One Wrong Step
January 2010

 

[Squall]

Sunlight warm on my face, I glance up at the sky to view upon its bright blue color and the lack of clouds, a beautiful sight that helps to remove some of the chill from the winter air.  But even as I appreciate that open sky, I can't shake a foreboding sensation that would be better matched by something darker, like the cover of gray clouds.  This happens every time I make plans to visit my mother, and I'm ashamed that I can't feel a measure of happiness at seeing the woman who has always understood me and accepted me for everything that I am.  It should be easier than this, but it isn't, and it never will be.

"Is this really necessary?"

At the grumbling tone, I look to the blond walking by my side and huddled within his filthy jacket.  I almost want to smile at this sulking side of the man, the first time I've seen it, but that would mean pretending this is something it's not.  "We've already discussed the issue.  You need new clothes."

With a frown bordering on a pout, Seifer says, "This is starting to sound a lot like charity, Loire.  Do you really think I'm that pathetic?"

I sigh at the constant argument from the proud man.  "You shouldn't think of it that way."

"You're giving me stuff for free - how else I should classify it?"

Stopping at an intersection, I wait for the crossing signal to change before I decide to answer.  "While I hate how it sounds, Ward isn't entirely wrong with calling this an 'investment'.  You may be at a low point right now, but I know your worth.  With a little money and some support, I can help you reach that potential."

"And how is that not charity?"

"Charity is giving money to a person and calling it done."  I look directly at Seifer and inform him, "Meanwhile, as my 'investment', I'm going to ride your ass to make certain you do this right, and by the time I'm done with you, you'll be wishing that I had charity in mind."

Green eyes briefly widen in surprise, but then narrow with an interested gleam.  "All right, Sherlock, then in your mind, what exactly do you want me to 'do right' in this scheme of yours?"

"Get your life back together, and after that..." I shrug and tell him, "It's up to you."

Nothing else is said for the length of a block, and with another couple of streets to the local mall, I don't particularly mind the silence.  Since my motorcycle doesn't work well with heavy bags of clothes, I decided that a short walk and fresh air couldn't hurt given our other plans for later in the afternoon.  Seifer readily agreed to the idea, claiming that his knee needed a good stretch and that he felt more comfortable walking than wasting money on a taxi.  Even so, I don't bother hiding the fact that I'm keeping an eye on him and his vague limp, waiting for the moment when a change of plans will be necessary.

"These 'investments'..." Seifer begins while still deep in thought.  "How many have there been?"

"... Five."

"Care to be more specific there, Loire?"

"Not particularly.  It's not my business to speak about freely, and I want to respect their privacy."

With a frustrated sigh, Seifer scratches his fingers back through golden hair.  "I guess I can appreciate that, but look at this from my end - it'd be nice to know what I'm getting myself into if I stupidly decide that you should have your way."

After a moment to consider his point, I concede, "I suppose you already know about Ward, but what I tell you stays between us."

"Right, because y'know I just love running off to share secrets with my non-existent friends."

I glare at the blond for his sarcasm, but decide that it's as close to a pledge as I will get with him.  Turning my focus to the street ahead of us, I explain to Seifer, "Ever since the incident with my mother, Ward had a difficult time continuing as a detective.  I don't think anyone else saw the difference in him, but I did and I knew it wasn't what my mother would have wanted for him.  Since I was a kid, Ward had plans to own a diner once he retired, so I purchased a building in a good location, convinced Ward to quit the force, and paid for the renovations he wanted."  With a slight shrug, I conclude, "Ward was my first 'investment' and he has seemed happier for it."

Seifer doesn't say anything right away, but eventually asks, "The guy has owned that place for a while now, hasn't he?"

Guessing the real question behind his words, I tell him, "I was lucky in the stock market during college, and I didn't have any other plans for the money."

The blond snorts at the information.  "Of course, because it's perfectly reasonable for kid right out of college to buy his godfather a freaking building when the man is feeling down."

"It wasn't like that," I say stiffly, put on edge by his tone.

Seifer straightens and admits with soft regret, "Sorry, Loire, I didn't mean... Hey, you did right to help him.  I can't imagine what it was like for the big guy to continue working that job when he must have seen your mother's face on every victim he came across."

Surprised by his apology, I glance at the taller man and notice the distant look to his eyes.  There's a cold glint to the bright emerald, suggesting that Seifer knows all too well what it means to see a loved one's face amongst the hurt and dead.  And there's nothing I can do to help Seifer.  I can't hold him, I can't tell him that everything will be all right... but I can make a few things easier in his complicated life.  Anything to take away that slump in his shoulders.

After a deep sigh, Seifer looks up at the sky with a surrendering gaze.  "This isn't what I wanted, y'know.  I thought I'd be standing on my own two feet by now, but I keep stumbling and fucking things up, no matter how hard I try... Shit, it's frustrating as Hell to figure out that I can't do this myself and that I need to depend on someone else."

"I don't want you to depend on me," I correct with some understanding of his frustration.  "We're going to do this together."

Seifer stares at me for a long moment before breathing out a laugh.  "Fuck, you actually mean that, don't you?"

"I've already told you - this isn't a charity."

With a truer laugh, Seifer finally agrees, "All right, all right, I believe you, but it doesn't mean I'm going to enjoy the process."

"That's your problem," I say, my lips curling into a slight smirk.

Seifer sniggers and casually bumps my shoulder in rebuttal, a playful act that relieves some of the weight from my chest that has being growing whenever I watch the abnormally tame blond.  I was worried that Seifer had forgotten the more mischievous side of himself, but it's definitely there, if only hidden by the shadows of his troubled life.  And now that I know it exists, I want to do everything I can to make Seifer remember what it means to laugh again.

"Say, Loire," Seifer starts after a quiet moment.  "Do you really think that I can turn my life back around?"

"I wouldn't bother if I thought otherwise."

The blond smiles softly, as if wanting to believe, but afraid of being disappointed later.

Our talk ends at the edge of the parking lot that leads to the mall.  At the sight of warm shelter from freezing temperatures, Seifer speeds up his pace to the closest entrance, which also happens to be the department store I wanted to try first.  At least the advertisements seemed to have some good deals that would appeal to the blond and his worry of paying me back.  Seifer pushes through the glass doors, nearly forgetting to hold one open for me as he sighs in relief at the blast of hot air directly above the entrance.  Oddly, though, that expression of pleasure is cut short by a groan of annoyance.

"Damn it, I forgot how stores like this freaking bleed Christmas at this time of year."

Curious at his reaction, I scan the store to discover that Seifer isn't exaggerating much.  Oversized bows and bobbles have been placed on every other available shelf, wide ribbons have been twisted around any column-like structure, and mannequins either hold or stand next to wrapped packages of all sizes.  I guess the sight of Christmas decorations since October had desensitized me to the fact that they were apparently breeding and slowly taking over the city.

I turn my gaze to Seifer and notice that his mood has soured once again.  "Is it going to be a problem?"

Though his scowl briefly deepens, he shakes his head and rakes his hand back through shaggy hair.  "Nah, all of the stores are going to be like this, and truthfully, I'd like to get this over with before I change my mind."

I eye Seifer while waiting for an actual explanation about his apparent dislike for the well-loved holiday, but when he offers nothing, I decide that I've been demanding enough for one day.  After a brief glance around to locate the men's department, I head in that direction and force Seifer to follow after me.

"So, what's on the shopping list?" Seifer asks, his voice still shadowed with reluctance.

"Work clothes are most important," I say when spotting a rack of collared shirts.  "Ward requires his waiting staff to wear white shirts and dark pants.  The shirts must have collars, but he allows jeans as long as they look clean and intact.  We probably should get the basics, too, like undershirts, socks, boxers, or whatever you prefer."

Seifer snorts at the addition.  "God, I feel like I'm shopping with my grandmother for the first day of school."

"Whatever helps you get through this..." I mutter, already rifling through the rack of white shirts.  I quickly find one that should fit Seifer and shove it in his direction.

Taking the shirt, Seifer glances at the tag in mild surprise.  "How did you guess my size?"

Something in his tone makes me scoff.  "Didn't you know?  All gay men have the inherent ability to determine a person's size simply by looking at them."

With a wary glance in my direction, Seifer says, "But... you got the right size."

"I also washed your clothes yesterday," I remind the blond, and then tack on a grumbled, "Idiot," for good measure.

"Oh, right..." Seifer acknowledges, but continues to look at me with an interested expression.  "Does that mean gay men aren't actually born with a fashion gene?  I mean, you seem to know how to dress right, and your clothes don't look like they are strictly off-the-rack."

"Buying clothes I like is one thing.  Spouting designer names is another."

Seifer chuckles at my irritated response, and after accepting another shirt I toss at him, he dares to ask, "I've been wondering... When did you figure it out?  That girls weren't your thing?"

I glare at the blond for the question, not appreciating the idea of him using my sexual orientation as some kind of joke or distraction.

"Hey now, I'm not attacking you or anything.  It's just..."  Rubbing the back of his neck, Seifer sighs and continues, "We only met again yesterday, after ten freaking years at that, and yet you seem to have me figured out to the point that it makes my head spin a little.  Meanwhile, I know shit about you, and I guess I want to balance the scales a bit."

