One Wrong Step
August 2010



I'm a coward.

It's the last thing I want to think about, but the thought comes nonetheless while I stare into the golden warmth of my drink.  Thus far, I have completely failed to smother the memories of Monday night with an excessive amount of work and too little sleep.  I usually rely on running to clear my mind, but the morning after everything went wrong, I pushed myself too hard and ultimately threw up onto someone's lawn.  I laughed after that, but it wasn't a good type of laughter.  Nothing else has helped since then, but this is the first time I've thought about alcohol as something to dull my thoughts.  I can only assume it's Seifer's fault that something so obvious didn't come to mind sooner.

Three days ago, my hopeless fantasy world was revealed for what it was, but instead of dealing with the situation like a grown man or like someone who always knew Seifer would figure things out, I ran away like a frightened child.  Even now it doesn't sound like anything I'd do, but all of the facts are there--I turned my back to Seifer when something else held his attention, and I walked away as if nothing important had been said.  Oddly enough, I don't exactly remember making the decision to run.  My body moved, and by the time my mind caught up, I had already placed a locked door between us.  How pathetic.

To make things worse, Seifer didn't react as I anticipated.  The blond had been oblivious for years, fifteen to be exact, and I always assumed that I would see the end coming long before I would be forced to confront it.  I wasn't supposed to be blindsided like I was.  Even when I considered the potential of Seifer having a spark of insight, I didn't think the former quarterback would touch the issue with a ten-foot pole.  He should have avoided the topic for weeks and months, however long it would take for Seifer to mentally cope with the idea of another man wanting him.  It shouldn't have taken less than an hour, assuming the likelihood that this is all Fuujin's doing.

And now, sitting at a scratched up table in Lady Luck, I stare into two fingers of whiskey and recall Seifer's voice when he asked, 'Have you really liked me since middle school?'  For the first time I can remember, the mere thought of his low-timbered voice grates on my nerves, and uncomfortable with that foreign reality, I lift the glass to my lips and finish off my second drink of the night.

"Well now, this is a rare treat," a man says from behind me, the soft lilt of his voice highlighting his amusement.  "You usually cut your whiskey with something boring whenever you sit with me.  Defeats the purpose, I say."

"Donovan," I say without facing the Irish gangster.

"Leon," he says in turn while taking a seat at my left side.  He may be casual about it, but I noticed a long time ago that Donovan always sits or stands to my left, which makes me wonder when he figured out that I'm weaker on that side.  I've been trying to fix that with Zell, but the matter remains that Donovan gains a couple seconds by avoiding my right side, and that was probably my first warning that the man is more dangerous than he looks.

Once the gangster settles into his seat, a waitress appears with a clean glass and a fresh bottle of whiskey on her tray.  Donovan takes the glass and bottle, and after pouring himself a healthy serving, he turns to my emptied glass.  "And what are we toasting to?  To saving your damsel?  To a brush with death?  Or perhaps to a very sweet kill?" he prods in good temper, his hazel eyes glittering with anticipation of my reaction.

Annoyed by his taunts, I scoff and wave off his attempt to pour far too much into my glass.

"Ah, then it's love on your mind," he states with a forlorn sigh.  "But then again, isn't it always love?"

I frown at his guess that is true enough, but I know better than to share my problems with the gangster.  Instead, I reach into a jacket pocket and pull out a photo to show Donovan.  The picture is a mug shot of Walker Biggs, a regular thick-necked brute with a military style buzz cut and a smile showing a few capped teeth.  His primary identifying feature is a scar that cuts down his throat from his right ear to his chest, and from my research, there are more stories about how he got that scar than there are tattoos on his body.  I wouldn't be particularly surprised if he gave himself that scar to create a touch of mystery around his already brutal image.

Donovan takes the picture from my hand, and with a lifted eyebrow, he questions, "Is this the love we're toasting to?  I was of the opinion that you and your damsel may have found each other again."

Ignoring his weak attempt of a joke, I explain, "He skipped on his bail yesterday.  My last lead put him in this area."

The red-haired man hums lightly at my unspoken request for help.  "And what about your little bodyguard?  Shouldn't he be watching your back while you play bounty hunter?"

"He isn't involved."

Donovan straightens in surprise, but his expression quickly hardens and he waves the mug shot in a harsh motion.  "This isn't a man you should approach by your lonesome.  As worthless as your wide-eyed guardian may be, he would serve well as a distraction if you're wise enough to attack from behind."

I glare at the gangster, not quite certain why he chose tonight to be meddlesome.  Donovan has always played his games, but he isn't usually a man who gives out free advice.

"Please, I've gotten worse looks from my loving mother," Donovan says while flinging the picture onto the table.  "I don't know what's wrong with your head, Leon, but I never pegged you for a man who would lose his life over a broken heart."

"This is about a bounty and nothing else," I remind in a warning tone.

"A bounty," the red-haired man repeats with a snort, but instead of continuing his argument, Donovan leans back in his chair and eyes me in a thoughtful manner while tapping a finger against his glass.  "How about a trade, then?  You do me a favor and I'll let you know where your 'bounty' is hiding."

I frown with the memory of the past 'favor' I did for the gangster.  While it wasn't technically illegal, I have no interest in repeating that favor or one similar to it.  Unfortunately, if I want to stay on good terms with this man, I have to listen to his requests and, somehow, find a way to solve his problems without becoming a criminal myself.

Donovan laughs at my hesitation.  "What an expression!  You worry too much, Leon.  Do you really think that I'm going to place a heavy price on information for a piece of trash like Biggs?"

"Then what do you want?"

"It's nothing terribly important.  You see, the boys and I have a small wager that requires resolution, and it just so happens that you are the one source that everyone would believe in the attempt to settle this dispute."

"And why is that?" I ask, my suspicions not relieved by the overly convenient situation.

Donovan grins, but doesn't answer my question.  His unspoken message is clear enough, however, that it's my choice whether or not to accept his offer at face value.  I should be grateful that he doesn't want me to break someone's legs or retrieve some 'lost' merchandise, but this man has a way of making the simple requests into something more dangerous.  Unfortunately, I can't determine his end game with this trade, and with no other lead available to me, I'm forced to rely on the gangster's offer.

"Go ahead," I submit with clear reluctance.

The redhead's grin widens at the acceptance toward his deal.  "The matter is simple enough, actually.  We can't seem to figure out if you're a man who sleeps with the hens or has his eye on the cocks."

Though startled by the topic, I manage to school my expression while eyeing Donovan to determine if the wager is real or some kind of joke between men.  Hazel eyes, however, remain firm under my study and it becomes obvious that Donovan is very interested in my answer.  While I don't particularly care what others think about my preferences, I'm also aware that I'll live a longer life if certain people don't know that little detail.  Something about homosexuality gets men defensive about their own manhood, and when it comes to gangsters, defending their manhood usually involves throttling or killing whatever threatens them.

But even as I consider lying, I realize that it's too late.  A 'real' man would have been offended by the implication of being gay, but I have wasted too much time thinking about how the wrong answer could get me killed.  And looking into hazel eyes, I can tell that Donovan has already determined the truth, but he's still waiting for my answer.  Waiting with a shark's smile.

Resigned, I lean back in my chair and decide to ask my own question given his expression.  "How much did you win on this wager?"

Donovan laughs without reserve, openly pleased by my implied answer.  "Three dimes, if those lowlifes can scrape up the money.  They were so certain about the swing of your dick that the simpletons gave me odds."  He lifts his glass and motions toward mine.  "Let's toast to my keen eye and good fortune, eh?"

Though still wary of what my answer means to the Irishman, I join in his toast with a clink of my glass against his.

While I take slow sips of the whiskey, Donovan downs his drink as if it was nothing stronger than a mouthful of beer, and with the emptied glass slammed against the counter, he chuckles lightly.  "You are a surprising man, Leon.  A weaker bastard wouldn't dare admit to bending over like a woman, but I have to respect you for staying true to yourself."

"... Will it be an issue?"

With a dismissive shrug, the gangster says, "I can't speak for everyone, but I've seen you fight and that's all the evidence I need to know you're a man I would trust to watch my back.  Although, that's not to say I'll be sharing a piss with you, if you know what I mean."

I nod at the boundaries of his tolerance, even though it's incredibly annoying how too many idiots seem to believe that my looking at their dicks will turn them gay.  Honestly, if it was that easy...

"But now you've made me curious--is it because you fancy your bodyguard that you're in foul humor tonight?"

Unprepared for that observation, I stare at the red-haired man and try to comprehend the real purpose behind his question.  I find it very difficult to believe that the gangster would be concerned about my love life, and a homosexual love life at that.

"That's twice I've gotten a reaction from you," he comments with a slight flare of victory and pours more whiskey into my glass.  "You are off your game tonight, Leon, and I admit that I never expected a wounded heart would be your downfall."

"You don't know what you're talking about."

"That would be very convenient if it were true, but I know how your bodyguard was protecting that fine woman while you stood over those morons of mine.  Before that night, I wasn't certain if you had the spirit to commit murder, but I understand now that you're a man who simply requires the proper motivation to do the things against your nature."

And with that offhanded statement, my stomach sours with the realization of why Donovan decided to speak about this matter.  In the time I've known this man, he has watched me closely to discover any weakness that can be exploited.  I have tried to be careful by using a different name and not speaking of my family, but given the redhead's eager expression, he has discovered something that I never wanted him to see.

Normally I wouldn't be overly bothered by the situation as I'm on good terms with the gangster, but everyone knows that Donovan is in the business of selling information.  Eventually, someone will decide that I should be punished for something I've done, and the only real question is if that person will have the currency Donovan desires.  If there's one small saving grace, it's that no one should know Seifer's name in this area, which will make him a hard man to find.

In acceptance of my momentary defeat, I lift my glass to the Irishman and take a long drink.

Donovan chuckles while lifting his own glass.  "See, this is why I like you, Leon.  It's rare in my business to deal with men who understand the situation without me spelling it out to them."

I finish the serving of hard liquor despite the sickness to my stomach, and placing the glass out of reach for the Irishman, I remind him, "You owe me information on Biggs."

"That I do," Donovan agrees, and after finishing off his whiskey, he pushes up from his chair yells for his right-hand man, Finn, to bring his coat.  At my confused stare, the gangster explains, "Your bounty has gathered his old gang, which is why I expressed my concerns about your intentions.  I still have no interest when it comes to aiding in suicide, but I know that I can't stop you.  As such, I'm in high spirits and I have no other plans for the night."

His words do little to temper my confusion.  "You're going to help me?"

"Let's call it a repaid debt for protecting that woman last week.  It would have been... bothersome if she had been raped or, Heaven forbid, killed within my territory.  The fine police officers in this area are rather single-minded and they would have done everything in their power to place the blame on my innocent head."

The first thought that comes to mind is that I've been swindled by this man.  If he apparently owed me a debt, it shouldn't have been necessary for me to play his games and accidentally reveal something that will inevitably come back to haunt me.  But even as I realize how I played into his hands, I figure that everything since showing that mug shot has gone according to Donovan's plan.  The bastard probably has something against Biggs existing within his territory and that is the real reason he has decided to help me with the bounty.

