteen, but not in the last several years. Everything is dark in the dream, but only because I always keep my eyes closed in fear of scaring away the other person with me--my own special lover. Firm hands grab the top of my shoulders and massage in a manner such that thumbs also rub strongly at the sides of my neck, a touch that immediately relaxes my sore body. From there, the hands travel downward in a methodical fashion, deft fingers caressing each line of muscle as if trying to memorize every detail of my body. Each time, I'm impressed by the scrutiny of my imaginary partner, those hands discovering crevasses I hadn't realized existed, and this time, they linger at my ribs which are more pronounced since the last time I had this dream.
The obvious progression of curious fingers leads to my very interested dick, but they playfully circle around my erection to stroke my inner thighs. I whine at the apparent game, especially when it has been so long since our last meeting, but I don't expect much. My desires usually don't matter in this dream, but even as I think that, soft flesh abruptly presses against the tip of my penis--a kiss of apology that leads to so much more. While I can feel the heat of lips and tongue, they don't have the same moisture or texture of reality. Even so, I'm not a complicated man; simple pleasures are enough for me.
"... --ifer... Seifer..."
My entire body shudders at the voice, it being the first time I've heard a word, even a sound from my dream partner in all of these years. It's not until after my bodily reaction that I realize the voice isn't the silkily feminine thing I always imagined, but something deeper with a sultry purr that somehow seeps into my very flesh. God, it's been too long since my last dream and that voice may be my undoing, despite the fact that it identifies my partner as almost certainly male. It's still a good voice and those hands always did seem a touch too strong when massaging my muscles and stroking my dick. As long as no one else finds out...
A hard shove startles me to the point of snapping open my eyes and the darkness instantly disperses into something hazy and confusing as I struggle to remember that I'm not in my own bed, but somewhere else. Someplace safe, though unfamiliar.
"Are you awake yet?"
Blinking the room into focus, I stare up at the source of the voice that I had connected to my dream and I nearly choke at the idea of overlapping Squall with my imaginary lover. Shit, it's going to take ages before I can listen to Squall's voice and not associate it to my one good dream, and damn it, that's probably the last thing I need right now.
"Something wrong?" Squall asks in his way, his left eyebrow lifted in a curious arch.
"Uh, no, but I... I thought you were going to let me sleep until dinner."
"You've been asleep for eight hours."
"Damn, no shit?" I try to rub the sleep from my eyes and begin to sit up, but promptly stop when I realize my rather uncomfortable state that must have been plain as day to the observant brunet.
Allowing me an ounce of dignity, Squall turns and leaves the room with the statement, "Dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes." And only the dour brunet can say something so utterly mundane and still manage to imply that I should take care of 'things' within that allotted time.
Left alone, I reach down to remove the heating pad, but discover that it had already been turned off and set aside on the nightstand. I'm not certain how I feel about Squall checking up on me while I was asleep, but it was probably a smart idea to turn off the heating pad before it could cause more harm than good. After testing my knee and finding it relatively pain-free, I crawl out of bed and slink my way back to the bathroom. Glancing at the mirror, I sigh at the reality that a long nap wouldn't be able to wipe away the damage caused by weeks of sleepless nights, but hey, at least I don't feel like shit anymore. Not yet human, but definitely not shit, either.
Standing in front of the toilet, I do my thing to rid myself of the inconvenient erection. The act is more of a chore than something pleasurable, especially compared to the seduction of my dream partner, so it's no surprise when my thoughts begin to wander. It's unfortunate when Squall dominates those thoughts, but not too surprising when the man seems to be doing everything in his power to throw me off my guard. I wonder if he plays the same games with his boyfriend, assuming he has one.
That line of thought leads down a dangerous path of trying to figure out what role Squall would take in a relationship. I doubt anyone could dominate him in any setting, especially in bed, but the guy has that masochistic side, too, which reveals itself during his marathon races. For all I know, the difficult bastard could like taking it in the ass, though I bet he never begs for it. No, Squall seems the type to get exactly what he wants, as hard as he wants it, and as often--
After a deep grunt of release, I lift my gaze to the mirror and sigh in disgust at the frustration I can see in my eyes. I can't say it's a new thing to think about a guy when jacking off, but it's nothing I like to dwell on. I tried the guy thing once when I wasn't sober enough to stop my curiosity, and before that drunken night, I didn't realize all of the things that could go wrong during sex. Hell, I couldn't bring myself to have sex with a woman for weeks after that. It was a sad reality.
It doesn't help that my bastard father likes to share memories of his past, as if the sight of his 'exploits' would convince me to continue his warped idea of a family business. While the images of raped women are hard to witness, I hold greater pity for the so-called robbery victims who were beaten to a pulp by the man's fists, boots, and whatever else he could get his hands on. The unfortunate truth of those acts was that the prick was attracted to those men, and in his twisted mind, they deserved that punishment for 'infecting' him.
In a weird way, it's a relief that I inherited his occasional homosexual tendencies and not his homicidal rage.
Cleaning up the minor mess, I halfheartedly fix my sleep-messed hair, but give up when I remind myself that I'm having dinner with Squall and not someone who'll care about my appearances. I'm clean and that should be enough for the neat-freak. Leaving the bathroom, I walk carefully toward the kitchen and think about offering my help, but that idea flies from my mind when I notice three sets of silverware on the table. Before I can ask about the extra setting, the doorbell rings with a sharp tone that makes me jump.
"Can you get that?" Squall asks without looking in my direction, his attention focused on something in the oven. Shit, he really shouldn't bend over like that, not when he caught me just a short while ago with a heavy hard-on.
Deciding that answering the door would be the safest thing to do, I walk to the entrance and open the door to stare at, not someone's face, but a man's chest. A very broad chest. Shifting my gaze higher, I take in the sight of the large, older man with a military-style buzz cut and piercing blue eyes. A dangerous-looking scar mars his face from the edge of his hairline, around the outer rim of his left eye, and down the remaining distance to his chin. As such, his displeased frown twists the lengthy scar and makes his glare a lot more intimidating than it should be.
"Those are my clothes," he states in a deep grumble.
Stricken dumb by the sight of the monstrous man, I only stare at him and think that Squall was wrong--the ogre isn't happy with me borrowing his clothes, after all.
"You left them here," Squall informs as he walks up behind me, unbothered by the glower sent in his direction. "If you don't feel like being civil, you can leave."
After a moment of protest, the large man relents with a gruff sigh and steps inside the condo. "How many times have I told you that a bit of warning would be nice before you introduce me to one of your... 'friends'." The irritated inflection makes me think that the guy has something wrong with Squall's sexual preference, but when the old brute dares to ruffle dark hair in a fatherly move, I realize that I'm the problem here, not Squall. Hn, that's surprising. I never considered the former Ice Princess to be a one-night-stand type of lover.
"It isn't like that, Ward," Squall clarifies while brushing aside the large arm. "Seifer needs a place to stay and I have a basically unused guest room. There is nothing more to it."
With surprise brightening his eyes, the brute gives me a quick look over. "Your last name wouldn't be Almasy, would it?"
Beginning to feel irritated by this situation, I reply sharply, "Why, would you have a problem with that?"