I straighten at the unexpected explanation.  "You... want to know about me."

"Well, we're kind of roommates and all of that.  Does it seem that strange?"

I consider how to answer his question, and while want to declare that, yes, it is incredibly strange for Seifer to decide that he needs to know more about me, I also want to believe in his good intentions.  Returning to my search through poorly organized shirts, I don't meet his eyes when saying, "It was in the seventh grade."

"... And that's it?  Is there something magical about that age, or do you want me to start guessing the details?"

I sigh at the man's constant desire for more information than I feel like giving.  "If you must know, I happened to see a pair of students kissing between classes.  I guess the girl was pretty, but I found myself wanting to be her, and not the guy she was kissing.  I eventually realized that I liked the guy and how it was nothing I could change... and that's basically it."

Seifer shakes his head at my description.  "'Basically it...'  Do you realize that most guys in the same situation would panic and spend the rest of their lives trying to pretend it never happened, or at least the rest of their school lives?"

"I didn't see a reason to hide it."

"Of course you didn't," the blond says with an interested smirk.  "So, tell me, Sherlock - has anything in your life strayed away from your need to control everything with logic and reason?"

I say nothing, but my mind immediately supplies the answer that I have never been able to rely on rational thought when Seifer is involved.  If I could think clearly around the blond, I would have never believed him all those years ago when it came to his psychic visions... and in turn, my mother would have died at the hands of a sadist.  That one event is the only reason I started to believe in destiny and the invisible hand of Fate, and while I'm not exactly pleased with my hopeless love for a heterosexual man, I'm far more grateful for my mother's spared life.

"Hey, you still in there, Loire?" Seifer says jokingly, the only one who bothers to snap me out of deeper thoughts.

I look up at the man and notice how strands of hair had slipped over green eyes.  Before greater reason stops me, I lift a hand and brush aside the stray hairs, something Seifer allows with a startled expression.  "We should get you that haircut, too."

Seifer blinks, and unsurprisingly, leans back in a casual move that places him out of my reach.  "Uh, yeah, you mentioned that yesterday.  You know, I bet there's a place around here that could do it cheap.  It'd be nice to get a clean cut for a change."

"That's fine, but after we finish here."

"No way out of that, huh?" Seifer says with a laugh, but that humor fades before he asks, "I was also wondering... Can we get your mother a present?  Maybe a bracelet or something?"

Stunned by the question, I stare at the blond while trying to figure out what idiotic motive he has to use my mother like this.

Seifer lifts a hand to the back of his neck in a self-conscious move.  "I know it's going to sound crazy to you, but I'd like to get something that will work as a protection charm for her.  I don't know if it'd work or even help at the end of the day, but I have to try something... assuming that she's actually being haunted by Roth's ghost."

It takes a few more seconds before I recall our conversation from last night.  I have to admit that it unsettled me to hear Seifer's theory that my mother is being tormented beyond the grave by the man who broke her in this life, and for more than a few reasons, I don't want to believe him.  After all, if it's true, there's absolutely nothing I can do to help her, and it's all too familiar of an emotion that I don't want to experience twice.  But no matter how much I don't want to believe his theory, I would do anything for my mother, even if it tears me apart in the process.

"Hey, if it bothers you--"

"It can't be jewelry," I say before Seifer tries to take away his offer.  "She cuts herself with anything sharp."

Though Seifer frowns in concern, the man's eyes seem to hold a type of understanding for my mother's plight.  "That's a shame since jewelry tends to hold more meaning for women, but we can work around it.  It doesn't have to be anything specific, maybe a handkerchief or something else safe.  The trick is that it has to hold some kind of importance."

"Importance?"

"Yeah, something she will form a connection to and keep close whenever she can.  That's why jewelry would have been easiest, but you can probably think of something else that she would like."

I frown at the description, uncertain what would best suit my mother.  "I'll think about it.  In the meantime, this would go faster if you actually helped and found some clothes you want, aside from the things you need for work."

Instead of continuing to show his annoyance with this shopping trip, Seifer smiles with a strange curl of lips before he turns around and mutters something along the lines of, "Thank you for trusting me."

Not positive that I had heard correctly or even if Seifer had wanted me to hear him in the first place, I don't say anything to the blond and return to looking for a few more shirts that he can use at work.  Being a waiter is rarely a job that keeps white shirts spotless, and remembering how Seifer had spilled coffee on himself yesterday, not once, but twice, I decide to get an extra shirt, just in case and despite the grumbling from Seifer that I'll have to endure later.

~ > < ~

"... and as I'm certain you've already guessed, your father is here with your mother.  They are waiting for you in the usual spot, but first, I need your signatures, and then you can be on your way."

I barely take note of the talkative nurse as I accept the pen she hands me, and after a moment's hesitation, I scratch out my name and the current time for my arrival.  Few other people know what it's like to sign-in for the privilege to see a loved one, and while it was something that I barely thought about the first several times, it has become harder and harder with each visit.  My mother should be home at this time of the day, wearing a brightly colored apron and testing her latest 'chemistry' project to use in her second grade class.  I can almost imagine her now, a headband holding her hair back and her face smeared with food coloring... but I'm just fooling myself while staring at the signature that allows me to see the woman who is a shadow of the person in my memories.

"Hey, you alright there?" Seifer asks, his voice at a level that would be proper for a funeral.

"No, I'm not," I say as I drop the pen onto the clipboard and walk away from the front desk.  Behind me, Seifer hurries to sign his name and reaches my side before I get too far down the hallway.  Surprisingly, he doesn't say anything.  No easy words of false comfort, no suggestion that this isn't as bad as it seems... For as often as Seifer says he doesn't understand me, he has the occasional ability to guess exactly what I need from him.

It takes a hundred and twenty-seven steps, give or take, to reach the 'garden room' that my mother favors and the scenery never changes.  Compared to the institutions shown on TV, my father managed to find a place that has a warmer feel to it with walls painted in neutral colors, actual decorations on display in random places, and common areas filled with pieces of furniture that better suit a home environment than a mental ward.  It's all an illusion, though.  No glass covers the framed paintings on the walls, no bookshelf or dresser has a piece of metal that can be easily removed, and each corner has a ceiling camera poorly hidden behind a dome of black glass.  This is a horrible imitation of a home, and sadly, that is what makes this a safe place for my mother.

Eventually reaching a set of double-doors that had been left open, I stop at the threshold and look inside the 'garden room', its true identity being the 'East Common Area'.  The room is very similar to the other two common areas, each holding a collection of well-worn couches and sofa chairs, a set of heavy bookshelves filled with a variety of reading media, and tables scattered with playing cards and a chess board or two.  The important difference, however, is that the room has tall windows with a clear view of the garden outside, and even though the garden is little more than branches and withered leaves at this time of year, my mother finds comfort in looking outside and knowing that she's alive.  Hurt and struggling, but alive all the same.

And in a typical sight, my mother sits in the sofa chair closest to the large windows, her eyes of blue-gray focused on a point in the distance that only she can see, a place far away from here.

"Squall, you made it."

I turn at the cheerfully pleased voice and find my father walking toward us with a slow step and two coffee cups in hand.  For a man soon reaching fifty, Laguna Loire looks barely forty with a lean figure that appears athletically fit, long hair pulled back in a neat ponytail, and a casual attire of stonewashed jeans and a half-buttoned shirt.  His face also shows little of his age, but the last several years haven't been good to him with the constant care over my mother.  He found true love with Raine Leonhart, and though she is alive and within reach, his heart breaks each day that he spends with her, a sadness that only shows in his once warm eyes.

Lifting his arms to hug me, my father is abruptly reminded of the hot drinks in both hands, and when he seems to struggle with what to do about it, I take the mug from his right hand and leave myself open to one of his bruise-inducing hugs.

"God, you look good, son."

I huff against his shoulder.  "You look exhausted."

He chuckles away my observation and manages to hug even tighter.  "Your mother asks about you every day.  She loves hearing about your adventures as a private investigator, though admittedly, I may be embellishing a little bit."

"I'm certain she realizes that."

Pulling back from his hug, my father smiles a lonely smile before deciding to acknowledge the large blond at my side.  "And you must be Seifer Almasy," he comments while extending his free hand.  "Ward mentioned that Squall is helping you through a tough spot, though I have to admit that I'm surprised to see you here."

"Yeah, well, you can ask your son about that," Seifer says evasively while accepting the handshake, but immediately winces when my father squeezes tight per his habit.

My father promptly releases his hold at the reaction.  "Sorry, I didn't notice you were hurt."

Seifer mutters, "My fault for forgetting about it," while waving the pain from his injured hand, the fourth finger partially covered by medical tape to protect the recently sliced flesh.  He had done it shortly after our shopping trip, purposely hurting himself to create the protection charm meant for my mother.  It's hard to resist the urge to call him an idiot for forgetting something that had happened less than an hour ago.

Looking away from the blond, I ask my father, "How's Mom doing?"

