One Wrong Step
May 2010



I have gone through a lot of shit when it comes to my unwanted dreams.  I've seen a drunken father beat his own child against a tiled floor until the kid's skull cracked open and bits of brain slipped out.  I've seen a good girl accept a free drink at the wrong type of bar and watched as she was gang raped in a nearby hotel, never a virgin again.  And something that has been lingering in my mind as of late, I've witnessed a sadist repeatedly burn, electrocute, and strangle a ridiculously stubborn woman, a mother who refused to give her surrender in exchange for the blessing of death at the hands of her torturer.

To add to the pleasantry of those events, I was forced to view everything from the eyes of the victims, knowing their fears and their pain in that worst, and often times last, moment of their lives.

And yet, even with all of those dreams combined, nothing is more terrifying than when things go wrong and I end up in a place of pure white light.  All my life I have heard the cliché stories about near-death experiences in which people see a white light and are comforted by the presence of lost loved ones.  Apparently, those stories are either complete bullshit or I'm the unlucky one who doesn't get the whole 'I saw my dead grandmother and she said it wasn't my time' crap.  Instead, my visits to that place are like being in the middle of a desert made of burning white sand, surrounded by millions of people who all know that I'm trying to hide a bottle of ice-cold water in my pants.

Such is my fate tonight, and though I can't actually see anything beyond the glare of white, I feel the desperate gazes of the dead, all of them wishing for the chance to connect with the living world.  Some want to pass along private messages, others want to provide warnings of future disasters, and the remaining majority simply wants to remember how it feels to be alive.  None of them seem to understand that I'm only one man with a very fragile mind, but logic is rarely involved when it comes to mobs, living or dead.  They each have their 'important reason' to reach for me, and without physical bodies to block the way, I'm assaulted at all angles by demanding spirits and their overpowering emotions.

It really says something about my life when Heaven feels a lot like Hell.

"--eifer... Seifer, wake up...!"

The frantic call of my name somehow cuts through the swarm of spirits, and with that glimmer of hope, I find the strength to latch onto that living voice and let it drag me toward freedom and into blessed darkness.  Unfortunately, that comfort of darkness isn't meant to last as I eventually feel a bruising grip at my upper arm and an icy touch at my cheek.  With a sad amount of effort, I open my eyelids and stare at a blurry world that seems gray and full of shadows after witnessing the pure light of Heaven.

"Seifer," the voice of my savior breathes in relief, "Are you all right?"

Not ready to answer that question, I look around in hazy confusion until I realize that I'm not on the bed like I should be, but instead sitting on the floor of the closet with a pair of shoes digging into my ass.  Well shit, I haven't done the sleepwalk thing since high school and it was embarrassing enough to have my grandfather find me hiding in the closet and behind hanging clothes.  If I wasn't so fucked in the head right now, I'd probably punch Squall in the throat just to make myself feel a little less pathetic.

As if aware of my desperate plan, Squall shifts backward just enough for the hallway light to reveal his face, which impressively shows nothing of what I heard in his previous cries.  "I heard noises and found you here..."

Knowing full well that Squall could only have good intentions, I shake my head at his attempt to explain what he's doing in my room in the middle of the night.  That small movement, however, turns out to be a terrible idea and I choke on the vomit that suddenly flows up from my stomach.  Something must have been visible in my face since Squall acts quickly and grabs a nearby trash bin to shove in front of me.  Unfortunate for him, I'm not quite together enough for something like aim and a good portion of the vomit ends up on Squall instead of where it belongs.

"... Sorry..." I manage somewhere between the fourth and sixth heave.

Squall doesn't say anything, but rests a soothing hand against my back while patiently waiting for the episode to pass.  Once I empty everything from my stomach and then some, Squall removes his soiled shirt and offers it as something to wipe my face clean of sweat and flecks of vomit.  While I do that, he grabs the trash bin and walks to the bathroom, soon followed by the sound of a flushing toilet and running water.  When he comes back into the room, Squall sets the cleaned trash bin next to the bed and returns to squat in front of me.

"Are you okay to move?"

Not wanting to consider something that sounds rather daunting and fairly stupid at this moment, I stare forward while waiting for the rest of my nausea to pass.  With the brunet directly before me, my staring mostly involves focusing on the shirtless man, and gradually, I notice a few unexpected things.  While daily runs have kept the guy slender, Squall also has a surprising amount of muscle definition in his chest and upper arms, something he didn't have back in high school.  I suppose it makes sense given his trick the other night to knock out those horny fuckers, but man, I never connected that strength with the visible lines of muscle that he has been hiding beneath expensive clothes.

"Seifer," Squall says in a scolding tone, effectively interrupting my examination, "I'm not letting you stay in there, especially when your bed is a few steps away."

It would be so easy to pretend that the floor of the closet is more comfortable than it looks, but Squall isn't the type to be impressed by something as stupid as pride.  I raise my arm in a silent demand for his help, and with just one hand, Squall pulls me onto my feet.  My bum knee immediately stiffens due to my awkward seated position in the closet, but Squall seems to anticipate the issue and stands close to support my unsteady body.  Once I'm fairly certain that I won't fall face-first into the carpet, I take my first tentative step toward the bed, but Squall jerks me backward before I can get too far.

"Not that way," he says with a careful nudge in the other direction.

Confused, I blink a couple times to bring my vision into better focus, and looking at the floor, I realize the reason why Squall hadn't flipped on the light--the single floor lamp in the room had been knocked over and broken glass covered the ground in the exact spot where I was about to step.  With a muttered curse, I promise tiredly, "I'll buy a replacement..."

Squall scoffs at the offer.  "I don't give a damn about that.  I'm more worried about you."

I almost laugh at the brunet for saying something unnecessary for once--it'd be obvious to anyone that he gives a shit.  I seem to remember my grandfather leaving me wherever I lay after a bad dream, and here Squall is, sacrificing his sleep and shirt to help me out.  It's a little much when I think about it, and for probably the fourth time in as many days, I ask him, "Why are you going through so much trouble for me?"

An eyebrow lifted in disbelief, Squall looks up at me.  "You're asking that now?"

"You've never given me a real answer."

"In your opinion," Squall states defensively.

We reach the bed at that point, and with Squall taking the soiled shirt from my hand, I crawl on top of the mattress.  Seated on that mess of sheets, my body abruptly remembers how cold Squall keeps this place and I pull the covers up to my chest.  It's then I realize that something is missing, and as discretely as possible, I scan the sheets to look for a noticeable bump.  When I don't see one, I glance over the edge of the mattress.

"Looking for this?" Squall asks as he bends down and picks up Dog from where the stuffed toy had fallen under the bed.

"I've had a fucking bitch of a night, Loire, so don't mock me, alright?" I bite out, angry and ashamed at my childish desire to snatch Dog from his hold.

"I'm not mocking you," Squall argues softly while placing the purple dragon in my lap.  "I know it has the same protection charm you placed on my mother's shawl."

My eyes drift downward in continued embarrassment and I end up staring at the vomit staining Squall's sweat pants.  Damn, why is it that the more this guy helps me, the harder I lash out?  It doesn't seem all that fair to him, and yet he continues to bear my attacks without any real complaint.

I feel pale eyes studying me in a quiet moment before Squall asks, "May I ask what happened?"

"No... No, Loire, you can't ask.  Because if you ask, I might actually have to answer you, and do you really think I want to talk about whatever I saw?"

Squall says nothing beyond a soft hum of agreement, and with that, he turns and walks out of the bedroom to leave me alone.

Alone again... Fucking hell, I've spent years living by myself without anyone else to help me, but for some reason it feels so much more daunting to sit by myself when I know Loire is in the same condo, and yet technically out of reach.  I'm not in the right mindset to get back to sleep, but with my typical amount of intelligence, I chased away the one person who could possibly help me clear my head.  It makes me think about the handful of friends I made back in high school, the good ones who tried to stick with me after my injury in college and during my alcoholic days, but their patience couldn't last forever.  I ruined a good thing back then, and I can't help but wonder when I'll ruin this thing with Squall.  Given my track record, it feels inevitable.

Frustrated by tonight and my entire life, I bend forward to bury my face against Dog's long back and complain, "I'm such an idiot."

"I think that would be obvious."

Startled, I jerk up and find Squall standing at the doorway with a couple of glasses in his hands.  It seems like an impossible sight and my only thought is, "You... came back."

He tilts his head in confusion, but Squall doesn't make a verbal comment about my surprise when he pads inside.  "I thought you could use some ginger ale to help the nausea, or if you don't want that, I brought some water, too."

I readily accept the ginger ale, and after a small sip of the bubbly liquid, I breathe out a sigh of relief at washing out the taste of bile from my mouth.

Showing his almost smile, Squall waits for me finish a couple more mouthfuls before he says, "You've had a bad night.  Maybe I should call Ward in the morning and tell him that you can't come in."

I scoff at the well-meant suggestion.  "I know what you're trying to do, Loire, but it's a terrible idea.  Your uncle already thinks I'm a worthless bum.  Not showing up for the first day of work would only give him evidence to that fact."  When Squall doesn't appear convinced, I glance at the alarm clock and nearly laugh at the time.  "Shit, it's not even 5am.  I can easily get another five hours of sleep before I have to wake up, and that will be more than enough to keep me on my feet for the rest of the day."

"... Are you sure?"

"Trust me, Sherlock, I've done a lot more work on far less sleep and survived just fine."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Squall mutters under his breath, but eventually sighs in surrender.  "Fine, I won't talk to Ward, but I wish you wouldn't push yourself."

I can't stop a chuckle at his motherly tone.  "I think I'm a big boy capable of my own decisions."

After a small shake of his head to show he isn't impressed, Squall takes a step toward the doorway.  "Sleep well, Seifer.  I'll see you in the morning."

"Uh, wait, don't go just yet," I beg a little too desperately, unable to temper the sudden anxiety I feel at being left alone.  Squall, thankfully, doesn't seem to notice the difference and simply waits to hear what I have to say.  Figuring out what to say, however, is a trick in itself.  A few seconds pass, and when nothing else comes to mind, I'm forced to rely on the terrifying and childish truth.  "Listen, I had a pretty crappy dream and I'm not ready to try some sleep with that still on my mind.  Can't you stay and... I don't know, talk for a while?"

Squall blinks at the request.  "You want to... talk."

Once I hear it repeated in his voice, I almost groan at the stupidity of my suggestion.  Of all the things to make him stay, I asked Squall Loire to talk with me.  While he isn't exactly averse to talking, the brunet only speaks when he has a purpose, not because it's a friendly thing to do.  It's like I suddenly forgot the few details I know about the dark-haired man.