God help me, I am off my game tonight.

While Finn helps Donovan into his coat, I push up from my chair and instantly regret those drinks when the action makes me lightheaded for a worrisome moment.  Steeling against the effects of the whiskey, I step in front of the gangster and warn, "I don't intent to share the bounty with you."

"No worry there--my bounty is getting Biggs and his little 'soldiers' out of my territory, especially one particular soldier boy with sticky fingers," Donovan states, the last part said in a low voice that persuades me to leave the issue alone, or else face the possibility of becoming an accessory to murder.  "Finn will drive us, which will give us plenty of time to plan our attack.  I hope you're prepared for a dirty fight, because I find it boring to play it clean."

I hesitate a fraction of a second before I ultimately follow the gangster.  On a logical level, I know that it isn't wise to depend on Donovan, especially when this fight may require me to place my back to the red-haired man, but another part of me wants this.  I want to lower myself to Donovan's level and beat the shit out of someone simply because the person is in my way.  If I end up broken and bleeding as well, that would be perfectly fine.  I'm hurting too much on the inside and I need to balance that with some physical pain.  I need a pain that will eventually heal, even if the internal pain lingers as it already has for too many years.

At the entrance to the bar, Donovan turns and grins at whatever he sees in my expression.  "Well now, it looks like we're of a similar mind about tonight's entertainment."

"Whatever," I grumble under my breath as I move past the red-haired man and push through the bar doors into the frigid night.  A dose of clarity hits me with the fresh air, but it only serves to remind me of Seifer and his voice asking questions I don't want to answer.  I'm somewhat surprised, actually, that he hasn't asked why I love him, and of all the questions he could ask, that's the one I won't be able to answer.  After all, it's the same question I've been asking myself for years with no solution.  It should be a simple matter of attraction and sexual compatibility, but no matter how many times I've tried, I can't find a replacement for Seifer.  No one comes close and it doesn't make any sense.

Damn it, I didn't want to love the idiot--why should I have to suffer like this?

~ > < ~

By the time I reach home, soreness radiates across my back and a dull throb in my head beats in a constant rhythm that allows no relief.  Even the simple act of parking Ward's loaner car makes me cringe when I stretch my left arm too far while turning the wheel.  Normally I would have returned the car and picked up my motorcycle, but all I want right now is to take a long shower and then crawl into bed, preferably before Seifer wakes up for his job at the diner.  If he sticks to his schedule, the blond shouldn't wake for another couple of hours, but I know better than to assume that Seifer won't change his routine in the attempt to corner me.

I climb out of the car with careful movements, but then thoughtlessly close the door like normal, the resulting noise sounding like gunfire against my headache.  I glare at the car door for being the source of additional agony, but that leads me to stare at my reflection in the window.  After fighting a crew of thugs, I don't look too bad... currently.  The side of my face is colored with smeared blood, and while I knew about the deep cut to my eyebrow, it appears that I'm going to have a healthy black eye by tonight.  Absolutely wonderful.

The ambush against Biggs and his gang could have gone better with some actual planning, especially if none of those plans involved Donovan.  The gangster's information led us to a vacated property that was a restaurant at one point in time, and though it didn't have any obvious security, lowlifes like Biggs and his team tend to own guns, if only to show them off.  I didn't want to gamble on the chance that they would be too drunk, too high, or too stupid to use those guns, but Donovan barged in without a care in the world and a smile on his face.

If nothing else, the gangster served as an excellent distraction while I came in from the back.  I reached Biggs easily enough, knocked him out with a well-aimed punch to his throat, and handcuffed him to a table that was bolted to the ground.  Everything was going fine until his old partner in crime, Wedge, suddenly appeared.  Buell Wedge is a lanky man with wild eyes, and while he's probably a greater coward than Biggs, they somehow work well as a pair.  Just as I finished with Biggs, Wedge swung a chair at me, the attack damaging my left arm and slicing the skin above my eye.  Despite the blood flowing down my face, I managed to dodge most of Wedge's unskilled punches while regaining my breath, and when he faltered in his attacks due to exhaustion, I kicked him in the groin.  A cheap shot, perhaps, but it took Wedge out of the fight and made me feel better.

In the subsequent twenty minutes, I was punched on the same side of my face that dripped with blood, sliced by a broken bottle of cheap beer, and nearly shot by a kid who thought he knew how to use a gun.  Donovan, on the other hand, barely had a scratch on him and ended up in the booth where I left Biggs, the Irishman sitting with a beer in hand and his legs propped up on Biggs' back.  The red-haired bastard probably had a good time watching me clean up the mess he started.  At least he had the decency to help me with Biggs, although it was actually Finn who carried the dead weight while Donovan grabbed Wedge without a clear explanation as to why.

After returning to Lady Luck, I shoved Biggs into my car while Wedge was taken into the bar, screaming about his supposed innocence.  I tried not to notice much--the man did hit me with a chair after all.

The ride to Dollet took a little over three hours, including the time required to deposit Biggs at the district jail where he was originally arrested.  After a quick stop to grab a large cup of black coffee, I started the long trip home.  It has been a long night and I'm ready to be done with it.

I start up the stairs that lead to my condo on the third floor, my thoughts swirling around the possibility of Seifer waiting for me.  I can imagine him clearly, standing just in front of the door and blocking my path inside... but it hasn't happened in the two days before this, and there's no reason to assume today will be any different.  From what Ward has told me, Seifer has put all of his energy into work and getting every little thing right, even at Ward's high standards.

Seifer is trying to prove something, but that's nothing new.  He has been trying to prove his existence since the first day I met him.

That thought comes to mind when I set eyes on the door to my condo, and with a deep exhale of relief that my day is almost done, I increase my pace while going up the last bit of stairs.  My right foot reaches the landing first, and just as I begin to shift my weight, something inexplicable happens: I fall backwards.  Unable to focus on the occurrence, I throw my arms out to grab for the handrails, but my backward angle is too sharp to immediately find my balance.  I slip down five steps before I stop with one knee bent against the edge of a concrete step and my other leg twisted at an odd angle two steps below that.

My heart pounding, I look around for a reason for my fall, and though it would be easy enough to blame the alcohol I had earlier tonight or even the potential concussion from being punched in the face, I know that isn't what happened.  I felt hands against my chest, and though the push wasn't that strong, it obviously caught me off guard.  With a little more pressure, I could have been shoved down the entire flight of stairs, an idea that makes my stomach sour.  And while it's hard for my logical mind to consider, I have a good feeling about who would love for me to break my neck.

Refusing to appear weak in front of the ghost that has haunted Seifer for too long, I slowly straighten and try not to wince when my left foot argues against the weight I place on it.  I walk up the remaining steps, careful to drag my hand along the railing in preparation of a second attack that, for whatever reason, doesn't come.  I reach my door, and though I feel nothing physical like the push from before, a harsh shiver racks my body in the moment between unlocking the door and stepping inside a little faster than I wanted.

I close the door behind me, and almost instantly, the warmth of the condo drives away the chill caused by my brush with the unknown.  It reminds me of Seifer's talk about this being a 'true home,' an idea that seems misguided to me.  When I think about a home, I envision the house from my childhood and how each piece of furniture seemed to invite guests to sit and stay as long as they wanted.  Meanwhile, when I look at my version of a home, I realize that it has no personal touches or anything to say that I live here.  I may remember where I purchased each piece of furniture, but the entire ensemble looks like it came from a collection displayed in a catalogue.

How something like that can translate into a 'home' I can't begin to understand... but Seifer says it does, even if he also seemed a little confused about the fact.  Assuming he is right, I should be protected here, and in my current state, I'm willing to ignore the logical arguments that would prove him wrong.

After removing my boots and jackets, I glance over at Seifer's door and take a breath when there isn't any movement from his room.  It's probably a miracle that my stumble on the stairs didn't wake the man, but it could also be a sign that the idiot stayed up last night, waiting to ambush me.  I know this game can't continue forever, but I keep thinking that I need just one more day, just a little more time to prepare myself for being rejected... as if the last fifteen years haven't been time enough.

I walk as softly as I can with a slight limp and make it to my bedroom without waking the sleeping blond.  I pull the door shut behind me, and after locking it, I begin to remove my clothing while moving in the direction of the bathroom.  Although the shirt looks beyond repair, I go ahead and toss it into the laundry hamper along with everything else.  After I turn on the shower, I face the mirror to study my reflection while waiting for the water to heat up.  Already aware of the damage to my face, I examine my left side and sigh at the nasty bruise developing around my shoulder.  Falling down the stairs certainly didn't help matters.  If I was smart, I would put ice on the injured shoulder, but that would mean going into the kitchen and creating more noise than acceptable.

Otherwise, my stomach has a shallow cut from where someone tried to slice me with a broken beer bottle, my right knee is scraped from dragging against the concrete step, and my left ankle is still sore from being twisted at an odd angle.  I can't really remember the last time I've been this injured, but I'm fairly certain it was back in high school when a group of jocks thought it would be best to show me my place.  I vaguely recall that my mother took care of me after that time, dabbing each inch of broken skin with some herbal concoction.  It smelled nice, whatever it was.

Prodding at the deep bruise covering my shoulder, I decide that Donovan may have been right when he said that there should be a better way for me to cope with an injured heart.  I could have gotten myself killed tonight... or maybe that was the point, just as Donovan thought. One way or another, I should probably consider healthier outlets for my frustrations, especially when Seifer is bound to make things worse the moment he manages to corner me.  Maybe painting.  My mother once loved to paint...

I hiss when pressing too hard against the bruise, and staring at the tender spot, I notice a deepening purple color to my skin.  With warped interest, I wonder if I could replicate the range of colors in paint, but even as I think about it, I decide that it's easier and far more satisfying to create those brutal colors the natural way.  Next time, however, I'll leave Donovan out of it and maybe limit the damage, at least to a more reasonable level.

~ > < ~

Chopped onions sizzle in melted butter, the sound a soothing one as I lazily pull apart a chuck roast I had leftover in the fridge.  I originally planned to do something more creative with the excess meat than beef stroganoff, but after the events of last night, I don't feel like making something complicated.  I may have spent most of the day sleeping, but it did very little to ease the variety of aches radiating across my body.  At least my head feels clearer without the haze of alcohol and the burn of adrenaline, which hopefully should help me make a decision about facing Seifer tonight.  I don't want to, but I can't avoid him forever, and given the choice, I would rather face him on my terms and not his.

Just when I finish tearing apart the roast, the doorbell rings in a loud tone, and not a polite once or twice, but four times in quick succession.  I sigh at the interruption that requires me to wash my hands, a task that apparently takes too long for the unwanted visitor since a rhythmic series of knocks begins before I even turn off the water.  Grumbling under my breath, I grab a towel to dry my hands while walking to the front of the condo, and without bothering to glance through the peephole, I jerk open the door to glare at the cheerful annoyance in my life.