"She's doing her best to hold on," he replies, even though his expression tells me that he knows perfectly well how I'm avoiding the topic of Seifer.  "I mentioned that you might be visiting and it's given her the strength to keep her thoughts straight."

I nod at the typical assurance from my father, and like many times before, it's the last piece of motivation I need before stepping into the 'garden room' and toward my seated mother.  In an offhanded manner, I notice that no one else is in the common area, but it's a familiar sight - very few of the other patients like to be around my mother, as if sensing something a sane person would ignore as childish fears.  My mother doesn't seem to notice me as I approach and set the mug of chamomile tea with a packet of honey on the small table at her side.  Even now, the smell of that drink makes me think of winters from my childhood with Christmas celebrations and ski trips at the local resorts, but sadly, those memories are slowly being dominated by these visits.

"Squall?"  At the soft call of my name, I look to my mother and meet her eyes that are sharper than they were during my last few visits.  "Oh Squall, I nearly thought you were Laguna for a moment there.  When he was young and handsome, of course."

With a light laugh, my father takes the seat directly across from his wife.  "It's funny you say that - I think he looks more and more like you every day, and I'll have you know, Kiros and Ward agree with me."

Ignoring the constant argument between the two, I kneel down in front of the woman who seems too skinny within oversized, flannel pajamas.  "How are you feeling, Mom?"

Dark light flickers within her eyes before she glances to the window.  "Some days are better than others.  The doctor prescribed some new medication, but it makes me tired, and you know how much I hate to sleep."

'And to dream,' I think to myself, reminded of Seifer's difficulty with something as simple as a night of restful sleep.  "I brought you a present," I say to pull her away from troubling thoughts.  As her gaze slowly returns to me, I turn my attention to the shopping bag I had brought inside and pull out a dark brown, knitted shawl.  Though it's hard to see, the edge of the shawl is smeared with blood, Seifer's blood... He said it was part of the 'spell' that should protect my mother, but that didn't make it any easier to watch him slice his finger.

I lift up onto my knees to place the shawl around her shoulders, something she allows while carefully watching my hands.

"It's warm," my mother says with surprise brightening the blue in her eyes.  "It's really warm..."

Not expecting that instant reaction, I suffer from a flash of unwanted hope that maybe things can get better, maybe I can have my mother back... But I have already learned that it's easier to not depend on wishes and faith.  "I'm glad that you like it," I say with a careful smile.  "It should keep away the chill, so wear it as often as you want."

She pulls the shawl tight around her shoulders.  "I will wear it everyday.  Thank you, sweetie."

I bow my head in momentary relief that Seifer's 'spell' may actually work despite his hesitation, and with that reminder, I look to the entrance and find that the blond hasn't budged while watching over us.  We had managed to get his hair cut after shopping, and with the longish strands out of the way, I've been reminded of the strange sharpness to his gaze.  The haircut along with new clothes and a long wool jacket has given Seifer a fresh appearance that is a welcomed change to the man I dragged into my place just yesterday.  I know it's all cosmetic and the physical and mental damage will take time to fade away, but it's good to see him cleaned up and officially restarting his life.

"Mom, there's someone I want you to meet."

Seifer stiffens at my comment, but already resigned to this meeting, he steps into the room with his feet dragging.  Somewhat amused by his actions, I focus on him longer than probably appropriate, and when I glance back at my mother, my heart skips a beat at her wide-eyed look of recognition.

"It's you... The angel who saved me," my mother whispers in awed reverence.

Startled, Seifer glances back over his shoulder as if hoping she was referring to someone else, but when realizing that he's the focus of her attention, he shows a wounded expression that has been more familiar as of late.  "I'm not an angel, Mrs. Loire.  I'm just a friend... well, more like an acquaintance from your son's past."

"You can't fool me," she argues with a desperate edge to her voice.  "I saw you.  When He did those things to me and I would slip away from this world, you were there telling me to hold on.  You told me that you would figure out a way to save me, and that all I had to do was hold on."

Visibly uncomfortable by her conviction, Seifer looks at me and silently demands for help with the situation.  Unfortunate for him, my answer is to stand up and motion for him to come closer.  Begrudgingly, he does just that and kneels down in front of my mother in an apologetic pose, but says nothing that would bring too much attention to himself, just a pathetic muttering of, "I'm sorry."

"Sorry?  For what?" my mother asks as she reaches out, her hand almost touching Seifer face.  "You saved me."

"Not soon enough."

"Nonsense," my mother dismisses.  Leaning back in her chair, she brushes a hand over her shawl and smiles.  "You helped Squall get this for me.  I can feel that it has been touched by Heaven's blessing."

Seifer gazes up at the dark-haired woman, his eyes wet from old fears that have yet to be proven true.  Granted, another person may have blamed him for what had happened, but I know my mother.  She has always had the better sense to know the right person to hold accountable for any wrongdoing, and in a way, that is what made her such a good teacher, not to mention a challenging mother.

From behind me, my father demands in a low voice, "What is happening here, Squall?"

Glancing over my shoulder, I say softly, "I'll explain later, but for different reasons, they both need this."

He stares at me with uncertainty clear in his pale green eyes, but thankfully, he trusts me enough to not ruin this meeting between my mother and Seifer.  Understanding my father better than I'd like to admit, I know he will embrace Seifer's powers with the faith and imagination of an author who has already written stories that describe similar supernatural abilities.  The true question, however, is if Seifer can reveal such a damaging secret to a man he doesn't know, and I think I already know the answer to that.

Not noticing her husband's disapproval, my mother inches closer to Seifer.  "I know you have already given me one miracle, my angel, but I can't sleep and I can barely live with Him still speaking to me and saying things I don't want to hear.  The doctors don't believe me when I say He touches my mind and twists my thoughts, but you believe me... Don't you?"

Briefly closing his eyes, Seifer whispers, "I do."

Buoyed by his response, my mother pleads, "Then I beg you, banish Him to Hell.  Save me from Him before He makes me do something that can't be undone."

"I'm sorry, but I don't have that power.  I'm not an angel, and I can't even--"

"No, no, don't lie to me.  I saw you when I needed you the most," she insists as tears begin to slip from her eyes.  "And now, when I need your strength once more, you come here... But you say that you can't save me?  Is it... is it because I'm a whore?"

Seifer's eyes fly open at the question.  "Wha...  No, I don't.... You're not..."

"That's it, isn't it?" my mother concludes as she wraps her arms across her body and claws at her pajama-covered arms.  "I'm a stupid, filthy whore who doesn't deserve the help of an angel.  But... I have a good mouth for cock.  Everyone says so.  Maybe I can earn your help?  I'll do anything you want.  Anything."

Dumbfounded by the impossible offer, Seifer stares at the woman as if she had been replaced by a monster, which is his own fault in a way.  My mother isn't here because she enjoys the diverse company only offered by a mental institution.  I place a hand on his shoulder, and when he looks up at me in a startled jerk, I motion for him to move out of the way.  At first confused, he glances behind me to notice that my father had stood up and was anxious to reach his wife.

As soon as Seifer moves, my father takes his place and rests a careful hand on an overly thin shoulder.  Ignoring her flinch, he coaxes, "It's been a long day, Raine.  Why don't I take you to your room?"

Blinking up at her husband, she asks in puzzlement, "Did I say something wrong again?"

"It's alright.  You're just exhausted."

With a nod in agreement, my mother pushes up from her seat and reluctantly allows him to hold her arm in support.  "Are you going to punish me again?  Are you going to tie me to the bed and rape me for what I did wrong?"

"You know I won't do that," my father scolds in an injured manner, still hurt by the false accusations caused by twisted memories.

"You can burn me for being stupid.  I know I deserve it," my mother says, even as shameful tears flow down her face.

"Don't say that, my love," he argues while lifting a hand to instinctively wipe away her tears, but my mother expertly leans away from his touch.  With a sigh, my father nods and leads her out of the room she favors the most in this place.  From experience, I know that she'll fight him when reaching her room, the idea of rest and sleep a terrifying prospect to the woman.  And after all of these years, when I finally understand the reason for her fear, I can't blame her for wanting to stay awake and free of her tormentor's control.

"What the fuck was that?" Seifer demands quietly, his eyes still focused on the empty doorway my parents had stepped through.

"My mother," I say cynically, which earns me a glare from the unsettled blond.  After a deep breath, I tell him, "I was hoping you wouldn't see this side of her.  She usually can control herself when I visit, but I guess you excited her more than she could handle."

"No shit, Sherlock, but damn it, why didn't you think to warn me or something?"

"... The last time I was here, I helped her to her room.  She was lying on her bed and she informed me that, if I was going to fist fuck her while she was asleep, I should wear some rings.  It would make her bleed more."  Looking to the blond, I ask him, "How exactly am I suppose to warn you about something like that?"

Seifer stares at me for a long minute, unable to think of anything to say in response, not that there is something he can say.  I've been living with this reality for years, and while my mother wasn't so 'vocal' at the beginning, the sting of her raving words gets through my shields every time.  Nothing else can be said that could possibly take away that pain.