"Well, I'm not certain if I don't, but I have to admit, I never expected to find someone like you here with my godson," he states while removing his long coat. In a tone of recalling past memories, he mutters, "Rose High School's prized quarterback... Actually, Squall's father and I used to watch your games back in the day. I even loss fifty bucks to Laguna during your freshman year, but I can't say I remember Squall ever mentioning you."
"We weren't friends," Squall decides to announce, already returning to his duties in the kitchen.
Hanging up his coat, the old brute frowns at the information, but when glancing at me, he hums out with some kind of deeper understanding that he selfishly doesn't share. Instead, he holds out a hand and says with an air of reserving judgment, "Given your look earlier, I'll bet Squall didn't tell you I was coming around. The name is Ward Zabac."
Warily, I take the offered hand, but gradually relax when he refrains from using his full strength against me. Recognizing his attempt to play nice, I decide to follow along. "Listen, about the clothes, I brought some with me--"
Interrupting from the kitchen, Squall declares, "They were filthy."
"They weren't that bad," I try to argue, but Squall huffs in disgust at my idea of 'clean enough'. "Anyway, Loire stole all my clothes and gave me your things to wear. He said you wouldn't mind."
Ward smirks at my vague apology and shakes his head. "I think you have bigger problems than worrying about my clothes."
Though my expression must show open confusion, the large man steps past me with a slight bump against my shoulder and moves toward the table that had gained three bowls of salad and a small basket of warmed bread. I think to help Squall in the kitchen, but as if reading my thoughts, the brunet scowls and motions for me to take a seat. I decide not to argue against the silent order and use the chance to get an answer or two from his 'uncle'.
"What do you mean I have bigger problems?" I ask in a low voice, hoping that Squall is too busy with pots and pans to hear the question.
Pale blue eyes shift my way, and though there is little humor in it, the large man smiles. "Squall has picked you as his latest investment."
While I frown at the useless information, Squall grumbles from the kitchen, "I wish you would stop calling it that." So much for having this discussion without the brunet's involvement.
Ward slumps back against his chair and his smile gains a truer curl of lips, even with the ragged cut of his scar. "You've mentioned that before, but you have to admit, it does a pretty good job of describing the situation."
Squall scowls, but doesn't form a vocal argument.
Though concerned that I may not like the answer, I ask, "What do you exactly mean by an... 'investment'?"
"Basically what it sounds like," Ward says despite the quiet growl from the kitchen. "My godson has a bad habit of helping people. He'll put his money and reputation on the line so that others have the chance of success in life. More than once, he has invested everything in a person and allowed nothing more than a promise for collateral."
"I helped you based on your word," Squall tosses out.
The large man breathes a laugh at the reminder. "Yeah, and that still doesn't change the fact that you're far too trusting for your own good."
"Wait a minute here," I manage, my chest feeling tight and heated with anger. "I'm some sort of... charity case that Loire here does for the fucking fun of it?"
Ward eyes me suspiciously for the outburst. "Well, that's why you're here, isn't it? Because of what Squall can offer you?"
"I'm here for a bed, and for your information, Loire and I made a deal that I'm going to pay back everything I owe while staying here. I've been a burden for most of my life and I have no plans to be one to Loire, so you tell me--is there another reason I should be here?"
Surprise softens the man's hard expression. "A 'burden'...? Son, don't you know how much--" The harsh placement of a plate in front of Ward silences the man, even makes him jump, which is rather amusing given his size.
Showing an uninterested front, Squall turns to me and asks, "How do you like your steaks?"
I blink, efficiently confused by the question that has nothing to do with the subject at hand, not to mention a meal I wasn't expecting.
"Medium? Rare?" Squall prompts further, as if I didn't know how to order a steak.
I glance over at the plate set in front of Ward, and indeed, a grilled steak was there with roasted potatoes and green beans filling the rest of the dish. "I prefer well-done..." At my dumbfounded answer, Squall nods and returns to the kitchen as if nothing was odd with the situation. While I'm still angry with the man, the mystery of dinner manages to win over that base emotion. "Not to sound ungrateful here, Loire, but I thought you were making a lasagna earlier."
"I was." Glancing over his shoulder, Squall frowns and asks, "Would you rather that instead?"
I sigh and automatically shake my head, frustrated that Squall's answers tend to leave me more confused than enlightened.
"The lasagna is for me," Ward unexpectedly clarifies, already cutting into his steak and creating a watery pool of blood on his plate, a sight I casually obscure by repositioning the bread basket. "I own a small diner down the street, and every Thursday for lunch, I serve the best lasagna in town for the people who get there first."
I stare at the scarred man, bewildered by the idea that he owns a diner. A gym or bar I could believe, but a diner... "What's the place called?"
"Ward's Place," he replies with a chuckle at the simplistic name, but I suppose it makes better sense than some flowery thing that would better suit one of the clubs downtown or a mockery of a French cafe. And now that it's mentioned, I seem to recall a couple of the construction guys going there on occasion. Something about good burgers and milkshakes, which is the only reason I would remember the diner's name--it's not common to hear a six-foot-something construction worker talking about strawberry milkshakes.
"Actually," Squall interjects, "I wanted to ask you about the diner."
Ward hums questioningly around a mouthful of steak.
"Are you still looking for help?"
Stopping in mid-chew, Ward looks at his godson in confusion, but then shows the expression of a wounded bear. "I was 'oping fo' a cook," he eventually manages around the piece of meat.
I quickly grasp the situation and add to the old man's complaint, "And I don't cook, Loire. Didn't I just tell you that I don't want to be a charity case?"
"You need a job and Ward needs more help in the afternoons," he says with a shrug. "You don't have to work there, but I thought it would be convenient given your difficulty waking up in the mornings."
I stare at the conniving brunet, but I can't figure out an argument against his rationale and supposedly good intentions. Ward, however, still has a few words left in him. "Then your friend here has a choice, but I don't, even though he just admitted that he doesn't cook."
"I didn't say that."
Ward scoffs and stabs a roasted potato. "You don't fool me, boy. I've been waiting for the day when you'd use your position of silent partner against me, though I didn't think it'd be for the sake of someone like... well, this guy," he finishes lamely.
I consider defending myself, but it's a futile task when I know how I must look to this man. Hell, I'm wearing his clothes and eating his godson's food. I'm a bit surprised, maybe a little disappointed, that the ogre hasn't already grabbed me by the back of the neck and tossed me out onto the street. I would've done the same in his position.
Squall doesn't say anything while finishing up in the kitchen, the clicks of dials sounding before he collects two plates and returns to the table. For a long moment, it's hard for me to focus on anything except the plate set before me, and without remembering when I picked up my silverware, I cut into the thoroughly cooked steak and enjoy that first taste of good meat. God, I had better be careful here--Squall could get me to surrender my soul to him if he keeps up this kind of cooking.
Ward scoffs quietly and mutters, "A well-done steak... It's like killing the cow twice."
"I don't care for blood," I say without thought and instantly regret it when Squall eyes me carefully, his knife unmoving above his barely cooked steak. "Blood on my own plate, Loire. Eat your meat however you like it."
With an uncertain look, he instead opts for a forkful of green beans and returns to the previous discussion. "I won't lie to you, Ward. Seifer needs a job that will be flexible to his needs. So let's make a compromise: hire Seifer for a month, and if he doesn't increase your afternoon business by two-fold, you can fire him."
