One Wrong Step
June 2011



Squall's motorcycle eases into yet another curve up the mountain pass, and as we move farther away from the lights of the city, I begin to wonder why I came up with this not-so-brilliant plan to join the brunet on his stalking mission.  Sure, I didn't want to be left alone with the flashes of memories about the demon that tried to strangle me earlier tonight, but I should have taken another few seconds to figure out how to coax Squall into staying at home where it's warm and safe.

...But then I remember how the guy looked too much like a fox with his foot stuck in a trap, perfectly ready to gnaw it off in exchange for his freedom.

On any other night, I probably would have allowed him that escape, but with Dog broken and useless, I need Squall's presence more than an unimaginative guy like him could possibly understand.  To him, it's a simple case of me taking advantage of his inability to say 'no' to my whims.  To me... Well, I guess I haven't figured that out just yet.

What I do know, however, is that I've probably seen one too many horror flicks where idiots go into the forest during the darkest part of night and are never heard from again.  It doesn't help that my life has taught me that good, happy things don’t hide in the darkness.  There have been plenty of tenacious spirits, merciless demons, and vicious shadows, but no fluffy kittens that purr when receiving the slightest amount of attention.  Heck, knowing my luck, if a kitten did appear, it'd have a poisonous bite and scythe-like claws, forever ruining my ability to trust the innocent things in life.

And such is the direction of my thoughts when the roar of the motorcycle suddenly changes pitch, and I sit up straighter when Squall pulls the bike over to park on a wide shoulder meant for slower cars on the mountain road.  Even though I trust Squall to know where he is going, I linger while eyeing the darkened forest and wishing that I had my hands on a high-powered flashlight.  Or a shotgun.  Better yet, a high-powered flashlight mounted on a big-ass shotgun.

"Is there a problem?" Squall asks in a dull tone, the man still irritated at my poorly executed attempt to prove I'm not one-hundred percent straight.

Swallowing back my reply that there are plenty of problems with this scenario, I half-slide and half-fall off the motorcycle in a stiff move when frozen body parts refuse to bend properly.  As if mocking me, Squall dismounts from the bike with perfect ease, and after removing his helmet, he grabs a heavy camera case from a saddlebag.  The brunet says nothing as he heads for the nearby incline, and not wanting to be left behind, I jerk off my own helmet and drop it next to the bike before hurrying after the silent man.

It's kind of pathetic to look at the surrounding trees and see monsters that aren't there, but the climb is thankfully a short one.  The hill quickly crests into a ledge, and while Squall focuses on assembling his camera with a ridiculously large lens, I glance down at the shoddy motel that has no real purpose being here.  The ski resorts are another hour away, and the city isn't much closer.  It's almost as if the owners planned for this to be a hookup spot from the very beginning, which may be the depressing reality of the rundown building.  Where there is sin, there are people willing to take advantage of it, I suppose.

The abrupt sound of scrapping bark makes me turn sharply and look around a little too wildly before spotting Squall as he climbs up one of the larger trees like a damned kid.  Annoyed by my overreaction, I glare at the brunet while trying to figure out how I can blame him for setting off my frazzled nerves.

Once he reaches a sturdy branch, Squall notices my stare and sighs quietly before directing a beckoning hand at me.  It takes a couple moments before I realize that he wants the stuffed animal I have hidden within the safety of my coat.  I unzip my coat and pull Dog free, his broken and torn body held together with a strip of duct tape.  Despite his current state, I give my little guardian the silent warning that I expect no funny business between him and Squall, and when I don’t get an argument from the beast, I chuck Dog toward the waiting brunet.  Squall catches the winged dragon on the first try, and just like that I'm left alone to my own devices and overactive imagination.

With few other options for entertainment, I locate a nearby tree that looks acceptable as a place to sit and relax for a couple of hours.  Of course, I didn't consider that the ground would be frozen solid, but it's not like standing around on my bum leg would be any more comfortable.  I fiddle with my coat and scarf to cover as much exposed skin as possible.  Eventually giving up on that endeavor, I rest my chin on a gloved hand and glance up at the man who has, somehow, made my life so much more confusing lately, which is saying something given how fucked up my life has already been.  I should be cursing and ranting at Squall for that, and yet it seems so much easier to just sit here and watch the attractive brunet as he carefully mends the cheap carnival toy my mother won for me so many years ago.

Following the movements of his sewing hand, I occasionally catch a glimpse of metal reflecting the soft light of the moon, the sight making me smile fondly as I recall the return of my good dream that had led to the purchase of Squall's protective charm.  Before that, I don't remember having my good dream twice in the same month, let alone in the same week, which made it a very welcomed relief given the rejection I felt with Squall going to great lengths to avoid me.  Even though he's a silent fucker, I had grown accustomed to his presence in our previous days together.

That second dream began the same way it always does—with my unseen lover caressing my body as if never seeing it before—and in that moment, I was struck by the revelation that there had to be a reason for the repeating theme.  When my lover pressed a kiss above my heart, it suddenly seemed obvious that each dream was possibly the beginning of a relationship.  Unsettled by my theory, I did something in my dream that I had absolutely refused to do in years: I opened my eyes to look at the person with me.

The dream faded away rapidly at that point, but there was one thing I saw clearly; sadly, it wasn't the identity of my lover, but the metal necklace of a roaring lion hanging in front of my face.  I thought it was a pointless image at the time, but two days later, I lost my breath when I found the exact same necklace on a vendor's table.  Squall had scowled disapprovingly at my side, which probably means he thought I was enamored by the vendor's tale about 'Gyver' or whatever name she used, but it's not like I could tell Squall that I no longer had any doubts about the identity of my mysterious dream lover.  It was too big for me at the time, and it wasn't until my life was threatened that I could freely acknowledge how much I wanted that unknown future.

But God damn it, why does life have to be cruel enough to make me understand that I need Squall, and yet provide me with no way of explaining that to him without sounding completely trite and ridiculous?  If only the bastard wasn't so stingy with his love...

"Disgustin'," a voice spits behind me.

I jump a handful of inches at the grating voice, and then wince in pain when I land hard against the frozen ground.  Growling at my typical startled reaction, I glare over my shoulder at my bastard of a father.  "Whatever you have to say, I don't want to hear it."

The fatigue-wearing man bears his teeth in anger.  "Don't ya see what that freak is doin' to ya?  I told ya that he put worms in yer brain to give ya queer thoughts, and now look at yamoonin’ over him like some whore."

"And let me guess, you have a problem with that?" I ask with mock interest.

Not appreciating my tone, the fucker growls, "Yer confused by that faggot and I won't let my boy go down the path of the Devil."

At first shocked, I have to smother my disbelieving laughter in fear of ruining Squall's stakeout.  "You raped at least thirteen women and who knows how many men you pummeled to death with your fists, and you think that me loving another man is the Devil's work?  There's no way you are that deluded."

"Don't worry, boy, I'll save ya before yer lost for good," the ghost pledges as he glances upward and shows a vicious smile.

My humor is instantly replaced by cold terror when I recognize the smile the bastard showed while encouraging my mother to take her life.  I scramble to my feet despite frozen body parts and place myself between the deranged spirit and the idiot who put himself in a tree.  "I'll destroy you before I'll let you touch him."

Eyes empty of life focus on me, amused by my threat.  "When I kill that parasite, yer the one who'll get blamed.  In jail, yer gonna to learn real quick that ya ain't queer and yer gonna fuck up the ones who are."  His smile broadens to something toothy and mean.  "I'm gonna really enjoy watchin' ya break their dicks, just like I did when they got too close, and yer gonna love it."

I shiver at his words, not entirely certain if the ghost is speaking about a true future or one that is a fantasy in his diseased brain.  "How many times do I have to tell you that I'll never become what you want?"

"Yer stubborn, just like that whore ya came from, but ya won't last.  Ya have my blood runnin' through yer veins, and no doubt, it'll shine when that faggot is good and gone."

The sickness in my stomach turns into something else, and with my hands clenched into tight fists, I wish for a moment that I did have the blood of a murderer if that's what I need to kill this bastard, even though he's already dead.  And I know there is a way to get rid of him, but my mother never had the foresight to teach me that particular trick before her suicide... Or maybe she did have plenty of chances, but chose to protect me from the life that ultimately drove her over the edge.

The ghost grins a snake's smile at my frustrated silence and takes a couple lazy steps forward.  "Cute, boy, but don't get pretty little thoughts in yer head that ya can stop me, 'cause ya can't.  And this time, I'm not just gonna push that queer down a couple'a stairs."

I watch my bastard father's every move and focus on the thought that I want him gone.  None of him belongs in this world--his feet that don't disturb the ground, his fingers that twitch into stranglehold curves, his smile that doesn't show an ounce of humanity--and damn it, he should have been sent to Hell long before threatening Squall's life, long before pushing my mother into suicide, and long before I was even born.  He shouldn't have existed in the first place, and now I want him gone.

The ghost slows to a stop, his pale eyes shifting in wary manner that encourages me to also scan our surroundings.  The night seems a little darker, as if new shadows had come out to play, but it’s not like I thought the forest was particularly welcoming in the first place.  Ignoring my paranoia and focusing on my bastard father, I beg for my powers to do something right for once.  I need something that can finally help me, instead of slowly driving me insane; something that give me the strength to hurt this fucker once and for all.

"What'd ya think yer doin', boy?" the spirit demands in an almost fatherly tone, which only spurs my building fury.

"I think I'm going to fuck you up," I reply, my voice barely sounding like my own.

Incredibly, the ghost backs up a step at the threat, but doesn't show anything in his expression.  "I told ya not to get funny ideas."

"Oh, they aren't funny at all," I retort when I feel a subtle shift, a burn of unnatural energy under my skin that makes me smile in sweet pleasure.  Finally, finally, finally...

I charge forward with a raised fist and throw a punch at the face that has far too many similarities to my own.  The ghost doesn’t budge an inch while smirking at my approach, certain that I can't touch him.  In the last fraction of a second, however, his expression loses its edge while his eyes shine with a faint light of disbelief.  My punch connects, and I almost cry out at the sensation of my fist smashing through a layer of ice and into freezing water, but any pain I feel is quickly forgotten when I see the damage I’ve done.