Squall studies me for a long moment, and without anything visible in his expression, he takes a seat on the edge of the bed.  "Be honest, Seifer--is there something you need to tell me about your dream?"

I stare at the brunet until I realize that he thinks I need help deciphering my dream like I did the first night I was here.  "That's not why I want you to stay, and seriously, it's the last thing I feel like talking about.  If there was something useful in that dream, I swear that I would tell you all about it, but there's nothing to be done."

"You said that about your other dream," Squall prods in a careful manner, the man not wanting to insult me, but determined to prevent a person from needless suffering.  Fucking hero complex.

My hand tightens around Dog's body before I blurt out, "He's already dead, okay?  The boy I saw is dead and I never even figured out his name."

Squall straightens at the announcement.  "Dead?  How?"

"Fuck if I know," I say with a slightly hysterical edge.  "It was the same damn thing I dreamed the other night and it was just as worthless.  The whole dream was like staring into an old TV with a bad reception: there was little more than static, and the stuff that did come through had the audio from a different station.  It made no sense the first night and tonight was no different, but while I was connected with that future, it suddenly became the present and I got tangled up with that dead kid's soul as it went to Heaven.  And I'll tell you right now, I don't fucking belong in Heaven.  I don't--"

A cold hand rests on top of mine, encouraging me to stop that stream of dangerous thought.  Back in control of my tongue, I suddenly realize that I've said a lot more than I intended, but not enough for Squall to actually understand what happened tonight.  I swallow thickly at the idea of Squall asking more questions about the entire experience, and while I want to refuse any explanation, it's becoming apparent that I'm not good at leaving any of his questions unanswered.

After a light squeeze of my hand, Squall pulls back and asks, "What did you want to talk about?"

Confused, I meet blue-gray eyes and simply stare at the brunet for his question that doesn't seem to have anything to do with my ranting or my unwanted vision.

"Didn't you want to talk about something other than your dream?"

After a few seconds, it seeps through that this is his attempt to make amends for pushing too hard, and while I probably should be angry at his interference, I'm too exhausted to blame Squall for something that is a part of his nature.  And really, it's my own damned fault to make the guy stay when he was perfectly prepared to drop the topic altogether and leave me alone.  At this point, I just want to forget about everything else that has happened tonight, and maybe have a few happy thoughts to focus on before going back to sleep.

Trying to think of a topic, I shift under the covers and lie down such that my head is propped up by folded arms.  I then glance at Dog resting against my leg, and with no better idea in mind, I suggest, "Tell me about your birthdays when you were a kid."

"My birthdays?"

"Birthdays are usually happy times, right?  And your dad seems like the type of guy to make a major deal out of it.  Did he ever make you dress like a cowboy for a western themed party?  Or better yet, a knight for medieval party?  I bet you would make a great knight."

Squall sighs at my overactive imagination.  "While my father would have probably loved that, I didn't have many friends back then.  Parties would have been pointless, so we did family trips instead.  The location was my choice."

"And let me guess--you weren't a Disneyland type of kid."

"That was Ellone's choice more than once for family trips.  It was... okay."

I snicker at his tone that suggests he was forced to partake in the 'Happiest Place on Earth' for the sake of his sister's enjoyment.  "You're too predictable, Sherlock.  But hey, I forgot about you having a sister.  She does the ghostwriting thing for your dad, right?"  When Squall nods in reply, I decide to pursue the topic a little further and see where it goes.  "So, what is she like?  Does she have your bubbly personality, or did she take after one of your parents?  Obviously she got the writing gene from Laguna, but maybe she's more like your mother?"

Squall frowns slightly at the conjectures.  "You know that Ellone is my adopted sister, right?"

Surprised by the information, I try to figure out why the guy would think I knew about such a thing.  The only possibility that vaguely comes to mind is that someone started a rumor back in high school about Squall and his sister, but whatever it was about, it was so ridiculous that I didn't bother giving it a second thought.  "Sorry, Loire, but I really don't remember hearing about your sister.  Was it something I should have remembered?"

Blue-gray eyes study me quietly before Squall shakes his head.  "No, I suppose not."

And by his tone, I'm almost positive that he assumed I had taken stock in some bullshit rumor about his family.  Wanting to know about his real sister and not the rumors I had probably heard at one point or another, I ask the brunet, "Why don't you tell me about her?"

"What would that help?" Squall says guardedly.

"Well, getting you to talk about birthdays wasn't going anywhere, and I still want to hear something good before I think about going back to sleep."

Squall hesitates, but after a convincing grin from me, he sighs and relents, "She's six years older than me, married, and has two kids."

"Okay, hold it right there," I interject within a laugh.  "I don't want a freaking classified ad.  Tell me some details, like if she lives nearby, if you see her and the family every other Tuesday, and Hell, if the kids even have names, let alone a favorite ice cream flavor, a bad habit of picking their noses, or some fun shit like that."

The brunet pinches the bridge of his nose in irritation, but instead of refusing to indulge my curiosity, he begins, "Ellone lives on the other side of Garden where there are some good housing developments.  She has a nine-year-old daughter, Faith, and a seven-year-old son, Alec.  I haven't a clue about ice cream preference or bad habits, but they're both good kids.  Was there anything else?"

I chuckle at his determination to make this difficult.  "You didn't say how often you see them."

"I guess every month or so.  It depends on what is happening."

"Such as..."

Squall glares at me for the prodding, but still answers, "Whenever one of the kids has some performance, I try to go and watch."

"What, really?  You go and see a bunch of kids do a school play or T-ball game or something utterly domestic like that?"

Ducking his head slightly so that dark hair shields his face, Squall shrugs and says for a second time, "They're good kids."

While there isn't much to his answer in terms of words, it's easy to tell that the guy is completely devoted to his niece and nephew, something that reminds me of his statement the other day--'family is everything.'  Personally, I haven't felt that same amount of attachment to anyone beyond my mother, but it's not like I've had much of a family to depend on.  It almost makes me jealous of Squall, but I guess I respect the strength of his family too much to belittle it with my own pettiness.

Closing my eyes, I get comfortable with my head on the pillow and my arms bent over my head.  "Tell me about something you did with the kids.  Something fun."

"You look like you're about to fall asleep."

I agree with a pleased hum.  "And I want a bedtime story."

Squall snorts at the childish demand.  "I don't see how any of this is helping you."

And as he waits for some kind of rationale behind my games, I struggle with how I can explain that I'm not afraid to close my eyes and it's because he has humored me thus far.  Good intentions aside, Squall can never understand what it feels like to be terrified of sleep while desperately needing it at the same time, and frankly, I don't want him to understand that fear.  I only want him to keep talking, just for a few more minutes, but I can't think of any excuse to make that happen.

"Seifer, if you're going to--"

"Please don't stop," I interrupt while opening a single eye.  "Give me one story about you playing with your sister's family, and I won't ask anything else from you."  After a moment's thought, I add just in case, "Well, at least for tonight."

Squall studies me silently before looking away and purposefully staring at the carpet under his feet.  "Faith had her birthday a couple months ago.  It was a sleepover, but instead of the three girls Ellone thought were coming, nine showed up.  She called me in a panic, saying how Jonathan, her husband, and Alec were spending the night with Jonathan's parents, which left Ellone alone with a houseful of girls.  Ellone then mentioned that Faith wanted me to show her friends how to decorate cupcakes like I did for her and Alec a few weeks earlier.  Talk about a mistake..."

While Squall continues with the story that eventually leads to a kitchen full of cupcake-animals, I smile at the idea of the gay man running around with a horde of young girls, probably reaffirming his decision to stick with his own gender when it comes to his sanity.  But even as Squall downplays his ability to associate with children, I can't imagine that his niece would have invited him to her birthday party if she didn't actually want him around.  More so, it seems pretty clear to me that she wanted to show off her uncle to her friends, and I'll bet that Squall performed perfectly under the pressure.

With my eyes closed, it doesn't take long for me to drift under the influence of Squall's soft, steady voice.  I try to picture his niece and nephew, something that is probably pointless given the lack of blood relation, but it's still amusing to imagine the brunet with a pair of kids vying for his attention.  In my mind, the younger one would always win with a tearful demand, although Squall would probably make certain that the other one understood the burden and pride associated with being an older sibling.  Squall values family too high for him to let either child feel unwanted or left out.

But as I reach the point of near-sleep, those comforting images fade away as pieces of the vision return to haunt me.  With no understanding of how or why, I'm standing in the middle of a park that has been frozen in time, the families and joggers looking more like mannequins than living human beings.  It quickly becomes apparent that my viewpoint is from the boy who is already dead, something that is sick and wrong for many reasons, but I have no control over my nightmares.  Disturbingly, there is some amount of relief to know that this is only a bad dream that has no power to drag me into Heaven like the original vision had.

As if to mock my sense of security, a long shadow slowly appears from behind and all of the alarms in my head begin to scream at that new presence.  Unfortunately, the boy isn't the least bit concerned by the person's approach and turns around against my every wish.  Worse than the child-killer I was expecting, a mass of inky darkness in the shape of a human stands in the murderer's place.  It doesn't have a face or body that I can determine, but even without eyes, the thing stares right through the boy's shell and it isn't happy to find me there.  I'm interfering with its fun and it hates it when others ruin carefully made plans.

I try to scream, but the boy's mouth isn't mine to control.

A soft shush sounds, and though I first think it's the shadow thing trying to quiet me, the world frozen in time reacts to the sound and slowly dissolves into soft gray.  The darkness roars silently at the occurrence and reaches out to grab me, but I'm saved as that nightmare is replaced by something else.  Or maybe 'nothing else' would be the proper term.


Instantly recognizing that voice, I turn around and discover that I'm no longer in the body of the dead boy, but I'm still trapped in the wrong body--my own body from when I was nine-years-old and first learned what it meant to hate my life.  Though confused, I decide to let the dream run its inevitable course and meet the stormy-eyed gaze of my visitor.

<You don't have to be afraid,> the dream version of Squall says soothingly as he kneels in front of me.  <I will always be there to protect you, even if you push me away.>

With that pledge, the brunet lifts a hand to brush his fingers across my forehead, and in an impossible trick, his touch wipes away the remnants of my terror.  Stunned, I can only stare at Squall and his sad smile which the real man has never shown me, at least not one that I've seen.  His tone, on the other hand, seems annoyingly familiar.