My stunned "What the fuck--?" is timely joined by Ward's harsh question of "How is that going to work?"
Casually finishing his last bite, Squall makes us wait for the reason behind his impossible claim, but he sorely disappoints both Ward and me when he simply asks, "Do we have a deal?"
"Hey now," I manage before the older man, "I never said I wanted to work--"
"You want to pay me back, yes?" Squall asks without allowing me to finish my argument.
"Well, yeah, of course--"
"You lost your job this morning. Do you have another lined up?"
"... No, but--"
"Given your background, how long will it take for you to find someone who is willing to hire you?"
I wince at the low blow, which is surprisingly painful given the truth that I'll be lucky to find another job in the next several months, especially if word has gotten around about how unreliable I can be. Growling out a sigh, I rake a hand back through my hair and bow my head in surrender. Damn it, if I had any question about why I avoided this guy back in high school, he just proved my assumption that he would have made my life an incredibly difficult one.
With my submission, Squall turns to his 'uncle' and lifts an eyebrow in silent question.
"Don't bother, son," Ward says with a raised hand. "I know a lost battle when I see one, so I'll agree to your scheming for now. However, I think I deserve an explanation about this supposed 'background' that'll prevent your friend from being hired."
"I was fired today," I explain before Squall can do it for me, "and that's probably the fourth... no, the fifth time this year. It's a shitty track record for someone who really needs to earn some money."
The large man frowns at the information, but doesn't say anything while his pale eyes seem to burrow through me, probably looking for the rotten core that holds all of my secrets.
"I work hard," I continue, unable to keep silent under his scrutiny, "and I'm an honest employee, but sometimes... a lot of times, I get nightmares that keep me from sleeping, so I'm either late for work or I'm asleep on my feet."
"... Do you get them often," he asks slowly, his thoughts obviously running elsewhere.
"And what kind of 'treatments' do you use for those dreams of yours?"
"What, like melatonin or something? 'Cause that shit doesn't work for me."
"No, son, I'm talking about liquor and drugs, and any combination thereafter."
Startled by the old man's guess, I glance at Squall in hesitation, but it's not like I can look any worse to him. "No drugs since they fuck me up even more, but I did drink a lot in the past. I started in college when it was pretty easy to get plastered, but I swear, I dried up about three years ago and haven't touched a bottle since then."
Ward hums lightly at my response. "Back in the day, I was a police officer along with Squall's father. I've seen more than a few good men lose themselves in bottles while trying to escape their nightmares, and it never did them any good. You should be proud that you learned for yourself how alcohol doesn't solve anything."
Though I could easily get away with that lie, I find myself saying instead, "I wish I was that smart, but I stopped drinking because I couldn't afford the shit anymore. Nothing more noble than that."
After a surprised moment, the old brute leans back in his chair and smiles slowly. "Well now, I was wondering why Squall was bothering with you, especially when you and those jock friends of yours made his life Hell back in high school, but you're different than I imagined."
"Seifer wasn't like the rest of them," Squall says as if it were true. Yeah, I never pushed him around like the other assholes, but I didn't protect him either. I didn't do anything, which has become the pathetic story of my life.
Ward hesitantly nods. "I can believe that, though I wish you had said something before I had made an ass out of myself."
Squall shrugs while continuing his meal.
After a shake of his head, Ward looks to me. "I'll give you a shot, son, but I'm afraid there will have to be another condition to hiring you." At my curious look, he dictates, "If you drink a drop of alcohol, I'm kicking you to the street. Understood?"
I can't say anything while meeting pale blue eyes. Normally, I'd assume he was preparing a reason to fire me for whenever he gets sick of me, but I can hear it in his voice that he has other intentions with the condition. It makes me think of my grandfather and his gruff way of keeping me in line when I was a kid. Sympathy over my mother's death only went so far with him, which was ultimately for the better. God knows what I would've grown up into if he treated me with overcompensating kindness like everyone else did back then.
Breaking out of old memories, I glance at Squall for his interruption, and then back at Ward, who appears rather worried by my silence. Damn, it should be sign that something is wrong with me when I basically shutdown the moment someone shows concern for my sorry ass. Though I'm still wary about dealing with this ogre of a man, I know that I shouldn't pass up the opportunity to earn a few bucks.
With a nod, I agree, "Alright, I think your condition sounds fair enough. But y'know, I still can't cook."
Ward chuckles at the reminder and promises, "We'll figure something out."
"You'll have time to think it over," Squall unexpectedly adds. "Seifer isn't starting until Monday." Before I can make an argument about days wasted without pay, he adds tersely, "You'll scare away customers as you are now. We need to get you a haircut and buy you new clothes that haven't been torn to shreds by construction equipment. And then you need sleep. Plenty of sleep."
My teeth clench at someone else planning my life without my consent, even if I apparently need the help.
"He's right, you know," Ward says smugly, obviously amused at someone else suffering under his godson's care.
"You're not helping," I grumble under my breath.
"Get used to it, son. No one can help you where you're headed with this one," Ward warns with his head tilted toward Squall.
Scowling at the implication, I argue, "I'll say it again, Loire--I'm not going to be one of your 'investments'. I just need some help to get through this rough patch."
For his part, Squall looks at me with his blue-gray eyes and reveals absolutely nothing in the stormy depths. Nothing about this being his plan in the first place, nothing about the future ideas bouncing around in his skull, and certainly nothing about his reasons for doing any of this for me.
With renewed anger toward the situation, I cut harder than necessary into my steak and shove the piece of meat into my mouth, but the taste of well cooked meat once again calms my other emotions in exchange for momentary bliss. Well shit, this is a dangerous game to submit to Squall simply because of some good food. Probably more than dangerous... but with my bite into a roasted potato perfectly seasoned with rosemary, I decide that I'm willing to ignore bothersome thoughts for the length of dinner. Just this once.
~ > < ~
The remains of dinner sitting in the kitchen sink, I try to focus on washing the collection of dishes and not on the fact that Ward had lured Squall outside for a 'talk'. I can only imagine how the old brute wants to warn Squall about me, maybe convince him to send me to a hotel or somewhere else that's not here. While it was my original plan to find a cheap hotel before Squall interfered, the idea of leaving here seems a little lonely. I'll bet my good leg that this place has already gotten to me with its addictive aura of being a true home, and if I wanted to be honest, it has been a nice change of pace to have someone around who knows my secrets and isn't afraid of what I see. It has been a long time since I've talked with anyone about my curse.
The front door opens with a quiet click and Squall enters the condo with nothing visible in his expression. It isn't a surprise, but damn me if it isn't frustrating as hell.
"Have a good talk?"
Squall glances up at the question, but before he says whatever is on his mind, his brow furrows in confusion. "Why are you doing the dishes?"
"You cooked," I say while putting some plates into the dishwasher. "Back when I lived with my grandfather, we had the rule that one person cooked and the other cleaned, and since I suck at cooking, I always ended up doing the dishes. I guess it's a hard habit to break, even after all of these years."
Reaching the kitchen, Squall leans back against the counter and smiles faintly without comment.
"Is there something funny about me doing dishes?"
"No, not really, but I feel like I picked up a stray who is surprisingly housebroken."
I snort at the analogy. "Let me guess--your 'uncle' tried to convince you that I'm a flea-bitten mutt who should be tossed out on his ass."