Like a ceramic mask, the portion of his face I had punched is gone and the rest is cracked to reveal inky darkness beneath.  A dull sulfur light glows from the corner of his broken eye, and then brightens when he stumbles away from me.  The ghost hisses an unearthly sound, and before I recognize his escape, he disappears in a wisp of smoke.  It's a vanishing act I have witnessed many times before, but unlike those times, a mournful howl echoes within the surrounding trees and a sudden gust of wind stirs up the snow and fallen pine needles.

Any amount of warmth I built up from adrenaline is instantly wiped away by that sound and cold wind, and without that extra boost of energy, I realize that I probably did something pretty stupid, but I haven't a freaking clue what.

After several very quiet seconds, the soft snap of something wood-like startles me into turning around with fists raised, but my reaction proves unnecessary when I find Squall a handful of feet away with his arms crossed over his chest and a booted foot placed purposefully on a pinecone.  I almost complain that he should've found a better way to gain my attention, but given my unsettled state, I doubt there was a gentler option that wouldn't have made me lash out.

Squall lifts an eyebrow into a questioning arc and asks, "Did you figure out how to hurt that father of yours?"

"Wha--?" I breathe in shock before I stop myself from falling into the same old trap of believing that the brunet is all-knowing.  "Oh, come on!  There's no way you could've guessed that.  Don't tell me... Did you see something just now?" I ask and then cringe at the hopeful note to my voice.

"I saw you," Squall replies as he moves forward with slow steps, "as well as heard you.  While I didn't catch everything, I know when you're arguing with your father.  It seemed rather heated this time."

"’Heated?’" I repeat with a scoff.  "How many times do I have to tell that he wants you dead?  And I'm not talking about the friendly, over-in-seconds type of dead, but the 'suffering from a gut wound for hours before choking on your own blood' kind of dead.  If I end up watching, it'd be like Christmas Day for the fucker."

Squall stops a few inches in front of me and glances down at my right side.  "One of these days, I should teach you how to throw a proper punch," he says, blatantly ignoring my concern for his life.

I lift up my hand and scowl at the state of my glove, the new leather torn and wet with blood.  "Give me a break, Sherlock.  You know damn well that I can throw a punch, but I was dealing with a ghost here.  Y'know, not of this plane and all that?"

Squall doesn't concede my point when he places a hand beneath mine and lifts it to examine the minor damage.  It's nothing more than a few scrapes, but he uses a gentle touch that, unfortunately, reminds me of my dream lover's careful hands.  If only it wasn't so freaking cold and our hands were free of the barriers of leather and cloth...

"You didn't have to do this, not for me."

Distracted by a fleeting fantasy of the brunet being close enough to lick my wounds, it takes a moment to realize what Squall said.  "Heh, that's where you're wrong for once.  I lost the urge to fuck up my father a long time ago, but then you came back into my life and gave me a new reason to hate the bastard."

Stormy blues glance up through long bangs in silent disapproval of what the serious man probably considers romantic nonsense.  I have the immediate urge to react to his distrust, but I rein in that desire to instead pull my hand free from his hold and use my gloved fingers to brush aside the dark hair covering his eyes.  While I tend to avoid that frozen gaze in fear of judgment, I need Squall to look at me without obstruction and see that I'm not lying to him or feeding him the half-truths that come easily for me.

For his part, Squall watches me cautiously instead of rejecting my touch, and with that unspoken permission, I leave my hand at the side of his face, careful to not mark his pale skin with my blood.

"That bastard has been haunting me ever since he encouraged my mother to commit suicide, and I haven't been able to do anything to scare him off.  He has mocked me for my losses in football, kept me awake on purpose before big tests, and said the most repulsive things whenever I had sex with women, especially the ones I liked.  The only thing that made him go away was alcohol, and we both know how well that worked out."

With a frustrated breath, Squall asks, "What's your point, Seifer?"

At the suggestion that I'm rambling, I let my fingers drift to his long neck and reluctantly recall the time my bastard father tried to strangle the oblivious brunet.  "The point is that I've never hurt the fucker before now.  Sure, I spooked him last week, but even that was because he lunged at you.  After all these years of enduring his abuse, this is the first time I've had the desperate need to do something about him."

When I notice full lips parting, I guess Squall's argument and plow on ahead.  "I know what you're going to say, and yes, there was also my mother's death, but I was too young to do anything.  By the time I grew into my powers, I had been ridiculed by the bastard for my failures at trying to exorcise him, numerous failures, and I lost the nerve to fight him.  It became easier to ignore him lurking behind my back...

“That is, until he threatened your life."

Squall brushes aside my hand from his face, apparently not impressed by my explanations.  "There's no reason for my presence to make a difference."

"Well, I think there's one very important reason," I maintain with an ambitious grin.

"You're deluded if you still think you love me," Squall retorts, his nose wrinkling in distaste.

"And maybe I am deluded, but I know how it feels to be with you, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make those dreams into a reality."

"...You still believe that those dreams were about us?"

"Of course they are about us," I say as my eyebrows furrow at the absurd question.  "Do you think I'm making it up?"

Squall studies my face before saying, "Earlier, you told me that your dreams aren't your own, but come from the dead looking for help.  If that is true, then why would a spirit bring you that one dream time and time again?  It doesn't make any sense."

I stare directly into pale eyes, dumbfounded by the question that is, regrettably, logical and something I should have probably asked myself before bringing it up to the intelligent man.  All of my other dreams seem to come from spirits who want to protect a loved one from some terrible event.  While I hate those dreams, I understand why they push those futures onto me, usually mothers desperate to save... their children...

"God damn it," I curse when the obvious answer comes to mind, and then turn my annoyance to the dark-haired bastard.  "You did that on purpose to ruin the mood, didn't you?"

Squall doesn't say anything, but there's nothing in his expression to suggest that he knew what revelation he'd cause with his question.

"Who else would give me those dreams, Sherlock, except my mother?  She knows more than anyone what it means to suffer with my powers, and the conniving woman must have figured out exactly what I needed to get through this life."  Overwhelming frustration fills my chest when I add, "She's trying to save me by getting that message through my thick skull, and what else is going to grab my attention faster than sex?"

Stormy eyes narrow at my theory, the lingering doubt irritating me further.  "Wouldn't it be easier for her to speak to you directly?"

A mean laugh leaves me at the suggestion.  "You're assuming she wants to face me after leaving me the fuck alone in this life."

With a sympathetic sigh, Squall doesn't press the matter, but I know he doesn't believe me, and that hurts more that the bastard rejecting my advances earlier tonight.  After all these years, the one thing I could depend on was Squall's belief in my powers.  He trusted me when no other sane person would, and God, I needed that so much in my life.  I need it, and I have a feeling that this is exactly what my mother saw.

Frustrated, I grab onto the front of his jacket and beg shamelessly, "You have to give me a chance, Loire.  I've seen how much..."  My voice goes quiet when I hear my own voice and how the man's last name grates against my ears.  Damn it, how do I always manage to ruin the more important moments in my life?

Not commenting on the use of his last name, Squall pulls my hand away from his jacket and declares, "I don't have to do anything."

I close my eyes in surrender, and when I reopen them, I find his back turned to me as he walks toward the tree he had been sitting in earlier.  Thinking that he wants to retrieve his camera equipment, I decide to stay where I am and wait for Squall to make the move towards his motorcycle.  But instead of that obvious choice, the brunet jumps to grab a branch and pull himself back up into the tree.  Beyond stunned, I almost trip when running after the unbelievable man.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" I demand, not fast enough to yank Squall back to the ground.

"Finishing my job," he says as if it were obvious.

"A ghost wants you dead, and you think sitting up in a tree is a good idea?"  When Squall simply settles into his spot despite my concern, I add on, "You don't even know if that cheating bastard is still banging his mistress.  They could've walked away at any point."

"They didn't.”

"Okay, fine, they’re still boinking like wild monkeys, but that doesn't make you any safer in that freaking tree!"

Squall glares at me for my raised voice.  "The drop isn't that far."

"It is if you land on your neck," I argue, albeit in a slightly more controlled tone.

"Not likely," he claims while lifting his camera and focusing on the motel.  "In any case, you're here to protect me.  Or were you exaggerating the reason for your sudden ability to fight ghosts?"

"You fucking..."  With a growling breath, I hold back the damaging words that want to escape me.  Even so, I kick out my frustration against the tree, wise enough to do so with my good leg.  Expending that touch of energy, I slump back against the sturdy trunk and fold my arms over my chest.  "Just so you know, this doesn't change anything.  Annoy me all you want, but I'm the one who knows what it feels like when we're together.  It's going to happen, whether you believe it or not."

When no reply comes to my vague threat, I sigh and gaze out at the snow-covered forest.  It should be a calming sight, but there's nothing that can soothe me when another dream has become useless to me.  As if to prove me wrong, something drops against my head, and startled, I reflexively grab the surprisingly squish-able object.  Once recognizing the purple dragon, I immediately loosen my hold and check Dog for any damage caused by my grab, and instead discover that Squall had finished his mending, making the little guy whole again.  I glance up at the confusing man, but Squall maintains the charade of looking through his camera without a single click of taking an actual photo.

I smile faintly at having my guardian returned, and while the spell my mother placed on him has been broken, Dog still has that comforting charm I appreciate after the worst of my nightmares.  Holding him against my chest, I look up to the cloudy sky and silently thank my mother for trying her best.  I know she won't speak to me, and I don't blame her for that, but it's good to know that she didn't give up on me even with everything she knows in the afterlife.

I should have never doubted that the stubborn woman would try to save me, although I wish she had a better plan than depending on Squall.  Obviously Squall doesn't want to be convinced of that same future which I need to be true, and without his cooperation, I'll end up returning to the person I was before he foolishly decided to help me.  I'm not entirely certain I could survive on my own again, not just yet, and I really hate how the image of my mother's knife suddenly comes to mind as if it were another option.

Pressing my mouth against Dog's head, I complain into his nonexistent ear, "Dang it, Mom, next time show me what happens before I trick him into bed if you actually want me to make this work.  Got it?"