The moment doesn't last, however, when the vision of Squall begins to dissolve into the gray world that exists between dreams and honest sleep.  Not wanting to be alone, I reach out for Squall even when I know it's pointless.  My small hand grabs his shirt before he fades away, but my voice doesn't sound when I try to beg for him to stay.  The remaining portion of his face smiles with fondness, and as Squall leans in close, the rest of him falls apart as if caught in a breeze.  Even so, I feel the press of unseen lips against my temple, the touch encouraging me to close my eyes.

Everything begins to slip away, leaving a final wish from Squall--<If you dream tonight, dream something good.>

His voice is the last thing to reach me before I slip into a true sleep without fear and without ghosts... And for me, that is the only version of Heaven I desire.

The air heavy with steam from my long shower, I wipe the mirror free of obstructing condensation and study my reflection in mild awe of the difference a few days can make.  There are still circles under my eyes, but they noticeably lack the dark coloring from a week ago.  I have a feeling that my face doesn't quite remember what 'normal' is after years of interrupted and shallow sleep, but it's getting there.  Altogether, I look more like myself than I have since my brief stint in college, and while there are still shadows in my eyes, they don't particularly frighten me anymore.

For the first time in years my soul feels reenergized and strong enough to fight a new day, which is quite the surprise after the disaster of last night.

Turning away from my reflection, I dress in new clothes suited for my first day of work, the outfit primarily consisting of a white collared shirt and a pair of black jeans that are a touch too loose.  Since our shopping trip, I have developed the suspicion that Squall has a master plan to get me back to my football-weight, which can't end well given my bum knee and general inability to train like I used to.  To prevent a fat gut and possible man boobs, I persuaded Squall the other day to let me make my own breakfasts, thereby letting the brunet get extra sleep in the mornings and, more importantly, replacing his pancakes and loaded omelets with some cereal and whatever fruit is lying around.

After the minute it takes to dress, I'm impressed to discover that the mirror had fogged up once again.  I may have overdone it this morning, but man, I've missed the luxury of boiling hot showers.  I wipe the mirror clean a second time and then study my reflection while raking my fingers back through still damp hair.  Though several bits refuse to fall into the style I prefer, I don't bother fussing over it.  Several years ago, I would have applied various hair products to get the right look, but I gave up on that crap when my spending budget got too tight.  Hell, I gave up a lot of things while living on my own, and because of that, I have a different sense of what matters in this world.  A perfect hairstyle simply doesn't rank up there with a good job and a warm home, no matter what my teenage-self believed.

I take one last minute to adjust my collar and tuck the ends of the shirt into my jeans before I finally leave the humid warmth of the bathroom.  Stepping into the main area of the condo, I'm somewhat surprised, though mostly annoyed to find Squall seated at his desk and drowsily staring at his laptop.  Since moving in with the brunet, I learned the unexpected tidbit that Squall isn't the early bird that I always imagined.  Instead, his sleep schedule rotates around the demands of his private investigator business, which usually puts the brunet in his bed until at least noon.  This morning, however, Squall is up relatively early and I know only one reason why he'd bother to crawl out of bed.

"You didn't have to get up," I comment from behind him.  "It's not like you need to see me off to school or some shit like that."

Squall grunts without looking away from the laptop screen, apparently unconcerned about how much sleep he has gotten.  While I can't see much beyond the glare of the screen, I notice a chart of numbers and figure that Squall still plays with stocks, maybe earning enough money to buy his uncle another diner or something.

"So hey, about last night," I begin rather hesitantly, but before I can start into the speech that I had rehearsed during my shower, Squall turns to face me and his pale eyes cause me to forget everything I had wanted to say.  Unable to think of anything better, I make the basic apology, "I'm sorry... for waking you up and all of that.  I swear it won't happen again."

Arching an eyebrow in disbelief, Squall asks, "Can you control your visions to the point of keeping that promise?"

I wince at the unfortunate observation.  "I kind of meant that I wouldn't wake you again, not that I could stop the dreams.  I've handled plenty of nightmares by my lonesome in the past, and I can keep doing so without your help.  That's not to say last night wasn't appreciated, but I won't bother you like that again.  It's the best promise I can make."

Stormy eyes seem to look right through me at the claim, but instead of Squall calling my bluff, he simply comments, "It's okay to ask for help, Seifer.  I would never hold that against you."

I stare at the dark-haired man and dumbly realize that for everything that has changed about me, the core of my personality is still the same as the idiot I was as a teenager.  I want to be revered and praised for my strength, and while I achieved that standing for a short while as a quarterback, those few years only intensified my need to be respected and never pitied.  That is probably the reason I drove my friends away, sickened at the disappointment I saw in their eyes whether it was actually there or not.  And now Squall has the nerve to tell me that it doesn't matter if I ask for help, that it won't make me any less of a man in his opinion... and God help me, I wish I could believe him.

Unable to explain any of that, I shift my eyes away from the brunet and use the excuse of finding my shoes to avoid the issue.

Though he probably knows exactly what I'm doing, Squall lets me get away with the escape and returns to his work.

Locating my sneakers near the front door, I grab them and take a seat on the couch to slip them on.  "So, any last tips about how to handle your uncle before I take a stroll into the lions' den?"

Squall shrugs.  "Work hard and stick with the truth.  Ward will respect you for that."

I scoff at his way of making the truth sound like a simple thing.  "You know that I can't tell the old man about my visions and the like.  He'd think I'm a lunatic or a scam artist, and then he'd lecture you for trusting a guy like me."

"You don't have to share your personal business, but don't try to lie.  Ward was a trained interrogator--he'll know."

I blink at the worrisome piece of information.  "And you couldn't have mentioned this sooner?"

"Would it have changed anything?"

"That's not the point, Loire," I grumble, but I don't attempt an argument further than that.  If Squall doesn't already recognize how dangerous it is for me to work side-by-side with a fucking human lie detector, then there's nothing I can say that would change the situation.  "Well, I should get going.  I don't want to be late for my first day with Mr. Good Cop/Bad Cop and be forced to confess to a crime I didn't commit."

Ignoring my sarcasm, Squall disconnects a cell phone from its charger and holds it in my direction.  "Don't forget this.  I want you to call me if you need anything."

I take the offered cell phone, albeit reluctantly.  It's a prepaid phone with only Squall's cell number stored in the database, and while I could complain that I'm not a child who needs a way to call 'mommy', I know that carrying the thing isn't the worst idea in the world.  Frankly, my luck has been on the good side lately, which can only mean that I'm due for a spectacular and potentially painful event to correct the balance.

Slipping the phone into my back pocket, I grab my coat from the rack next to the front door and slip on the covering that is heavier than it looks.  "Well, I'm out of here.  Try not to have too much fun without me."

Squall hums distractedly, already lost in his work and forgetting all about me.

Opening the door, I shiver at the icy weather and second guess my decision to walk to the diner, but it's not like I'd be any warmer on the back of Squall's motorcycle.  I quickly button my jacket while stepping outside, and after closing the door behind me, I sigh at the troubles with returning to the work force.  It's somewhat annoying to think about Squall enjoying a lazy morning with no solid responsibilities for the day, but he has earned his lifestyle unlike some other bums out there, so I can't really fault him for that.  Envy him, yes, but not fault him.

"What the fuck do ya think yer doin'?"

I start at the unexpected voice, and when I look over to find my bastard father blocking the way down the stairs, I realize that it has been over three days since I've had to deal with his presence.  It has been years since the prick has left me alone for longer than a day, which of course makes me curious about his absence.  While my punch probably threw him off balance, I can't imagine it keeping him away from his daily taunts.

"Why're ya still with that diseased faggot, boy?  I thought I told ya to leave this place before that queer could infect ya."

"And I thought I told you that you don't control me," I retort in controlled anger, and with no time to waste on the fucker, I move for the stairs despite the need to walk through the phantom.  While not impossible, it's not a pleasant experience, which is why I usually go out of my way to avoid stepping through any ghost, let alone my father's contaminated spirit.  The greater connection with the prick exposes me to his warped emotions, and though I've done it before, it's surprisingly worse this time.  The sheer intensity of his hate almost makes me lose my footing, but I manage to grab the railing and steady myself before walking down the stairs.

"Ya dumb fuck, don't ya know what they do?" he insists while following me.  "They have worms that burrow into yer brain, makin' yer dick hard when those faggots want to be fucked.  They make ya into a pet cock, trained to take a leash."

"I think you've mentioned that before," I comment drearily, already missing the few days of peace that I didn't properly savor.

"I saw him, boy.  I saw him try to put the worms in yer head when ya slept."

Curious despite myself, I glance over my shoulder and ask, "What the hell are you ranting about?"

"Last night, he put his cock-suckin' lips at yer head and tried to put the worms in yer brain.  He's tryin' to infect ya, just like I warned ya."

Vague memories of my dream immediately come to mind with Squall's soothing touch and words, as well as his parting kiss... And I laugh at the thought that any of it was remotely real.  "I don't know what you saw, but Loire has better taste than that.  He's more likely to buy a high-priced escort before wasting his time on a homeless ass like me."

The bastard growls at my dismissal of his fears.  "Don't mock me, boy.  I know what I know and that queer is out to destroy ya."

While I continue to chuckle at the idea of Squall mooning over me, I decide that it's interesting how this prick didn't think to invade my sleep or ruin my morning with these same warnings.  He usually isn't that reserved at speaking his mind, which brings me back to the mystery of my three days without his interfering presence.  The first day may have been attributed to the punch that made him run, but I can't imagine it keeping him away for the whole weekend.  There must be another reason behind his rare absence, and damn it, I feel like the answer is just out of reach.

"Heed my warnin', ya dumbshit - leave his lair before yer lost for good."

At his repeated demand for me to leave Squall's place, a sudden theory comes to mind that seems unlikely, but looking back at the ghost, I notice the twist of frustration to his sneer.  "Well, fuck me stupid, you can't get past the door, can you?"

The prick flinches at the question, but insists, "I can get to ya just fine, don't ya worry."

Some doubt enters my mind at that reality, but then a spark of insight comes to mind--"You may have been able to sneak in at the beginning, but that was several days ago, before you tried to attack Squall."

The phantom immediately stiffens at my theory, a reaction that makes me smirk in sadistic pleasure.  My mother once compared a 'true home' to a beloved family dog--it's friendly and perfectly harmless most of the time, but the moment someone attacks one of its masters, the home will bare its teeth and attack with everything it has.  More than likely, my bastard father never saw it coming and I'll bet he didn't appreciate the experience.