His smile disappearing, Squall argues, "Ward knows something like that would be a waste of breath."
Though it's curious that the old brute didn't put up a bigger fight, something about Squall's tone makes me stop what I'm doing and look directly at the dark-haired man. The shadows to his downcast eyes are rather obvious, especially when that pain-filled darkness is familiar to what I see whenever I dare to stand in front of a mirror. Damn, and I thought there was nothing in this world that could truly affect this golden boy.
"What did he say?"
My question causes Squall to blink and look at me as if remembering I was still here... or maybe he's just shocked that I care.
"I can tell you're upset, Loire. Why don't you tell me what's up and get it over with?"
Squall continues to say nothing while his blue-gray eyes stare forward with a dull gaze filled with unspoken thoughts.
At the blank expression, I sigh and return to the dishes, feeling like an idiot for thinking that Squall could actually trust me for anything. I don't know where I got it into my head that we could talk like old friends, but I'm obviously overstepping my bounds. Now, if only I didn't feel so irritated by that fact.
"... Do you actually want to know?"
I glance at Squall for the odd question. "I wouldn't ask if I didn't."
The brunet doesn't say anything directly after my response, but when he does speak, his words are quiet and slow. "Ward heard from my dad that my mother is in a lucid state. They think I should visit before she gets worse again."
With a sick feeling to my stomach, I try to apologize, "Shit, I didn't realize--"
"You had no reason to know."
"Still, you could've told me to mind my own business or something."
Squall shrugs lightly, but his hands tighten at his crossed arms and his head bows further down to hide his eyes behind dark brown hair.
"So... are you going to see her?"
"Tomorrow," Squall replies, and then adds in an almost offhanded manner, "I'll be lucky if she hangs on for that long."
Another curse on my tongue, I swallow thickly and stare at the sink of soapy water. "I'm sorry. If I had--"
"Stop it," Squall grinds out angrily. "You weren't the one who fucked with her mind and tortured her body. You have nothing to apologize for, and if I hear it one more time from you, I'll toss you out of here without a second thought."
Though I appreciate what he's trying to do, my smile is tight and unnatural when I argue, "You don't know what I saw... what I could've stopped."
He huffs in irritation and demands, "Then come with me tomorrow."
Startled by the offer, I can only stare at Squall for his suggestion that, frankly, scares me shitless.
"If you're that determined to believe you failed my mother, then she's the only one who can forgive you."
"But, she doesn't... I mean, how exactly am I supposed to explain...?"
Steely-blue eyes peer through thick bangs when he says, "Details don't matter. Just tell her you knew what was happening and that you took a few days to tell anyone. Whatever you say, she probably won't register half of it, but she'll forgive you. She knows it wasn't your fault."
Trapped between my fear of guilt and my need for redemption, I can't form a firm refusal that would make Squall back off from his suggestion. Instead, I think about his words and his controlled tone, and I ask, "Has she really gotten that bad?"
Squall sighs and looks up at the ceiling in thought. "She's afraid. It doesn't matter that Roth was killed when the police raided his place and rescued her along with those kids. She insists that he visits her and controls her dreams. And the things she says... She's rarely herself anymore."
I close my eyes at that information, and in that fraction of a second, old visions invade my mind like unwanted memories. Stephen Roth was a surprisingly handsome man, his outer shell not revealing even a hint of the darkness that lied in his heart. Three young children--two boys and one girl--were without clothes, collared and chained beneath a workbench that had anything but the normal tools one would expect to find there. And in the middle of that cold place was Raine Loire, bloody cuts covering her breasts, her inner thighs red and burnt from electricity, and her only pleas were for the lives of those kids...
My eyelids reopen and most of the emotions attached to the old vision fade. Most, never all. "Maybe she's telling the truth."
Squall frowns, but allows me the chance to explain the comment.
"I could be wrong, but I've met a few nasty ghosts in my time, and with the way that fucker died, there's no reason to assume he went nicely to where he belongs." Wrapping a hand at the back of my neck, I rub at sore muscles and add somewhat hesitantly, "It probably doesn't help that your mother is the only one who got away."
Stormy eyes shift with a clear reluctance to believe my theory. "The children were also saved."
"He never intended to kill them. They were nothing more than additional tools of torture against your mother, and trust me, don't ask how he used them. Her pain and eventual death were supposed to be his orgasm, and with that satisfaction, he was going to let those kids go."
"... You saw all of that?"
I avert my gaze, uncomfortable with the weight just how much I know about those few days. "I also saw her die... Well, how she was supposed to die. An hour after I saw that, I convinced you to met with me." A weird choking laugh escapes me and I do my best to not think about my 'memories' of the things that didn't happen that night. "Y'know, to this day, I haven't a fucking clue how you managed to convince the police to look up Roth's information, but you did it and saved her from something terrible."
Squall's whispered words of sympathy don't quite reach my ears, but caressing fingertips that wrap around my upper arm are much harder to miss. Stunned, I turn just in time to catch the openly troubled expression from Squall before he seems to remember himself and jerks away his hand as if burnt. Even so, I can still feel the lingering touch of coldness at my skin, and not for the first time, I wonder what is happening in that head of his.
Watching the way Squall tightly wraps his arms across his chest, I say half-jokingly, "It's alright to touch me, Sherlock. I just wasn't expecting it."
He studies me with a sidelong glance and eventually nods. "Good to know."
Before I can determine if he's mocking me or something else altogether, Squall pushes up from the counter and steps toward the other end of the condo. While his walking off should bother me, I just shake my head and return to the few remaining dishes. There really wasn't much to do in the first place, Squall unsurprisingly being the type to clean up while cooking. I finish loading the dishwasher, and with nothing else to do, I wander into the living room. The leather couch looks rather inviting in a 'good for long naps' sort of way, but I know that if I get anymore sleep right now, I'll be wide awake at 3am and that's a habit I really don't want to get into.
Looking for something to entertain me until a proper bedtime, I set eyes on a tall bookcase that holds a variety of books and I note a few nonfiction books about FBI profiling, infamous killers, and the like. But the most obvious part of the bookcase is a single shelf devoted to a series of hardback books by a single author--L Loire. With a smile on my lips, I pull out the newest looking book and check out the back cover to see a man I haven't met personally. After taking in the sight of the casual pose and an honest grin, I debate whether I can detect any real likeness between Squall and his father.
"Have you read it?"
I scoff at the question and turn around with an appropriately sarcastic answer prepared, but that thought falls away when I see Squall dressed in white sweats and wearing a ski cap. "Decided to dress in something comfortable there, Loire?"
"I left my motorcycle at the coffee shop, and since I didn't get my run in earlier, I thought I'd go get it."
While I first think Squall is jerking my chain, I quickly change my mind when he slips on a pair of running shoes. "You're going now? Do the words 'night', 'winter', and 'frozen testicles' mean nothing to you?"
Squall shrugs, and once he finishes tying his shoes, he straightens with a long stretch. "You can borrow any of those books, though if you want something by my dad, I suggest one of the older ones."
My fleeting desire to convince Squall that he's an idiot fades once it's apparent that he's not going to listen, and frankly, I'm the last person who should give advice about good life habits. Instead, I glance at the book in my hand and at the smiling photo of Laguna Loire. "Is there something wrong with this one?"