~ > < ~

We don't return to Squall's building until the sky lightens in a pre-sunrise fashion, which means those cheating lovebirds were at it all freaking night.  After seeing pictures of the middle-aged moron and his bimbo, I'm almost impressed that the man didn't have a heart attack with all of that activity.  Impressed, that is, until I recall being forced to stand in the cold while keeping a look out for vengeful spirits, and I want to punch the fucker in his depleted nuts.  I can only hope that his neglected wife does the deed for me.

"Seifer," Squall breathes in annoyance, interrupting my little fantasy.  "We're here; let go."

Not realizing Squall had already parked and switched off his motorcycle, I consider his demand and decide that I'm too tired to play the obedient dog.  "That depends--are you going to run off and hide in your room if I let you escape right now?"

Squall doesn't say anything in reply, but I feel the tension of his body within my arms, and I don't like it one bit.

Angry and frustrated, I release the brunet and shove him forward while I climb off his bike.  "If you hate me holding you that much, get a fucking car," I complain while freeing the strap of my helmet.

Even though a visor blocks my view of pale eyes, I feel them all the same when I chuck my borrowed helmet at the side of his motorcycle and turn around to storm off in the direction of concrete stairs.  I make it to the first landing before I realize that I'm being an idiot and that it'll be difficult to protect Squall if I can't see him, so I slump against a wall and wait for the dark-haired man.  His boots sound lightly on the stairs, and when he comes into view, Squall pauses to stare with a glimmer of surprise and vague humor in blue-gray eyes.

"Hurry up, Sherlock," I grumble at the brunet.  "It's cold out, and I can't feel my fingers, forget my other favorite appendages."

Squall eyes me for another moment before he steps past and moves up the next set of stairs.  I follow after him, trying my best to keep an eye out for my bastard father by looking around the brunet and not directly at his slender figure, but it's a near futile effort given the sway of his hips with each step upward.  Lucky for me, I'm not completely hopeless, which means that I catch the movement of Squall's arm just before his gloved hand clutches the lion pendant hanging outside of his jacket.  My chest tightens slightly at the idea that Squall has decided to depend on me for something, though it's not like the guy has any other options.

"Your father isn't here, is he?"

Still distracted by the subtle sign of Squall's trust, it takes me a moment to register his question and then another to realize that he's right.  "I don't see him, but how the Hell do you know that?"

"The metal usually feels hot when I get this far.  I assume it's because of your father."

"You assume?" I ask irritably, not the least bit pleased to hear about that little detail just now.  "And you never considered that it's because he's trying to strangle your neck or attempting something worse?"

"He hasn't been able to touch me," Squall comments while reaching into his pocket for the key to his place.

"Fine, he can't touch you, not at the moment, but that trinket I gave you isn't going to last forever against him," I argue, even though it feels like I'm talking to a wall.  "If you keep playing this dumbass game of chicken, he's going to win simply because he's already dead."

Squall pauses in the motion of opening the door and glances over his shoulder to almost look at me.  "You're that worried...?"

"God fuck, Loire, have you heard a single word I've said since that bastard became fixated on you?"  When the brunet simply stares at me in return, I dutifully reply, "Of course I'm worried, you moron, and I'm going out of my mind because you won't play it safe even for a minute.  How can I stop and think and figure anything out when you're right smack in the middle of it?"

A soft 'huh' leaves him, but Squall doesn't expand upon whatever thoughts are bouncing around that head of his before he walks into his home, not that I really expect anything more from the pain in my ass.  Still, it would've been nice to get a promise that he'll at least pretend to be a little more careful, even if he just continues to do what he has always done.

I scratch a hand through my hair in frustration but immediately wince at the bend of sore knuckles.  Lowering my hand, I stare at the glimmer of fresh blood beneath shredded leather and feel my mood sober when unwanted thoughts come to mind.

Tonight, I may have done the impossible and protected Squall from a raging ghost, but with all of that effort to play the hero, I may have overlooked the obvious answer to keeping the dark-haired man safe and alive: I shouldn't be here.  My bastard father has repeatedly given me the ultimatum to leave, but I ignored it for my own selfish reasons at the risk of Squall's life.  Maybe if I leave now and swear to never come back, the spirit will leave the brunet alone.

"Seifer?  Is something wrong?"

I look up at the call of my name and find Squall leaning out from the open doorway, his jacket and gloves gone in a sign that I've been lingering outside a bit too long, especially when I've been complaining all night about the frigid weather.  A weak excuse sits ready on my tongue, but the moment my eyes meet pale blue, I know that it won't work.  He may accept my lie and not force another word from me, but that's not what I need right now.  God help me, I need so much more than Squall playing along with my constant lies.


"It's my fault that you're in danger," I say as if Squall didn't realize that obvious truth.  "Ward has also been dropping hints like a load of bricks about how you own other properties that you rent out.  I was just thinking that maybe if I leave, you wouldn't have to worry about my father lurking behind your back."

Squall stares at me after the suggestion, his eyes colder than moments ago.  "Is that what you want?"

"... If it keeps you safe."

With a huff, Squall leans back against the frame of the open door.  "Then all that talk of protecting me was just that?  Talk?"

"God damn it, that's not what I'm saying here, Loire.  I'm saying--"

"That I'd somehow be better off when I can't see or hear the man who wants me dead?"

"All of this started because he hates the idea of me living here.  If I leave, he could give up on you," I try to rationalize, but once spoken out loud, it doesn't sound as plausible as it did in my head.  Even if I could stay away from Squall, it’s not like the fucker has an ounce of honor left in his diseased soul.  Dealing with the Devil would probably have better results.

Perhaps noticing how little I believe my own theory, Squall softens his expression and almost smiles when he says, "Come inside, Seifer.  I know you're cold."

With that simple statement, the pressure that had been building in my chest releases in a breath of laughter.  Only Squall could say something so important in so few words, and with that spark of inspiration, I remember my earlier pledge to kiss him after a night of considering what it means to love another man.  Squall didn't accept or even acknowledge that pledge, but his words create the desire and need to know the answer to that very question.  No matter how much I think I could like him, the physical aspect is a little too important for me, and I can't be certain if something more is possible with the brunet unless I know if touching him will drive me as crazy as talking to him does.

Some of my thoughts must show in my expression since Squall abruptly frowns and turns into the condo without another word.  Disappointed but hardly defeated, I follow after the difficult man into the warmth of his home, and with a final shiver at the cold, I close the door tight behind me.  When I remove my coat and bloodied gloves, soft energy brushes over my minor cuts and some of the ache fades at the doting attention that mirrors Squall's earlier concern.  I suppose it's cute getting that extra bit of love from his home, but it's not a replacement for something directly from the dark-haired beauty.

"It's light out," Squall comments from the kitchen area, his arms crossed over his chest as he watches me.  "Will that make it safer for you to sleep?"

Toeing off my sneakers, I snort at the innocent question.  "You shouldn't believe the crap from movies and fairytales.  While they're more active in the shadows, ghosts and demons won't let something like daylight stop them if they're determined enough."

Squall nods at my answer, and without asking anything more, he moves to his overly complex coffee maker.  He efficiently measures out the beans to make his patented coffee, a brew that always skims the edge of too strong, but still tastes good despite kicking a man awake.  Squall starting the coffee isn't a surprising act, especially when I have failed on several occasions to make the contraption work, but then the brunet has to go and pull out two mugs from the nearby cabinet.

I stare at those two cups on the counter, and while I should be relieved and maybe a little happy at the sight that Squall intends to sit with me as I avoid sleep, I instead feel confused and irritated.  Despite all of his hostilities and sharp words, he decided within a moment that he can set aside his fears about my advances to watch over my pathetic ass.  I don't know whether something like that makes him strong or naive, but whatever happens after this point, Squall can't say it's entirely my fault.

I step into the kitchen area when the first hint of coffee drifts into the air, and even though Squall doesn't look up or say anything, I know that he recognizes my approach.  I briefly consider how the dark-haired man could kick my ass before I can do anything productive, but those thoughts don’t stop me from continuing forward such that Squall watches me guardedly.

Too late, he decides to place distance between us, which lands him backed against the pantry door with my left hand firm against the stained wood.  It's a stupidly weak position on my part since Squall could easily jam a knee into my groin, but perhaps taking pity on my boldness, Squall simply stares with a quiet gleam to his pale, perfect eyes.

"What the fuck do you want from me?" I ask, my voice low and raw as a few too many emotions rise to the surface.

Stormy eyes continue to stare directly into my gaze, but Squall stubbornly says nothing.

"Is it the name thing?  Do you just want me to say your name?  Then fine, Squall," I say, unable to make it sound sincere.  God damn it, this isn't the way I wanted to speak his name.  "Does that make you happy, Squall?"

Crossing his arms over his chest, Squall scowls in a manner that demands, 'What do you think?'

"Then if your name isn't enough, what is?  You won't trust me when I tell you that I've been attracted to other men, you won't believe me when I tell you about my dreams of the future, and you won't let me do anything to prove how I feel about you.  So you tell me, Squall, what do you want?  Because I'm getting a shitload of mixed messages here."

He shifts his gaze to stare at a point over my shoulder, and while the silent treatment is nothing new, his eyes are bright with whatever thought he doesn't feel like sharing.

"Come on, Sherlock.  If you have some great insight as to why I'm not allowed to have you, then spit it out."

Regaining his attention, Squall glares at me with restrained anger.  "When I offered my home to you, you asked me if I was 'still gay.'  You almost refused my help because of that, and now, you want me to believe that you could have feelings for another man?  It's a bad joke, and I'm not falling for it."

Forgetting about that slip of my tongue, I curse under my breath and try to remember my mindset from that afternoon.  "In all honesty, Loire, I was a little too focused on what you'd want in exchange for helping me out.  I didn't have money or anything else of value, and as sleep deprived as I was, that was the only reason that made any sense for why you'd take me in."  I then recklessly add, "It's interesting, though, how I wasn't too far off the mark, huh?"

Squall scowls, but doesn't defend his decision to help me.  Instead, he says, "Gratitude isn't love."

"And that's what you think this is?  I'm so freaking grateful that I'm willing to sacrifice my body in repayment for everything you've done?"  When Squall doesn't disagree with that theory, I bang a fisted hand against the pantry door.  "That's unfair, so fucking unfair.  Why do you get to love me, but I don't get to return those feelings?  Why are you so privileged while I'm left in the cold?"