Eventually bowing his head in surrender, Seifer reveals, "If it helps at all, I can feel that fucker's taint around her.  It's actually kind of disturbing to feel his energy when he's not even around, probably torturing some other innocent soul."  His teeth clenched in anger, he adds, "This isn't your mother's fault, Loire, not in the least."

"It helps," I say softly, not too certain if the statement is true.

"And just so you know, I really do wish that I could do something.  My mother... She knew how to do that sort of thing, but I was too young to learn that stuff before she died.  Hell, I don't even know if I can do anything she could."

I shake my head at his frustration.  "I didn't mean to bring you here for that reason.  This was supposed to help you, and not make things worse."

Seifer raises his head and seems to give my words some thought.  "You know, I think this was a good thing.  I've always avoided my powers, like they were a disease or something, but if I can help your mom... No, I'm going to figure it out.  I swear, Loire, I'm going to do everything I can to save her."

I openly study his face, which is somehow more handsome in his new found determination, and I'm struck by the sensation of falling in love yet again with this reckless man.  A part of me wonders if I always knew this would be his method to pay me back, but at the same time, there's a fleeting worry that if he fails in this, I may lose him forever.  Either way, this isn't my choice to make and it seems that Seifer has already selected his new path to follow, as rocky and dangerous as it may be.

"Thank you," I say when I can't think of any other words, at least none that wouldn't scare him away.

Seifer turns toward me and smiles with a slight show of teeth.  "Don't thank me yet, Sherlock.  I have a long way to go."

"You want to help.  That's enough for me."

His brows furrow in readiness to argue, but before Seifer can say a word, my father appears at the doorway and shows an expression that is atypically irritated.  "Now, who is going to explain what just happened there?"

I glance at Seifer, and when the blond seems to lose all sense of determination in front of my father, I know that I'll have to handle this situation carefully.  "What do you want to know?"

Incredulous, he demands, "Why does your mother think this 'friend' of yours is an angel?"

"I'm not certain," I say as honestly as I can, "but... Back when we were looking for Mom, do you remember how I said an anonymous witness told me the name of the man who had her?"

My father immediately looks to Seifer.  "You're... You're the witness?"

Wincing at the direction question, the blond lifts a hand to the back of his neck and averts his gaze.

"It's a complicated issue," I tell my father, hoping that today isn't one of his denser days.  "Eventually, I may be able to explain everything, but for now, trust me when I say that Mom is alive because of Seifer."

"No, of course... of course..."  In his spontaneous way, my father abruptly moves forward and wraps his arms around Seifer, not caring if the hug would be welcomed by the taller man.  "God, I don't care what happened, whether legal, illegal, or even a dream that came to you," he says within a mix of laughter and held back tears.  "You saved my wife from a demon and I can't begin to repay you.  Please, anything you want, it's yours."

Looking helpless, Seifer awkwardly places a hand at the older man's shoulder.  "Really, that's not necessary.  Loire... uh, I mean, Squall is doing more than enough to help me out.  Too much, actually."

Reminded of that fact, my father releases Seifer while asking me, "Is this why you're helping him?  Ward was... well, of another assumption."

I snort at the full knowledge of what Ward would have assumed about Seifer living with me.  While the man denies it, he's a worse gossip than most of the women I've dealt with, and that includes my various informants.

My father chuckles at my reaction, a rare shine of happiness brightening his eyes.  "I'm glad you came today, Squall.  While it could have gone better, I haven't seen your mother that animated in months.  And she adores your gift.  She insisted wearing it when lying down for her nap, as if it were a protective blanket from her childhood."

I nod in relief that she has already found comfort from the shawl, even if Seifer's fears ultimately prove true and it doesn't fully protect her from vindictive ghosts.

"Well, since your mother is resting, why don't I treat you both to dinner?  I haven't heard anything about your latest cases and your mother is anxious to know everything you've been up to.  She also mentioned something about convincing you to settle down with a nice boy.  Actually, she's quite fond a nurse who works on the weekends..."  When I glare at him for the interference, my father raises his hands in surrender.  "Alright, alright, it was just suggestion, but you can't be a bachelor forever, son.  It's not in your blood."

Watching as he slaps a hand against Seifer's back and encourages the blond forward, I frown at the truth that I'm not very well suited to my current lifestyle.  It would be nice to have a relationship like my parents, a loving couple who met through a terrible blind date that, ironically, led to my father wearing an eye patch for nearly a week afterward due to an incident with a champagne cork.  One-night stands suit their purpose, but they serve no comfort after a day like today.  To lie in bed and be held by someone who knows and understands... Unfortunately, my heart has no commonsense and I'm trapped loving someone who is perfect in every way except one - he can never love me back.

"Are you joining us, son?" my father asks from the doorway, his smile soft though hinted with worry.

In response, I step toward the waiting pair and inform my father, "I'm not letting you pay."

He grins a fool's grin, though noticeably doesn't agree to my condition.  Knowing his methods, our server will have his credit card in hand before we even make our drink orders, which is more skillful than it sounds - I've tried to beat him at his own game during our last three dinners, and it never seems to stick.  With my father telling me to 'not worry about it,' he ushers Seifer and me out of the institution and coaxes us into his car.  I probably should have warned Seifer that dinner with my father would be a possibility, but I didn't want him to have another excuse to avoid coming with me today.  Prepared or not, it's better for Seifer to become better acquainted with my unusual family - it'll make things easier when they decide to show up unannounced and assault him with awkward questions.

"So, Seifer," my father begins while starting the car, "are any of your friends gay and available?"

When a snort of laughter escapes the blond, I realize that Seifer may actually enjoy tonight, but only at my expense, and it doesn't seem as much of a sacrifice as it sounds.  I'd do anything to hear his deep laugh again, even if I'm an idiot for wanting it.  Laughter heals, supposedly, and Seifer deserves every chance to close old wounds.  Then one day, when he is whole again, he won't need me anymore and he'll move on with his life, leaving me behind without a second thought.  And somehow, I know that is what I want... even if I may have to convince myself of that in the future.

~ > < ~

"Damn, Loire, when I imagined what your dad was like, I did not picture a man like Laguna."

Not contributing to the comment, I unlock the door to my condo and step inside to flip on the lights, more for Seifer's benefit than my own.  The dinner with my father had lasted well over two hours given his excitement to tell old stories to a fresh pair of ears, and before even reaching the restaurant, he had convinced Seifer to call him 'Laguna' and not 'Mr. Loire'.  It's stupid, but I can't help feeling annoyed how Seifer easily calls my father by name in the same sentence of using 'Loire' instead of 'Squall'.

Following close behind me to get out of the cold, Seifer continues to describe, "I swore your dad would be some hard-ass military officer or a freaking Navy Seal, or at least someone who taught you to be so uptight and righteous.  Are you sure your mom didn't have an affair or something?"

"Did you already forget about the twenty minutes Dad wasted talking about his time in the military?"

Seifer shakes his head.  "That is almost as unbelievable as him being your dad."

Unable to argue his point, I remove my boots and hang up my jacket before padding into the nicely heated condo.  One day, I should consider getting a better mode of transportation, something with a heater at the minimum.

After carefully hanging up his new coat and toeing off old sneakers, Seifer trails after me toward the kitchen area and takes a seat at one of the barstools in front of the counter dividing the kitchen and living room.  When I pull down a pot from its hook, I can feel green eyes watching my movements as I gather milk, cocoa, sugar, and a few spices to prepare some hot chocolate to drive away the lingering chill from the ride home.  Personally, I would rather something stronger, but given Seifer's history with alcohol, I'll be satisfied enough from the richness of chocolate.

"Do you make everything from scratch?"

I shrug in reply, not certain what would count as 'cooking from scratch'.

Seifer snorts at my silence.  "I have to say, Loire, I never pegged you as a guy who cooks and all that.  You don't seem like someone who takes pleasure in eating a good meal."

"I don't really," I admit while stirring the dark liquid, "but back in the day, I would help my mother in the kitchen and I learned everything from her.  I guess it's more of a habit than anything else."

"Right, a 'habit'," Seifer repeats sarcastically, reflecting the knowledge of someone else who has lost a mother.  I suppose my desire to cook is something akin to Seifer's need to hold onto the last gift from his mother... and with that thought, I frown and glance in the direction of his room where his plush dragon is most likely sitting on top of his bed.

"Something wrong there?" Seifer asks, cautiously glancing over his shoulder as if looking for an intruder.

"That toy dragon..."  A nearly unheard correction of 'Dog' is muttered before I ask, "Does it work like the shawl we gave my mother?"

After a surprised second, Seifer smiles lightly.  "Well, that took you long enough, Sherlock.  Have you been thinking about it all day?"

"No... But that helps to explain why you sleep with a stuffed animal."

"Hey now, don't insult my little guardian.  He's a vicious thing when he feels like it."

With a faint smile at his playful tone, I return to watching over the heating liquid and stir slowly while waiting for the first signs of boiling.  It doesn't take much longer, and after turning off the stove, I pour the steaming hot chocolate into a couple of large mugs.  Mugs in hand, I turn around and offer Seifer his share, the blond accepting it with an odd expression as he stares into the dark liquid.

"You don't have to drink it," I say while wrapping my hands around my mug, the warmth comforting against my cool skin.