"I saw that queer put his filthy hands on you," the ghost reminds with a defensive edge to his words.

"And what, you think that I don't know how souls have a way of seeing events without being there?  Nah, if you could enter Loire's place, you would have made your presence known long before now.  You would have done something if Loire actually touched me like you say he did."

His lips tighten into a thin line of displeasure, a sight that nearly makes me laugh in victory.

"Did it surprise you when his 'home' rejected you?  Did it hurt you in a way you won't forget?" I ask a bit too eagerly, wanting the spirit to suffer for every slur he has used against Squall.  "Did it make you run away like a little girl?  'Cause I think I heard your squeals of pain the other day."

"Don't think yer free of me just 'cause some tutti-frutti house raised its hackles," the ghost growls in a low tone.  "I can go wherever I want, whenever I want, and don't ya forget it."

I grin at his pointless threat.  "Damn, I shouldn't be surprised about this, but Loire was right about you--you're a fucking coward who doesn't know what to do when someone fights back.  Is that what my mom did to earn your obsession?  Did she make you feel like so much less of a man in this world that you decided to attack her when she couldn't hurt you back?"

"That whore liked what she got," the bastard snarls, but the comment doesn't have the same effect that it usually does.  For too long I have been comparing the ghost to something of a demon, but now I see him for the boogeyman he is--terrified of the light and holding no real strength beyond the power I stupidly give him.  Perhaps sensing my changed attitude, the phantom lashes out with his hand piercing my chest and his tainted energy twists around my heart.  "Don't forget, boy, that it's my blood in yer veins."

Fighting the instinct to retreat from his touch, I meet his soulless eyes and retort, "It may be your blood, but it's my mother's heart and she'll never let you have me."

Infuriated, the spirit jerks his hand away, but he apparently has nothing to say in argument since he simply vanishes into a faint wisp of energy that slinks away to wherever ghosts go when they aren't harassing me.

Left blessedly alone, I grab the front of my jacket and swallow hard against the desire to puke or do something more drastic to remove the taint left by the touch of my bastard father.  And yet, despite that disgust, I manage to smile at the sweet taste of victory against the man who has tormented me since I was child.  God, more than anything, I want to run back upstairs and tell Squall every stupid detail, partly because it was his advice that contributed to my father's retreat, but mostly because he's the only person who would believe me.

Unfortunately, I still have my first day of work to consider, and really, I can already picture Squall's reaction--an almost smile with a vague 'I told you so' curl before he would offer me a ride to the diner.  It would be an anticlimactic reaction that would kill my good mood and I would rather savor the buzz for as long as it may last, probably until I break my first dish of the day.

Adjusting my coat, I take a deep breath of winter air and look up at the clear sky.  Damn, maybe today will be a better day than I thought.

~ > < ~

My first impression when entering the diner is that Squall must have had some influence in the design of the place.  The overall flavor of the place still screams 'diner' with the open counter, bar stools, and padded booths, but the color scheme of shiny metal, walls painted deep red, and wood table tops creates a warm atmosphere that manages to tone down the hooky feel of most diners.  I wouldn't exactly call it Ward's style, but judging by the collection of patrons from white-collar workers down to a handful of college students, it apparently works for a variety of customers and that is the dream of most restaurant owners.

"Good to see you know how to read a clock."

At the insult, I turn with a retort in mind, but I'm immediately reminded of the monstrous stature of Squall's uncle.  Dressed in a white t-shirt, dark pants, and a black apron, Ward carries a tray piled with dirty dishes at his shoulder and makes it appear like the load weighs next to nothing.  As of two seconds ago, I had held the vague hope that my memory had exaggerated his size given the stress of the day we met, but I was obviously wrong and now the ogre has the upper hand.  Well, shit, I suppose that it's probably better if I keep my mouth shut--it has been the cause of me being fired on more than one occasion and I really need this job.

His pale eyes glittering beneath a black bandana, Ward grins at my wordless state.  "I have to say, you look like a different man compared to last week.  Have you enjoyed your time in my godson's care?"

I debate the actual intent of his question, and while I can't quite decide if he's mocking my situation, testing my limits, or maybe even honestly questioning my welfare, I provide the same answer I would give two of those three situations--"I can't complain.  With the way Loire has watched over me, I can tell that he'll make a great mother some day."

The ogre's expression goes blank for a fraction of a terrifying second, but before I have the instinct to duck and run, the man chuckles with a deep rumble.  "Hate to break it to you, son, but you aren't the first to compare him to an overprotective mother."  Adjusting his hold on the tray, Ward steps around me and makes certain to get in his customary bump of the shoulder.  "Let's get you to the back and figure out what to do with you.  It's too busy to start training you now, but I'm certain we can find something to keep you out of the way."

The vague threat to his voice makes me think that I'm about to spend the rest of the day cleaning toilets, but I don't dare speak out against the treatment.  A job is a job and I know that I'm pretty damn lucky to have this one.

The 'back' consists of the kitchen area to the left, and in the other direction, a general area with what looks like a small locker setup, a desk with a simple computer, and a tall shelf maxed out with boxes for storage.  Ward moves to a large sink to drop off his tray of dishes, and after stretching his thick neck with a twist and a loud crack, he turns to the kitchen and the pair of cooks working hard on their orders.

"Zone, Watts, this is the new guy I warned you about," Ward announces with a thumb jammed my direction.  "Zone, I'm leaving the basics to you about hours, expectations, and whatever else pops into your head.  Watts, don't say anything unnecessary.  After that, you both can figure out something for him to do until I have the time to deal with him.  Got it?"

"Aye, Sergeant!" they say in unison as one of them grins broadly and the other lifts a spatula in a type of salute.

Ward grumbles something under his breath at the response, but turns and leaves without a clear declaration of what has him bothered.

"So, you're Seifer Almasy," comments the one with the spatula.

"I take it that the old man has been complaining about me," I say in response while eyeing the speaker.  Somewhere in his thirties, the man has an athletic look of a guy who goes to the gym, but doesn't necessarily use those muscles for anything important.  He wears an old baseball cap with the bill to the back and a black chef-style shirt with rolled-up sleeves, but the casual look contrasts his serious expression.  By sight alone, he doesn't seem all that impressive, but even as he returns the glance over to figure me out, the guy continues his fast-paced task of finishing a line of orders without missing a beat.

"Complaining would be an understatement," he eventually comments in a dry tone.  "By the way, I'm Zone and the kid behind me is Watts."

The second cook waves with a pair of metal tongs before portioning out steak fries onto a series of plates.  Watts looks about my same age, maybe a couple years younger, and at least a decade younger than Zone.  Dressed similarly to the older cook, Watts wears a dark bandana instead of a baseball cap to cover his hair, a loose fitting pair of jeans, and the same chef-style shirt that is a couple sizes too large.  Without any noticeable communication between the two, Zone grabs the plates that are half-filled with fries, tosses on the burgers he had been preparing, and then shoves the plates onto the pickup area beneath heating lamps; meanwhile, Watts collects a handful of new orders to fill and rambles off the necessary information.

It's somewhere between an order of a well-done bacon burger and a basket of chicken fingers that Zone points out, "If you're staying, you can hang your coat on the hooks behind you."

Given my walk to the diner and the biting cold, the heat of the kitchen was a welcomed change, but with the reminder, I realize that I must look a little odd standing around in my coat.  I walk to the back wall and maneuver the collection of jackets and other coverings to find a spot to safely hang my coat.  Returning to the kitchen, I look at the sink topped off with dishes, and with nothing better to do, I start scraping off the remaining food into a bin conveniently labeled 'Food Only'.

"Hey, you don't need to do that," Watts speaks out with a frown.  "The idiot busboy is late again today and he should have to clean up that mess.  Well, if Sarge doesn't fire him first."

I shrug at the claim that I should stand back and wait for someone else to handle the simple task.  "What else am I going to do?  And it's not like I haven't done this part of the job before.  I've worked in couple chain restaurants and they go through a lot more dishes than this load."

Watts straightens at the information.  "Sarge didn't mention that you've done this shit before.  Well, damn, then working here should be a no-brainer for you.  I don't know why he was so worried about bringing you on."

Zone snorts and reminds the younger cook, "It's because he doesn't like having to associate with one of Squall's flings."

Swallowing back the desire to make a creative curse, I argue with forced composure, "I'm not sleeping with Loire and the old man knows it.  Loire and I knew each other back in high school and he's helping me through a rough patch, and that's it, no matter what gossip Ward is spreading around."

Both Zone and Watts turn their heads and focus on me with silent intensity, the sizzle of grilling food going untouched.

"... What?" I ask, trying not to fidget under the dual gaze.

After a shared glance, they return to their work and Watts supplies, "Sorry, man, but you're Squall's type to the letter.  Add in the fact that you're living with the guy, you don't have much of a case."

I stare at the cook for the highly unexpected comment.  "And how the fuck do you know about Squall's type?" I ask, trying to not focus on the apparent fact that I have something to do with the brunet's taste in men.

"Ward complains about more things than just you," Zone replies sardonically.

Watts laughs in agreement.  "Hey, do you remember that one guy with the dragon tattoo?  I still can't believe that the fucker had the nerve to confront Ward and demand to know who else Squall was sleeping with.  It's a good thing the walls were already red--it would've sucked to deal with the bloodstains."

Zone hums at the reminder.  "He was an idiot, but at least he was better than that kid who lied about his age and became a stalker when Squall figured it out."

"Ha, you're just bitter about Squall breaking that bench out front when he threw the kid against it.  Everyone knows you liked eating out there."

When Zone huffs in annoyance, I shake my head while trying to wrap my head around the stream of unsolicited information.  "So... I take it that everyone here knows about Loire?"

"What, that he's gay?" Watts asks in a blunt fashion that I'm starting to sense is his style.  "Yeah, I guess so, but it's not like it matters.  This place exists because Squall put his money into it, and Sarge makes certain everyone knows that."  Turning to face me, he frowns and prods, "But hey, if you're so worried about people getting the wrong idea about you and Squall, why don't you stay with some other friend?"

Not wanting to answer with the pathetic truth of my situation, I smirk and tell the cook, "I never said that Loire was my friend."

Watts scowls at my non-reply and looks ready to complain about it not making much sense, but Zone jams an elbow into the young cook's side and startles him back to work.  After making certain Watts returns to his duties, Zone shifts his attention to me.  "If we're done with that, Ward wanted me to give you the rundown of how this place works."

"I'm all ears," I say while tossing a heavy load into the dishwasher.