With a scoff, Squall argues, "I wouldn't call it a 'privilege' to want you all these years."

"Oh, then that's what this is about," I say a little too eagerly.  "You have 'years' of loving me while I only have a couple of weeks, so there's no way my feelings could compare to yours.  But let's be honest here, Sherlock--how much face-to-face time is included in those 'years' of yours?  A handful of hours?  Maybe a few more?  Because right now, it sounds like you were attracted to me, made up a little fancy about who I was, and fell in love without ever really knowing me."

Steely eyes narrow at the accusation.  "We went to the same schools and you stood out.  Everyone knew who you were."

"In other words, you believed the rumors about me."

"And you confirmed half of them when I spoke to you for the first time."

I growl under my breath at his ability to defeat my every argument.  "Okay, fine, you had your reasons, but then why can't I have mine?  I have spent the last two weeks living with you, and even when you're not around, I can't help thinking about you.  It's all stupid shit, too, like what you're doing and if you're going to stop by the diner, even it's just for a few minutes.  Why can't something like that lead to love?"

"Because... things like that don't happen."

"Then how else is it supposed to happen?  This isn't exactly the era of suitors and courting, you know.  Hell, do you think drive-thru weddings exist because people take their sweet time falling in love?"

Squall lifts an eyebrow at the example, which admittedly isn't the best evidence to offer the logical man.

"Fine, the divorce lawyers have their offices across the street for the same reason, but you know that's not the point I'm trying to make here.  There isn't a clear line when love happens, and I'm not going to let you convince me that what I'm feeling isn't real."  I brush the dark chestnut hair from his face and gaze boldly into blue-gray eyes.  "Let me have one kiss."

"...What would that prove?"

I smile softly at the response that isn't a straight out refusal.  "Aren't you tired of not knowing?  After all of these years, don't you want to know if there's a chance of something more than whatever fantasies you made up?  Aren't you ready to have something real and incredible, or else move on and find someone better than a worthless ass like myself?"

"And a kiss would somehow solve all of that?"

Feeling encouraged, I inch closer to the brunet.  "It would be a start."

Stormy eyes shift slightly as Squall considers his options, and while it's painful to wait for his answer, I don't dare try to steal a kiss while he's distracted.  The prude would close up on me faster than a triggered mousetrap and with the same ruthless force, assuming I manage to slip in some tongue.  No, it's safer and more productive to show some patience, even if it makes me look like a well-trained dog waiting for a treat.

After too many silent seconds, Squall finally focuses on my face, but cruelly doesn't say a damned word.  Instead, he studies me with that expression he shows whenever he reexamines old cases, looking for new clues within a mess of information he already knows by heart.  I'm almost insulted that he has to think so hard about a simple request, but at least he's starting to take me seriously.

With an exhaled breath, Squall uncrosses his arms and places a hand at my chest.  "One kiss, that's it."

I should be ecstatic with his final verdict, but I immediately recognize his tone of voice.  It's the same one I used when I tried to quit drinking on many occasions, always saying 'one last beer, and no more.'  Damn conniving prick, if he thinks this one kiss is his first and final taste of his obsession, he's going to be sorely disappointed.

I bend in close to the brunet, our lips almost touching when I stare directly into blue-gray eyes and demand, "Don't you dare hold out on me."

Squall meets my gaze and counters, "I could say the same of you."

I chuckle quietly at his audacity, and with a smirk on my lips, I close that final distance between us.  His lips are cool and chapped from our stalking mission in the mountains, but unexpectedly, I'm not given much of an opportunity to explore the shape and taste of his flesh.  Instead, a warning growl sounds from Squall in the fraction of a second before his lips part and his tongue grazes against my teeth.  The aggressive attack almost throws me back in surprise, but I quickly wrap an arm around his waist in support and readily accept his challenge.

From instinct alone, I slide my tongue just beneath his and tease the softer flesh in a move that draws a sharp gasp from Squall.  His reaction brings a chill to my spine when I recognize the sound as one belonging to my dream lover.  Then realizing my advantage in this game, I have to temper my urge to laugh out in victory, something that would bring a quick end to our kiss.  Settling for a deep hum of pleasure, I end up provoking the serious man into grabbing my shirt in a manner that undoubtedly creates a few claw marks against my skin.

After that, it's an interesting and practically educational exchange of techniques, and while I initially have the upper hand, I'm quickly reminded of my limited number of good dreams.  There's also the less pleasant thought that he has gathered plenty of experience between each possible future, but that's my fault, not his, and it's something that will have to be corrected starting now and forward... assuming Squall graces me with a chance beyond this one kiss.

That one thought takes away the excitement of finally having my way, and feeling sober, I move my hand from the pantry door and stroke the length of his neck.  At the first touch, Squall shivers beneath my fingertips and retreats very slightly—not enough to end the kiss, but to change it into something gentle and surprisingly honest.  More than before, I know this is the man I want, a partner who knows in an instant what I desperately need, and then somehow creates an echo in myself to return that favor.  Unfortunately, I don't share Squall’s intuitive nature to know what he needs, and with no other idea in mind, I simply continue to stroke his neck in a silent promise to protect him to the fullest of my abilities.

Abruptly and regrettably, Squall breaks the connection in a sharp move that doesn't allow a refusal on my part.  Not looking at my face, but somewhere to the side, he says breathily, "Something isn't right."

I get out a soft laugh but not the chance to point out that if he wants something more than a kiss, he just has to say so.  Instead, steely eyes move sharply beyond my right shoulder, and without a hint of warning, Squall slams his hands against my chest and shoves me backward with all of his strength.  My back hits the solid granite edge of the island's countertop, and unable to keep my footing, I fall to my ass and bang my head against a cabinet handle.

It hurts like a mother fucker, but none of that matters when something warm splatters against my face.

Then comes the jackal-laugh that never fails to make my stomach churn in disgust.

Despite the pain it causes, I lift my head with a jerk and immediately look for Squall, pleading to whatever God is listening that the stubborn brunet is alright, that he is alive.

All I see with my first glance, however, is blood.  Shiny crimson, viscous blood that contrasts darkly against pale skin... But my mind eventually catches up to the fact that Squall is still standing and not the least bit defeated by the gash between his eyes.  If anything, the blood only highlights the fury bright in stormy eyes as Squall glares at my father, or rather, at the large knife grasped within the fucker's hands.

"So much for yer little pussy charm, eh, boy?" the deranged spirit laughs, his toothy grin showing sharp, needle-like teeth in the void caused by my earlier punch.  "I jus' had to find a long enough knife to reach 'im, and wouldn't ya know it, the faggot had one waitin' fer me."

Dumbfounded, I can only stare at the phantom, unable to process the reality that the bastard has barged his way into Squall's home.  Tiny bursts of white energy shine around the ghost, but the protective home is unable to chase away the enraged spirit.  That the bastard has also learned to hold objects in this world proves further that my father has become stronger than an annoying wisp, but God help me, I don't want to believe it.

"Seifer...?" Squall asks in a justified 'what the fuck is happening here?' tone.

Unable to answer him, I stare at the knife supported by two hands and pray I'm not imagining the slight shake of effort by his forearms.

"What's that, boy?  Did ya think I was good and gone 'cause ya did this?" he mocks with a wider smile, the action causing pieces at the edge of his mouth to fall away and reveal more of his unnatural teeth.  "That ain't nothin' but some pretty clothin' from my mortal life.  Yer still my boy and I'll forgive ya once we're done cleanin' up here."

"We...?" I breathe, my brain still not running at full speed.

The ghost loses all sense of humor when he states lowly, "I ain't the one goin' to jail, son, and ya touch a few too many things in this here kitchen."

Time slows to a painful crawl once fear takes over my mind, and even though I scramble to my feet as fast as I can, it takes far less effort for my father to thrust his stolen knife toward Squall's exposed stomach.  A warning yell trapped in my throat, I watch as the bloodied metal flashes only inches away from vulnerable flesh... and then I'm reminded that Squall is anything but defenseless.

With a steady hand, Squall parries the knife away from his body, and once safe from the blade, he turns his hand to grab the handle.  He rips the blade from my father's grasp with the force required against a human opponent, but the forceful disarm proves far more than necessary against a ghost.  Given its extra momentum, the knife slams into a cabinet door and buries several inches deep into the stained wood, much to Squall's surprise and annoyance given the look on his face.

"Fuckin', cock-suckin' bitch!" my father screams with a stream of other obscenities while backing away, his hands black and smoldering from where Squall had inadvertently touched him.

Able to breathe again, I hurry to place myself between Squall and the raging spirit, uncertain what other tricks the bastard could be hiding.  The role of protector, however, means that I can't examine Squall's injuries for myself, and it grates on my nerves to know that he's hurting and bleeding only inches away.

"I'm fine," Squall says in a tone that suggests I look as high-strung as I feel.

"You're not fucking fine.  He could have killed you right now, and what was I doing?  Sitting on my ass, worthless as ever."

"Then make certain he can't hurt me again," Squall argues.  At my derisive scoff, the brunet places a firm hand at the center of my back and says quietly, "You once told me that your mother had the power to remove spirits from this world, and if I understand what I saw last night, then I believe you share her power."

"...You said that you didn't see anything."

"I said that I saw you," he corrects in an offhanded manner.

"But what the fuck does that even mean?"

After a few heartbeats and a couple of choice curses from the still ranting ghost, Squall decides to ignore my question and asks one of his own--"If your father eventually kills me, will you dream of my death before it happens?"

The 'fuck you' dies on my tongue when I turn around in reckless anger and get a good look at the damage my father has done.  The knife left a gash from above Squall's right eyebrow, across the bridge of his nose, and down toward his left cheek.  The blood spatter makes it hard to tell where the cut ends, but it's clear to see that Squall could have been blinded if the blade had gone an inch in either direction.  Squall is a lucky man, assuming you can call someone 'lucky' after being attacked by his own knife.

"What are you going to do, Seifer?" Squall asks in that infuriating tone he uses whenever he expects someone to do the right thing, no matter how impossible.  To make things worse, the prick always seems to get his way.