"He didn't write it."
The fact startles me more than it probably should. "But it's his name on the cover."
"Technically, it's L Loire on the cover. My sister, Ellone, has been his ghostwriter for the past few books. While my dad still comes up with some good ideas, he hasn't had the desire to write ever since..." He waves a hand to suggest the obvious. "Elle does a decent job of mimicking his style, but it isn't perfect. I think it's because the ideas aren't hers."
I hum lightly, though in truth, I don't have a chance of understanding what it means to have a family and watch them struggle with a reality like theirs. How Squall's sister could continue writing when his father had given up should say something about their differing strength of mind... or maybe it says something more about the differing type of love for the fallen mother.
Not noticing when he had moved, I flinch when Squall is suddenly right next to me. He selects a book without hesitation, the title 'Whispers of my Mind' displayed in silver blue letters. "You should like this one."
"And what makes you think that?"
"It's about a man trying to escape a demon, which you seem to have in common."
I huff at the unfortunate truth and take the offered book. "What is it, a horror story or something?"
"More of a thriller. My dad likes action and adventure, not death."
"Good. I see enough disturbing things without needing to read fictional stories about it."
A flash of something crosses Squall's expression, much like the troubled look he showed earlier when touching my arm, but he turns his back to me before he reveals anything more. "I'm going the long way, so I won't be back for a couple hours. Don't push yourself into staying up."
I chuckle at the motherly lecture. "Cute, Loire, but I think I can handle staying up until an adult's bedtime."
"Whatever," he mutters before slipping outside. I nearly laugh when he locks the door, as if he's really leaving a child home alone.
After setting aside the book I had first selected, I take the novel Squall gave me and decide to dare the leather couch that still looks a touch too comfortable, but hopefully the book will keep me upright and awake. Settling in a corner, I glance over the cover and notice that it has the same picture of Squall's father, even though this book was released over a decade ago. While he was rather young looking for a father of a difficult teen, I can't believe Laguna has aged well in the last several years. The strain of what this family has gone through doesn't exactly lead to a youthful glow.
I open the book and casually flip through the first pages, only slightly pausing at the dedication to his 'patient and supportive wife'. The first chapter isn't far behind that, and under the simple heading of 'Chapter 1', the story begins:
"For over a year, I thought an angel was speaking to me. No one told me that devils could sing just as well."
With a shadow of a smile, I remember the first time when I was faced with that exact same reality. Back then, I had my mother to teach me about the powers we shared, even though she had prayed throughout her pregnancy that I wouldn't inherit those abilities. Despite her warnings, I nearly died when a darker spirit tricked me into stepping out onto thin ice of a lake. He said a puppy was in danger and I thought I saw holy wings at the man's back. I was barely seven when I stopped believing in angels.
Setting aside those memories, I burrow deeper into the corner of the couch and do something I haven't done in years--I relax and read a good book that lets me forget the present.
~ > < ~
... and choking on smoke and tears, I whimper and cry despite the mocking comments that no one cares about my complaints. A large hand becomes tangled in my hair, dark and long strands that also fall over my face, and I'm led to a backroom colored by a single yellowed bulb. Someone shoves me from behind, the action causing pulled hair, ruined pantyhose, and scraped knees as I fall to the ground. Voices demand for me to turn over, and when I'm not fast enough, a bruising grip wraps around my arm and jerks me such that my shoulder and head slam against the wall
I don't see the knife until after it has cut through my blouse and struggles briefly against the material of my bra. I scream and they laugh at my 'feisty' nature. At one point, I cry out for 'Daddy' and one of them encourages me that 'Daddy is right here, darling'. Despite the smoke, I can smell the alcohol on his breath and see the tattoos on his skin. A needle appears, the liquid inside making my eyes go wide, but I can't move my arm when a hand clamps down on my wrist. It burns going in and I scream again until a hand pushes against my mouth and nose, making it hard to breathe.
It doesn't take long, it feeling like seconds before my mind begins to shut down and the world becomes little more than a slowly moving haze. Their smirking faces are in front of me and I know my body is no longer my own, but there's nothing I can do. I wish that I had listened to 'Daddy' when he said Reno wasn't good enough for me and that he cared more about sex than anything else. But I never thought he'd leave me, not in a place like this. This shouldn't have happened.
Please, this can't be happening.
Faces and bodies dance in front of me and I know what they are doing, but my mouth won't move like I want it to. My thoughts drift further and further, and the song 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' oddly comes to mind... Right, Dorothy and those orange poppies... And like Dorothy, I decide that I just want to sleep until everything is nothing more than a bad dream, even if that takes forever...
A flash of light blinds my eyes and I see the two men yelling and cursing about bad drugs and the police. It's a numbing sight and I know exactly what had happened in the span of minutes. A manicured hand covers my wrist and I turn to see the same raven-haired beauty who was lying dead in the corner of some shitty apartment. She doesn't speak, but her dark brown eyes demand to know what she had done to deserve any of this.
I don't bother telling her that, if she can't speak here, she's not dead yet.
An older woman steps behind her and braces wrinkled hands at narrow shoulders. "Please, protect my dear heart. I know you have saved others, and I know you can save her tonight. Please, there isn't time."
I shake my head, wanting to scream that I deserve to be saved, too. I deserve a life filled with peace and free of death, but no one cares about that. They demand for me to do the 'right thing' and to sacrifice myself for the sakes of others... and I'm not that strong. My mother was, but I'm not her... and even she broke in the end...
She broke and left me...
... damn it...
~ > < ~
I jerk awake like many times before with short breaths and sweat-soaked skin, but instead of feeling terrified and alone, I instantly sense the person next to me. Glancing to the side, I find Squall still dressed in his jogging outfit and kneeling on the ground while carefully studying me with those all-seeing eyes of his. Without saying a word, Squall produces a soft hand towel and drapes it over my lap. Nearby, a glass of ice water sits on the coffee table and Squall nudges it closer to show it was there, but he allows me to decide when I'm ready to attempt something that could potentially drown me at this moment. I take the towel in shaky hands and press it against my face to inhale the clean scent that does little to drive away the phantom smells of stale cigarette smoke.
"Are you okay?"
I more cough than laugh at the well-meaning question.
"You were... pale," Squall says in a manner that suggests he's understating things. "Did you see something?"
"I see things all of the time, Loire. It doesn't mean I can do anything about it."
The brunet scowls at my tone, judgment clear in those pale blue-gray eyes, but he says nothing in response. No, he's the type to want people to reach the right decision by their own power.
"I can't do anything," I insist as I look away, but I still feel those eyes on me. "There was nothing useful, just me watching a woman be raped and overdosed with God knows what. I don't know how to stop it, and even if I did, it's never that easy."
"... Do you know her name?"
I bite my lip, not wanting to admit a damned thing. And damnit, I know what game Squall is playing, that if she has a name, she's more than a dream I can try to forget. She's human, and for now, alive.
"Seifer, do you know her name?"
"... Fine, it's Rinoa, or something. But that doesn't--"
Without listening to my excuse, Squall stands up and steps to a desk where he pulls out a notepad and pen from the center drawer. Several pages of writing are flipped over before he finds a blank page, and after taking a seat at the end of the couch, he encourages, "Tell me everything you can remember."