As Zone starts to ramble off things I've heard many times before (don't be late, get your shift covered if you can't come in, etc, etc), my thoughts drift a little and I wonder what Squall is up to while I'm stuck doing dishes.  Knowing some of his habits by now, I'll bet the guy is still in front of his computer, though probably researching one of his many open cases.  Some people think he has magical abilities to find people, but it's really nothing more than keen observation skills along with a heavy dose of patience.  He's always looking, even when everyone else has given up... and that's how he found me, as well as the other lost souls he has located throughout the years.  The difference, however, is that those lost souls had a home to return to and loved ones to hold them tight, whereas I have nothing left.  If I actually let myself think about it, it was pointless for Squall to look for me and I still don't understand why he went through that effort, but he did, and somehow, I owe him for that.

I owe him for something I don't even understand and that's what our relationship has always been and what it probably always will be: confusing as fuck and completely out of reach.  To make things more annoying, I get the feeling that Squall knows exactly why things are so difficult between us, but he isn't going to tell me shit--not that it's anything new.

"By the way," Zone says after detailing the few holidays observed by the diner, "We should probably warn you that Ward is hard on the new hires."

"No surprise there.  I've been expecting it since the old man agreed to give me a job."

Watts snickers.  "Nah, man, he's always tough on the new guys, but he doesn't like you to begin with.  I think he's been making plans to make your life a living Hell, too.  It's going to be epic."

"Well, fuck..." I mutter under my breath as I continue working on the dishes.  I've dealt with bastard foremen before, so it's nothing new to be insulted for my uselessness, but I haven't depended on someone else for a job before.  Making Squall look bad isn't an option, which means I need to keep my head down and get the job done without saying something stupid, no matter what Ward may do to piss me off.

So much for this being a good day.

~ > < ~

Letting the glass door swing shut behind me, I shove my hands into the pockets of my long coat and huddle as best I can into the warm material.  The sun is long gone, slipping behind tall mountains hours ago, and I curse under my steaming breath at the cold weather and the promise of global warming that has yet to materialize.  Almost nine o'clock, it has been a long ass day with little reprieve from Ward and his running commentary of what I was doing wrong.  I particularly enjoyed the ten minute lecture on how to properly tie an apron such that the thing won't slip off, snag on something, or strangle a customer.  Got to focus on the important stuff, I suppose.

And joy of joys, I get to return tomorrow with a skip to my step and a sparkle to my smile, or some bullshit like that.

After a deep sigh into my coat, I start the long walk back to Squall's place, but before I get further than ten steps, a soft chuckle makes me stop and turn around once I recognize the rare sound.  Completely unnoticed by me, Squall leans against his parked motorcycle with his arms crossed and his pale eyes shining from the lights of the diner.  The bastard looks wholly comfortable despite the icy cold and my only hope is that he suffers during the summer months.

"Here to check up on me, Loire?  Because you're a little late for that."

With a slight shake of his head, Squall says, "I thought I'd offer you a ride home.  Ward mentioned that you were favoring your leg a bit."

"What the-- When did you talk to the old man?  I didn't see you inside."

Squall smirks, but refrains to mention how I didn't notice him standing right in front of me only seconds ago.  "I was doing some research downtown.  When I finished, I called Ward for his opinion about whether or not you could walk back by yourself."

"And of course he said that I needed all of the help I could get, right?"  Even though Squall looks about to respond, I don't give him the chance.  "Y'know, that guy has been on my case all fucking day long.  First with acting all shocked that I showed up, then with critiquing my apron tying skills, then with complaining about my handwriting being, apparently, worse than what a left-handed chicken can do, and then he had the nerve to watch me clean the bathrooms.  Seriously, how many ways can you clean a fucking toilet?  I'm almost surprised that he didn't pull a toothbrush out of his ass for me to use!"

After waiting a moment to confirm that I'm done, Squall says calmly, "Actually, Ward told me that he was impressed that you stuck around today."

"Impressed?" I repeat with a bark of laughter.  "It sure didn't look that way to me."

"Maybe, but Ward wanted to see for himself that you grew out of the hot temper you had from your quarterback days."

"Then, what, today was some kind of fucked up test to figure out when I'll snap and punch a customer for changing their order?" I demand, though in the back of my head, I know that I was close to lashing out at the old man.  If Squall wasn't involved, I would have given up and readily accepted being fired, but I didn't want to be the tarnish on Squall's shiny armor.

"That, and he still doesn't like you."

The dry tone does nothing to alleviate my concern and everything to bring about a headache that has been threatening to develop since earlier this afternoon.  "I've heard that a lot today, and just so you know, it's completely your fault.  The old man still thinks you got me this job because I'm banging you."

With a shrug, Squall maintains, "I've already told him the truth, but I can't force him to believe it.  Give him a few weeks and he'll sort everything out."

"A few more weeks of this," I groan in frustration.  "What an absolutely joyful thought."

Stormy eyes glitter with sadistic amusement, but without vocalizing that humor, Squall pushes up from his motorcycle.  "Do you want a ride or not?  I have somewhere to be."

"Hey, I didn't ask you to pick me up, so don't blame me if you're late.  And for your information, it's too freaking cold to ride around on that bike.  I can't believe how bits of you haven't already fallen off."

Squall dangles a set of keys from a gloved finger.  "Ward told me to use his spare car.  He doesn't want you to have any excuse, sickness or otherwise, to miss a day of work.  I think he mentioned something about the real work starting tomorrow."

"If you wanted me to jump off a bridge, Loire, there are kinder ways to suggest it," I complain, but I have to admit that the idea of a heated car sounds far more appealing than the long walk to Squall's place.  Somehow sensing that thought, Squall steps past me and walks toward the alleyway where Ward parks his massive truck, as well as a spare car that is used for the rare delivery to loyal customers.  Eyeing the car I recognize from when we brought that runaway home, I try to offer, "Listen, if taking me back to your place is going to make you late, I really don't mind walking.  Hell, it's not like I wasn't already prepared to make the trip."

"Get in the car, Seifer," Squall says before opening the driver-side door and sliding inside, leaving the argument at that.

I settle into the passenger seat just after Squall starts the car, and without wasting time, he pulls out into the street.  Even though the car is far warmer than what the back of Squall's motorcycle would be like, the vehicle has been sitting outside all day and it's going to take several minutes for the thing to warm up enough for the heater to work.  Walking wouldn't have been much better, but at least I would have been moving and not sitting still on a cold seat.

Freezing and needing a distraction, I decide to ask the brunet, "So, where are you rushing off to tonight?"

Squall doesn't reply right away, as if it was an answer that needed consideration.  "I've been learning martial arts for a while now.  I train every Monday night."

"Wow, no shit?" I say in surprise, not really expecting that from the serious man.  However, once I take the moment to think about it, the revelation helps to clear up a different mystery.  "So that's how you were able to throw those bastards to the ground the other night.  I thought it was weird how you handled them that easily, but if you're a black belt or some shit like that, it's no wonder they didn't see it coming."

Squall doesn't add to my insight, which makes me assume that he does have a black belt in whatever martial arts he has been learning.  If not, the overly honest man would have corrected me like he always does.

"Damn, Sherlock, I have to say I'm impressed.  I didn't realize you had an interest in martial arts."

"I didn't," Squall admits, "but it has been useful in my line of work."

"I can imagine.  But hey, why learn martial arts instead of doing something more obvious like, oh, buying a big ass gun?"

Squall shrugs dismissively at the suggestion.  "The idea of a gun was appealing, but if I ever used it like I wanted to, it'd be one mess after another with the police.  With martial arts, I have more flexibility to do whatever I need to do."

I glance at the dark-haired man for his explanation, his face mostly in the shadows given the angle of street lights.  On some level, I probably always figured that Squall could be a dangerous force if he ever put his mind to it, but I don't think I ever expected to witness that side of him.  Of course, I saw a glimmer of darkness in the man when he attacked those two brutes, but I had chalked up the incident to adrenaline and put it out of my mind.  Now I can't ignore it, and yet, instead of being afraid, I'm intrigued by the suggestion that Squall isn't the white knight everyone else sees.

"Can I watch you practice?"

Squall half-turns to glare at me, looking more suspicious than annoyed.  "Why?"

"Can you blame me for wanting to see you in action?  And before you try to say I've already seen you use martial arts, I was preoccupied the last time and couldn't appreciate how cool you looked."

Returning his attention to the street, Squall frowns in harsh thought before saying, "There could be a complication with that."

I chuckle at his serious tone.  "Come on, Loire, I promise to be a good boy and not ruin your lesson.  I just want to watch."

"That isn't the issue," he says within a sigh, and after another moment of thought, he asks, "Do you remember Zell Dincht?"

"Dincht?  Dincht... It doesn't sound-- Oh wait, is that the punk who would run around with his hair styled like a chicken sitting on his head?"

Squall snorts at the description.  "I forgot how you liked to call him 'Chicken Wuss'."

"Shit, I haven't heard his name since high school.  I don't remember much about him, but I seem to recall wanting to punch the kid just to make him fucking stand still for once."  I smile at the old memories from the best years of my life.  "So hey, what does the Chicken have to do with your courses?  Is he another student or something?"

"He's my instructor," Squall explains, and with a side glance in my direction, he adds, "and he's married to Fuujin."

My expression falls at the information.  "Fuujin?  As in my Fuujin?"  Although the brunet nods, I can't accept his reply.  "You're saying that my beautiful, genius of a girl willingly married that poultry-obsessed moron of a human being?"

"Almost four years ago."

"But how?  I mean... how?"

The corner of his mouth twitching to resist a smile, Squall explains, "During high school, Zell trained at the dojo owned by Fuujin's father, and after graduation, he became a fulltime instructor.  Zell and Fuujin saw each other almost every day, and eventually, they saw something in each other."

Dumbfounded, I slump into my seat and stare out the front window without really seeing anything.  In my mind, I can easily imagine the white-haired girl who had a lovely face, a petite body, and the meanest kick I have ever known.  We met in high school when a group of idiots were taunting her for the eye patch she wears.  She looked small and helpless in front of those overgrown sophomores, but before I could play the hero, Fuujin kicked one guy in the nuts and punched the other in the stomach.  The other idiots bolted when she demanded for 'NEXT'.  I couldn't help laughing at their retreat, which of course turned her one-eyed glare to me, but I quickly had her blushing when I asked her on a date.  A dinner and a movie later, we somehow became friends instead of something more, but I love her all the same.