I reach out to brush my fingers along his bloodied cheek wishing I could wipe away the mess, but that can't happen until my father is out of the equation.  The bastard is my last obstacle to Squall, and with that knowledge, there's only one thing I can do.

"Don't put yer back to me, boy."

Not liking the grate to his voice, I turn around to face my father and place my body firmly between him and Squall.  The deranged spirit sneers at my continued defiance, his exposed amber eye shining with an ugly sulfur glow.  I probably should be concerned about the murderous thoughts behind his stare, but I find my eyes attracted to the white sparks of light that still surround the ghost.  It's almost ridiculous how Squall's home refuses to give up, but I shouldn't expect less of the devoted guardian.

"Ya aren't lost," the bastard insists, and then adds with plenty of finger pointing, "Yer my son and I will not lose ya to some man-whore!"

"You know, I'm getting real sick of hearing you say that shit," I say in return.  "It's time to fucking end this."

"And whacha goin' to do, boy?  Punch me again?" he jeers with a broken smile that puts his needle-like teeth on display.  "That queer did more damage than yer pathetic glass fist ever will."

I stare at the ghost for his taunt, and while the words themselves are nothing new, I realize that the fucker is right.  He wasn't afraid of me in that forest; he was afraid of the darkness that had appeared while I begged for the power to defeat him.  Hell, it's not like I got warm and fuzzy feelings from those shadows, but if using them is what it'll take to get rid of this bastard...

The spirit gradually loses his smile as he watches me.  "That ain't wise, son.  Yer pea-brain can't control what it don't understand."

Not listening to his words, I notice that his posture has subtly changed from something aggressive to the stance of someone ready to bolt in a moment's notice.  I curse under my breath at the very real possibility that the fucker could escape before I do anything.  Wondering what Squall would suggest to prevent that, I anxiously brush my thumb against the drying blood at my fingertips.

As if summoned, the desperate energy of Squall's home curls around my hand, and before I can react to somehow summoning the guardian, it slips away just as rapidly as it came.  Glancing down at my hand, the stray thought comes to mind that this is definitely Squall's home to tease me and run off like that, but a moment later, a harsh hiss escapes my father.  With a jerk from my inattentive state, I look up to find that the protective energy has changed its tactic from attacking the ghost to wrapping around his legs in chains of white light, and my father clearly isn't happy about it.

Well, damn, I might have to be more careful with my thoughts around this place if Squall's home can read my mind.

Knowing that it's now or never, I focus inward in search of the power to summon the darkness that had appeared earlier tonight.  Need had brought the strange shadows the first time, so there's no reason to change my method now.  I think of how close my father came to removing Squall from my life, and touching the blood at my fingertips once more, I silently demand for that darkness to reveal itself.

And as easy as that, the shadows appear.

Unlike the forest, it's far more noticeable when the condo grows darker despite the morning sun peeking through some windows, and it becomes very apparent that the shadows don’t belong in this world.  Distorted, black-on-black faces and bodies are barely discernable against the walls, and as I gaze into that darkness, cold realization fills my chest and makes it hard to breath.

"Don't do this..." my father says in a voice that I've never heard from him, one that is nearly human.  Oddly enough, I feel a bit sorry for the bastard, but that’s mostly because I'm not going to change my mind.

"Is that what my mother asked from you?" I say in return, and when the spirit realizes that he's not fooling me one bit, he shows his true nature and sneers with a flash of amber light from his exposed eye.

"I gave ya life, ya good fer nothing son of a whore!" he snarls while jerking at his legs in an attempt to free himself from the chains of Squall's home.

"Then thanks for nothing," I growl in response, feeling pretty damn confident with myself... until nothing happens for several seconds.  Angry, I look to the shadows and demand, "Go ahead and fucking take him already, or do you want him to escape again?"

After another annoying handful of seconds, I watch as my father struggles against his restraints and wonder if he's going to get away for a second time tonight, but then I hear a quite whisper that makes the hairs on my neck stand on end.  A shadow slides along the ground until hovering beneath the spirit, and from that darkness, a small, black hand juts out from the floor and grabs onto a booted foot.  The scream from my father should be damn amusing after all of these years, except I'm more than a little worried about unleashing demons upon the earth and not knowing how to send them back once I’m done.

Another hand appears to grab higher at the ghost's leg, and with that leverage, a dark creature pulls itself out from the floor.  Only reaching the height of my father's knee, the thing is almost entirely black with no discernable mouth, sulfur-colored eyes, and an odd pair of ribbon-like antenna waving from the top of its head.  Staring at the thing, I somehow make the odd connection that the demon looks like a cross between a tiny gimp and a deranged bunny.

Yellow eyes blink almost lazily as the thing looks up at my trapped father, and once recognizing the fear in mismatched eyes, the thing shows that it has a mouth after all and it's full of overlapping, needle-like teeth that could never serve a functional purpose in the real world.  My bastard father becomes frantic, but his struggles become futile when more shadows slide beneath the ghost and the small demons grab onto any available body parts.  Eventually the spirit topples to the ground and begins swearing a storm as the creatures bite and claw at his body, and I can't think of a better fate for the fucker.

Despite my interest in the grand event, my eyes are immediately drawn to a tiny creature that appears half the size of its kind.  Its antenna twitch in interest while focusing its yellow eyes on a point behind me and I know exactly what has caught its curiosity.  When the bug has the nerve to start a path toward Squall, I stomp a foot between the demon and the clueless brunet.  The thing jumps back in surprise, but then flashes a mouthful of teeth in anger.

"He's mine," I growl at the bug, even when I'm not the least bit certain there's anything I could do if the demon chose to go after the wounded man.

Promptly hiding its teeth, the thing looks up at me with yellow eyes and then scurries off back toward the rest of its kind without a second glance at Squall.

As I watch it retreat, I discover that several of the larger demons are in the process of dragging my father into the shadows covering the floor, even as the smaller ones continued their gleeful assault on the cursing ghost.  Every time the bastard knocks one away, a new one takes its place, reminding me of those ants that cover the entire body of any animal stupid enough to cross their path.  Mostly lost, my father finds my gaze and glares with pure hatred toward my existence.

"I'll get ya fer this, boy!  I'll destroy everythin' ya love and break ya before I rip out yer beatin' heart!"

"Then I'll be ready for you," I say, reflecting his manic tone.  "Thanks for the warning."

Thin lips twist into a snarl, but whatever the bastard may have said is lost as a clawed hand grabs onto his hair and drags him fully into the darkness.  The remaining demons chitter in a blood-chilling chorus before following the captured ghost, and once every antenna has disappeared, the shadows filling the condo shift excitedly before leaving in a harsh wind that moves furniture, knocks over a bookcase, and scatters loose paper throughout the living room and kitchen.

As those papers settle, the heaviness of the room gradually dissipates as sunlight chases away the remaining shadows and typical street noises start to filter through the windows.  Not quite trusting that everything is fine and good, I stand in place for maybe a minute longer while scanning the room and looking for any dark spot that doesn't belong.  Eventually I'm satisfied that the darkness is truly gone and my father along with it, and as a relieved smile tugs at my lips, I spin around to tell Squall the amazing details, but my excitement quickly passes when I'm reminded of the damage my father left behind.

Leaning heavily against the pantry door, Squall holds a kitchen towel to the gash between his eyes, but he hadn't bothered to wipe away the blood from his cheek.  Despite being paler than normal, his storm-colored eyes are as bright and intelligent as ever, and I have to wonder what he saw during this whole mess.

"Did you send him away?"

"You know I did," I say when I don't see a flicker of doubt in his gaze.  "I can't promise he's gone for good, but I don't think he'll have an easy time of coming back."

Squall hums thoughtfully and looks beyond my shoulder.  "That last time... It wasn't your father you stopped from coming at me, was it?"

"No, it was a cocky little demon that didn't know better," I answer as if I had been in perfect control of the situation, "but how did you figure that out?"

Pale eyes shift back to my face, and after a moment of indecision, he lifts a hand to draw aside the heavy chain of his necklace and reveal the burn marks darkening his skin.  I curse at the sight and automatically reach out to the brunet, but he shies away with a pained expression while lowering the necklace back over damaged flesh.

“What are you doing?  We should get that thing off of you.”

“I already tried, but it doesn’t hurt as much when I leave it on.”

I fist my hands in frustration, wanting to tear the necklace from Squall’s throat despite his assurances.  "Damn it, that thing was meant to protect you, not burn you to a crisp.  I must have done something wrong..."

Squall shows a vague smile and muses, "Or maybe you made it into something stronger than it was meant to be."

"That's doubtful," I grumble at the overly optimistic theory, and before I can start to worry about what would've happened if a larger demon had gone after Squall, I tell him, "Either way, we obviously need to get you to a hospital, and don't even think that we're taking your bike.  You'd probably faint and kill us both before getting halfway there."

Instantly losing his smile, the brunet stares at me as if I've lost my mind.  "A hospital?  No... no, you swore to help my mother once you figured out how to control your powers.  We have to go to her first."

"You're bleeding, you moron.  The last thing your mother would want is for you to run around injured."

The stubborn man shakes his head, the movement revealing just how much blood the kitchen towel had soaked up.  "Every minute is important."

"And I understand that, but damn it, Squall, do you really think your mother should see you like this?"

With betrayal gleaming in pale eyes, he stares at me as if my argument was completely baseless.

Annoyed at his refusal to accept the realities of his situation, I grab the wrist of his free hand and drag the smaller man to the bathroom connected to his room.  Shoving him in front of the mirror, I say forcibly, "Look at yourself!  How is this going to remotely help your mother?  Hasn't she gone through enough in her lifetime without seeing her son in this state?"

Squall takes in the sight of his bloodied face and clothes, but then turns his back to the mirror and directs an even more determined glare at me.  "It's just blood.  I have a medical kit and clean clothes.  She'll never know the difference."

When I open my mouth to call 'bullshit,' Squall speaks over me, "I know she has survived this long and I have faith in the protection charm you gave her, but ever since you told me about your mother, I have been afraid that the same will happen to mine.  The ghost haunting her has already convinced her that she's a worthless whore, so you tell me, Seifer--how much more effort would it take for him to convince her to take her own life?"