"Oh thank goodness, you're--"  Selphie's bright expression promptly fades to horror when she gets a good look at me.  "My God, Squall, what happened to your beautiful face?!"

Not impressed by her descriptor, I lean against the doorframe and cross my arms over my chest.  "What do you want?"

Purposefully ignoring my question, Selphie continues to prod, "You know, I didn't see your motorcycle downstairs.  Are you trying to avoid someone?  Don't tell me that you got into more trouble than you can handle."

"It's nothing like that," I insist before she thinks to assign a police detail to watch over me, or worse, offers herself as my bodyguard.  Selphie may be good at holding her own, but I've gotten caught in the crossfire once before.  Glancing down at the slight bulge to her warm yellow jacket, I can't help but to think that I'd be safer without the woman around to protect me.

"Well, something is obviously wrong," Selphie argues heatedly as she reaches for my bruised eye, but wisely leaves it alone when I shy away from her touch.  "Honestly, some days I wish you were the girlie-girl that the morons at the station claim you are.  Then I wouldn't have to worry about you as much as I do."

Fighting the instinct to point out that I never asked for her concern, I keep my voice soft when I ask again, "Is there something you wanted, Selph?"

Selphie huffs in surrender, though I doubt the issue is truly over.  "Really, do you think I would bother you if it wasn't something important?"

Before I can mention that her definition of 'important' tends to differ from normal interpretations, Selphie steps to the side and makes a show of effort when dragging a battered file box into view.  The old cardboard bulges with a haphazard collection of manila folders, confidential papers, and color photographs, and even without reading a word from that box, I know exactly which case Selphie has brought to my door.  Apparently old age has finally caught up to Cid if he felt comfortable enough to let this amount of information out of the police station, not to mention allowing a petite woman like Selphie to be the box's guardian.  While she's a demon in a fair fight, the young detective hasn't learned the lessons necessary to handle rabid reporters who get a fresh scent of blood.

Pulling my eyes away from the box, I step back into my condo and leave the door open for Selphie.  "I have dinner to finish.  You can talk while I work."

"O-oh, what's on the menu?" she asks while tugging the box inside and then locking door behind her, still confident in her theory that someone is out for my blood.

Not waiting for my reply, Selphie drags the box across the floor in a show of weakness that doesn't agree with the small detail that she climbed three flights of stairs with that box and doesn't show a sheen of sweat for her effort.  I imagine she wants me to feel guilty and offer her some dinner in exchange for not helping with the obviously heavy box, but I've played her game before, and it's impossible to be rid of the energetic woman until the early hours of the morning if I let her stay.  Most days, I wouldn't care one way or another, but I have enough to stress my mind without Selphie making things worse.

"Uh oh," Selphie singsongs when leaving the box next to my couch.  "You're giving me a look that says I'm an interfering third wheel."

I glare at her for the assumption that isn't completely wrong, but certainly inconvenient.

Selphie laughs while stepping to the counter that divides the kitchen and living room.  "What have you picked up this time?  A handsome Hollywood doctor with a winning smile?  A hunky fireman who adores children?" she asks with a woman's imagination.  "But you know what?  I don't care, as long as he isn't another one of those blond morons you keep around for a week and then discard like the trash they are."

I don't bother replying to her observation, and instead focus on tossing the shredded beef into the skillet.

"Oh God, Squall, you didn't," she bemoans.  "How are you supposed to meet Prince Charming if you keep playing around with the village idiots?"

"That isn't your problem."

"Mo-oh, one of these days, I'm going to find a quality man for you and then you'll understand what it really means to love and be loved," Selphie pledges, and while it sounds more like a threat to my ears, it also means that she's willing to leave the topic alone for the rest of tonight.  "Now, about that help I need..."

"You've been moved to the 'Johnny Strangler' case."

"Impressive as usual," Selphie says in a controlled tone that suggests she isn't happy about the additional responsibility.  While most of her colleagues would be excited about being involved with a high profile case, Selphie is the type of person to wish that the world was a better place and that bad guys were caught before they could hurt others.  I imagine she has already butt heads with others on the case who are more focused on catching the killer than remembering the young lives he has stolen.

"I thought you had more than enough help on the case," I comment while pouring beef broth into the skillet and adding some flour to thicken the mixture of juices from the onions and precooked beef.  Once everything begins to boil, I can turn my full attention to the detective and her situation, but not until then.

"You'd think so with how jam-packed the station is these days, but we're coming up dry, and with that boy being killed Monday morning, Captain Kramer thought it would be best to get some fresh eyes on the information we have."

I pause while stirring.  "Monday?"

"Yeah, didn't you hear about it?  The news was all over it by Tuesday, a few hours after the boy was found."

I almost laugh, knowing that my time since Tuesday has been spent avoiding Seifer.  I may have heard something, but I didn't have enough focus to realize that the media attention had switched to a new death and not on the 'Johnny Strangler' case in general.

"You sounded kind of funny there, Squall.  Is there something important about Monday?"

My mind immediately goes back to early Monday morning and Seifer's broken voice when he said that a boy was dead, but I can't be certain if he was dreaming of this particular victim or a different child from another part of town, or if I think about it, the boy could have been from another country for all I know.  In truth, I have no understanding of how Seifer's visions work or what their limitations may be, which I should rectify if I want to continue helping him... Rather, if Seifer will let me to continue helping him, and that is a bigger unknown than the powers he controls.

"Seriously, do you know something?" Selphie continues to prod, truly a detective who has the instinct to know when information is being withheld.

I hesitate while considering my response.  "I'm not certain, but once I am, I'll let you know."

Selphie scoffs loudly and demands, "What the hell is that suppose to mean?  There's another dead boy, Squall, and who knows how many more before we catch this guy.  If you know something--"

"Bad information is more dangerous than no information," I warn the desperate woman.

Selphie grumbles some harsh words under her breath, but she doesn't fight me for the little information I have.  Instead, she waits impatiently with a drum of her fingernails against the counter, something I ignore while slowly stirring the contents of the skillet.  Eventually, the liquid begins to boil, which allows me to cover it and turn toward the pouting woman.  I motion toward the living room and to the box she left next to the leather couch.

"Tell me what you have."

Selphie looks over her shoulder at the mess of paperwork and folders, and with a pensive expression, she says, "You know, it's kind of sad to see how everything we have can be placed into a box like this.  It really doesn't seem like a lot."

"I have worked with less," I say in a casual reference to the last time she asked for my help.

The brunette glances at me for the comment, and showing a grateful smile, she argues, "I thought you didn't like it when I come to you with impossible cases."

I shrug in the silent reply 'as if that matters,' especially given her shamelessness when it comes to taking advantage of my few weak points.  I'm not quite certain why I continue to show a front of resistance whenever Selphie asks for help, but I suppose that I can't make it too easy for the detective.  If I did, she'd probably end up on my doorstep every other day with a new box of folders, a pleading expression, and an empty stomach.

Selphie moves over to the box and pulls out a few folders with a noticeably tender touch, particularly around the photographs.  "Obviously, I'm not out to solve the entire case.  Since the last boy was found, Captain Kramer assigned me to research these boys and figure out where they came from, what they did for fun, and other stuff that can give us a connection between these boys and their killer.  The sad thing is that we still don't even know their real names, and honestly, I'm getting a little sick of using 'Johnny.'"

Uncomfortable with her somber tone, I step in front of the petite woman and gently take the folders from her hold.  "They have names, Selphie.  We just need to find them."

Bright green eyes look up at my face, and though tentative, Selphie manages a relieved smile.  "I knew that I could rely on you."

From there, Selphie guides me through the box of mostly copies and printouts, nothing that is a surprise given how many people are working on this one case.  Only a handful of folders are about the boys directly, the rest dealing with the dump sites and various tips that haven't provided much more than 'I saw a boy with a man in a store yesterday and I think it was the one on the TV.'  Deciding to focus on the boys for now, I study the included photographs that aren't copies, but in full glossy color to show everything of the boys and the surroundings in which they were found.  Selphie hesitates when pointing at an autopsy picture that shows a birthmark on the second boy's shoulder, and I feel a moment's anger at Cid for putting her through this.

With my first glance through, I understand why the police are having a hard time.  The boys didn't share much in terms of physical features, only that they had dark brown hair.  A couple of them weren't particularly 'pretty' for young boys, so it didn't seem likely that a sexual predator was playing around.  Their ages ranged from seven- to ten-years-old, which seems a little broad, although their heights may have edged on the small side and made the killer believe they were about the same age.  Their clothes, while cheap and somewhat tattered, are clean for active children, making me doubt that they were all runaways like the media believes.  Instead, the boys seem rather unremarkable and I wonder if that's why they were ultimately selected, because no one would notice if they were gone.

Knowing that Selphie wouldn't like the theory, I don't say anything straightaway and continue to go through the material with her, hoping for some different answers to come to mind.  Between arguments of what deserved consideration, I finish the beef stroganoff and give Selphie a serving of the dinner, which disappears during her tirade about how parents should love their children or else have their reproductive organs removed.  While I doubt loving a child is that simple, I don't say anything against her need to vent out some anger over the mystery that no one has claimed these boys as of yet.

And then I hear the heavy stomping of feet as someone runs up the cement stairs.

Once recognizing the sound, I immediately glance at the nearby clock, and though the time is later than I thought, it's still an hour earlier than when Seifer should be home... assuming he didn't leave early this morning, and God knows that I was too exhausted to notice when he actually woke up and left.


I look at Selphie and take notice of her concerned frown, but before I can make the vague statement that everything is fine, a key slides into the lock of the front door and turns with a harsh snap.

"Loire, are you here?" Seifer yells when shoving the door open and rushing inside.  Though green eyes first look to my bedroom, my last point of escape, Seifer quickly finds me seated in the living room and grins a threatening smile.  "I've got you now, you fucking bastard."

Unable to move, I stare at the clueless blond and distractedly wonder how many of my adolescent fantasies involved those very words, though with an entirely different inflection.

"Get down on your knees!"

Startled by the unexpected command, I look over and find Selphie suddenly standing in front of the couch with her weapon drawn and aimed for the defenseless blond.  While I probably should be afraid for Seifer's safety, I'm more surprised that Selphie decided to pull out her revolver in the first place.  I seem to recall her reluctance when being issued the gun in her early months on the police force, and now, to see it steady in her hands is a sight I never imagined witnessing.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Seifer says with raised hands, clearly not prepared for the appearance of a firearm.  "Watch where you're pointing that thing!"

Not shifting her gaze or aim one bit, Selphie asks me, "Is this the bastard who gave you that black eye?"

Seifer frowns at the question, but his focus isn't on Selphie for her wild accusation.  Instead, vibrant green eyes follow the lines of my cuts and bruises with a darker kind of anger than when he first barged in.

Annoyed at their excessive reactions, I explain to the pair, "I went after a bounty last night and things got messy, but it's nothing that can't be cured with some ice and a lot of aspirin."