Green eyes lift to meet my gaze and he smirks with amusement.  "Nice try, Loire, but that's not what I was thinking."

When he says nothing further, I raise an eyebrow in silent question.

His smirk fades to a more pensive line.  "I guess I was thinking of my mom.  She loved hot chocolate, though I think she was hiding a hint of brandy in it.  One of those, 'don't let the kid know you're an alcoholic' situations."

"... She cared enough to hide it."

Seifer breaths a laugh at my attempt to console him.  "Shit, you don't have to tell me that I'm being a hypocrite.  I know damn well why she drank, but... I guess I can't help blaming her for everything, whether it was actually her fault or not."

The admission stirs up a variety of emotions in my chest: some anger toward the disrespect for his mother, some pity for his childish need to blame others, some sadness at how this is tearing him up inside.  Not quite certain what emotion will ultimately win out, I look down at my drink and say carefully, "You don't have to tell me this."

Seifer shifts back in his seat, maybe surprised by his openness, but he then huffs in realization.  "You know, I think maybe I do."  When I return my gaze to the blond, Seifer explains, "You're the only one left who knows anything about me, and after you let me to see your mother the way she is, I guess I feel like I owe you the same."

"You don't owe me anything."

"So you say, but I think we both know better than that," Seifer scolds before blowing cool air over his drink and taking a careful sip.  Green eyes immediately brighten at the taste.  "Hey, not bad... not bad at all.  What's in it?"

"It's probably the chili powder.  Most people don't expect it."

"Is there anything you don't know, Sherlock?" Seifer asks with a smirk, and then takes another sip of hot liquid.  "Hn, if you keep doing shit like this, you'll never get rid of me."

I scoff at his assumption that I can't kick him out whenever I want... and I trust myself as much as smokers who say they can quit at any point.

Looking into his mug, Seifer says in a hoarse voice, "Just so you know, I don't hate my mother.  I hate that she wasn't around when I needed her, and I hate that she..."  He shakes his head and doesn't finish the thought.  "She did her best, more than what I could've done, and I tend to forget that."

"What was her name?"

Startled by the question, Seifer looks up at me and takes a few moments before answering, "Cassandra, after that woman in the Greek myth no one believed whenever she talked about her visions.  My grandmother had an odd sense of humor about her powers, though they weren't as strong as what my mom ended up with.  Ironically enough, my grandmother was the one who did the whole fortuneteller gig in a carnival for a living... well, before she met her husband and settled down."

"Cassandra is a good name."

"Yeah, I once thought I'd name my daughter that, but I don't think I want kids.  It wouldn't be fair giving them this life."  With a weird laugh, Seifer adds, "My mom didn't plan on me for the same reason, but I don't think she planned on being raped either."

"... She still had you."

With a deep sigh, Seifer concedes, "Yeah, she certainly did, and she even loved me for as long as she was around.  But you know, now that I think about it, it's funny how I blame her for so much shit, but never for not loving me.  That was one thing I never doubted."

Watching him carefully, I ask something I've always wanted to know - "What happened to her?"

Green eyes shift with animalistic wariness, but before I can retract my question, Seifer returns his gaze to dark liquid.  "According to the police reports, she killed herself.  In actuality... She was broken inside and couldn't protect herself from a fucking dead man."

Not liking his tone, I try to fix the situation.  "Sorry, I shouldn't have pried--"

"No, I want to tell you," Seifer insists without looking at me.  "No one believed me back then since my grandmother was gone by that point and my grandfather didn't like talking about our 'ghost nonsense'.  Hell, he wasn't even my mom's real dad, just her step-father, and I think he regretted getting mixed up in our family.  He only took care of me because there was no one else and he was an honorable old bastard."

With no real response to offer him, I step around the counter and take a seat on the stool next to Seifer.  He watches me from the corner of his eyes, and when I do nothing more than drink my hot chocolate, he smirks at my unspoken promise to hear whatever he needs to tell me.

"My mom was better than me," he begins in a wistful voice.  "She actually wanted to change the world and save lives, even as she was falling apart herself.  Supporting a kid and helping strangers didn't exactly lead to a healthy lifestyle.  And then, after years of doing so much good... she messed up.  She had a vision about a little boy being run over by a bus, and when she tried to stop it, she startled the driver and ultimately caused that kid's death.  It shattered her belief system to think that the kid may have survived if she hadn't acted like she did."

I frown at his conclusion and wonder if he missed the point of that key event, but it won't help Seifer now to interrupt and ask him if the boy happened to be blond and maybe green-eyed.  If it's true, I can only imagine it giving him another reason to hate his existence, instead of offering the relief he needs.

"The thing is, my bastard father was harassing her since his death a year earlier, and when that kid died, she didn't have the willpower to protect herself anymore."  His hand steady but tight around his mug, Seifer continues, "I was nine when I watched her die.  I woke up, I'm not certain why, and I walked into the living room to find my mom holding a knife to her throat and the ghost of her rapist standing behind her, egging her on.  Her eyes were closed and tears covered her cheeks... I don't think she knew I was there since I refuse to believe that she would've wanted that as my last memory of her."

Seifer pauses there and glances down at his arm with a startled look, an expression I may share since I don't exactly remember placing my hand above his wrist.  But even with that awkward realization, I don't release my hold as I can already feel the unseen shivers of his body, and well, Seifer said yesterday that he doesn't mind me touching him.  This should prove if that's true or not.

A pathetic smile flickers across thin lips, but that quickly fades when his brows draw inward.  "More than the actual deed, I remember how my bastard father laughed... fucking cackled like a hyena at my mom's death.  He cheered and taunted her dead body, as if he had won some game.  And all that time, I just stood there and watched, unable to do anything about it."

"Don't say that," I demand as my hand tightens around his wrist.  "I don't know who that man was, but from what I've heard, he's a coward who makes himself stronger by exploiting the weaknesses of others."

"You don't--"

"I understand just fine.  I've dealt with his type more than once in my life, and the moment someone challenges their 'invulnerability', they fall apart into a weeping mess."

Seifer scoffs at the claim.  "That bastard beat the shit out of the people who challenged him."

"Is that true, or did he stalk his victims and attack them from behind?"

"Does it really matter?"

I jerk at his arm and force eye contact between us.  "He got into your head when you were a helpless kid, and you haven't been able to shake him ever since.  He's untouchable as things currently stand, but the minute you figure out how to harm him, he will run away like the coward he is.  I promise you that."

Seifer blinks while staring at me, and then curses in a disbelieving breath, "Holy shit... Holy shit."  When I frown at his confusing reaction, Seifer straightens and explains almost excitedly, "Last night...  Something happened when I tried to punch him, I don't know what, but he vanished instead of taunting me for trying to punch a damned ghost.  He bolted instead of facing me..."  His resulting laughter sounds a touch too much like sobbing, but I don't fault him for the needed release of complex emotions.

"You'll figure it out, Seifer," I say when the hysterical laughter dies down.  "I have faith in you."

"... And why is that?"

With no reply I can give him, I withdraw my hand from his arm, but he quickly grabs my wrist.

"I watched my mother fall apart for almost a year, and while I was only a kid, I understood what was happening.  And now, in the last couple of months, I've seen the same shadows in my own eyes that once danced in hers.  Then suddenly you appear and you do something stupid like making me believe that my life may actually have a purpose..."  Carefully releasing his hold, Seifer asks stubbornly, "Why do you believe in me, Loire?  And don't you dare use that same old song about your mother, because we both know damned well that you had to trust me before that, or else you would've never met with a prick like me in the first place."

Unable to tell him the truth, I ask in return, "Doesn't that also imply you had to trust me to be able to reveal something that sounded so insane?"

Seifer scowls at the question being turned back on him.  "You're fucking Squall Loire - everyone in high school knew you were a guy who plays by the rules and never says shit about other people.  You were safe, and frankly, your mother wasn't."

I nod at his conclusion.  "I also knew who you were, albeit from a distance."

"I was a cliché, block-headed jock, Loire.  Don't tell me that you saw something trustworthy in that."

I show a small smile before sliding off my stool and walking in the direction of the shopping bags left next to my couch.  Seifer grumbles something under his breath about 'blood from a stone' and chugs the last of his hot chocolate before moving around the counter to pour himself a second serving.  Meanwhile, I grab a pair of scissors from my desk and start freeing the new clothes of their tags.  When I'm about halfway through, Seifer stands over me and clears his throat loudly.

"I still want the receipt that's hidden in one of those bags."

I shrug as it wasn't my plan to keep it from him.  It was simply easier to toss the receipt into a bag, especially when I have other plans to 'misplace' his older clothes into the incinerator.  I have a better chance of Seifer forgiving me as long as he has the receipt for the new clothes in hand.

Once I give him the long slip of paper, Seifer glances at the total even though he was at the register when it was tallied.  After scowling at that number, he shoves the receipt into his pocket and announces, "I'm still going to pay you back, Loire.  Even if I have to beg for change in the subway, I'll pay back every cent."

"I'm certain you will," I agree quietly, wondering how long it will take for Seifer to realize that money isn't the only currency when it comes to 'paying back' a person.