I stare at the secretive man for his admission, never guessing that such thoughts had plagued him.  And then I remember my own feelings from my mother's suicide, the greatest being my frustration when I knew I couldn't do anything to stop the blade from slicing into her flesh.  I would have given anything to prevent her provoked suicide, and I can't blame Squall for sharing that same desire that overwhelms everything else.

"That was a low blow," I complain, my voice rough from the onslaught of old emotions.

His eyes close briefly in a vague apology.  "I need this, Seifer.  I can't..."  He hesitates in thought and then finishes in a frustrated breath, "I can't focus on anything else if there's something I can do to help my mother."

I exhale in defeat, not quite certain when I lost this battle or even if I had a chance in the first place.  "All right, Sherlock, you get your way, but I can't promise that I'll be able to do anything.  I still don't know how I pulled off that trick, and shit, the last thing I need is to look like a nutcase in front of the headshrinkers in that place.  They'll lock me up faster than I can blink."

"I won't let them," Squall assures in a dry tone that isn't very encouraging.  Before I can point that out, the brunet surprises me when, in a fleeting touch, he brushes his fingers against my cheek.  "You need to wash your face.  It would horrify my mother to see blood on her angel like this."

I stare at the confusing man, and while it takes a moment for my sluggish thoughts to catch up, I suddenly realize that Squall might have been talking about a lot more than his injuries when he said he can't focus on anything else right now.  I grab his hand before he can completely withdraw it, and although Squall could easily knock away my hold, he allows it while showing a bland expression as if nothing incredible had happened only moments ago.

"Don't mess with me, Squall," I say, his name sliding from my tongue without an ounce of effort, but I can't stop to wonder when exactly that happened.  "Do you finally believe me when I say I'm serious about you?  Are you going to give me a real chance?"

Blue-gray eyes gaze at my face, but he refuses to answer my repeated question.

I frown when a different, less optimistic theory comes to mind.  "Then what, are you trying to use your mother as some kind of bait?  That if I save her, then maybe I get to keep you as a prize?"

"You fucking bastard," Squall snarls before ripping his hand from my hold and balling it into a tight fist.  "I would never use my mother like that, or you."

Immediately regretting my words, I press my hand to my forehead and whisper a curse at my thoughtlessness, but for the life of me, I don't know what I could possibly say to fix it.  His mother has always been a touchy topic, something I've known for years, and yet I stepped over that line and onto a landmine by accusing Squall of basically bartering himself for his mother.  Damn it, why haven't I taken a clue from Squall that thinking before speaking is often the wisest plan of attack?

After a tense moment, Squall sighs and relaxes his hand.  "You're lucky that I know you're a moron."

"Right, because that's what I'm known for--being lucky," I bite out in reflexive sarcasm.

"You'd be surprised," Squall murmurs, almost unheard when he bends down and retrieves a first aid kit from underneath the bathroom sink.  He sways when standing up and my hand is at his lower back before I question whether or not my help is welcomed.  With a tired expression, Squall glances down at my arm but doesn't lash out against my touch.  I can only assume it's because both of his hands are otherwise occupied.

"Let me help you," I say to the exhausting man.

Squall hums as if agreeing, but his suggestion of how I should 'help' doesn't settle well with me: "Call and arrange for a taxi.  I should be ready in twenty minutes."

While it doesn't surprise me that he's still determined to see his mother, it's difficult to see the blood on his face, hands, and clothes and believe that he'll look human again in just twenty minutes.

"It's not as bad as it looks," he says, as if I could be convinced by such a line.

"Sure, and I already miss my father and his words of wisdom."  While I earn a glare from the injured man, I pull back my supporting arm and turn around to move toward the open doorway.  "Don't worry, Sherlock--you're getting your fucking way, even if it kills you.  Just try not to haunt me like the rest of the people in my fucked up life."

As I continue into the master bedroom, the only response I get from the prude is a lightly closed door, not that I expected much more.  This stubborn side of the brunet is nothing new, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

When I hear Squall starting his shower, I stop and look over my shoulder at the closed door.  The idiot is in pain and probably light-headed from blood loss, yet he's ready to do anything for his mother.  It's pathetic of me, but I can't help feeling jealous of the woman and how she dominates his love.  I imagine he'd do the same for anyone he considers family—his father and sister, Ward, and probably Fuujin and Zell, too...

I wish I could be certain about whether or not he'd go to those same lengths for me.

~ > < ~

"Umm, are you sure that you're okay, Squall?"

The nurse at the front desk is a young thing this time with shiny blond hair and dark mascara, looking more like a candy striper fantasy than someone useful in a mental hospital.  My best guess is that she did something she shouldn't have and got stuck volunteering wherever the court assigned her sweet ass... Although that could just be my bias speaking out.  I really don't like the way she says Squall's name.

Barely paying attention to the woman, Squall grunts out something that could be taken as 'I'm fine' while he enters his information into the logbook.  Amazingly enough, the dark-haired man looks half-presentable, especially compared to an hour ago.  The blood is gone from his face and hands, even his fingernails cleaned to a pristine state.  His clothes are new, the stained ones tossed into the trash as hopeless.  All that's left is a large piece of gauze taped in the middle of his face to cover his wound, but it doesn't completely stop the blood as smudgy spots have slowly started to appear on the white cotton.

I can't help feeling like this is a bad idea, even as I accept the pen Squall gives me to sign in.

"Where is my mother?" Squall asks while looking down the nearby hallway.

"Mrs. Loire?  Isn't she always in that garden room?  I mean, when she isn't sleeping, of course," is the girl's less than helpful reply.

As I print my name beneath Squall's, I notice from the corner of my eye that the typically controlled man is tapping his foot in an impatient beat.  I curse in my head at the sight, uncertain what I'm going to do if I can't make my powers work for his mother.  It was one thing to have Squall's life threatened only inches away, but a completely different thing to help a woman I barely know.  I'm not like Squall.  I don't think through a damn thing; I just react to whatever situation is in front of me, and it's not like my powers haven't failed me before...

Shit, this is definitely a bad idea.

The moment I finish the last digit of my arrival time, Squall takes off down the hallway, forcing me to drop the pen and chase after him.  At his side and matching his pace, I fight the unexpected urge to wrap my arm around the slender man.  The last time we walked down this hallway, I wanted more than anything to run away.  Pathetically, that same instinct still exists, but if I was holding onto Squall, I would have a lot more to distract me.

Before last week, I thought that regular hospitals were God awful with the amount of spirits lurking around.  I haven’t visited many hospitals in my lifetime, but the dead were typically normal in shape and form, probably because their souls didn't have the chance to remember the cause of their deaths.  Hell, the first time I went to a hospital was after my mother's suicide, and even at that young age, I didn't have the urge to run and scream.  But here...

It's with a mixture of sadness and disgust that I look at the lost souls of the insane.  Several have missing limbs and gaping holes in their bodies, but some are far more eye-catching like a young girl with her mouth sealed closed like melted wax and an older woman holding her hands tightly against her chest to stop her heart from falling out of the open cavity.  It's as if their insanity had affected their very souls, and now they're damned to an eternity of dealing with their incurable sickness.

Whatever happens today, I can't be forced to stay in this place.  Squall may say that he'll protect me, but he can't promise they won't grab me for temporary observation.  It may sound simple enough, but I doubt it'd take more than a night of these ghosts to finally drive me over the edge.


Startled by the touch at my arm, I drag my eyes away from the sight of a determined ghost trying to grab onto a living flower from a vase in the hallway.  It wouldn't be so disturbing except that his arms and fingers are bent in impossible directions and I can't imagine how he thinks he'll hold onto the small white flower, even if he could touch it.

Refocusing on reality, I quickly realize I had nearly passed the common area where Squall's mother should be sitting, and judging by the piercing look of stormy eyes, I doubt that I'm going to be able to talk my way out of this one.  "Sorry, I wasn't paying attention."

"But you were focused on something," Squall says with certainty.  "Are there other spirits here?"

"Don't worry your pretty head over it.  We're here for your mother, right?"

Blue-gray eyes shift to the common area and the woman curled up in a sofa chair, but Squall doesn't take my bait.  "I never considered... I know how people are sent here to be cured or forgotten, but I didn't consider how you would be affected by the ones who have died here."

"Yeah, well, you've been distracted," I say while fighting a smile.  It wouldn't be appropriate, but damn it, I never thought that Squall would put me in front of his mother, even for a few fleeting seconds.

"’Distracted’..." Squall repeats with a frown.  "The last time we were here, I thought you were nervous about meeting my mother."

"Trust me, Sherlock, I was terrified.  It was just icing on the cake to have these other spooks lurking around.  But hey," I begin as I place a hand under his chin and force him look at me, "you didn't put me in chains and drag me here.  I could've walked away at any point, but I didn't, and I'm glad that I met your mom.  I think she’s a pretty damn amazing woman and I honestly want to help her."

"...Then, you're not in danger here?"

"Well, I wouldn't say that," I say in a low voice, my eyes briefly moving to the sight of a doctor and nurse conversing down the hall, the pair eventually disappearing into a different room.  When I return my gaze to Squall's face, I see the shift of blue-gray eyes from that same view of the hallway and I know that my unspoken message had gotten through crystal clear.

Squall studies my face for a long moment, and while it would be easy for him to repeat his pledge to protect me, he instead places a hand at my chest and whispers a barely heard, "Thank you."

I smile weakly at the conflict in his voice, knowing very well that Squall wouldn't risk my safety if there was another way to save his mother.  I'm half-tempted to take advantage of the situation and coax another kiss from the strict man, but then I move my focus to the gauze between pale eyes and notice how the pinkish hues from a short while ago have darkened to red splotches.  The sooner I do this, the sooner Squall can get to a doctor... and then I'll revisit the idea of using guilt against the prude to lure a second kiss from him.

Finding my resolve, I take a few steps to the threshold of the common area, but quickly realize that I'm walking alone.  Confused, I turn around to face the brunet and silently question his abrupt decision to stay put.

"I don't want to startle her," Squall says softly.  "If you talk to her first and tell her that it's nothing serious..."

With a smirk at his well-meaning request, I tell him, "You should know better than that, Sherlock.  Mothers always know when their children are lying."