In a strange moment, both Seifer and Selphie show similar expressions of skepticism toward my explanation.  When I don't respond to their distrust, they glance at each other, and as if reaching the same silent conclusion, Selphie lowers her revolver in sync with Seifer lowering his hands.  Selphie turns to face me directly and plants a fist against her hip in a frustrated pose.

"You stupid man, why didn't you explain all of that earlier?  I really thought you were hiding from an abusive boyfriend and with this guy barging in without warning..."  Selphie pauses at her own statement, and with a tilt of her head, she ponders out loud, "Wait a minute, I locked that door when I came in, which means... He has a key?  To your precious home?"

Before I can bring the situation under some resemblance of control, Seifer takes a step forward to regain Selphie's attention.  "I know what it sounds like, but Loire is just helping me out of a tough spot and giving me a place to stay.  We're not..."  Seifer trails off for a moment of thought before repeating in a softer tone, "We're not anything more than two guys who knew each other back in high school."

Her lips slightly partly, Selphie stares with wide eyes at the blond.  "Say that again."

While I inwardly grown at the sign that things are about to go further downhill, Seifer continues forward without a clue.  "What, about us going to high school together?"

"No, no, the first part," Selphie corrects while edging closer to the man.  "About how you know what this sounds like."

Seifer glances at me with a wary flash of green, the blond getting his first hint that something is wrong.  "I... know what it sounds like?"

"I knew it!" Selphie exclaims as she darts forward and hugs one of his arms.  "You're Handsome!"

With eyebrows arched high in both surprise and amusement, Seifer replies with his typical crude charm, "And you're a smokin' hottie who looks amazing with a gun, but I'm not really looking for a fling these days."

Laughing, Selphie pounds a light fist against his chest.  "I don't mean your looks, although they positively surpass my expectations."

"Okay, now I'm lost," Seifer admits while looking to me for help.

With a bored sigh, I direct a wave at the woman attached to Seifer's arm.  "This is Selphie Tilmitt, a shining example of the detectives employed within the Garden police force."  I wait a moment for a light of recollection to enter green eyes before I explain further, "'Handsome' is her nickname for an anonymous caller who provides tips about events that have yet to happen."

Seifer chokes slightly and tries to cover it with a chuckle.  "So what, this guy thinks he sees the future or something?"

"You can't fool me," Selphie declares with a direct stare at the blond.  "I know your voice, especially that inflection of yours when you get all flustered.  You're Handsome, no doubt about it."

Trying to hide my smile, I watch with interest as Seifer struggles with the necessity to deny his 'Handsome' status.

"Look, I don't know who you think I am, but I'm just a guy... a normal guy."

Selphie smiles pityingly at the blond.  "No, you're not normal, but that's fine.  You have a special gift and a beautiful heart that makes you help people when others would run away.  Oh, speaking of that, did you hear from Squall how we found that sweet little girl you told me about?  She's such a beauty, just like you said, and you should have seen her angelic smiles whenever I played with her.  I almost didn't want to give her up!"

Seifer stares down at the woman, clearly pushed off-balance by Selphie's determination.  "Seriously, I don't know what you're talking about."

Not losing her smile at the obvious lie, Selphie nods and pats his cheek.  "You do, but I think I understand. You, however," she says when turning to face me, "You owe me some answers about what game you were playing when I gave you those recordings.  While I thought it was a little funny for you to want them, I didn't think it was because you knew the owner of that voice."

I don't respond to the threat, not at all encouraged by the prospect of having that discussion.

Selphie pulls away from Seifer's side, and with a long stretch, she moves to the table.  "Well, it looks like I'm in the way after all, so I'll just gather my things and get out of your hair."

"You're leaving before we get anywhere?"

Selphie sighs at my question, but still gathers the folders spread out on the coffee table.  "We're not the only ones to be stumped by this case, and honestly, I wasn't expecting a miracle by coming to you.  One of these days, that bastard is going to make a mistake and we'll nail him to the wall by his testicles.  Today might not be that day, but it's coming and I'll have my hammer polished and ready to go," she announces with a flare of true sadistic desire.

While a frustrating reality, there is a reason why serial killers can repeat their immoral acts for years before getting caught.  Maybe they have the Devil watching their backs or maybe it's simply a matter of them having no real connection to their victims, but this isn't the first time a murderer has been allowed to walk the streets despite his crimes.

Though reluctant to leave the case alone, I pick up the file from the latest murder and accidentally let a photo slip out from between the collection of papers.  I bend down to pick up the picture with the intention to return it to the folder, but a large hand grabs my wrist the moment I stand up.  Seifer doesn't say anything right away, but instead stares with unnaturally bright green eyes at the close-up of the boy's face, trapped forever in peaceful sleep.

"What's his name?" Seifer demands, his hold tightening to a level that adds another bruise to my collection.

"We don't know," I reply in an apologetic tone.  The simple question is more than enough to assure me that this is the boy who was killed in his vision, and while I know little about his dreams, I recall Seifer's anger and frustration over not figuring out the boy's name.  Bothersome emotions swirl in my chest at my inability to provide him a name better than 'Johnny.'

Overhearing the question, Selphie inches close.  "Do you recognize him?"

Like a startled animal, Seifer jerks backward and stares at the woman with instinctual panic.  It's a fleeting reaction, but even as he collects himself, he continues to move away and slowly shakes his head in denial.  "Sorry, I can't... I can't help you.  And right now, I need a shower, so if you don't mind..."

Recognizing his intentions, I drop the folder onto the pile in Selphie's arms and hurry after the fleeing blond.  Before he steps fully into the bathroom, I'm behind him and prevent the door from blocking my entrance.  Though he glares at my intrusion, Seifer doesn't try to overpower me and kick me out.  I assume Selphie's earlier show of her weapon is the reason for his good behavior, not that I particularly think he could outmaneuver me in the first place.

"What the fuck, Loire," Seifer growls when the door closes behind me.  "You're allowed to hide whenever you want, but I can't have a moment of privacy in a God-damned bathroom."

I take a moment to glance over the blond, the man still wearing his coat and boots from his long walk home, which doesn't help his claim of coming in here for the singular purpose of taking a shower.  "You shouldn't be afraid of Selphie.  She won't force you to give more help than you're willing to give."

"That's not the point, Sherlock.  The point is that I hate the way people look at me when they think I have all of the fucking answers and I don't.  I don't even know that boy's fucking name, and I'm supposed to somehow help her?  Help you?"

"I never said that you had to."

"But I want to, you dumbass.  More than anything, I want to control these powers and do something right with them, especially when it comes to kids."  Seifer rakes his fingers back through his hair and clutches onto the golden strands.  "Do you have a clue what it feels like to watch someone suffer time and time again, and not be able to do a damned thing about it?"

"... A little bit."

After a startled blink at my response, Seifer swears under his breath.  "Sorry, I keep forgetting about your mother.  I guess I like living in a fantasy world where I actually helped to save her."

"I wasn't talking about my mother," I say softly, not wanting to say the words, but they come anyway.

Seifer stares at me for a long moment, his eyes still the uncomfortable green from when he recognized the dead boy from the dropped photo.  It's perfectly reasonable for him to be angry at me, especially when I've been trying to avoid this discussion for three days, but I was hoping he would jump on the opportunity and not consider the reasons why I would give him the easy opening.  When the hell did Seifer stop being predictable?

After a deep sigh, Seifer pulls his hand from his hair and reaches out to brush his fingertips beneath my bruised eye.  "Did you really get this from some kind of bounty hunter thing?"

I hum out my positive reply, unable to truly react with his warmth caressing my sore flesh.  It's unfortunate that my instinct to shy away from Selphie's touch decided to fail me now, despite Seifer's larger hand and rougher skin.

"That's a relief," he says with a slight smile.  "You wouldn't believe the shit my plague of a father was spouting.  He was dancing in the streets and cheering about how he messed you up something good.  Seeing you like this, I got all sorts of nasty thoughts about how to hurt him back."

My heart pounds a painful beat at the words that could be easily misunderstood, but I won't let myself believe that Seifer cares about me in the way I want him to.  This is about his constant battle against his father and nothing more.  "Actually, the black-eye is from collecting Biggs.  My knee is bruised from when, I assume, your father pushed me down the stairs."

Green eyes go wide at the announcement.  "Tell me that you're joking."

"All I know is that I was pushed by something I couldn't see."  When Seifer continues to stare at me in disbelief, I ask the medium, "Has something like that happened to you before?"

"God, no," Seifer breathes and moves his hand to my throat.  I don't know whether it's by design or chance, but I notice immediately when he strokes my skin like he did the last time his father's ghost attacked me.  "I guess I've heard of poltergeists and the like, but I've never seen a spirit actually touch a living person before, let alone hurt them.  Frankly, the idea scares the shit out of me."

"It was just a push," I say in an attempt to alleviate his worries.

"At the top of the stairs, if my father was speaking the truth."  When I shrug at his amendment, Seifer slides his hand to the back of my neck.  "I'm going to make you a protection charm, a strong one, and I want you to stay here in your home until I can find something suitable for you."

I scoff at the request.  "I'm not going to be trapped in my own place because of a ghost."

"He tried to push you down the stairs, Loire.  What happens when he pushes you into oncoming traffic?  You may see the bus coming, but you won't have a clue that my father is behind you.  And trust me, he won't stop trying to hurt you until you're dead."

With a sigh at his obvious concern, I offer in exchange, "I have no plans for tomorrow, but I can't promise you anything in the event something comes up."

Seifer grumbles something under his breath, but he doesn't press me for a solid pledge.  Instead, he pulls away and starts to remove his long coat.  "Y'know, you still owe me a few explanations."

And finally, the discussion I've been dreading is here.  "I highly doubt that I'm the first person to be blinded by your better qualities."

"No, but you're not a mindless cheerleader, either," Seifer argues while tossing his coat over my shoulder.  "I've never seen you do anything without some thought first, and it makes no sense for you to want me.  You're a quality guy who deserves a true thoroughbred--not some workhorse with a bum leg who should've been shot years ago."

I breathe a laugh at his analogy.  "Thoroughbreds are inbred and only know how to run.  What do I want with a person like that?"

"That's not what I mean and you know it," Seifer says with a scowl.  "Just tell me this, Loire: what the fuck do you want from me?  Were you hoping for something more by letting me stay here?  Some kind of special repayment?"

"I'm not that stupid," I say in soft annoyance, both toward Seifer and toward my pathetic emotions.  "If it was simply a matter of you being evicted, I probably would have left you there.  I didn't want to be involved in your life again, but when I heard your voice, I needed to look for you and know that you were okay.  That would have been enough for me."

"But I wasn't okay," Seifer supplies when I avoid saying those words.

"No, you weren't."

Seifer eyes me for a long moment while judging my intentions.  "Let's try this one last time: why are you doing so much to help me out?"

To give myself a reason to avoid his gaze, I carefully fold his coat over my arm and needlessly smooth out the wrinkles.  "I want to give you a life worth living again."