I eye the notepad in his hand, the situation making me feel like a patient sitting with a psychiatrist. "I didn't really see their faces. She was too terrified for that."
"You'd be surprised what could help," he comments while jotting a note.
"But it happens at some point tonight," I say in a final attempt to dissuade the hardheaded brunet. "We might not have enough time."
"Then you had better start talking."
I sigh at the reality that Squall won't let me be the coward I've always been, and truthfully, I don't know how to feel about it. I should be angry at him for forcing the point, but instead, a vague sense of relief lingers behind the fear of reliving that damn vision. "There's not much, Loire. She's grabbed by two guys and thrown into a dingy apartment. They use some drug on her to quiet her up, but something goes wrong and she dies."
Squall writes while prodding, "What about outside?"
I want to say that I don't know and be done with it, but I instead close my eyes and try to step backward through the dream. "There were stairs, metal stairs that were hard on her high heels. And God, it smelled terrible, like rotting meat and old feet."
His pen stilling, Squall asks purposefully, "Can you see the graffiti?"
"It's not exactly like watching a motion picture, Loire. And in case you forgot, it's night when this happens." When Squall doesn't react to my frustration, I growl under my breath and try to think about the walls and not the woman's terror bleeding through to me. "There's plenty of graffiti. Letters, weird symbols, bad spelling, take your pick... Huh, but I think there's also a decent picture of a woman in gold..."
"Lady Luck," Squall abruptly announces and the couch shifts as he gets up.
I open my eyes in time to watch him flip his notebook closed. "Give me a break, Sherlock. There's no way you can know--"
"Only a few places in town smell like the backside of an Irish pub, and Lady Luck is one of the shadiest places in Garden," Squall explains as he walks to the front door and puts on his leather jacket. He then grabs my coat and waves it in my direction. "Are you coming?"
Though I shake my head, I find myself standing up and following Squall's lead. "It's never this easy. Not for me."
"Maybe you make it too hard."
I want to take exception to the comment, but the moment I take my coat, Squall is outside and tossing keys at me with instructions to lock the door. Surrendering to Squall's pace, I jerk on my coat and lock the door before running after the shorter man who was already down the stairs and striding to a motorcycle parked nearby. By the time I reach him, Squall has slipped on a black helmet and produced a second dark red helmet for my use.
Fiddling with the helmet, I admit, "Y'know, I've never done the motorcycle thing."
"Hold on tight and move when I move," is his suggestion while easily straddling the bike and bringing it to life.
With none of Squall's same grace, I maneuver my way onto the back end and awkwardly wrap an arm around Squall's waist. He grumbles something under his helmet and grabs my other arm such that I end up hugging the man who fits just a touch too comfortably against my larger body. However, once we leave the parking lot and Squall accelerates into the winter night, I'm grateful for his foresight at getting me to hold on with both arms. God knows what accident I would've caused by flailing around for a better hold.
It's not an overly comfortable trip with icy air whipping around us and Squall's body shifting against mine, but even that doesn't distract me from the memories of rape and death which should come tonight. For whatever reason, I can't bring myself to hope that Squall is right about the location. Maybe I've been disappointed too many times and it has become easier to believe that, sometimes, a person is simply a victim of Fate, a force that is greater than my pathetic existence. Not everyone can be saved--it's a reality I've learned to live with.
Squall, however, hasn't learned that lesson and he speeds along the highway to the southern end of Garden, an area that isn't as bad as the metropolitan cities out there, but no one would call it a friendly place. Squall takes an exit that eventually leads to 15th Street and I subconsciously hold the brunet a little tighter with the thought that I'm going to be royally pissed if I end up shot and dead while trying to help out an idiot girl who was strolling around in the worst part of town.
Eventually Squall eases on the gas and pulls up in front of large brick building with a bar front on the first floor and some kind of apartments on the second. The sign declaring 'Lady Luck' is a simple wooden thing under a lamp, but the place has a surprisingly clean look. I can't quite determine why until I realize that the bar isn't necessarily in good condition, but the area around it is in such disarray that the comparison confuses the eye. Graffiti covers the walls of the nearby buildings, a mix of store fronts and apartments, but the walls of the bar are basically white except for the single, familiar picture of a gorgeous redhead barely covered by a golden dress. A chill runs down the back of my neck as I consider two possibilities for that happenstance--either the owner is very good at cleaning graffiti, or everyone knows that this isn't a place to mess with.
"Are you going to let go?" Squall asks, his voice more amused than irritated by my strangle hold around his waist.
"Depends. Are you really thinking about staying here?"
"Is this the wrong place?"
I sigh at the question, and as my answer, I fumble my way off of the motorcycle and remove my helmet. Squall slips off his bike with casual experience and hangs his helmet at a handlebar, looking everything like a man unconcerned with his surroundings. Eventually he glances back at me with the clear question of 'what's next?'
"Don't look at me, Sherlock. You're the one who decided..." My breath comes short when I see a black sports car, the type only used by middle-aged men and twenty-something rich boys, pull up from the other direction across the street. A young, dark-haired woman dressed in a short fur coat and a silky white dress jumps out of the car and yells something at the driver. The heated exchange lasts barely a minute before the driver slams the passenger door close and peals out into the night, leaving the foot-stomping woman behind.
Squall hums with interest and asks, "Does it always happen that quickly?"
"Never," I state in disbelief. "It just... it never happens. Period."
While we watch on, the woman searches her petite handbag and become frantic when she can't find something inside, probably her cell phone. She turns in a circle as if to get her bearings straight, and when she realizes what street she's on, she pulls her fur coat close around her body and walks warily across the street toward the one business with its lights on--Lady Luck.
Squall pats the back of his hand against my chest, alerting me to the entrance of the bar where two men had just stepped outside. Nothing was overly alarming about their appearance, aside from the closely cropped hair, the visible tattoos on their necks and hands, and one of them carrying a large knife strapped to his belt. Right, nothing alarming at all, and that must be why that idiot woman keeps walking straight towards them... in her little fur coat, high-heeled shoes and sheer dress. Goddamn it, why do fashion and whores have so much in common these days?
The two men smile as I suppose most men do when finding a nice ride for the night and they step forward to find out her asking price. Not wanting a fight and with no other plan prepared, I do the next best thing--I play stupid.
"Hey, Rinoa darling!" I call out while jogging toward the oblivious woman, hoping to get between her and the two men. "Were you waiting long?"
Going still, the woman looks at me with confusion plain on her face, but the two men thankfully miss it as they glare at me for interfering with their plans for the night.
"I don't know why you chose this as a meeting place," I say with purposeful inflection, but she's completely clueless about her situation. Once I make the last several feet to her side, I manage to get a kiss to her cheek and whisper urgently, "Play along. Those aren't nice men."
Understanding finally brightens her doe-eyed gaze and she grabs my arm before hiding slightly behind me.
"We saw her first," one of the men claims gruffly, to which the other supports with a drawled, "Yeah, that's right."
I glance over the two men, somewhat disappointed that they hadn't wandered off with my suggestion that the woman was already claimed. So much for my luck lasting a few hours longer to keep me out of trouble and alive. The larger of the two men fiddles with the handle of his knife and I debate my present ability to hold my own in a street fight. Back in the day, I wouldn't have even questioned it, but I've learned a lot about mortality since then.