He eyes me for a suspicious moment before taking a seat across from me.  "I also can do my own damn laundry."

To acknowledge his statement, I hand him the scissors and move to the couch for a more comfortable position.  With my elbow on the arm of the couch and my hand propped under my chin, I watch Seifer as he goes through the remaining bags of clothes.  In truth, I never imagined that his life held so many shadows.  It seems Seifer is a better actor than anyone realized, both as a teenager and into adulthood, and I don't like it when I've underestimated the situation before me.  Worse, it's this elusive side of the man that has been an allure for years, and I hate that I want even more.

... Damn it, why do I feel like I've already been bitten by this wolf?


Allowing my motorcycle to coast into a parking spot between cars, I study the length of apartment buildings mixed in with townhomes, the buildings stacked together such that barely an inch separate the structures.  It gives a cramped, big city feeling that doesn't allow for much personal space, but the location is best for those wanting a relatively safe neighborhood and something close to the business sector of Garden.  If my life had gone as planned, I probably would've ended up in one of these buildings, along with an accounting job somewhere downtown.  One of these days, I may have to thank my father for giving me a more interesting life... but not anytime soon.

"God, Loire, you need a fucking car," Seifer complains as he pushes off my bike in a clumsy move.  "It's too cold to be dicking around on a motorcycle."

With no interest in arguing the pros and cons of using a motorcycle, I dismount with more experience than the grumbling blond and hang my helmet over a handlebar.  From the inner pocket of my jacket, I grab an old notepad and double check the address I had written down before walking in the direction of 1108 Oceanic Ave.  The building turns out to be a three-story townhouse with Christmas lights decorating the stairway and a fresh wreath hanging on the front door.  I can practically hear Seifer's teeth grinding at the sight.

"So, why am I here again?"

"You're bored and I might need your help."

He snorts at my explanation, but he can't deny its validity.

After washing his new clothes last night, Seifer twice stumbled over his own two feet when heading to bed, an amusing sight when I had another few hours before I was tired enough to do the same.  This morning, the sleep-deprived man was surprisingly the first one up and freshly showered when making a simple breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast.  When I asked if a dream had wakened him, Seifer denied it was anything serious, just a blurry series of images that meant nothing to him.  His words and tone didn't exactly match, which made me wonder if he was frustrated by his inability to understand the vision.  To keep him from dwelling on it, I decided to drag him along for this case, the phone call coming shortly after breakfast.  While there may be nothing for him to do, I feel better having him by my side instead of alone in the condo, especially after that disturbing story of his mother's death.

As we walk up the stairs to the main floor, Seifer asks, "Is there something I should do?"

"Stand there and look pretty," is my only advice before I ring the doorbell.

The melodious chime barely ends when the door jerks open to reveal a lovely woman in her early forties, though she appears younger with features suggesting mixed blood of some Asian decent.  Her unusually blond hair tied in a messy bun and deep blue eyes reddened from spent tears, it's obvious that the woman has had a very difficult morning.  "Are you Mr. Loire?"

"Squall is fine, Mrs. Gaines." I remind her from our phone call.  "And this is my associate, Seifer Almasy."

She smiles pitifully at the introductions.  "Please, it's Kohana, or Hana if you prefer.  And thank you... Thank you so very much for coming here."  Stepping to the side, she motions for us to come inside and points out the spot to leave shoes before entering.  "Detective Tilmitt spoke highly of you, but I admit, I was expecting someone older."

Not offended by the common misunderstanding, I follow after the woman while taking note of the black and white photos in the hallways, several of which showing a family of four - Kohana always next to a balding, white man in his fifties, and with them was assumedly a son and daughter, the son many years older than his sister and sharing more of his mother's Asian features.  Several assumptions could be made from the pictures of outings and milestone events in the children's lives, but it would be best to let the mother explain everything from her point of view.

Seifer and I remain standing while Kohana takes a seat at the kitchen table, the phone within reach.  "You must think I'm being overprotective to worry about my son, my little Riku, but I've seen the news coverage about that 'Johnny Killer' and I can't..."  She presses a fist to her mouth, a sign that she had promised herself to not cry in front of me.

I flip to a new page in my notebook and encourage her, "Would you mind starting from the beginning?"

Kohana nods, and after a steadying breath, she describes, "A little before noon, I received a call from Riku's friend, Sora.  He wanted to know if Riku was sick and staying home from school, which surprised me since I watched Riku leave this morning with his school things.  I called the high school and they said they had a note signed by me detailing his absence for the day.  When I heard that, I went to his room... Some of his clothes were gone, as well as his laptop.  I called the police once I realized..."

While jotting some notes, I ask her, "If you were able to speak with the police--"

"Why did I call you?" she finishes with a weak smile.  At my nods, she explains, "Riku turned sixteen last month, and when teenagers run away, the police don't try as hard to locate them.  There is also the matter that Riku ran away once before, but as I tried to explain to the police, he was only seven at the time and some neighborhood bullies convinced him that his step-father wouldn't want someone else's son around after our daughter, Karin, was born.  It was so ridiculous..."

And thus the differences I noticed in the photos.  "What information was Detective Tilmitt able to give you?"

"Just that they'd have his picture circulated, and places like bus stations and the airport would be on alert... But they won't look for him."  After a shaky breath, Kohana continues, "That's when the detective gave me your card and assured me that you have a gift when it comes to finding people.  I called you immediately.  So please, tell me that you can help."

Frowning at her plea, I remind the distraught woman, "Did Detective Tilmitt also warn you that my services can be expensive?"

"Money is not an issue when it comes to my son's safety.  I don't have cash now, but my husband will be here shortly--"

"A deposit isn't necessary," I say with the knowledge that every minute is important when finding a person who doesn't want to be found.  "I would like a chance to see your son's room, but before that, I need you to answer this question as honestly as possible - is there a reason for him to leave?"

Kohana frowns and slowly shakes her head.  "I've spent the last hour asking that very question.  My husband loves him like a son, Karin won't know what to do without her big brother, and I... If it's something I did..."  Deteriorating into tears, she presses a hand to her face to hide the evidence.

Satisfied with her answer, I tuck away my notepad.  "If you would point me toward his room..."

"Upstairs, the last door to the left."

Leaving the woman to her worry, I move past Seifer to exit the kitchen and head toward the narrow stairway that leads to the third floor.  Seifer hesitates, clearly wanting to do something for the mother, but instead follows after me.  It's a simple matter to find the teen's room, a plain white door across from one decorated with stickers of unicorns and rainbows.  Stepping inside the boy's room, I immediately notice that it's far too organized for a teenage boy.  Everything in its place, everything at a nice, perfect angle... It reminds me of my own room back in high school.

"Damn it, Loire, why didn't you try to console that poor woman?" Seifer demands after closing the door.

"She wants her son and I'll bring him back," I say while moving toward the desk, apparently missing its laptop.  "Words don't hold any weight compared to that."

"That's not the point.  It wouldn't kill you to pat her on the shoulder or something."  Moving inside, Seifer sits on the bed and leans back on his hands.  "So, is this what you do?  Find runaways and drag them back home?"

"Actually, stalking spouses brings in more revenue, followed by lost cats and dogs.  Kids are usually found by the police before someone thinks to call me."

Seifer hums with interest, and then glances around the small room.  "Why do you think he ran away?  This feels like a good home without any nasty shadows or secrets."

I glance back over my shoulder, curious if he means something more by that statement.  One of these days, I need to sit this man down and actually figure out what abilities he controls.  "He's a teenage boy.  With hormones in the mix, any event can seem world-ending.  The real question is where he would go."

"Hey, you're the one who asked his mother about why he'd leave."

"Because I don't want to bring a kid back into a potentially abusive situation," I say while scanning over the bookcase next to his bed.  Worn textbooks, a decent number of fantasy novels, a few nonfiction texts about wars throughout history, random baseball mementos and collectables...

"It's not abusive," Seifer insists.

"That's what I assumed given the mother's reaction."  I grab a binder from the shelf and flip through the pages of chemistry notes, his handwriting crisp and neat, all in capital letters.

"Well, my money is on the bus station and he's already long gone.  He's had, what, four or five hours to get somewhere out of the city?"

"In that case, the police will find him.  The kid has a face that most ticket tellers and other workers will remember.  Security cameras can do the rest."

"... But you don't think that's what he did."

I put the binder back into its place.  "He's tried this once before, and now he's older and understands the ways technology can find a person.  I don't think he'll do the expected... and he won't want to waste his limited cash reserves."

Interested, Seifer sits forward with his arms resting on his thighs.  "Why do you think that?"

"He's sixteen, an honor student, and most likely stupid enough to think that he's old enough to live on his own," I reply while continuing my study of the bookcase.  "Whatever made him run, he probably planned this thoroughly, all the way to how he would support himself.  He knew that running away would also mean living away from home and from his parents' support... Assuming that, how would you plan to do it?"

Seifer laughs at the question.  "You have a short memory if you think I know how to live on my own."

"You did fine given the challenges against you."