"And what's your gain in something like that?"

"I'll know that you're alive."

Silence follows my honest answer, and while it's nothing I expect Seifer to understand, I only need him to believe me.  In all reality, I don't have the right to force Seifer to live when I can't understand his powers or how they torment him, but I want him to live.  I need him to live, if only to keep my heart soothed and under my tenuous control.

With that thought, I raise my head and meet the intense stare of green eyes.  Amazingly, I don't see the confusion or distrust I was expecting from the cynical man, but beyond that, I can't determine what he is actually thinking.  There's something in his expression that I haven't seen before, which has become more frequent as of late.  If I had to put a name to it, I would say that Seifer looks... apologetic, but with a sharper edge.

"You know," Seifer starts in a helpful tone, "Fuujin thinks this is a terrible mistake."

"If it is, then it's my mistake to make."

Pale lips curl up into a pleased smirk.  "I was hoping you would say something like that."

Though curious about his response, I'm not given the opportunity to question him when Seifer abruptly decides to remove both his buttoned shirt and undershirt in the same motion.  My few words leave me while staring at his bare chest and recalling that he was tanner the last time I saw him shirtless, a more innocent time when track-and-field occasionally coincided with football practice.

"I wasn't lying about needing a shower," Seifer comments at my lost composure.  "I hate smelling like work when I'm no longer on the clock.  And... well, can you blame me for wanting to wash off that feeling I got when looking at that boy's picture?"

With a second wasted on remembering his original reaction to that dream, I offer a slight shake of my head before I turn around and reach for the doorknob to leave Seifer to his privacy.

"Hey," Seifer interjects before I have the chance to leave.  "Tell Calamity Jane out there that she should be careful while hunting down that child-killer.  There's something very, very wrong about that guy.  I've never seen something like it before, and I'm sorry, but I hope I never see him again, even if it means that I can't help you."

Staring down at the doorknob, I struggle with his apology and ultimately tell the man, "I don't want your help if you think that's the only way you can give it.  You have more worth than that."

While I can feel green eyes focused on my back, Seifer doesn't speak out in retort or anything else to convince me to stay.  With nothing else to say, I step out of the bathroom in a quick move and close the door behind me.  It's almost a relief to hear the shower starting a couple seconds later, proving that Seifer doesn't plan to follow me.

"Is he alright?"

Reminded of Selphie's presence, I look at the brunette and notice her box on the coffee table, somehow looking fuller than when she first came here.  "He'll be fine, and he wants me to warn you to be careful when chasing after this murderer.  The man sounds dangerous."

Her eyes widen at her theory about 'Handsome' being proven, the woman probably assuming that Seifer would never admit his powers given his previous outburst.  Once that initial surprise passes, however, a small smile crosses her lips.  "While he has a good voice and all, I'm a little surprised that you jumped on him so quickly and convinced him to live with you."

"It's not like that," I remind her, and when she shows a disbelieving grin, I say, "He's straight, Selph."

Selphie lets out an interested 'oh' when looking at the closed bathroom door, but then her clear green eyes shift to me when a second, more subdued 'oh' passes over her lips.  "Squall, you know I love you, but you should really rethink how you choose the men in your life."

I glare at her for the unnecessary comment, and reconsidering any notion to help with her box, I motion toward the front door.

Selphie laughs at my obvious snub, and with the strength I knew she had, she picks up the box from the coffee table and follows me to the entrance.  While I hold open the door, Selphie sneaks in close to me and kisses my unmarked cheek.  "Pass that along to Handsome for me, okay?  And tell him that he can call me anytime," she adds with a wink.

I sigh at her overdone flirting.  "Be careful out there."

"Aren't I always?" Selphie says brightly, and with that, she steps outside and heads downstairs with a slight hop to her step that is tempered by the box in her arms.

I wait a few moments to listen for any telltale sounds of her slipping on the cold cement due to her carelessness, and admittedly, a part of me is worried about Seifer's father deciding to test his developing powers on the small woman.  But nothing sounds as I stand in the open doorway, and with a frustrated huff, I realize that I must have the honor of holding the ghost's full attention.  I close the door, and after a moment's hesitation, I turn the deadbolt before glancing at the bathroom door.  I briefly recall over a week ago when I first brought Seifer here and how I heard his voice resonating within the small tiled room.  His cheeks were red with embarrassment when he answered my knocks, and it still makes me smile to remember the rare expression.

Sadly, that's all I'll have once everything is done--faded memories to add to my collection--and some days I wonder if I'm strange for not expecting more.

"What does it mean to be gay?"

Seated across from the silver-haired teen, I watch him with an unimpressed expression for the question that I already knew was coming, but I have to give him some credit for having the nerve to ask it in the middle of a diner that isn't as wide spread nor as loud as a typical restaurant.

Truthfully, I wasn't expecting to hear from Riku again or at least not this soon after parting ways.  I may have given him my card for this very reason, but the tense teenager seemed like the type of person who is absolutely determined to handle his problems on his own, even if doing so only makes things worse.  His reckless solution of dealing with his awkward crush is a prime example, but that shouldn't have been enough to make the teenager change his ways.  Near-misses never count when it comes to life lessons.

"Being gay isn't much of a mystery," I say in response to his question, "but you already know that."

Riku scowls at my unhelpful reply and bows his head a little such that long bangs cover his eyes.  Overall, the kid looks like the average teenager with unruly hair, a bad habit of under-dressing for the weather, and a pair of pants that would fall to his knees if it weren't for the belt holding them up.  But while he may be average in style, his face has an exotic attractiveness that is only going to bring him trouble in the future, especially when he realizes that he'll always be approached by the women and men around him, but never by the one he truly desires.

While Riku decides where he wants this discussion to go, I calmly scan the diner in search of a large blond who won't be pleased to see me.  Less than a day has passed since he warned me to stay at home, and while I didn't make a promise to do so, I know perfectly well that Seifer won't remember it that way.  I could have avoided Ward's Place altogether, but in truth, I specifically chose the diner as a meeting place because Seifer is here.  If I'm going to play this game of chicken with his dead father, I might as well have Seifer around to warn me when the punch is coming.

"I don't know if I actually like Sora the way I think I like him," Riku eventually says while playing with the straw of his soda.  "We've always been friends, but most of the time I treat him like a little brother.  I mean, he's a brat when you come down to it, but he has a good heart and a great laugh.  I've spent most of my life watching out for him, but lately, I get these random thoughts about... more."

When he leaves it there, I supply, "And you want to know if it's real."

Riku breathes out in frustration and leans forward on folded arms.  "Sora trusts me, and I'm afraid that if I say or do anything, he'll just follow along with it.  When I was a kid, I decided to run away and I easily convinced Sora to come with me.  We were only gone overnight, but Sora was real quiet the whole time.  He does that to me when he doesn't like what I'm doing, not that I notice until it's too late.  It rained throughout the night, and by morning, Sora started to get sick.  Even then, he didn't tell me to take him home, but instead made me promise to not leave him."

"Sounds like you're good friends," I comment purposefully, and it doesn't come as much of surprise when pale eyebrows furrow in response.

"Then, you also think--"

"What the fuck are you doing here?"

While Riku jerks up straight at the inevitable interruption, I simply glance to the side and take note of Seifer's dark scowl that I've witnessed before, but not particularly directed at me.  Granted, it loses its effect with the blond carrying a tray packed with sundaes and milkshakes, but the anger is true enough.  I probably should have spent more time considering the consequences of coming here.

"Holy shit," Riku swears once recognizing the blond.  "You work here?"

Blatantly ignoring the teen, Seifer says in a low tone, "I thought you said you would stay 'home' today."

"Only if nothing came up," I remind him.

"Oh please, whatever is wrong with this kid could have waited another fucking day or two.  Why are you risking your neck because he's going through puberty?"

After a glare at the blond for his words, Riku turns to me and asks worriedly, "Are you in some kind of trouble?"

"In a sense, which is why I decided to meet where Seifer can look out for me."

Seifer scoffs at my attempt to downplay the situation, but with the ice cream melting on his tray, he doesn't have the luxury to lecture me further.  "You better be here when I get back, or I swear to God, I'll push you in front of a bus myself."

While the blond waiter hurries off, Riku continues to show a concerned expression.  "I hate to say it, but I think your boyfriend is right."

I snort at his assumption.  "Seifer isn't my boyfriend, or did you miss that part of the conversation the last time we met?" I ask even as I openly watch Seifer deliver his load to a large table surrounded by teenage girls, a volleyball team if the trophy in the middle of the table can be trusted.  Like a true salesman, Seifer has a charming smile whenever the occasion calls for it, and by the look of those girls, I imagine this place will have a few more repeat customers on the days Seifer works.

"No, I know what you both said, but... he tried to feed you some of his pie," Riku says as if that was somehow the defining part of a relationship.  Hearing for himself how ridiculous it sounds, the teen quickly amends, "And it's the other stuff, too, like how angry he was about you getting beaten up in the past.  He also seemed more than okay with the idea of two guys being together."

"I don't think we're here to talk about Seifer and me," I remind the teen, something that makes him frown and shift his gaze to his soda.

"Are you sure?  I mean, it seems pathetic to talk about my problems when you have bigger things to worry about."

"Perhaps, but I'm already here."

His frown softening, Riku silently accepts the fact that I chose to meet him and that he shouldn't waste the opportunity.  After another moment to return to his previous thoughts, Riku says, "You know, I don't really care about what happens to me; it's Sora I'm worried about.  What if my feelings aren't real, but before I figure that out, I've already dragged Sora into it?  He trusts me so much..."

"Have you considered he has his own reasons to trust you?"

"I already told you--we're practically brothers, and it's not like he has a real family to depend on."

Though curious what he means by that statement, my train of thought is interrupted when Seifer abruptly sits down next to Riku and drops a plate with a double-stacked burger and a heap of fries onto the table.  "It's about fucking time," Seifer declares before grabbing the burger with two hands and taking a large bite.

"The hell-- Did you take someone's order?" Riku demands with a disapproving scowl.

"Give me a break, Puberty Boy," Seifer grumbles through a mouthful of food.  "Zone made me this lunch fifteen minutes ago, but that table back there had to go and order desserts on me.  Each and every one of them.  They were giggling through their orders, too, as if I was going to risk jail time by taking one of them home or something completely idiotic like that."

With a pale eyebrow lifted at the rant, Riku glances in my direction for support.

"Let him eat," is the best suggestion I can offer, already witnessing how swiftly Seifer's mood can change when he's hungry.

"Don't patronize me," Seifer objects before taking another bite.  "So, what is it this time, kid?  You getting sex pointers or something?"

"What the-- What is wrong with you?" Riku asks, a question that has more pitfalls than the teenager is probably prepared to handle.

Before Seifer gets further than a predatory smirk, I interject, "Riku is having doubts about his feelings."

"Doubts?  Over that spiky-haired munchkin who nearly bowled you over with a hug when we brought you home?"