Unfortunately, that didn't stop me from calling her a nagging bitch the last time we saw each other.  I'm certain the alcohol made me say other things, but that's the only thing I remember.  That, and her expression when I said it.

"I'll take you home," Squall offers, giving me an escape from the situation.

It's so damn tempting to take the easy way out, but I can't ignore this suggestion from Fate.  "Nah, I owe Fuujin an apology and probably some money.  It'd be nice if I could settle at least part of my debt."

Squall glances at me from the corner of his eye, and though it's hard to tell, he seems to appreciate my decision.  Not that he'd ever say something like that out loud, but Squall understands how I'm making an effort here and that means a lot more than it should.

~ > < ~

Standing in the middle of a parking lot, I stare up at the neon red letters that spell out "School of Martial Arts" and resist the instinct to make certain that Squall got the right place.  I'm not certain what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn't for the school to be located at the end of an older strip mall and neighboring a 'Close Shave' barber shop.  In reality, it's nothing new to find a karate place in the middle of some random shopping center, but I guess I assumed that Squall would go to a classier place than this.  Something traditional and not... ordinary.

"Are you coming?"

Without looking away from the glaring letters, I grunt out a 'yeah' and force myself to follow the brunet when a sudden onset of nerves makes me second guess my decision to come here.

Squall is the first to enter and holds the door open for me, revealing the sounds of a large class being held inside.  The front room is small with a collection of padded benches, a set of doors leading to locker rooms, and a glass counter that displays a variety of belts, hand weapons, and other purchasable items.  Behind that counter is a woman I'd recognize anywhere, and with her attention diverted by a female student speaking to her, I have the luxury to take in the sight of Fuujin Tsukihara.  Unlike the boyish girl I knew, Fuujin has matured into quite the woman--her silver-white hair is longer and hangs to the middle of her back, her eye patch is a delicate thing with painted decorations, and her clothing looks like it was actually bought from the woman's section and not an army surplus store.  My baby girl has grown up without me and it's a little depressing.

Her smile in place, Fuujin turns to look at Squall's approach, but before she speaks a greeting, her good eye finds me standing behind him and her smile vanishes.  "Seifer...?"

"Hey there, doll face," I try to say with a smile, though it ends up closer to a wince.  "It's been awhile."

Her expression goes dark in a fashion that I've seen a hundred times before, and even now, it freezes me in place.  The woman at her side tightens her green belt while asking what is wrong, but Fuujin ignores the sudent while rounding the counter and storming toward me.  In the few seconds it takes the petite woman to cross the room, I determine exactly how much trouble I'm in, but before I can think of a way to soften the blow, my commonsense is stolen away by a completely unexpected sight.

"Holy shit, Fuu, you're--"

And that's when her punch lands solidly at the side of my face, driving me to the ground.  I must lose a second or two after the hit since the room suddenly feels a bit more crowded when I manage to lift my head.  My theory is confirmed when I discover Squall squatting next to me when I'm almost positive he was heading for the locker room only a moment ago.

"What the hell is happening--"  The familiar voice is cut short when the blond man pushes his way past a couple of gawkers.  Zell Dincht hasn't changed much over the years and it doesn't help that the guy apparently never got a growth spurt.  He still has a baby face, even with the ridiculous tribal tattoo around his left eye, and it's hard to believe that anyone can respect him as a martial arts instructor.  If I didn't know otherwise, I would think that Dincht was going to a costume party dressed as a black belt from some Hong Kong movie.  At least someone got the man to change his hair style into something shorter and more mature, though he still spikes it in the middle as if he can't help himself from looking a little bit stupid.

Moving next to Fuujin, Dincht wraps a protective arm around his wife and places a hand over her pregnant stomach, the sight of which is still making my head spin.  "Seifer Almasy... I'll be damned.  We thought you had curled up and died in the corner of some bar by now."

I press the palm of my hand to my lip, and after verifying that there isn't much blood, I tell the blond punk, "Sorry to disappoint you, Dincht, but I've sobered up since I saw Fuujin last.  And if you don't mind, I'd appreciate having this discussion with her.  Alone."

Dincht scowls at the request, but his expression shifts to something wide-eyed when Squall helps me up from the ground.  Before vocalizing his surprise, the fighter claps his hands and points his students back toward the wide room they had been training in.  The group appears to be made up of mostly college-aged students and they immediately groan when Dincht commands them to do pushups until he tells them to stop, not that Dincht seems to care as he glares between Squall and me.

"Squall, don't tell me that you're associating with this dickhead."

Blue-gray eyes glance at the blond, but Squall doesn't dwell on the fighter.  Instead, he turns his gaze to me and asks quietly, "Are you alright?"

I chuckle at the needless question.  "Come on, Loire, you know that I deserved it.  However, it would have been nice to have some warning about Fuu being ready to burst with Dincht's spawn.  I could've ducked if I wasn't blindsided like that."

Squall arches an eyebrow in response, showing his lack of faith in my reflexes.

"Wait a minute, how exactly are you two..."  And at a loss of words, Dincht waves his hand between us, suggesting something that almost makes me laugh.

Unable to resist the chance to taunt the Chicken, I place a hand at Squall's shoulder.  "What, don't we make a lovely couple?"

Dincht's mouth comes unhinged at the reply, but before the joke can last, Squall knocks my hand away with a sharp slap and the warning, "Don't make it worse."  Looking to the married couple, Squall explains simply, "Seifer was evicted from his apartment last week and I'm helping him out."

"Evicted?" Fuujin repeats, some concern managing to seep into her voice.

"Yeah, but everything is working out," I say while massaging my bruised hand.  "Loire really saved my ass by letting me stay at his place.  Hell, more than a roof over my head, I've gotten better sleep in the last few days than I have in months."

Fuujin frowns at the information, the intelligent woman knowing the basics about my sleep problems, but I couldn't convince myself to tell her about the root cause of everything that is wrong in my life.  I don't know why I couldn't reveal my secrets to her, and while I regret it in many ways, I don't think I'll ever be able tell her.  Either way, it wasn't a complete lie to explain that my lack of sleep was due to terrible nightmares, but I think she has always suspected that there was something more to my story.

"Holy crap," Dincht says with a spark of unexpected insight.  "You're Squall's latest investment, aren't you?"

While I stare in disbelief, Squall grumbles, "I wish people would stop saying that."

"What else are we suppose to call it?" Dincht asks, grinning like a loon at his correct guess.

"Wait a minute," I interject when my head starts to hurt at the idea that this conversation has already happened between Squall and his uncle.  "How do you know anything about that?"

"Didn't Squall tell you?  We're number three, man," the fighter announces with a hand lifted to show two fingers and a thumb.  "He saved us five years ago and we're still paying off the debt."

While I struggle to digest that information, Squall announces, "This isn't the time or the place for this discussion.  Can we get started with my lessons or not?"

"Hell yeah, I've been waiting for you to show up," Dincht agrees with a few air punches.  "Go change and we can have a free-for-all spar, huh?"

Squall nods and turns toward the locker room, his acceptance creating an excited murmur amongst the few students stupid enough to listen into the discussion.  Dincht easily discovers the eavesdroppers, and though they do a decent job of looking innocent, Dincht stalks after them with threats of snapping their limbs.

And just like that, in the matter of seconds, I'm left alone with Fuujin and her critical gaze which seems to have been strengthened by her impending motherhood.

"So, you and Dincht..." I begin while trying to smile, but my split lip gets in the way.  "I guess there was no way I could have seen that coming, but I have to say, you look happy with him.  I mean, you don't let anyone touch you like that, and obviously Dincht has been doing more than just touching," I say with a wave toward her pregnant belly.

Fuujin blinks at the comment, and then turns sharply with a faint blush coloring her cheeks.  "Damn it, Seifer."

Pleased to know that I can still cause that expression, I step closer to the woman despite the lingering threat of her fist.  "Listen, I didn't come here expecting anything from you.  Actually, it was kind of a fluke since I didn't realize that you were friends with Loire, but I'm glad that it worked out this way.  I owe you an apology... well, more than one, really, and it's about time that I got started on that."

Her crimson eye meets my gaze again, silently judging my intent after I've fooled her so many times in the past.

"I'm sorry, baby girl.  I shouldn't have treated you like I did when you only wanted to help me.  I didn't deserve your patience or the hours you wasted caring for my drunken ass.  And I swear I'm working to turn my life around, so if you..."  I take a shaky breath, feeling both nervous and a little stupid about the question I need to ask.  "In all honesty, Fuu, I miss having a friend.  Is there any chance that we can start over?"

"... Shouldn't."

Unable to prevent a hurt expression, I sigh noisily at her expected reply.  "Yeah, I thought so.  But hey, that isn't going to stop me from making amends.  It might take some time, but you tell me what I can do and I'll do it."

Watching me carefully, she eventually smiles a faint smile and corrects, "'Shouldn't.'  Not won't."

I flash a dopey grin at her coy answer, not caring about the pain or the dribble of new blood it causes.  For the first time in a long time, I feel like I've stolen back something that my powers didn't want me to have, and it's an amazing feeling.  "You won't regret it, Fuu.  I'll make things right this time around."

Fuujin shakes her head at my promise.  "Start again.  Not over."

Though still relieved at her decision to continue our friendship, I'm a little disappointed that I don't get the luxury of a clean slate.  It's not that I think I deserve it, but it's going to take a lot of work to make up for everything that I did and I'll bet that is exactly what Fuujin has in mind.

At that moment, Squall emerges from the locker room dressed in a black uniform that doesn't have the same stiffness as those worn by most of the students I've noticed in the main room.  The brunet's extensive use of the outfit is especially noticeable at the knees and elbows where the material has been worn down to faded gray and a few loose threads.  In a casual motion, Squall tightens the black belt as his waist, confirming my suspicion of just how skilled he is in the art form.  'Learning for a while,' my ass.

"Come.  Watch," Fuujin insists with a pull of my coat sleeve.

With only some vague notion of the required etiquette, I follow Fuujin's lead by removing my shoes and bowing at the threshold.  As she leads me to the back of the room, I glance at the students who have taken a seat against the front wall to watch the sparring session.  While they all seem excited for the exhibition, the division is obvious between the thirty-something students who sit in formal kneeling positions and the college-aged students who sit in lazy sprawls against the wall while taking bets on the outcome.  I'm half-tempted to toss in few bills from the tips I earned today, but I force myself to be a good boy and stay at Fuujin's side.