"Right, if you say so," Seifer says before scratching his fingers through shortened blond hair.  "Well, there is always the standard of walking to get somewhere, and if he has friends in the area, he could crash with them."

After a cursory glance at an old fashioned soda glass and the baseball propped on top, I look to the photo perched against the smooth surface.  The teen of silver hair and green-blue eyes smiles broadly from the photo while holding up a trophy, something connected to a baseball competition given his uniform with 'Dragons' written across the front.  At his side is a younger and far shorter boy, also dressed in a baseball uniform, but the team name is cut off by the photo.  He tries to frown at the older boy, but can't suppress a smile of pride that is reflected in bright blue eyes, and for that reason, it's a strange expression he shows while enduring the arm wrapped casually around his shoulders.

Seifer clears his throat to remind me he's there, prompting me to murmur distractedly, "The chance of him having older friends with both a place of their own and room for a teenage runaway is slim."

"Alright, then same theory, but different application - a friend gives him a ride wherever he wants to go.  Sixteen-year-olds know how to drive, after all."

"That still leaves the chance of the friend being found, and that leading to the kid's whereabouts."  I take the photo in hand and hold it close to potentially determine the name written on the younger boy's white jersey.  Only the beginning 'S' is clear enough to see, which leads me to wonder if he's the 'Sora' who noticed his friend's absence.

Growling at my argument, Seifer complains, "Face it, Loire, there's no way to know where that kid went.  If he didn't go by plane, train, or fucking bus, then how are we supposed to find him?"

"We simply do," I say, knowing that something will come up.  A clue, a mistake, something... and when I return the photo to its place, my eyes lift to find something I hadn't noticed earlier.  Placing my fingers at the base of the soda glass, I turn it slowly to reveal the poor quality etching of a diner name I recognize fairly well, and there's nothing about the place which should attract a teenager... unless said teenager was planning a way to leave Garden unnoticed, granted a rather risky way.

A soft knock sounds and Kohana slowly opens the door.  "I'm sorry to interrupt, but is there anything I can do?  A drink or snack I can offer you?"

"Actually, I was wondering if you knew where this came from," I say while tapping at the soda glass.

The mother frowns in thought.  "No, not particularly.  He brought it home the other week and said he got it free for buying... some drink or another..."

When she can't seem to remember, I offer, "A root beer float?"

"Yes, that's right, a root beer float... Is that important for some reason?"

"I hope not," I say under my breath, but I know better than that.  This feels right compared to the other options out there, and frankly, teenagers tend to be incredibly stupid when they are trying to be smart.  "I imagine the police already said this, but you should stay here in case your son tries to contact you or returns home."  When she nods with understanding, I look at Seifer and motion that it's time for us to leave, something that surprises the blond.

Kohana escorts us to the entrance, and after we slip on boots and sneakers, I'm the first to leave with Seifer lagging behind me.  Thankfully, he knows better than to say anything until the door is closed and noticeably left unlocked by the anxious mother.

"So, what is the significance behind a root beer float?"

"Nothing," I say as I grab the dark red helmet from my seat and toss it at the blond.

Catching the helmet, Seifer insists, "There has to be something, Sherlock, because you don't leap unless you have an idea of where you're landing."

As my reply, I strap on my own helmet and straddle over the waiting motorcycle to start the engine.  Knowing that I have few qualms with leaving people behind, Seifer is soon behind me with his arms wrapped around my waist, his strong hold suggesting how much he cares for this mode of transportation.  Pulling out into the street, I hit the accelerator a bit harder than usual and dance above the speed limit, the act making Seifer tighten his hold in mild terror.  It's a shame I'll have to trade in my bike for Ward's loaner car to make room for the runaway, but I suppose there will be a heater involved, so it won't be a complete loss... just a very noticeable one.

~ > < ~

"... You can't be serious."

Since Seifer isn't expecting a reply, I simply pull the car borrowed from my uncle into one of many available spaces in front of 'JR's Spot', a diner that was built off of a large motel that has seen better days, but still suits its purpose as a cheap, one-night stay for tired truck drivers.  The vast parking lot to the side is near empty, which is to be expected of midday on a Friday.  By tonight, it'll be packed with semi-trucks from all corners of the country and bored drivers who are willing to take on a freeloading passenger, even if they are suspiciously young looking despite whatever age they claim.

"Why on Earth would a kid think that something like this is a smart plan?" Seifer mutters while eyeing the semi-trucks parked nearby.

"Because he's distracted by something else," is my reply as I exit the car, the blond soon behind me.

We enter the diner to the typical smell of greasy food and strong coffee, and though it's mostly empty, several patrons are seated at the counter with half-eaten meals and no interest in our entrance.  Booths line the other side of the diner, and two booths away, there is a single occupant with his face hidden beneath the bill of his baseball cap... a 'Dragons' baseball cap.

"Well, Leon, what're you doin' here?"

Turning toward the counter, I find an older woman wearing an old fashioned waitress uniform and smiling the nicotine-stained smile of a chain smoker.  Though I feel Seifer's curious stare at my back, I focus on the waitress and comment, "I didn't realize I wasn't welcomed here anymore, Jenny."

Jenny Rae Duchene, 'JR' and the owner of this 'establishment', laughs with an unfeminine guffaw.  "It's some of the boys who have a problem with ya, not me.  I always treat paying customers right, eh?"

"That you do," I agree, but when she goes for a pair of menus, I shake my head and thumb in the direction of the lone teenager.  She frowns briefly, but then nods with visible curiosity of what 'Leon' has to do with an obvious runaway.  Jenny has a soft spot for kids, and more likely than not, she has already tried to convince the kid to go home.  My reputation will probably be damaged by helping out a kid, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.

As we had already discussed vague plans in the car, I don't need to say anything to Seifer as we approach the booth, and before Riku knows what is happening, I take the seat in front of him and Seifer slides in next to the kid to block his way out.

Startled and jumpy, Riku looks back and forth between us, looking much like a terrified rabbit.  "Who... What do you want?"

"Your mother hired us to take you home," I say directly, an answer that is overheard by Jenny as she walks up with a coffee pot in hand.

"No wonder you're botherin' with a kid," she comments with relieved undertones.  "A son should be with his mother."

While the teen glares at the interfering woman, I accept the cup of deep black coffee she pours for me.  Seifer waves off his cup, but smooth-talks his way into an extra large piece of 'JR's famous blackberry pie'.  With Jenny near blushing as she retrieves the pie, I sip carefully at the deadly strong cup of coffee before returning my attention to the defeated kid.

"My mom thinks I'm in school," he says in denial.  "There's no way she knows I'm gone."

"A friend of yours was worried and called her, though I believe he assumed you were sick."

Groaning the name 'Sora', Riku pinches the bridge of his nose in an irritable fashion.

"So, you've got me curious, kid," Seifer begins while stealing a fry from the plate in front of Riku.  "Why the Hell are you running away in the first place?  You have a nice life back with your parents and sister.  Seems like a stupid move to leave that behind."

After a brief glare at the blond, Riku ignores him to ask me, "How much is my mom paying you?  I can double it for your silence."

"Not likely."

"I have money," he insists in a low tone.  "My father, my real father sends me money my mom doesn't know about."

With a show of disinterest, I drink more of the diner's coffee, able to take almost a mouthful this time.

"How much?" Riku demands with persistence.  "Five hundred?"  At Seifer's derisive snort, the kid increases, "A thousand, then?"  When I continue to say nothing, Riku offers, "Two thousand?" and his left eye twitches to reveal that number is close to the full amount he has on hand.

I set down my cup and inform him, "We're taking you home."

Returning with Seifer's pie, Jenny scolds a firm, "Hey now," when the kid hits the table with the flat of his palm.  At least Riku has the sense to look contrite in front of the matron of this diner, but it doesn't last when she walks off to help other customers.  While green-blue eyes search for an exit strategy, Seifer digs into his piece of pie and takes a deep bite as if dessert was our original purpose for coming here.

His eyes brightening, Seifer declares, "Shit, this is pretty damn good.  Have you tried it before?"

"Seifer..." I breathe in a quiet scold that this isn't the time for his games.

"No, seriously, you have to try some," he insists while cutting into his piece, and then holds the loaded fork in my direction.  I look at the offered dessert, and with an eyebrow lifted in disbelief, I do nothing to accept the taste.  Seifer shrugs at my wordless refusal and takes the forkful for himself.  "You're missing out, Sherlock, and I hope it's not because you're watching your girlish figure or something stupid like that."

Deciding to take his word for it, I return my attention to Riku and notice that his anger has been replaced by something else.  Frustration and... worry, I suppose.  There isn't any fear, fortunately, but the worry in his eyes bothers me.  "Tell me why I shouldn't take you back, and maybe I'll consider it."

Surprise opens the kid's expression, something mirrored in Seifer's equally stunned state, but Riku's shock fades more quickly when he battles over what answer to give me.  The desire to lie is there, but when he glances at me in an assessing manner, he decides against the tactic that didn't have a good chance of success.  "It's personal," he finally declares, it probably saying more than he thinks.

"Personal," Seifer repeats with a chuckle.  "What do you think, Loire - did a girl tell him to fuck off, or did he stop having morning wood?"