"His name is Sora," Riku grumbles.

"Whatever you say, kid," Seifer replies while wiping sauce from the corner of his mouth.  "All I know right now can be summed up into two things.  First off, you're pretty shitty at making getaway plans.  Second, that munchkin has been making faces at you for over a minute now."

Riku stares at Seifer with a bewildered gaze until the blond points at the window.  Riku turns sharply to look outside and is immediately confronted with the distorted face pressed against cold glass.  Admittedly, I noticed the younger teen several minutes ago, however he was only pacing the sidewalk at that point.  I missed his decision to approach the window since I was too focused on Seifer, something that isn't too surprising, but disappointing nonetheless.

"Sora..." Riku groans in embarrassment.

Even though he shouldn't be able to hear his name, Sora pulls back from the window and flashes a broad smile through the glass fogged by his breath.  Then, with little time to waste, he pushes away from the window and moves hurriedly toward the entrance of the diner.

Panicked, Riku turns with the instinct to act, but Seifer takes a deep bite into his burger and chews slowly as his declaration that he has no intention to budge.  The silver-haired teen scowls at the man's interference and warns in a low tone, "Don't say anything."

Seifer smirks around his mouthful of food, not at all threatened by the teenager.

Before Riku can try a different method of silencing the blond, his friend comes into sight and waves with a hand poorly protected by fingerless gloves.  While I know Riku has a year on the boy, Sora seems about a head shorter than his friend and overall too small for his age, something that is disguised by haired spiked in all directions.  The illusion is also supported by clothing that doesn't quite fit his body, leaving an inch of his forearms bare and his socks visible when he walks.  Either the kid had a growth spurt recently, which I doubt, or else he comes from a family that doesn't have the money to spare on new clothes.

Reaching the table, Sora smiles in an open fashion that is a strong contrast to his more reserved friend.  "Heya, Riku.  What're you doing all the way out here?"

"That should be my line," Riku replies a bit coldly.  "Weren't you going to spend time with Kairi today?"

"We were supposed to go see a movie with Kairi, but you bailed on us, remember?  You've also been acting strange, just like you did last week."  His smile gone, electric blue eyes glance between Seifer and me before Sora asks, "Did you decide to buy some help with running away this time?  Because if that's your plan, I'll call your mother right now and tell her that you're being a dumbass twice-over."

While Seifer snickers into his burger, Riku looks at his friend with an ever-suffering gleam to his eyes.  "I told you that I'm not going to do that again.  And for your information, these two are the guys I told you about, the ones who stopped me at the truck stop."

Blue eyes opening wide, Sora immediately focuses on me.  "Whoa, you're that private detective Riku's mom hired?  She said you spent, like, two minutes in Riku's room before figuring out where he went.  You're just like one of those TV detectives, but y'know, they have scripts to make them look smart and you don't."

"That's enough, Sora," Riku says with a hand shielding his eyes.

Amused by Riku's embarrassment, Seifer points at the empty space next to me.  "Why don't you join us and have a seat, kid?"

Even as Sora accepts the offer and plops down on the padded bench, Riku argues, "Sora can't stay long."

"I can't?" Sora asks with innocent confusion.  "I don't remember having anything else to do today."

Grumbling under his breath about clueless brats, Riku demands, "What are you doing here, anyway?"

"I thought you were planning something, so I decided to follow you, duh," Sora replies with a roll of his eyes.  "The real question is what're you doing here and why are you acting so weird?  Do you always hang out with old guys when you're not with me and Kairi and the others?"  With a blink of realization, Sora shows a contrite expression when amending, "Uh, not that they seem that old."

I shrug at the insult, not particularly offended since I can remember a time when I also thought being thirty was practically time for retirement... not that thirty is around the corner just yet.

"It's none of your business," Riku defends.

"How isn't it my business?  Aren't we best friends?  Even if you ran away, I'd come look for you, y'knowNo matter what!"

Riku's expression falters in front of the spiky-haired youth, but he doesn't say anything while avoiding the intense gaze of blue.

"Stop worrying, munchkin," Seifer comments after licking the last tastes of his burger from his fingers.  "The kid is just here for some love life advice."

Already pale skin blanches at the announcement, but it only makes blue-green eyes more intense when Riku recovers from his shock and glares at the tactless blond.  It doesn't last long, however.

"You have a love life?"

The question is stated in a pathetic voice, and when I look at the younger teen, it's hard to not associate him with a beaten puppy.  Well, that should make things easier for Riku, assuming he gains the courage to admit everything to his friend.  Or, judging by the look of Seifer's expression, Riku may not get much of a choice to wait until he is ready.

"I don't have a love life," Riku answers heatedly, but Seifer doesn't let him off that easy.

"Well, of course he doesn't have one yet.  He's after another guy, so of course he needs some pointers first.  That sort of thing can break an ass if it's not done right."

"You asshole," Riku nearly yells when trying to punch the blond, but given the close quarters of the booth, his fist glances off Seifer's cheek without any real damage.

"Hey now, how is that suppose to make me play nicer?" Seifer asks while making certain to trap the teen's wrist.

Riku snarls, apparently beyond words.

Watching everything with wide eyes, Sora asks, "Is he telling the truth?  Are you... gay?"

His anger dispelled by the blunt question, Riku glances at his friend before quickly looking away.  "I... I don't know."

"And you told them... You told strangers about it before you were going to tell me?"

"That's not--"

Sora bangs the table when standing up, and after directing a heartbroken look at the speechless Riku, Sora turns and proceeds to run out of the diner, collecting odd glances in his wake.

"Damn it, get out of my way," Riku demands while shoving at Seifer, and though his natural instinct to be stubborn flashes in green eyes, the blond surprisingly pushes out of his seat to give the teen an open path.

As Riku chases after his friend, Seifer pivots around the table and takes the vacated seat at my side.  "Shit, were we that dramatic as kids?  It's so damn tiring to watch," he comments while grabbing one of his fries.  By the disappointed scrunch to his nose, I assume the fried food had gone cold and was no longer appetizing.

"You do realize that, even if they get together because of this, Riku will never give you the credit."

"I'm disappointed that you think I had good intentions.  See, I had this revelation about how that kid is going to be a legal adult before his buddy there.  Can you imagine his expression when the kid finds out that he won't be able to touch his under-aged lover for over a year?  It'll be classic."

"That's not why you did it," I say when his voice doesn't quite match his story.

After a second attempt of a French fry, Seifer sighs at his cold lunch and pushes it aside.  "I guess it got me a little irritated to see that kid doing exactly what you did to me.  It's unfair, you know, to have someone love you and not have a fucking clue."

"Are you saying that you would have accepted my confession without overreacting?"  When he doesn't immediately respond, I add, "Or that your friends, if they found out, wouldn't have made my life a living hell for approaching you?"

Seifer scowls at the realities of our past, but insists, "You were stronger than that.  You never hid, and I don't like the fact that you hid from me."

I shrug, knowing that he's making things simpler than they actually were.

"All I'm saying, Loire, is that things could have been different if you had said something to me."

"Different?  How, exactly?"

Seifer stares at his plate as if the question had greater depth than I understood it to hold.  The facts are simple--Seifer was a quarterback with a hunger for women.  The only possible outcome of revealing my desires to the blond would have been a sharp rejection that I would have carried with me into the present day.  And given his question about my sexuality when I offered my help the other week, I have no doubt that Seifer would have refused to stay with me if he had any clue about my hopeless feelings.

Perhaps coming to the same conclusions, Seifer scratches the back of his neck in a frustrated manner and complains, "Forget it, I don't really know what I want to say.  But just so you're perfectly aware, I'm still mad at you for leaving the condo.  You could have gotten yourself killed, and knowing my luck, the police would've pinned me with your death."

Conceding his point, I offer, "Then what if I stay here until you're done with work?  Would that ease your mind?"

Seifer glances at me before his lips slide into a smirk.  "Were you lonely without me?"

"Don't make assumptions," I warn the blond.  "I just don't like being confined to a single spot because someone else says so."

"Hn, I can understand that feeling," Seifer comments with a briefly distant look to his eyes.  "But hey, that should work out for the better.  I stumbled across this street vendor on the way to work and she had some interesting jewelry for sale.  Once I finish my shift, maybe we can find you something to wear as a protection charm."

"I don't wear jewelry."

"You had an earring back in high school," he reminds me.  "And this way, it'll be easier for you to keep it on your body at all times, despite any of your attempts to 'accidentally' leave it behind for one reason or another.  I understand you want to help people, Loire, but for once, you've got to consider your own best interest."

"... Fine," I reluctantly agree, and with that agreement, Seifer pushes up from the booth and collects his unfinished plate.  He offers a 'see ya later' before walking off, and as I watch him go, I ask under my breath, "Why did he have to say things could have been different?"

Seated in a relatively comfortable tree, I carefully reposition my camera to the side and lean back against the heavy trunk.  It's a fairly common night to find me in a tree or some other vantage point within view of a cheap motel, particularly the ones that unofficially charge per the hour.  For whatever reason, many cheating spouses seem to be of the assumption that they have more privacy in rundown motels than in the high-end hotels.  The actuality, however, is that bribes go a lot further with poorly paid motel workers and the doors to the rooms often lead directly to the outside.  A high-powered camera and a sheltered vantage point are all it takes to catch a cheating husband or wife in the act, which would be much more difficult within the higher security and enclosed spaces of most hotels.

Thus far tonight, I have captured photos of a husband and mistress going into the motel room, but the money shots typically happen when such pairs leave the room, thinking for all the world that they got away with something.  The unfortunate piece of that reality is that I have to wait for their business to finish, which can last anywhere from thirty minutes to several hours.  I may charge by the hour, but some days, it's just not worth it.

With nothing else to do, I pull out the necklace hidden under my jacket and brush my thumb over the heavy pendent, a habit that I developed a week ago when Seifer purchased the piece of jewelry with his tip money.  I was reluctant to have him spend his newly earned money like that, but Seifer insisted with the claim that it was his fault my life was in danger, and therefore his expense.  The pendent itself is a roaring lion with its mane flowing down into a cross-like sword, and honestly, I don't think it's something I would have selected for myself.  Seifer, however, fell in love with the story told by the street vendor about 'Griever,' the supposed name of a dark lion that was the faithful servant to an honorable knight.  He was obviously played by the vendor, but I still surrendered to his clear excitement.

Shadows play within the etchings of the mane, but despite the limited light, I can still see the flecks of dried blood trapped within the deeper cuts.  Seifer had wasted no time to perform his 'magic' on the pendent, which thus far seems to be little more than bleeding on an object.  The fact his blood was wasted on metal particularly bothered me, but I trusted his belief in the protection charm and placed it around my neck without a moment's hesitation.  I noticed its abnormal warmth immediately, which made me think of my mother and her claim that she could feel Heaven's touch within her shawl.  Strange how that same warmth only makes me think of Seifer and how much I want the real thing.