The pregnant woman leans against the mirrored wall, apparently her observation point of choice, and when I take a seat on the floor next to her, I realize that it's probably the worst seat in the house.  The students had a reason for sitting at the front of the room, giving them a good view for when Dincht and Squall stand in the middle of a large circle painted on the mats.  They bow to each other, the action revealing that both men had put on some kind of padded gloves to cover their hands while leaving the fingers bare.  It's the only form of protection I notice before they retreat into loose fighting stances and eye each other as only experienced rivals can.

Bouncing on his toes, Dincht springs forward a few times, but retreats just as quickly while trying to lure Squall into an attack.  Squall doesn't fall for the feints while waiting for the instructor's real move, and when Dincht smiles with a show of white teeth, the brunet tenses in readiness.  Dincht moves forward with one foot, but immediately shifts to give his other leg the momentum to kick at Squall's head.  Squall blocks the kick with crossed hands, and in a counterattack, he grabs the leg and attacks with his own kick toward the blond's remaining support.  Dincht, however, easily knocks aside the kick, and while twisting, pushes his trapped leg against Squall to force the man off balance.  Unable to maintain his equilibrium, Squall pushes the leg over his head and drops to the ground in a controlled fall.  Landing with his hands steady behind him, he kicks out with the opposite leg from before and lands a hit against Dincht's exposed side, an attack that could have easily gone lower to cause some more painful damage.

Dincht side steps a few feet before regaining his balance, and with a rub of his nose, he grins and taunts, "You're lucky I didn't take your head just now."

"You're lucky I didn't take yours," Squall retorts dryly, almost surprising me with the crude threat toward the Chicken's 'little man'.

Dincht laughs in pure excitement, and with fists lifted, he motions for the brunet to come forward.

Entranced by the speed of the spar, I watch with open interest as the pair exchanges a few more punches than kicks in the second go-around.  I quickly gain a whole new level of respect for the stoic brunet, mostly because everything happened too fast the other night for me to appreciate Squall's form when he took care of those two brutes.  I also find it rather remarkable that Squall has it in him to make another person bleed.  It's one thing to attack someone who had attacked first, but it's an entirely different thing to punch a man in the face and smile at the shine of crimson.  Well, a smile as far as Squall is concerned.

"They're in good form tonight."

And from the high of witnessing Squall giving Dincht a bloody nose, my mood plummets into something resigned at Fuujin's offhanded comment.  It's never a good sign when she forces herself to speak a full sentence, and it doesn't help anything to figure out that Fuujin didn't choose this spot for the view, but for the sake of privacy.  To limit my misery, I decide to take the bull by the horns.

"If you have something to say, Fuu, then say it."

Fuujin doesn't speak directly while the spar continues, even though she's the one to start this.  After Dincht gets in an uppercut that knocks Squall back several steps, Fuujin finally says, "It's a mistake for you to stay with him."

A snort of laughter escapes me at her blunt opinion.  "I never said it was the most brilliant plan in the world, but it's not like I had anywhere else to go."

"Move in with Zell and me."

I turn to stare up at the pregnant woman, stunned by her offer when, as of minutes ago, we weren't exactly friends anymore.  Hell, when I was officially evicted and trying to figure out what to do next, Fuujin's name didn't even cross my mind.  And now, here she is, offering one of the most ridiculous things I've heard, second only to Squall's exact same offer several days ago.

"We have room," Fuujin maintains when she takes my silence as a rejection.  "Zell will complain.  I'll make him understand."

"Whoa, wait a minute here, doll face.  While I appreciate the offer, I'll bet that things are going to be pretty crowded with your munchkin on the way."  Fuujin opens her mouth to argue, but I plow on ahead, "There's also the issue that Loire's place is within walking distance of the new job he got me.  Being out here, I'd waste money on the bus, and frankly, I need all of the cash I can get if I'm going to repay Loire in the next decade or so.  And really, it's not bad staying with Loire.  He's a domineering fucker, but he has really helped me out."

Fuujin scowls at my reasons and insists for a second time, "It's a mistake.  A bad mistake."

I smirk at the opinion which mirrors my own fears when I first stood at the threshold of Loire's 'home'.  "Alright, Fuu, I'll bite--why do you think it's such a terrible thing for me to depend on Loire?"

Her single crimson eye glares at me for the flippant response.  "This isn't a joke, Seifer.  Zell and I owe everything to Squall.  If he gets hurt because you're a fucking idiot--"

"Hey now, I'm not out to hurt anyone, least of all Loire.  We just happened to bump into each other when I had a really shitty day, and I swear, that's the only reason why I agree to stay with him.  If you had been there instead of him, I'd probably be crashing at your place right now."

Fuujin straightens at the information, and after a glance at the sparring pair, she shakes her head in disappointment and says under her breath, "Stubborn idiot.  I told you not to bother..."

"Wait a sec, you knew he was looking for me?" I ask in disbelief, recalling how Squall had spent the better part of a week hunting me down.  Her pink lips tighten without a verbal reply, but it's more than enough for me to figure out her answer.  "Fucking hell, Fuu, did I screw up so badly with you that you decided to keep everyone else away?"

"That's not why I refused to say anything," Fuujin lashes back and my instincts prickle at her tone which threatens that I'm about to be punched for a second time tonight.

"Loire had something important to tell me, doll face.  Why did you have to screw around with that?"

Fuujin frowns at the question.  "Something 'important'...?  What did he tell you?"

I avert my eyes to look at the floor, clueless about how I could possibly twist the facts this time around.  The simple truth is that I nearly collapsed when Squall told me that the baby girl from my vision had been saved.  Finally, finally, my vision had meant something beyond dreams of a corpse blaming me for being too slow, too stupid to stop something I had weeks to figure out.  And yet, that soul-relieving moment was fleeting, replaced with unemployment and homelessness within a matter of hours.

A sharp yell makes me glance at the continuing spar and I watch as Squall dodges a mean series of open-handed strikes from the energetic blond.  A part of me wants to be annoyed at Squall for proving that he can become an expert at whatever he attempts, but in actuality, I think I would have been disappointed if he wasn't as good as I imagined.  And when he grabs Dincht's arm to throw the smaller man to the ground, I smile at the vague memory of Squall using that same move the other night.  I guess I should be a little more upset at being the helpless damsel rescued by a dark hero, but I'm not afraid to admit when I've been outmatched.

"He didn't...  He couldn't have..."

At the oddly meek voice, I look back up at the pregnant woman, but instead of the various expressions that I was expecting, there's a touch of honest rage to her lovely face.  From experience alone, I casually place my hands over my vulnerable crotch area and wonder why I thought it'd be a good idea to sit on the ground.  Sure, my feet hurt from a long day of work, but I should've known that staying upright and being able to escape is the better option around the violent woman.

With a hiss of anger, Fuujin warns, "God help me, Seifer, you can't do this to him."

After a few blinks, I ask cautiously, "Uh, and what am I doing, exactly?"

"Don't play with me.  I know your games and I hate this one.  Squall is not that asswipe Karsten."

My breath stops at the name of my failed experiment from back in my freshman year of college, a name Fuujin knows because I had to tell someone or else go insane while blaming my damaged genetics for another gem of a trait.  I can't remember what Fuujin said after my story, though I know there was laughing...  Actually, a whole lot of laughing from Fuujin and a sneaking suspicion on my part that she would use her newly acquired knowledge against me.  Granted, I didn't think it'd be used like this.

"I'm not..." I try to argue, still dumbstruck by her assumption.  "I wouldn't..."

Fuujin glares at me, not believing my sorry attempt.  "I thought it was strange for Squall to take you in.  Did you lie to him?  Tell him that you love him, too?  And what, for a place to stay and a new wardrobe?  That's a new low, even for you.  And damn you, Seifer Almasy, for making me think that I might be able to trust you again."

Somehow, even though I feel like my thoughts are spinning out of control, I catch a frightening word within her string of accusations.  "'Too'?  What do you mean... by 'too'?"

The simple question seems to snap the woman out of her possibly hormone-enriched fury, and while staring at me and my undoubtedly baffled expression, she quickly loses her steam.  "Isn't that what Squall told you?  That he, since at least high school..."  Her voice fades when she realizes that her assumptions were completely off target, and bearing a horrified blush, she presses the heel of her hand to her forehead.  "SHIT."

"But... That can't be right, Fuu.  Loire told me himself that he isn't stupid enough to... uh, want me," I say when I recall the incident with the runaway kid and Squall's cruel joke to say he loved me.  That guy would do anything to prove a point, even if it resulted in me choking to death on a piece of blackberry pie.

Fuujin takes a breath to calm her emotions and return to her normal, impassive state.  "No, he doesn't reveal himself like that."

"But he obviously told you something."

"He didn't," she corrects with a tone that suggests I'm an idiot for thinking otherwise.  "I saw what you ignored."

Struggling to find a rationale, anything to explain the situation, I try to reason with her, "You've got to be blowing this out of proportion.  I mean, the guys at the diner say that I'm Squall's type or some shit like that.  Surely it's just a physical thing and not... you know..."

"You were first.  His 'type' is trying to replace you."

I lean back in frustration and my head knocks hard against the mirrored wall, but I barely notice the sting.  I want to deny everything and convince myself that Squall isn't capable of doing something so reckless and stupidly wasteful, but I can't ignore the things that seem so painfully obvious with the new piece of information.  He believed me when I told him about foreseeing dreams, he took me into his home with barely a thought, and he sat with me when I was too afraid to sleep.  If I wasn't so confused and annoyed, I'd probably be impressed with how easily Squall dodged my questions about why he was doing so much to help me out.

And God damn it, my fucker of a father is going to have a field day knowing that he was right about Squall's intentions, albeit a warped version of those hidden emotions.

"Stay with Zell and me.  It'd be best for everyone."

Staring up at the ceiling, I'm surprised when I don't have the immediate impulse to accept her generous offer.  Instead, the same anxiousness as the night before sinks into my chest, and before I understand what I'm doing, my gaze shifts to Squall and my nerves calm down to a more reasonable level.  It doesn't make any sense, but a part of me still needs to be around the brunet.  Maybe it's because things have been turning around with his influence, maybe it's because I'm addicted to the sleep that I've only gotten at his place, but I don't want to leave him.  I can't leave him, not yet.

"Well?" Fuujin prods, though something in her tone tells me that she already knows my answer.

"Thank you, doll face, but there are other things in play that you don't know about."  When she shows a skeptical expression at that, I explain further, "I've made a couple of promises that I intend to keep, and if I wasn't living with him, I think Loire would try to pretend that I don't owe him anything."