When Riku doesn't react strongly either way, I think about the soda glass on his bookcase and the photo placed against it, the only noticeable photo in the room.  "Maybe we should ask his friend 'Sora'."

For a mere second, Riku's entire body goes taut in a fight-or-flight response to the suggestion, and though he manages to control himself and calm down, the damage has already been done.

Seifer scowls at the unspoken answer.  "You've got to be shitting me.  All of this crap is because you, what, had a fight with your friend?"  When Riku looks ready to argue, the blond adds more sharply, "Wait, don't tell me it's because you have feelings for this other kid?"

His mouth already parted with his previously thought-out argument, Riku sits with a dumbfounded look at the second theory he wasn't expecting, especially not from Seifer.  Honestly, people don't give him enough credit for seeing through bullshit, an ability that I don't find surprising given Seifer's mastery in the art of lying and speaking half-truths.

Seifer shows a disappointed look when glancing at me.  "You're right, 'Leon'.  He's an idiot teenager with more hormones than brains."

"Hey, it's not that stupid--"

With a bark of laughter, Seifer demands, "Don't be full of yourself, kid.  In your generation, being gay is practically a fad where claiming to have a 'gay friend' is like wearing some fashion accessory."  Pointing his fork in my direction, Seifer continues, "Meanwhile, this guy went home almost every fucking day with a new bruise on his body, and he never backed down.  Hell, he was on the track team and knew how to run, but never did.  And what does that say about you, huh?  You think you're smart to run away like this?  Try again, you stupid fuck."

More confused than offended by the crude lecture, Riku warily looks at me and asks, "Is it... true?"

I sigh at the unexpected direction this meeting has taken.  "More or less, but you should know, Seifer doesn't understand as much as he thinks he does."

"I know enough," Seifer says defensively.  "I was there for some of the beatings, if you remember."

"But that isn't the issue."  When Seifer snorts at the argument and heatedly cuts another bite of blackberry pie, I wait until the right moment to ask him, "What if I told you that I loved you since middle school?"

His inhale of surprise lodges the mouthful of pie into an uncomfortable position, and after a series of mildly worrisome chokes, Seifer clears his airway enough that he thinks to drink something to clear it the rest of the way.  Unfortunately, he misjudges my coffee to be a good choice and ends up coughing even harsher than before.

"And that's the issue," I say sarcastically once his coughing dies down enough.

"Wha... How is you... and me... the issue here?"

"I was just making a point, Seifer," I state dryly, needing him to assume that my question was hypothetical.  "Sometimes, it's not what you are, but how people react that is more frightening."

With a pathetic look, Riku adjusts the position of his baseball cap.  "I don't want Sora to know... especially if he's going to react like that."

"You don't have to tell him," I say with years of experience.

"Now wait a fucking minute here!" Seifer demands, his voice still hoarse from nearly choking.  "First off, Loire, was that the truth about you... y'know... ... wanting me?"

Annoyed at his barely formed question, I ask him in reply, "Do I look that stupid?"

"No, not particularly," Seifer says while eyeing me critically, and just when I think he's about to call my bluff, he huffs irritably and turns his attention to Riku.  "As for you, you dumb shit, isn't that other kid your friend?  Obviously you care about him, and no matter how he may react, don't you owe him the truth?"

"Of course he deserves the truth," Riku agrees with a harsh glare, "and that's why I can't face him anymore."

The teen's argument manages to quiet Seifer, but I'm not as surprised by the declaration.  "Riku," I coax until the kid looks at me.  "While this may be the easiest option for you, do you have any idea what your friend will think?  You're deserting him without a warning or explanation..."

"He'll get over it," Riku says too quickly, as if he has been convincing himself of just that in the last several hours.

"Do you really believe that?"

"... Sora is good at making friends wherever he goes.  And it's not like we see each other much since we're in different grades."

Watching him struggle, I tell the teen the one thing he doesn't want to hear: "He noticed you were missing within hours."

Riku grits his teeth at that reality and his eyes take on a different light.  Regret, maybe something more.

With that final sign, I slide out from the booth, and once standing, I inform the kid, "Whether you run or not, your feelings may never change.  But if you do run, your friend will suffer for it.  Is that truly the option that appeals the most to you?"

Not waiting for an answer, I move to the counter where Jenny has been watching us closely, but far enough away to not overhear anything inappropriate.  I pull two twenties from a money clip and place them on the counter as payment for the kid's meal, in addition to the coffee and pie.  The rest should remind her that I appreciate her discretion when it comes to telling others about today, but I'm not in the business of buying her silence.

I turn around and watch Seifer stand to the side while Riku pushes out from the booth.  The kid hides his face at first, but then removes his baseball cap and decides to meet my eyes squarely.

"I don't want Sora to hate me."

I smile faintly at his one desire, amazed how much it echoes my own.  "Then let's bring you home."

~ > < ~

Thirty minutes after that promise, I park at the far end of Oceanic Ave, not comfortable with the idea of parallel parking an unfamiliar vehicle that I need to return in one piece.  Despite the fair distance, I notice a figure waiting on the steps leading to the kid's townhouse, spikes of brown hair peaking out into view.  Figuring that our time is short, I reach into my jacket pocket and retrieve a business card to hand back to the kid.

"What's this for?" Riku asks with a suspicious glance at the card.

"I didn't have anyone to talk to when growing up," I explain dully and ignore the odd look from Seifer.  "Maybe you won't need to, but sometimes the option itself helps."

Riku hesitates before taking the card, but clutches it firmly.  With a muttered 'thanks', he exits the car and drags out his backpack in a rush.

Seifer and I watch from within the car as the teen strides purposefully toward his home, but eventually falters when the person on the stairway stands up and makes himself known.  As Riku slows to a halt, his spiky-haired friend moves from the stairs and gradually gains speed until running at the taller teen.  Riku is nearly knocked to his feet when the friend tackles him with a rough hug, and though cautious, Riku returns the hold with a single arm.  Loud words are spoken, but nothing that can be understood from here, not that they are meant for us anyway.  It'd be a nice story if things actually worked out between them.

"I never thought about it," Seifer comments while watching the teens, "but being gay must be really tough.  I mean, to love your best friend and all of that..."

"A best friend can be the opposite sex."

"Well, yeah, but you still have to find a guy who's also gay.  Figuring that out must be a bitch."

"It's no different than you wanting a woman who is already taken, or wanting a woman who has no interest in your flirting."

"Alright, then love sucks all around," Seifer says with a chuckle, "but I still think that I have a better chance at finding love than you."

Scoffing at his arrogance, I wish that I could explain to him that finding love isn't the hard part.  I found love over a decade ago when I was basically a child, but living in love... that's probably the challenge of life itself.

Never leaving the car, we continue to watch as Riku is dragged toward his home and pushed toward the front door by the small friend.  Before Riku can use his key or knock for entrance, the door bursts open to reveal his mother and young sister, the pair battling to give Riku the strongest hug.  Confident that the kid is in good hands, I start up the engine and pull the car out into the street, eventually passing the reunion activities without being noticed.

"Just to be curious," Seifer begins while glancing back at the family, "how much are you charging the kid's family for finding him?"

"There's a two-hundred dollar consulting fee, and then seventy-five dollars an hour and related expenses."

After doing a quick tally, Seifer breathes a laugh at the number.  "Oh man, that kid was ready to give you two-thousand dollars, and your fee is under four-hundred?  He's going to kill you when he finds out."

"He needed to be home with his family," I offer as my explanation, maybe my excuse.

Seifer hums quietly at the statement.  "Seems important to you."

"Family is everything," I say while thinking that only family can love when others decide it's too much trouble, and only family will care while others actually believe in the masks that are shown during the worst of times.

"... Is that why your place feels like it does?"

I frown at the odd question.  "Like what?"

Seifer doesn't reply straight away, and in that time, he seems to change his mind.  "Nah, it's nothing important.  Just my typical nonsense."

I glance at the blond, curious what he has decided to hide from me after everything he has already shared.

Closing his eyes, Seifer adjusts the passenger seat so that it leans further back.  "I have to say, you're a good guy, Loire.  It might not be so bad letting you help me out."

Though pleased that his resistance is fading with every moment, I can't help but to wonder if I may be over my head with this project.  It has been less than three days and I've already done something incredibly stupid, like admit my feelings within the guise of a lie.  Considering the months it should take for Seifer to build up enough reserves to live on his own, I could be placing myself into quite a bit of trouble here.  I need to keep reminding myself that, although a wolf may appear docile, he will always be an animal of his own mind.  The moment I forget that, I'll leave myself exposed, and I can't endure that, not when it's Seifer.

One way or another, he'll eventually return to his own life without me, and then maybe I can learn to breathe again.

 

{Continued}

 

Author's Whining -- Another chapter done, and yes, I realize that I'm setting myself up for a longer story here, but I don't think it'll be an epic.  Also, since Jess had the question and I imagine others might share it, Riku and Sora are not random cameos - they actually have larger roles in this story and will most definitely be coming back.  And now I have characters to blame for when this story goes on longer than I planned. :)