Before anyone makes a move, the knife-welding man yelps and abruptly drops to his knees, at which point a heavy boot kicks him in the head. The skittering of the knife on asphalt makes me shiver at the idea that I didn't even realize it had been freed from its hilt. The second man isn't too fast on his feet and dumbly looks around for his friend's attacker instead of taking a more defensive stance. He never sees the gloved fist coming before it slams hard against his throat, which causes the man to choke and wheeze until he's knocked off his feet with a sweeping kick.
Everything happening in the matter of seconds, Squall stands with a type of coldness that some would call calm and controlled, but I see the killing desire for what it is.
Trying to ease the situation, especially with Rinoa behind me and whimpering in fear, I force a laugh and say, "Wasn't that a bit overkill, Loire?"
"No," and with the succinct reply, he shifts his stance to place a booted foot over callused fingers that were vaguely reaching toward the dropped knife.
Before I can think of something else to say, a loud bang against the bar entrance grabs our attention. A rather young-looking man with longish copper-red hair storms outside along with two burly looking guys in tow, at least one of them carrying a gun. Shit, maybe I jinxed myself by hoping that I wouldn't be shot tonight.
"What the fuck is going on 'ere?" the red-haired man demands, his accent not thick enough to label him Irish born, but the influence is still there.
At the threat-filled tone, Rinoa tightens her hold on my arm into a death grip, and if I wanted to be honest, I wish that I had the luxury to react in much the same way. I would give anything to turn tail and run away. Instead, I try to draw strength from the sight of Squall who stands without fear of the raging Irishman. His eyes cool blue-gray, Squall turns and faces the approaching men, but says nothing in excuse of the two groaning bodies at his feet.
Against my expectations, the Irishman slows once getting a good look at Squall and, unbelievably, smiles with a degree of friendliness. "Well, fuck me, what're you doing 'ere, Leon?"
"Not looking for you," Squall replies dryly, apparently accepting the name 'Leon' as his own.
The red-haired man laughs and steps close to shake hands with the slender brunet. "Lord above, it's been, what, six months since we've seen that girly face of yours. How's it been?"
Squall shrugs, and then nudges his foot against one of the men on the ground. "I hope these aren't yours, Donovan. I thought your group watched out for the women around here."
The Irishman's irritated scowl returns at the information and his hazel eyes shift with cold purpose. The gaze reminds me that I'm sorely out of my element here, even though Rinoa continues to latch onto me like I'm the answer to her salvation. Squall, on the other hand, fits in a touch too well as he stands boldly in front of the Irishman. After hazel eyes take in the sights of the cowering woman and the large knife on the ground, the red-haired leader nods to his henchmen, and without a spoken command, they gather the hurting men from the street and drag them toward the bar.
The Irishman then steps forward with the grace of a tomcat and smiles seductively at the dark-haired woman behind me. "I apologize for what you endured. I taught my men to respect beautiful women, but it seems they have short memories."
Perhaps mesmerized by the light accent and smooth words, Rinoa cautiously steps out from behind me. "I shouldn't be here. I just want to go home."
"Of course," the Irishman agrees, and with a skilled touch, he takes her hand and kisses the back of her fingers without Rinoa drawing away. "Allow me to arrange a ride home for you."
Rinoa accepts the offer with a jerky nod, the sight of which bringing an honest smile to the man's thin lips, as if he was satisfied at the chance to right a wrong.
After a cursory glance at me, the Irishman turns and asks Squall, "And what about you, Leon? Will you stay for a drink and toast to saving your damsel?"
"Any reason to drink, eh, Donovan?" At the red-haired man's replying laugh, Squall smirks lightly and says, "Not tonight. We noticed her standing alone and decided to help, but we should be on our way."
"I'm hurt, but I understand business," the Irishman states suggestively. "Next time, drinks are on me. And Leon, if you need help gettin' yourself a bodyguard, let me find you someone better than this one," he says with a thumb jerked in my direction. Sniggering at his own joke, the red-haired man sanders back to his bar and immediately barks out an order to get his personal car ready.
Before I can complain at appearing like a failure of a bodyguard, Rinoa leans heavily against me, and with a sudden sob, she buries her face into my jacket. Well, shit, I've never been good with crying women and this certainly isn't a situation of choice. I awkwardly wrap my arm around her shaking shoulders and dutifully listen while she curses her boyfriend between gasping sobs. It seems that they had fought over their plans for the night, Rinoa wanting to do something quiet after losing her aunt the previous week, but her boyfriend thought they had other arrangements. After his knuckleheaded comment, 'she wasn't your mother or someone important,' Rinoa had demanded for him to pull over without realizing the part of town they were in.
Once she finishes her story and hysterical crying, I gently push her back a pace. "You're fine. Things could have gotten ugly, but obviously someone is watching over you. Maybe your aunt," I say with a slight smile, amused how the truth can sound so trite.
She nods and wipes mascara darkened tears from her eyes. "Thank you for stopping when you did. How can I repay you?"
"Don't thank me. I just stood here and looked pretty while that guy did everything," I argue and point in Squall's direction.
Rinoa frowns and glances at Squall for a cursory moment before returning her focus on me. "You stood in the way when they were going to grab me. And now that I think about it, you knew my name. Have we met before?"
Thrown off by the question, I hesitate long enough for Squall to supply an answer--"We heard some of your fight. You were both yelling."
Dark-eyes on me, Rinoa pouts at the answer. "But you seem familiar."
"I've been around town," I supply, relieved when a black SUV pulls out from an alleyway next to the bar, looking shiny, new and completely out of place for this part of the city. "Hey, I think that's your ride."
The slim woman presses forward against my body. "Won't you come with me? Make certain I get home safe?"
I glance at Squall, and when he shrugs in disinterest, I figure the Irishman is trustworthy enough. "You'll be fine. Go home and be with your family."
Though visibly disappointed, Rinoa nods and steps toward the SUV, one of the previous henchmen holding open the door. Just before getting in, she turns and states, "I don't know your name."
I smile in reply. "Stay safe, Rinoa."
At the implied rejection, she irritably pulls her fur coat tighter around her body and slips into the SUV. After closing the door, the henchman nods in Squall's direction, clear respect in his stance before he climbs into the driver seat. The vehicle drives off with barely a sound and soon disappears into the night.
"You could have left with her," Squall comments, his voice unreadable.
"Right, because what I need is some girl who thinks I'm her knight in shining armor. Though kudos to her for recognizing that you're gay and a hopeless conquest... However, a girl who bounces back that quickly is a little frightening."
Squall breathes a laugh, and with a relaxed step, he moves back to his parked motorcycle. I hurry to keep pace, several questions flying through my head about his fake name, his association with the Irishman, and everything else that had happened tonight, but I occasionally know when to hold my tongue, at least when the wrong words could potentially get someone killed. Reaching the bike first, Squall tosses the dark red helmet at me, a heavy object that I should have easily caught, but my eye is abruptly caught by a familiar uniform.
The helmet hits my chest and bounces to the ground when I can't look away from the enraged energy of my bastard father.
"You idiot," the ghost snarls. "They had her. She was goin' be taught what a whore does, but ya fucked it up. You and that faggot fuck ruined everythin'."
Squall says nothing while he steps close in a supportive manner, as if he knew there was someone around to fight. Meanwhile, I can only glare at the untouchable spirit and helplessly ball my hands into tight fists.