Though not fully convinced, Fuujin sighs out a defeated breath.  "You've changed."

"If only..." I murmur, not entirely convinced that I have changed where it matters.  The cosmetic shit that everyone else can see is different, but at my core, I know that I'm still an egotistical, selfish bastard.  All I want is to feel safe and happy, even if that means Squall suffers because he's stupid enough to grant me everything I desire.  It's not something I'm proud to recognize, but I don't have the willpower to change that part of me for the better.

"You hurt him, I punch you," Fuujin warns after observing me for a good minute and God knows what expression I could possibly be showing right now.

"Since when have you needed an excuse?"

She huffs, but doesn't deny the accusation.  Instead, she rubs her pregnant stomach and makes the random comment, "It's a boy, by the way."

I smile at the sudden change in topics that would have confused most people, but I know how it's her way of saying that she has said everything she wanted to say and that was that.  Even when she uses full sentences, Fuujin doesn't like to waste words, and with her moving onto details about her baby, I figure that the next subject matter of choice is sharing the big news that I've missed over the years.

Relaxing with the new topic, I ask the appropriate questions about her and Dincht, about names for the baby, and their plans for more kids.  And while I was interested in her answers, it's hard to focus like I should.  Instead, my eyes continue to find Squall, the brunet covered in sweat and bruises, and I keep asking myself one annoying question: What am I suppose to do about this?

~ > < ~

My every breath forms thick mist as I trudge up the stairs to Squall's place, but even when staring at those puffs of breath, I don't feel the icy cold like I should.  Frankly, my mind is too distracted to focus on something like chilly weather.  Sure, I told Fuujin how I want to stay with the serious brunet and I have no reason to doubt my choice, but I failed to understand how my decision might actually need some kind of plan to back it up.  Squall, too observant to miss any changes in my behavior, already asked if everything was okay between Fuujin and me, a question that was repeated when I was quiet on the ride home.  He knows something is different, and it won't take him very long to figure everything out.

Almost reaching the third level, my skin prickles at the presence of my bastard father, and while Squall unlocks the door to his home, I turn around to find the ghost standing several feet behind me.  His entire body is tense with rage and his pale blue eyes glow with unusual energy in the darkness; it's a sight that doesn't settle well with me.

"Leave him," he demands in slow, threat-filled words.  "I won't have that cocksucker turnin' my son into a fuckin' queer."

I don't say anything while looking at the pathetic man, not wanting to bother Squall with the nuisance, but I make certain that my body language shows that I don't give a damn what the dead prick wants.  My message apparently gets across crystal clear since the ghost ends up howling in angered frustration.

"Seifer?  Is something wrong?"

With an unconcerned smirk, I turn back around and finish climbing the stairs.  "Nah, it's nothing worth mentioning."

Squall frowns to show that he doesn't believe me one bit, but will accept the claim since he can't prove otherwise.  He enters the condo to flip on the lights and remove his leather jacket with a pained wince when he stretches an injured shoulder too far.  I consider commenting on his eventual defeat at the hands of the Chicken, but I cross the threshold at that moment and I'm instantly overwhelmed by the caress of his 'home'.

I remember walking into this place several days ago and thinking that something was strange.  I was accepted too easily by this home that should have been wary of a new presence, but now it's ridiculously obvious why this home embraced me.  I'm not a guest or a friend being welcomed here, but someone who has been given a place within Squall's heart, and therefore deserving of a completely different status to the living energy of his home.  I should have recognized it immediately, especially when it felt like the home was waiting for my appearance, waiting for me to complete its existence, but I never thought Squall was that unpredictable with his emotions.

He shouldn't have given me a second glance, let alone falling for a worthless bastard like me... And he shouldn't have believed me when I told him that I could see his kidnapped mother in my dreams, alive but dying.  Well shit, it's amazing how one answer can explain just about everything.

"Something is wrong."

I open my eyes, not realizing that they had been closed in the first place, and I find Squall standing closer than before with his arms crossed over his chest.  Still connected to the energy of the home, I stare at the dark-haired man who seems too clean-cut and perfect to be the enigma he apparently is, and with my head not in the right place, I say out loud, "You lied."

"... What have I lied about?"

A breath of laughter escapes me when I recognize his ploy.  "Oh, you're good, Sherlock.  Probably better than me, and that's saying something.  So fine, I'll agree that you didn't lie, but you sure as Hell made me believe something that was a lie."

Stormy eyes shift at the accusation, the only visible indication of guilt.  "What are you talking about, Seifer?"

I step directly in front of the shorter man, forcing the brunet to look up to meet my gaze.  "I'm talking about your little game the other day.  And for your information, I still don't think you look stupid enough to love me, but apparently, I'm not the right person to be answering that question."

His eyes widen noticeably, though not in the dramatic manner I had imagined during the car ride here.  "You... don't know what you're saying."

"No, you just hope that I don't know what I'm saying, but the truth is that I should've seen it years ago."  In a flash of inspiration, I suddenly recall the comment that had probably started all of this, and with a disbelieving look at the brunet, I ask him, "Holy crap, have you really liked me since middle school?"

Squall backs away at the question, his dark eyebrows furrowing in an expression that fluctuates between anger and fear.

"Hey, I'm not trying to attack you here, Loire," I try to explain, but before I can get out something better, a growled out 'cock-eatin' whore' makes me spin around and glare at the ghost who lingers just beyond the reach of the home's protective energy.  In the time it takes me to slam the door in his face, he snarls out a couple more slurs that aren't the least bit creative, but hurtful all the same.  It's a lucky thing that Squall can't hear a word of it, though I have a feeling that he's heard it all before.

Even as muffled curses continue through the solid wood, I hear the distinctive padding of footsteps.  I turn to find the unexpected sight of Squall halfway across the condo, the brunet walking away as if our talk had ended naturally and it was time for bed.  The sad thing is that I have to give the man some credit--he doesn't really look like he's running away from this discussion, or like he's running away from me.

Not wanting to let him get away, I chase after the quick bastard and almost get within reach when he slips into his bedroom and closes the door with a fast, but careful touch.  I slam my open palms against the wood in frustration, but I try to control my voice when I tell him, "Damn it, Loire, what do you think you're doing, running off like that?  I've seen you face down a handful of dumbass jocks on more than a few occasions, and you're fucking running away from this?"

When Squall says nothing beyond the door, I hear my own words and I realize what it must mean for Squall to escape like he did when nothing else would make him retreat in such an obvious fashion.  It makes things a little more real and a little more frightening to see with my own eyes that Squall's feelings apparently run deeper than a superficial crush or reckless lust.  And I didn't recognize any of it in the years I've known the secretive idiot.

Frustrated, I press my forehead against the barrier between us and notice the shadow at the base of the door, the sight proving that Squall is only inches away and listening even if he doesn't answer.

"I'm not mad at you, Loire," I say while trying to guess what he needs to hear.  "I'm not disgusted, either, but I'll admit to being more than a little confused about all of this.  And seriously, I don't have a clue what you were thinking to let me stay here, assuming you actually have feelings for me.  It seems a bit impulsive, really stupid, and nothing at all like you."  Realizing that my words could give the wrong impression, I quickly amend, "That's not to say that I don't want to stay here.  You probably don't know this, but you have a good home, a really good home that goes beyond the physical level of brick and wood."

I pause with the incomplete explanation, but hearing a skeptical snort from the brunet, I'm encourage to delve into the few details I know.  "I'm not making this up, Sherlock.  See, most homes are just regular places where people happen to live, but a true home is much more than that.  I don't know why it happens, so don't ask me, but a true home has a type of living energy that can make a friend feel welcomed and a stranger feel anxious and watched.  I noticed the energy of your home the moment I set foot in this place, but the real surprise was that your home can shield a person like me from the nastier spirits out there.  As something you'd appreciate, my bastard of a father got his ass kicked by the energy here and he hasn't been able to haunt me like he used to.  Your beloved home wasn't happy about him trying to strangle you the other night."  Not wanting to say the words, I silently add that I wasn't exactly happy about my father's vicious attack, either.

The shadow shifts at the base of the door, and in my mind, I see Squall reaching for the doorknob, but not letting himself open the door.  It's cute what my imagination comes up with when I should limit myself to less creative thoughts.

"Listen, Loire, if you want me to leave, I'll go... but I want to stay.  Just a little bit longer, or until you can't handle my being here anymore."

A soft breath sounds beyond the door, followed by a quiet, "Stay as long as you need."

The shadow pulls away, and after a minute of waiting, I can hear Squall start his shower.  I back away from the door, and though I've been given the permission I wanted, it doesn't feel like enough for some reason.  Deciding to wait out the stubborn brunet, I move to the couch that faces his bedroom and sit down to rest my face in spread hands.  The sad thing is that I don't even know what I want from Squall or why I'm bothering to wait for him to show his face.  Even if he admits that he loves me, it's not like I'd wrap my arms around him and make him mine.  But if he says it was all a misunderstanding and he never loved me... That possibility feels a bit lonely for some stupid reason.

I grumble a curse into my hands, confused and frustrated by my conflicting desires.  I'll admit that I wasn't completely lying to my prick of a father when I told him that Squall is attractive enough for something more interesting, but I can't... I can't fuck this up with Squall.  More than him knowing everything about me, he's the last thread of a lifeline that links me to something that resembles sanity.  Without Squall's interference, I have no doubt that I would've ended up like my mother sooner or later.

Uncomfortable with that reality, I pull my hands away from my face and stare at the rug without seeing the overlapping pattern of squares.  Instead, I think about the path in my mind that seemed so clear only a few hours ago: I was going to rely on Squall's strength until I could stand on my own two feet, somehow pay him back for everything, and then slink out of his life as my final repayment.  But suddenly, that path seems blurry and shadowed and I'm terrified of taking another wrong step.  So many things went wrong the last time I made a misstep and I can't afford another bad decision.  To make things worse, if I step on a landmine like I fear, Squall is right there beside me, trying to help me forward.  He's going to get hurt and that isn't what I wanted.  That isn't...

Groaning as I lean back, I gaze up the ceiling and say with certainty, "Fuujin is going to kill me when I mess this up."




Author's Whining -- *grumble* This was a lot harder to write than it should have been.  I probably rewrote this thing three times with the amount of deleting scenes and rewriting them when they didn't sound right.  Bah.  Anyway, we're finally getting to the good stuff, and hopefully the next chapter won't be as painful (or as long).  Believe it or not, I'm still on schedule to finish this thing up after another few chapters.  We'll see if the muses let me get away with it. ;)