Squall frowns at the truth of my words, but he doesn't back down from his plan, his absolute stubbornness almost making me laugh.

Almost, that is until I return my focus to the 'Garden Room' and step over the threshold.  There's a very real reason why few people sit with the kind-hearted woman, and it has nothing to do with her occasional lapses into hysteria.  A darkness hovers around her that reminds me of smoke from a burning home--it smells of lives that have been destroyed in an instant, it fills the lungs and makes it hard to breathe, and it clings to those nearby like smeared ash.  I had forgotten just how intense the aura of her tormentor is, and faced with that sickening energy, I truly doubt that my meager abilities could match the experienced sadist.

But despite all of that, I keep walking forward until I take a wide path around the sofa chair so my appearance won’t startle the woman.  Raine Loire doesn't notice me at first, her eyes of familiar blue-gray focused on the windows instead of the rest of the world around her, which gives me plenty of time to really look at the woman who raised Squall.  Seeing her so painfully thin and unkempt in oversized pajamas, I wish I had known her before Stephen Roth invaded her life.  I'm certain she was the source of Squall's beauty and strength, which makes it even more terrible to see her broken and defeated.

"... Angel?"

I show a small smile at the woman's misconception.  "Sorry, I'm still not an angel, Mrs. Loire.  I don't know if you remember, but my name is Seifer."

She stares at me for a blank moment before a light of realization enters her eyes and she lifts a hand to her forehead.  "Of course, Laguna told me your name... He said... You are staying with our son?"  When I nod at her question, she straightens and asks expectantly, "Did Squall come with you?"

"Yeah, he's here, but before you see him, Squall wanted me to warn you that he got cut up a bit.  He's fine," I add quickly, even though I don't quite believe it myself, "but he has a bandage covering part of his face and he doesn't look like his normal handsome self."

Horror seeps into her expression, and just when I think that there should have been a better way to word that, she reaches out with a panicked hand and almost grabs onto my jacket, her shaking fingers stopping a few inches too short.  "Did He attack my son?" she asks in desperation.

I frown when I recognize the disturbing reverence that she holds toward her constant tormentor.  "No, it wasn't Roth.  It was someone who won't be bothering Squall anymore."

Still shaking, the dark-haired woman accepts my answer by sitting back in her chair and pulling her shawl tighter around her shoulders.  "He demanded for me to remove your holy protection.  He warned me that those who don't obey lose things.  Lose important things... But I couldn't.  I feel more... awake these days, even when He speaks to me in my sleep... And I know it's because of your blessed protection."

While it's amazing to hear that my protection charm has helped, I feel a little sick at the idea that the gift has only reinforced her belief that I'm some kind of creature with a supposedly pure soul.  Unfortunately, arguing with a less than sane woman isn't the most efficient use of my time and I have a pledge to fulfill.  I can only hope that Squall isn't bothered by his mother considering me her personal angel and that he'll let me abuse her misunderstanding for the greater good.

To gain her attention, I move a little closer to the frightened woman.  "You were right to not take off my protection.  He won't be able to touch you when you have it on, and Squall has a similar charm that he wears, so you don't need to worry about him."

Her gaze focused solely on me, a tear slips from the corner of her eye and slides down her cheek.  "You did that... for me?" she asks, as if dumbfounded by the fact that anyone would do something for her.  After all, who would help a filthy whore?

"You are a very beautiful woman," I say out of an ingrained reflex to flirt with the female kind, but then realize too late that it could be taken very poorly by the woman who has a habit of offering her body.  True to my fears, something closes off in her gaze and she pulls at the collar of her pajamas, but I raise a hand and interrupt whatever suggestion she's about to provide.  "Don't do that, Mrs. Loire.  I did this because Squall wants his mother back, and I owe him a lifetime of favors."

"I... I have to do something..."

"Alright, then there is something I want to know that only you can tell me--where is Roth hiding?  I have something to say to the bastard, and he doesn't seem to be lurking around here."

Eyes widening at my irreverence toward Roth, the woman retreats farther into her sofa chair and wraps her arms around her legs to pull them to her chest.  "I... I don't know."

"I think you do.  He talks to you, and from my experience, I know that ghosts get chatty with the few people who can hear them."

With a shake of her head, she argues in a whisper, "He doesn't speak to me.  He crawls into my head and... shows me things... terrible things."

I frown at the description, wishing I didn't know exactly what that felt like.  "What does he show you in your dreams?  Things from the past or something from the present?  Any of that could tell me where he is."

A keening sound comes from the woman before a loud, hysterical sob erupts from her and she presses her face against her thighs.  I curse at pushing the tormented woman too far, which wasn’t my intention in the least.  I should have seen the signs of her imminent breakdown, but damn it, how am I supposed to deal with Roth if I don't even know where the fucker is?  There’s no way in Hell I'm staying here until he decides to show, and right now, she's the only one who knows anything.

"What in God's name is going on here?!"

My head jerks up at the angered voice and I find Laguna Loire standing at the entrance to the Garden Room.  Green eyes narrow at the sight of me, the mixture of confusion and fury giving them a special light of someone ready to commit murder if he doesn't get the right answers to his questions. Unfortunately, I don't think he'll like any of the answers I can give him.

"Dad," Squall speaks out from his spot at the open doorway, less than a couple feet away from his father, but apparently distracted enough to miss the man's initial approach.  "Seifer is trying to help."

"Help?" Laguna repeats with an incredulous flare, but then he gets a good look at his son and has a new reason to be upset.  "Dear Lord, what happened to you?"

"It's not serious," Squall claims but is quickly overwhelmed by his father.

"You're bleeding, son.  Don't tell me that you were planning to let your mother see you like this."  When Squall's silence implies just that, Laguna sighs and points down the hallway.  "Go to the infirmary and wait for me there."  He then shifts his gaze to me and his eyes immediately darken.  "Take your 'friend' with you."

Knowing how this must look from his perspective, I don't take offense at being downgraded from an almost hero to the bastard who made his wife cry.

Unable to just leave this mess behind me, I look down at Raine once more and my heart breaks a little at the sight of her rocking back and forth in a distressed motion.  My voice hoarse and barely sounding, I say my sincere apologies.  She groans in regret and speaks out her own apologies, but not to me.  The name she uses sends shivers down my spine, but I'm not allowed to process the happenstance when Laguna storms across the room and motions for me to get my ass moving.

Squall surprisingly waits for me at the doorway and leads the way to the infirmary, his arms tight across his chest.  We don't speak for the length of the hallway, but after stepping into a brightly lit room with a handful of cots, Squall growls out, "Why didn't you tell me that Roth isn't here?"

"Because I didn't know at first.  Sometimes they hang out unseen, but he would've made himself known once I starting talking about him."

Squall shakes his head at my reply.  "I didn't want you to upset her."

"And you think that was my plan?  She's fucking broken inside and she'll never get better until that guy is gone, but I can't do anything if I don't know where he is.  I'm sorry, Sherlock, but she's the only one who might know that answer, and I think she--"

I'm interrupted when the infirmary door opens and a woman in a white doctor's coat and a nametag labeled 'Kadowaki' steps inside.  Her dark gray hair pulled back into a tight bun, the doctor seems the hard-love type and I instinctively back up a step when she glances in my direction.  She doesn't focus on me long, however, and quickly shifts her gaze to the wounded brunet.

"Squall," she says in a scolding tone.  "I don't care if you caught a bounty or did some other foolish thing to impress your mother.  I thought I was very clear that you shouldn't come here if you had gotten yourself injured again."

The stubborn man scowls at the accusation without providing an argument as to why he was reckless enough to act against the doctor's apparent threat.

With a sigh, the woman orders, "Onto the bed, young man, and I'll stitch you up.  Next time, though, I expect you to go to a hospital."

Squall hesitates a noticeable second but doesn't formally oppose the doctor as he moves onto a bed and lies down in an annoyed fashion.

With the efficiency of a practiced doctor, the woman collects everything she needs and covers Squall's face with a blue paper-like material that has a hole in it.  She sticks a needle with a numbing solution next to the injured area at Squall's forehead, and while waiting for the drug to do its thing, the doctor glances my way.

"We haven't been introduced.  I'm Dr. Sumi Kadowaki, and Raine Loire is one of my patients."

I frown at the accusation in her voice that suggests she has been informed about my hand in upsetting Squall's mother.  "Listen, I didn't mean to cause trouble.  I had something to ask Mrs. Loire, and I wasn't thinking about how she'd react."

With a humph of 'obviously', the doctor asks, "Are you also the one who gave her that shawl she always wears?"

"Um, technically, Squall was the one to give her that."

"But you are the 'angel' who blessed it, yes?"  Even though I don't reply, Dr. Kadowaki nods as if I had.  "I thought so.  Well, normally I don't like it when patients depend on something imaginary like that, but I have noticed a change in her over the last week.  She says that the shawl keeps the ghost of her torturer away and she can think again."

I glance at Squall for help despite the sheet covering his face, but the man remains suspiciously silent.  Knowing his ways, he's pissed at me and wants me to suffer for my thoughtless methods.  With no better answer for the doctor, I shrug and say, "No harm, no foul?"

The doctor scoffs at my pathetic reply, but she doesn't question me any further as she turns her focus to Squall.  She pokes at his skin to test the numbness, and once satisfied, she begins to stitch together the sliced flesh.  The silence is deafening as Dr. Kadowaki focuses solely on her task, and even though a lost spirit is in the room, the teenage girl with sliced wrists is nothing new or particularly disturbing.  She just stands peacefully next to a window and looks longingly at the world outside, and damn me if I didn't want to be out of this place, too.

With nothing else to serve as a distraction, I'm left to my thoughts and my stomach sours at the memory of Laguna's glare when he discovered I was the cause of his wife's distress.  A week ago, he thanked me for saving Raine, not giving a damn about the details of how something like that would even work.  He hugged me when I knew I didn't deserve his gratitude, and somehow, that makes it even more painful to lose his easy trust.  In my mind, I was going to earn that trust by helping his wife, but like many things in my life, I made things worse by pushing too hard.

About nine stitches into the process, a soft knock sounds and Laguna peeks his head into the infirmary before slipping inside.  "Is he okay, Sumi?"