"Him," the bastard growls much like a crazed animal. "He's diseased and got ya sick in the head. They lick shit, ya know. They stick their dicks in asses so they can taste that cock-flavored shit and get dumb fucks like you infected. And look at ya, ruinin' what that girl deserved." With his screamed accusation, the former soldier launches at Squall with the clear intent to attack and strangle the unaware brunet.
Reacting as best I can, I grab Squall's arm just as bony fingers wrap around his throat and I jerk the smaller man behind me. "Don't you dare touch him."
"Don't threaten me, son. Yer my blood and my legacy to control. When I say I want that diseased faggot dead, I'll have you make him dead."
"Never..." I ground out, both terrified and enraged at thought of this bastard ever controlling me. And that he would have me hurt Squall, the only one who gives a shit about me anymore... "I'll protect him from you."
The ghost laughs with the freedom of madmen. "Protect him? You can't protect yerself, ya dumb fuck!"
For the first time in years, I feel my body tremble from overwhelming anger, but the bastard is right--there's nothing I can do to him, no matter how much I would love to.
Then, in the midst of my fury, I feel a careful hand rest between my shoulder blades, weighted with wordless support. Calmness radiates from that simple touch and I feel a measure of control that I rarely experience in front of my bastard father. After a shaky breath, I meet the spirit's soulless eyes and laugh without a touch of humor to the sound.
"I don't belong to you. I never belonged to you."
Rage returns to the ghost's face, but instead of directing it at me, he glares at Squall with the open desire to commit bloody murder.
My mind goes quiet in the moment before I take a step forward and throw a hard punch at the ghost's lean face. The prick smiles broadly as my fist nears, but just when my punch should have connected and instead slides through the body trapped in another plane, he does something I've never seen the bastard do--he flinches. Meanwhile, I'm thrown off balance by my punch hitting nothing, which causes me to stumble to the ground and land hard on my knees, but it's worth it for the stunned look on the former soldier's face. Further surprising me, the asswipe says nothing at my failure of an attack and impossibly steps backward in retreat until disappearing into the night.
"He... ran away," I say dumbly.
Squall moves close behind me and asks, "Was that the ghost who bothers you?"
I almost agree and continue the game of secrets, but something about tonight has changed things between Squall and me. I can trust him, and I don't mean with just my pathetic life. I've been on shaky ground with my sanity for years, and knowing what my mother couldn't quite endure, I need all the help I can get. "He was my father."
With a tilt of his head, Squall considers the admission. "I thought you didn't know your father."
"I knew... always knew. My mother told me so that I could protect myself if he ever showed his face. See, he raped her and got her pregnant, and yet she decided to have me anyway." I look up at Squall and stress to him, "No one else knows this... well, no one else alive. I'd appreciate it if you didn't spread the word."
His eyes bright with storm-like intensity, Squall asks in a hoarse voice, "Why tell me?"
"Because he hates you," I say while pushing myself off the ground. My knee twinges at the abuse it has received today, but it's steady enough for me to stand in front of Squall and brush my fingers against his throat. "He attacked you... Did you feel anything?"
I breathe a laugh, feeling a bit like an overdramatic idiot. "Of course not. He's a ghost, not some demon from the movies. But hey, it can't hurt to be careful, right?"
Squall stares at me for a moment longer before blinking and pulling away from my hand. "We should go. It's not safe here."
I have no reason to argue his point, and after picking up the helmet I had failed to catch, I follow Squall to his motorcycle. The smaller man tenses when I wrap my arms around him, a confusing reaction after our rushed ride here. Thinking I had pushed Squall too far by revealing my secrets, I start to pull back my arms, but he grabs a wrist to insist on the secure position. With a roar of the engine, Squall guides the motorcycle into a U-turn and sends us back to the highway that leads us to the more civilized part of the city.
The ride back to his condo is a surprisingly soothing one and my mind grows fuzzy with the need for more sleep. Once we reach the building, Squall is forced to help me much like he had earlier today. Luckily, my knee doesn't feel quite as bad as it had earlier, but I'm too exhausted to deal with limping up a couple flights of stairs. I have a feeling that I did something I wasn't suppose to do when I attacked my bastard father, but God help me if I actually knew what that was. It made him runaway for the meantime, but he's smart enough to eventually figure out that it was a fluke on my part.
Squall helps me inside the condo, and once past the threshold, I pull away to hobble toward the guest room under my own power. I probably should wash up and all of that before going to sleep, but the allure of the bed is too strong to resist. I collapse on the mattress much like I had earlier today, and with awkward maneuvering, I manage to shed my shirt, shoes, and pants without having to move off the bed. Stripped to my boxers, I hurry to pull down the comforter and crawl under the heavy weight to regain some warmth. Though the place is well heated unlike my former apartment, Squall keeps the temperature cooler than most warm-blooded human beings.
It's just when I manage to curl up and consider sleep that a light knock sounds. The door opens at my bleary permission to enter and Squall steps inside, his steel-blue gaze softening with amusement at my huddled position under the covers. I think to complain about my long day and the cooler temperature, but when I notice the object in Squall's hand, I sit up with interest.
"I thought you might need this tonight," Squall says as he walks to the bedside and hands Dog to me. "There are some damp areas, though."
I shake my head and stroke my fingers over the dragon's once-shiny horns. "This is the cleanest he's been since the day my mother won him for me. Thanks."
He nods and begins to walk away as if he hadn't done me a great favor.
"Hey, Loire," I say in time to stop him at the door. "Thank you for today. You're a fucking ass, but this is the first time in a long time that I've acted and it actually meant something. It's... nice."
Squall shows a vague smile at the admission. "Sleep in as long as you want. My mother tends to do better in the afternoons and we can go then."
Reminded of that plan, I feel the same terror as I did earlier today. "Are you sure? I mean, I don't want to interfere--"
"See you tomorrow, Seifer," and with that, Squall closes the door behind him.
Groaning at Squall's determined spirit, I lie back down on the mattress and childishly pull Dog close to my pillow. I finger the dragon's tail and realize that something is odd about the stuffed animal, something that has nothing to do with his recently cleaned state. My eyes drift close while I consider what is different about my toy guardian, an answer that eludes me until the final moments before sleep--his fading power feels stronger than it should be. Not by much, but enough to be noticeable, and it has to be Squall's fault. Well, shit, the brunet must care for me quite a bit for Dog to be able to absorb the power of that emotion... emotion that must resemble my mother's love in some fashion.
But like most thoughts that occur on the edge of sleep, I ultimately forget that drowsy realization. And without the normal worries that keep me awake, I slip into dreamless slumber under the watchful gaze of my faithful protector.
Author's Whining -- Bah, for how much I wanted to write this story, it's certainly being a pain in my ass. I only had vague plans with where to take it, but lately, I've come up with more ideas... which should make this story a lot longer than I thought it would be. You all don't see it now, but characters are coming next chapter who were very much unexpected (guess all you like, but they probably aren't obvious). Given the trend of my other stories, added characters usually means longer fics. Grrrr... Right now, I'm guessing this thing will be six or seven chapters, and that will require the muses being nice to me. Let's hope this story doesn't take me three years to write like the last fic that was only supposed to be about seven chapters (otherwise known as FNFE). ^ ^;