Interrupting my thoughts, an abrupt buzz sounds from the pocket of my jacket, the unexpected occurrence causing me to waver slightly on my precarious perch.  Annoyed at being caught off guard, I jerk my cell out from my pocket, but then waste precious seconds while staring at the name displayed on the screen.  I gave Seifer his cell phone almost two weeks ago, but he never used it and even made me suspect that he threw it out.  Idiot, why is it so hard for him to admit that he needs help on occasion?

Forgoing a proper answer, I ask straightaway, "Is something wrong?"

Silence flows over the line before a weak laugh sounds.  <"Of course, because I wouldn't call if everything was alright.">

"Not after midnight, and not when I'm on a job," I reason against his sarcasm.

Seifer doesn't say anything for almost ten seconds, only his shaky breaths coming through the phone.  <"... When do you think you'll be back?">

"I'm not certain.  It might not be until morning."

A soft curse sounds at my answer, followed by more silence.

"Seifer, what's wrong?"

<"... I had a bad... a really bad dream, and I don't...">  He takes a deep breath and painfully admits, <"I don't know if I should be alone right now.">

His decision to call me should make me happy on some level, but I know perfectly well that I'm a last resort in Seifer's mind and not his first choice when it comes to things like this.  For him to be pushed to the point of contacting me, he must have dreamed something truly terrible.  Knowing that, there isn't really a decision to make between this job and Seifer.

"I'll be there in thirty minutes," I say and hang up before he can change his mind.

~ > < ~

Somehow, I resist the urge to take the stairs three or more at a time, something that would only disturb the neighbors at this late hour.  Though I feel like it took forever to get here, I'm well ahead of the thirty-minute estimate I gave Seifer and I'm fairly certain that I'll have a ticket or two in the mail from speeding through intersections.  The ride itself is mostly a blur, my mind instead focused on trying to figure out what Seifer could have seen in his dream.  This is the same man who saw Heaven and was mortified at needing my help; at this point, I can only imagine that he has been shown Hell and doesn't care anymore.

When I reach the last flight of stairs to the third level, I instinctively slow down and watch my steps just as the air around me condenses and drops several degrees in temperature.  In sharp contrast, my necklace grows warmer against my skin, almost uncomfortably so.  While I haven't been touched by the vindictive spirit since last week, I find it more disconcerting to experience the effort that Seifer's protection charm is exerting to protect me from his father's ghost.  It makes me wonder if I underestimated the dead man's hatred, and therefore underestimated the threat he presents.

The moment I touch the doorknob to my front door, the cold air begins to dissipate and recedes completely when I slip inside.  I briefly lift my hand to the heated necklace in appreciation, but then quickly turn my focus to the partially open door leading to Seifer's room.  I knock softly against the wood to announce my presence, as well as to push the door open a little further.  Within seconds, I discover that the courtesy was wasted on an empty room, which is a worrisome sight given the chaotic state of his bed.  I almost leave before I notice some purple fabric sticking out from beneath the sheets that had pooled on the floor.

Unable to leave the toy there, I step into the room and pull the dragon out from its hiding place, but momentarily lose my breath at the sight of the stuffed animal.  As if disemboweled, the seams defining the dragon's stomach are torn and its cotton innards hang out in a rather disturbing manner, especially when I know that the toy is meant to protect Seifer from lost spirits.  My heart speeds up at the thought that Seifer's father may have gone crazy at the blond's act to protect me and decided to go after Seifer in his anger.

Cradling the damaged toy, I step out of his room and call out Seifer's name, unable to keep out the rough edge of worry.

"... In here."

The quiet declaration makes me turn and stare at the open doorway that leads to my bedroom.  Doubting my ears, I walk slowly across the condo and stop at the doorway to glance inside, immediately finding Seifer seated on my bed with one of my pillows held tightly in his arms.

"Sorry," he mutters without looking at me.  "I couldn't stay in my room."

While I should point out that the living room or kitchen seem like more viable options than my bedroom, the weight of his broken toy feels heavier than it should in my hand.  "What happened, Seifer?"

"I think I met Death for the first time," he replies with an odd inflection to his voice, "and he didn't like me very much."

I stare at the blond for his statement, uncertain if he is being literal or figurative with his answer.  Normally, it would be ridiculous to think that Seifer met with Death, but this is the same man who honestly believes he has been to Heaven.  While I should reject such things as impossible, my heart makes me believe his word and I hate that it's so easy for the blond.

Seifer exhales a long breath and straightens before finally looking at me, his eyes glowing a strange luminescent green in the dimly lit room.  "You don't believe me, do you?" he asks dejectedly.

I can't respond to his question, my gaze immediately dropping at the sight of his throat covered in the deep bruises of someone who has been strangled, a sight I never wanted to see on a loved one again.

Seifer frowns at my stare before, with a jolt of surprise, he lifts a hand to his neck.  "Are there marks?  Tell me that there aren't marks."

Unable to confirm his assumption, I meet his softly lit eyes and ask again, "What happened?"

His mouth parts as if to answer, but Seifer changes his mind with a shake of his head.  Releasing his grip on the stolen pillow, he pats the mattress in a clear request for me to sit at his side.

Shrugging off my jacket, I drop the item onto the bed and then take a seat on the mattress, though a little further away than Seifer indicated.  I don't trust myself to be closer to the hurting man than necessary.  "I found this in your room," I say when handing the purple dragon in Seifer's direction.

He stares at the stuffed animal, but doesn't take the toy.  "It's my fault he's like that, and now he's useless."

"The damage isn't that bad; most of the tearing is along the seam.  I could fix it in the morning."

"Don't bother, Loire," Seifer says bitterly.  "After all of these years, the spell on the stupid beast was pretty weak.  He pushed himself too hard trying to protect me tonight and his magic shattered.  He's nothing more than fluff and fabric now."

"Can't you place a new protection spell on it?"

He breathes a laugh at the suggestion.  "It doesn't work that way.  A protection charm can only be created for another person.  I don't understand it very well, but it's kind of like a shield made of spiritual energy.  If I had a charm made of my own energy, it would be redundant and completely pointless since it's the mix of energies that protects the living from the dead."  Seifer reaches out for the dragon and fingers a small wing.  "And now, I have nothing left to protect me."

His words make my charm feel heavier against my neck.  "Is it possible for me to make one for you?"

Going still, Seifer continues to stare at the purple dragon before he forms a small smile.  "You're a good guy, Loire."

At the implied rejection, I nod in acceptance that it was a long shot to even ask.  "Either way, this is still a gift from your mother.  It would dishonor her memory to leave it in this state."

Seifer's smile widens a little further and he finally takes the toy from me.  "You won't blame me for being a grown man with a stuffed animal?"

"I haven't yet."

The blond chuckles at the truth behind my words, but his amusement is fleeting.  As his expression becomes serious, his hand tightens around the torn body of the purple dragon.  "If I tell you want happened, will you promise to stay with me for the rest of the night?"

I frown at the odd request.  "Why?"

With an awkward shrug, Seifer says, "The last time I had a shitty dream, you had the magic touch to help me sleep again.  I'm crossing my fingers that you'll be able to repeat the magic act, especially with Dog being neutered like this."

While I'm still suspicious of Seifer demanding for a promise, his explanation is reasonable enough for someone who is afraid to be left alone with his justifiable fears.  And honestly, I don't know why I continue to pretend that I can deny him anything.  "I'll stay as long as you need."

His lips twitch into a vague smile at my promise, but the show of relief disappears when Seifer begins his story.  "That night when I dreamed about the boy being killed, I didn't see his murderer, but I definitely saw something.  Maybe it was the killer's deformed soul, maybe it was a demon enjoying the act of strangling an innocent child... Frankly, I don't know what the hell I saw except a shape of pure darkness that, somehow, could see me.  As in, this thing knew I was there and watching, and if I had more time and information, I could have stopped its fun."

When Seifer hesitates to continue, I ask carefully, "I assume that hasn't happened to you before?"

"Fuck, no," Seifer replies with a slight choke to his voice.  "That's why I wanted you to tell your detective friend to be careful.  Whatever she's dealing with, there are other factors involved than a guy who likes killing a bunch of kids.  To make things worse, that thing is an intelligent fucker, and tonight, it decided to show me why I shouldn't interfere with its play."

"It attacked you here?  I thought this place would protect you."

"To my knowledge, your home would do its best to keep me safe, but that's not how that thing came after me.  It was hunting for me in my dreams."

I stare at the large blond and wordlessly question how something like that could be possible.

Seifer sighs in frustration and rakes a hand through his hair.  "I know you want a vast amount of details, Sherlock, but I don't really feel like it tonight.  Just know this: I'm not psychic; that's not how my powers work.  Instead, I have a connection with dead people and they are the ones bothering me with these dreams of the future.  They want to protect their loved ones, and that thing took advantage of it.  Some poor lost mother thought her girl was going to be sliced and diced by that fucker, and when I was brought into the dream to save her, that thing was waiting for me."

Seifer swallows deeply before continuing his story, the bob of his Adam's apple drawing my eyes to his throat and the bruises there.  "I was in this little girl's body and that shape of pure evil spoke to me.  It was angry, like a rage of black fire, and it kept blaming me for ruining its plans, which makes no fucking sense.  I mean, I didn't do anything to stop that boy's murder, and I didn't dream about those other boys, at least not that I remember.

"And then he reached for me.  He slipped through that innocent little girl and strangled me when I never knew I could be touched like that within a dream."  Seifer takes a shaky breath, as if remembering what it feels like to have no breath at all.  "I thought I was going to die.  Shit, I almost prayed to be sent to Heaven at that moment, but then there was this flash of light and I felt my mother's touch just when that thing screamed and released me.  Everything got a little hazy after that, and the next thing I knew, I was on the floor of my room and Dog was like this."

With everything said, I close my eyes and struggle with the knowledge that there's nothing I can do to help the blond.  I can't track down his attacker and bring him to jail, I can't protect Seifer from being assaulted in his dreams, and I can't provide him the same 'magic' that his mother did so many years ago.  There's nothing I can do and I'm not accustomed to feeling so helpless.

"I want to help," I whisper while opening my eyes.  "Tell me there is something I can do for you."

Seifer studies me for a long moment, seeming to consider something that I may have overlooked.  He starts once, and then stops for another second before he finally asks, "What would you do if I told you that I'm not as straight as you think I am?"

Caught off guard by the random question, I stare at the blond and reply with the first thing that comes to mind--"I'd say that you were lying."

"I figured as much, but I'm afraid the truth is the truth.  My arrow may mostly point north, but there are a few kinks in the middle where I've considered trying my luck with a guy.  I blame my father, but really, I'm ecstatic to be a little on the queer side and not have any homicidal urges every now and again."

My thoughts still flying at the confession, I pinch the bridge of my nose and try to regain some control in this discussion.  "You're not gay, Seifer.  Every man questions his sexuality on occasion, but it doesn't mean anything."

"Huh, does that work the other way around?  I mean, do you ever think about nailing a hot woman just to see what the fuss is about?"  When I glare at Seifer for his question, he smiles with a glimmer of his old arrogance.  "Well, I hate to break it to you, Sherlock, but I've actually tried the whole gay thing.  Unfortunately, the guy I chose was just like me, more straight than gay, which meant that neither of us knew what we were doing.  It probably didn't help that we were drunk and thought things would be easier than they were."

I nearly groan at his deluded thought process.  "And you think that isn't proof that you aren't gay?"

"Trust me, if I wasn't at least partially gay, that little episode would have steered my thoughts clear of trying it again," Seifer argues.  "Although, I will admit that it tempered my urge to experiment, which may have been for the better given my self-destructive ways after I wrecked my knee."

Biting my tongue, I hold back any words that would only encourage Seifer's obsessive need to prove himself right, even if he's completely wrong.  "And what's the point of this misguided admission?"

Considering his response, Seifer looks down at his wounded toy and fingers the exposed stuffing.  "You know, even when I was being strangled, I didn't really think about how I was going to die.  Instead, I got angry at the whole situation, especially when I knew you would've been too smart to fall into that fucker's trap.  You would have never let that thing touch you, forget letting it threaten your life.  And when I finally came to terms that I wasn't escaping, I thought about how you'd figure out some way, somehow to avenge my death, even when you have no connection to the dead.... Even when I've been such a prick to you."

Seifer lifts his gaze and watches me closely when he says, "In that moment, I realized that you're one of my biggest regrets in this life."

I meet his piercing eyes, and while I have always wanted to hear some version of those words, I don't dare let that show on my face.  I have learned the hard way that near-death experiences don't have to make lives better, and instead can make things much worse.  If Seifer thinks the lack of oxygen to his brain has brought about an epiphany, then he's going to be very disappointed.

"You don't want me," I argue softly.

"What the... Were you not listening to me?  As far as I knew, you were my last fucking thought alive, and you think that I don't want you?"

I smile at his easy anger and wish that I could show the same emotions.  "You hate your powers and you're terrified by the idea of revealing your secrets to other people.  You also don't want to die alone.  To avoid that inevitability, you're settling with me, a person who already knows plenty about you and loves you anyway."

"That's bullshit, Loire, and you know it."

I sigh bitterly at the proof that Seifer is simply fooling himself.  "And that is why I know you don't want me."

Green eyes shift as he rethinks his words and fails to find anything wrong with them.

"My name, Seifer," I say in a slightly exasperated tone.  "When have you ever called me by my given name?"

Startled by the revelation, Seifer stares with wide eyes at a point somewhere over my shoulder and loses himself in deep thought, probably attempting to find a point in time when he actually used my name beyond a descriptive purpose.  I already know that he'll only remember uses of 'Loire' along with a colorful selection of nicknames, his latest being 'Sherlock.'  It's actually a bit impressive how much he goes out of his way to not speak my name.

"It's not what you think," Seifer eventually says, his eyes still not quite meeting mine.  "I have a bad history when it comes to any kind of relationship, and while my dreams and powers are largely at fault, I'm not an easy man to get along with.  Maybe it's because I assume things are over before they start, but I tend to avoid getting too close to people.  I guess using last names is a part of that."

"How convenient," I scoff at his explanation as I effortlessly recall a handful of people he calls by their given name.  It may be petty, but my father is the first to come to mind.

Seifer finally faces me directly, the anger of his eyes failing to mask the unexpected pain my harsh response caused him.  "You're right--it is fucking convenient, but it's the truth that things tend to go wrong whenever I get attached to people.  Hell, you were shoved down the stairs by a ghost who shouldn't have been able to touch you in the first place!  Do you have a fucking clue how scared I was when my prick of a father said that he almost got rid of you?"

I shake my head, refusing to fall into his pace.  "But why, Seifer?  Why would you care about me now?"

"Because..."  Hesitating, he bites the corner of his lower lip and forces his words when he says, "I think I have always loved you."

After a wasted moment of staring at the idiot, I push up from the mattress and try to walk away at his ridiculous confession, but Seifer has apparently regained some of his old speed since he grabs my wrist before I get further than a step.

"I know, I know it sounds crazy, but..."  Seifer takes a calming breath before explaining, "I have this dream, this one good dream where someone is always waiting for me.  If I open my eyes, the dream ends, so I haven't seen the person's face, but I still consider us lovers.  For a long time, I thought it was a predictable dream from my filthy imagination, but since I moved in here, I've had that dream twice.  The first time, he gained a voice.  The second time, his necklace brushed along my skin."

Feeling the weight of warm metal at my neck, I glare at the blond bastard for somehow assuming his explanation would make things better.  "And what, I should be honored at taking a role in your wet dreams?"

"Wha-- No, that's not what I meant, damn it," Seifer argues, somehow managing to be the offended person.  "If you know anything about me, it's that my dreams aren't normal.  Granted, I actually thought this dream was a normal dream, but when I felt that protection charm at my chest, there was this weird... echo of sorts.  I could sense time in that pulse and I immediately realized that it was something from the future."

I clench my teeth in frustration, unable to tell the difference between the truth and fairytales when Seifer speaks the words.  "If it's the future, then why did your 'lover' just now get a necklace?"

"My dreams only go so far, probably because future events aren't exactly stable.  After all, if the future can't be changed, I wouldn't be able to save a damned soul and it'd be a lot of wasted effort on the part of the spirits who bring me those visions."

I stare into softly lit green eyes, something taunting me about his answer.  "And you've had this dream before?"

"Since high school," Seifer says without hesitation, and just when I realize the significance of his statement, he comments bitterly, "If I had known it was more than a dream, things could have been different.  Everything I have ever felt in those dreams could have been mine from the start, but I was too stupid to know that my dreams are never normal."

"... You're making things simple again," I warn, afraid of my own emotions if I allowed myself to think about the years already lost.

With a slight frown, Seifer surprisingly agrees, "Yeah, I guess I am oversimplifying this shit.  I've made up a fantasy world in a past that I can't change; meanwhile, I seem to have forgotten that there's an important future directly ahead of us."

And that's his only warning before Seifer abruptly tightens his hold around my wrist and pulls on my arm while standing up from the bed.  As he leans forward, his other hand lifts to the back of my neck with the clear purpose of positioning my head to his preference, but it's a second that Seifer couldn't afford to waste in his ill-devised plan.  In a quick and direct move, I raise my open hand to the center of his face and shove his head back to a safer distance.

"What do you think you're doing?" I ask the blond, even though it's rather obvious.

"I thought I was I trying to prove something to you," Seifer replies after slipping away from my interfering hand.

With a sigh at his one-track mind, I lower my hand to his throat and gently examine the finger-shaped bruises.  "You almost died tonight.  You're searching for comfort, and in your mind, I'm someone who wouldn't say 'no' to you, especially with your thoughts around that 'dream' of yours."

"Don't tell me what I'm thinking," Seifer growls, "especially when you're wrong."

"I know that people do impulsive things when they lose control of their emotions, and then they often regret what they did, even when it seemed like the answer in the first place."

Seifer doesn't say anything immediately, actually considering what I said before he lifts a hand to my chin and forces me to meet his piercing gaze.  "In other words, you can trust me in everything but this."

I avert my eyes, knowing how ridiculous it sounds that I can believe in his talk of ghosts and foreseeing dreams, but not in his suggestions that he wants to love me.  I can only assume it's because his visions have been proven time and time again, but no evidence exists that could prove his emotions are true and not a product of searching for the closest source of stability when his world is falling apart.  It hurts even more to know that his 'sudden realization' concerning his good dream is probably little more than a delusion supported by the stress of recent events.

Seifer breathes a quiet laugh at my silent answer.  "Shit, I have to say that I never saw that coming.  You know, it's kind of cruel of you to love me, but then not let me have that love."

Annoyed by his attempt to play the victim, I push back from the blond, but he jerks my arm to keep me in place.

"What if I kiss you in the morning?" Seifer asks, his expression perfectly serious despite his words.  When I have no reply, he explains further, "There's no way in hell that I'm sleeping tonight, which means I'll have plenty of time to let my head cool and honestly think about this.  If I end up kissing you, it won't be because of emotions, right?"

I scoff at his assumptions.  "You're incapable of acting on anything other than emotion."

Seifer smirks with a smug curl to his lips.  "I think I might surprise you."

I hold my tongue when the thought comes to mind that Seifer is constantly a source of surprises, but not in this particular area.

"In any case, didn't you promise to stay with me tonight?"

I frown at his reminder and the realization that he was planning from the beginning to confess his confused love.  "You bastard."

Seifer accepts the curse, his smirk fading into something uncomfortable.  "I may seem fine right now, but I know that the moment you're out of sight, I'm going to start thinking about how I have nothing left to protect me if that thing decides to attack me again.  I know there's nothing you can do, but I feel safer when you're around.  Maybe it's because you give me other things to think about."

I want to shrug off his words as if they meant nothing to me, but while I have no illusions of my love being answered, I'm weak when it comes to protecting the cursed blond.  Being in the same space as Seifer doesn't have to mean anything, and if it helps him in any way, then I should be able to endure it for a night.  As long as he doesn't continue this pointless drivel of his, of course.

"I interrupted your work, right?  Is it too late to help you finish it?"

At the suggestion, I glance at the clock and notice that it has been almost an hour since I left the motel.  "I suppose we could see if they are still at it, but there wouldn't be anything for you to do.  I'm there to take photos and I only have the one camera."

"That's fine.  Getting some fresh air would probably help to clear my head."

"You can't talk; it may attract the wrong attention."

"But of course."

"It's below freezing out there," I remind the blond.

"Even better," he says with a sharp smile.

I could argue, but it's not like I'm any smarter when it comes to needing to relieve stress.  "It'll be boring," I offer in a final, clear warning.  When Seifer continues to grin without reluctance, I sigh in defeat and point toward the stuffed animal left on the bed.  "Bring your dragon.  I can work on it while we're waiting."

Seifer's smile fails momentarily and is then replaced by something softer.  "You really are a good guy, you know."

I huff at his attempt to praise me when I can't help but think of the old adage that nice guys finish last.  It's something that will be proven once again when, by morning, Seifer will start to doubt his choices tonight.  I can already hear his words, that I was right and that I'm a 'good guy' who deserves someone better than him, someone who isn't the person I've wanted for all of these years.  The pathetic thing is that I'm going to hate Seifer for only repeating what I already know, and I don't want to hate him.  I don't... But maybe that was inevitable from the beginning.




Author's Whining -- *sigh* There's simply too much to whine about.  I've been super busy lately and no clue when that will lighten up... before February, that is. =P  I hope the ending of this chapter is more than just a teaser, but a look into the reality that Seifer always wins. ;)

Anywho, I highly suggest checking my live journal about future updates instead of constantly checking my poor neglected website.  I wish I could promise when the next update will be, but with 40-45hrs/wk going to work and 15-20hrs/wk going to school, I'm not quite certain I'll have much brainpower left for writing. ^^; I'll do my best, though!