"It's a deep cut, but I think your son will live.  This time," she adds with a slight smile, the first I've seen from the stern woman.

"Thank goodness," Laguna breathes as he steps next to the bed and a places a hand at Squall leg.  "You have a bad habit of making an old man worry, son.  Some days I wonder why I ever decided to give my business to you."

"I don't remember asking for it," Squall says in his dry way, to which his father chuckles.  His voice lowering to something apologetic, Squall then asks, "How is Mom?"

"Better.  They gave her something to calm down, but not enough to knock her out.  She was asking for you, so once you're fixed up, we can go see her again."  After giving his son a moment to find relief in the news, Laguna squeezes the brunet's leg and asks, "What were you thinking, Squall?  You know that your mother is in a fragile state, and yet you still came with blood on your face and let a complete stranger talk with her."

Squall tries to interrupt, but Laguna speaks over him.  "I understand that Seifer helped to find her, but damn it, he already aggravated her the first time they met, and you brought him back here to cause more damage?  What on earth would make you do something like that?"

His face covered, it's impossible to guess how Squall is truly responding to his father's questions, but his voice is steady and unbothered when he says, "I have my reasons."

Laguna slowly shakes his head.  "I'm sorry, son, but that's not good enough this time.  I know you don't like me messing with your personal life, and I can understand that, but this is your mother.  I can't let you do as you want when it affects her."

Squall doesn't say anything in response, and my chest tightens at the knowledge that he's doing it for me.  While I had plenty to risk by coming here, I didn't think twice about what Squall could be risking.  If Laguna restricts Squall's freedom to see his mother, I don't know what that would do to the brunet... No, something like that is unacceptable.

"It wasn't Squall's idea," I speak out, needing to make things right.  "It was mine."

Squall stiffens at my admission and whispers 'moron' in a voice that holds a noticeable hint of worry.

With a now familiar glare, Laguna looks at me and asks a simple, "Why?"

I waver at that point and glance at the still present doctor who hasn't looked up from her work since Laguna first entered.  "It's something kind of private, and if you don't mind--"

"I'll be done in another minute," Dr. Kadowaki states without losing her rhythm.  "If you three can remain civil, you may stay here.  Otherwise, I would appreciate you going outside."

When Laguna continues to glare at me instead of replying to the doctor, I try to smile and say 'thank you' somewhat sincerely.  I get a huff in reply and that's the extent of conversation as she finishes her work.  Once done, she applies some kind of ointment to the wound, and after removing the blue sheet from Squall's face, she places a new piece of gauze and tape over the injured area.

"All right, that should do it," the doctor says with a pat to Squall's shoulder.  "For the record, a hospital could have done something fancier to prevent serious scarring, but I assume that isn't important to you."

"It's fine," Squall replies when sitting up, but he doesn't bother moving from the mattress and instead places a hand to the parts of his forehead not covered by gauze and tape.

"Drink plenty of fluids," Dr. Kadowaki comments at the sign of dizziness, "and I hope to God that you didn't drive that motorcycle of yours here."

"Thank you, Sumi." Laguna says.  "I'll make certain he gets home safely.  And please send the bill my way."

Squall glares at his father, but before he can claim his right to cover the costs, the doctor takes Laguna's statement as a sign that her services are no longer necessary and she steps outside.  Once the door shuts with a click, Squall decides to battle the other issue at hand.  "Seifer isn't to blame here.  I thought he could help Mom and I still believe he can."

With open confusion, Laguna waves a hand in my direction.  "What can he do that a line of doctors can't?  If I understand correctly from Ward, you picked Seifer off the streets when he had no place to sleep, no job to speak of, and no other way to support himself.  How is any of that useful to helping your mother?"

"Because I'm different," I interject before Squall is forced to lie.  Stormy eyes focus on me with the clear message that I don't have to do this, but unfortunately, I don't see any other path available that would allow us to readily help his mother.  I can only hope that Laguna is as open-minded as Squall seems to believe; otherwise I'm fucked... and in a mental hospital with doctors and orderlies only an arm's length away.  Shit, I knew it was a bad idea to come here.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Laguna manages to look intimidating when he asks, "Would you like to explain how, exactly?"

My confidence faltering, I glance to Squall for support and receive a reluctant nod from man, the last sign I need that this might actually work.  With a steadying breath, I meet firm green eyes and start with, "How much do you believe in what you've written?"

Laguna blinks at the seemingly random question.  "I don't understand what that has to do with anything."

"Squall had me read Whispers of my Mind, and while I haven't had the time to finish it, I think it's good.  That first part with the main character as a teenager and working with double-dealing demons especially struck a chord with me.  When I was reading it, I started to wonder if you actually believe in psychics and the paranormal, or do you think that sort of stuff is just a gimmick to sell books?"

Green eyes shift in thought, the older man still thrown by the change in topic and apparently not quick enough to guess the connection.  "I suppose anything is possible, but that's not why I wrote those books.  They're just stories."

"Okay, then were you at least being honest when you said that it doesn't matter how I knew your wife's whereabouts?  How did you put it?  Whether legal, illegal... or a dream that came to me?"

And finally his lips part with sudden realization, but his surprise is quickly replaced with disbelief.  "No, that can't be right..."

With a sigh, Squall enters the discussion.  "How else would it have been possible?  Roth hid Mom and those kids in a specially designed shed that didn't have windows.  There's no way Seifer could have stumbled upon Mom and known where Roth was keeping them."

"Wha... Are you saying you believe him?" Laguna asks in shock, much like my own reaction the first time the logical brunet, for no reason I saw back then, said he trusted my word about his mother and used my knowledge to find her.

Squall shrugs and says, "He was right about Mom, and he's been right about other things.  I have no reason to doubt him."

"This... This is insane," Laguna argues and flinches when realizing the poor choice in words.  "I mean, yes, I wrote books about the supernatural, but I've never met a person who honestly has those abilities.  Meanwhile, I have come across more than enough dishonest people willing to say anything for an easy buck.”

With a disgusted look in my direction, he continues to say, “When I was in the PI game, I ran into all sorts of con artists and swindlers who had no qualms about taking the life savings from little old ladies and desperate young women, and the sad thing is that many of their victims continued to believe in those criminals, even after all of their money was gone.  Those poor souls... And if you think I'll let you trick my son--"

"I have never asked for money," I say emphatically, not wanting to be associated to those scumbags who have no clue what it means to have true powers.  "I'll be the first to admit that I'm no saint, but if a dream really gets to me, I try my damnedest to do the right thing."

"’Dreams,’" Laguna repeats with a scoff.  "Then you're psychic?"

I hesitate, knowing that my answer won't look good given the number of con artists who use the death of relatives against their victims, but it's too late to hide behind lies.  "Technically, I'm a medium, seeing dead people and all of that."

As expected, Laguna inhales to start into another rant, but I beat him to the punch.

"Listen, I don't give a flying fuck if you believe me or not, because really, this isn't something a person just accepts in a moment.  Well, normal people don't," I add with a glance at Squall.  "In the meantime, your wife is being tortured by a sadistic bastard of a ghost, and there is nothing a doctor or drugs can do to chase him away.  I wanted to help, but Roth isn't fucking here, and when I asked where he is, Mrs. Loire reacted badly.  I messed up, and I'm sorry for that, but whatever you do, don't punish Squall for wanting to save his mother.  He did nothing wrong here."

Looking like a man who had the wind stolen from him, Laguna studies me for a long moment.  "Raine talks about you, as if you were a wing-bearing angel, and she said... Did you really do something to that shawl she wears?"

"He did," Squall answers when I hesitate once again.  He then lifts his necklace and, either by accident or on purpose, shows the burnt skin underneath.  "He gave me a protection charm as well, although it apparently doesn't work against ghosts who can hold onto a knife."

Green eyes wide, Laguna stares speechlessly at his son, or more specifically, at the fresh gauze covering stitched flesh.

"Again, I'm not expecting you to believe anything here," I say carefully, afraid that the guy might start to worry about the state of his son's sanity.  "I will say that Mrs. Loire isn't crazy and it's not her fault she can't think straight.  If I can get rid of Roth, she might get better, and whether you allow it or not, I'm going to keep doing whatever I can to do just that."

After a long moment, Laguna decides now would be a good time to point out, "Roth is dead.  He can't... He can't hurt her anymore."

"If only it were that simple..."

Laguna shakes his head, not wanting to believe, but the sliver of doubt is apparent.  "All this time, I told her that she was wrong, that it was impossible for him to come back.  She fought with me at the beginning and begged me to believe her, but eventually, she gave up...  She said I must be right..."

Standing up from the bed, Squall says hoarsely, "I didn't believe her either.  I thought it was a delusion caused by her trauma."

"But you believe her now?  Because of what this man tells you?"

“Mom only talks about Roth, and she never had an episode before her kidnapping.  I thought it was a result of what she went through," Squall reasons softly.  “Meanwhile, Seifer was able to give me details about something he couldn’t possibly know, and when everything proved true, I had no reason to doubt his claim that a dream had brought him that information.”

Laguna grabs his right thigh and massages the muscle.  "This is... too much.  I don't know whether I should call Sumi back to examine you both, or if I should... wait and see if you actually manage to do something to help Raine."  With a hard stare at me, Laguna makes clear, "But I don't think I can trust you.  I believed in so much this last... God, this last decade, and very little of it has proven true.  I don't have the strength believe in something as ridiculous as ghosts and a man who can see them."

"And that's fine," I say in a rushed breath.  "I'm okay if you don't believe me, but whatever you do, don't tell Squall that he can't see his mother.  He thought we were doing the right thing."

"What?  I would never..." Laguna glances between his son and me, and then shows a vague smile.  "Oh, so that's what this is about.  Well, for your information, I would never tell Squall that he can't come here.  Raine loves her son, and even when she is ashamed by some of the things she does, she never refuses his visits.  This isn't the first time Squall has walked in a mess, and while I may get angry, I don't have any real say when it comes to him and his mother."

Even when I feel relieved at his words, I realize that Squall was never in danger of being kept from his mother and I probably could have avoided admitting a damned thing if I had stopped and let Squall do the talking.  As if reading my thoughts, Squall looks at me with an 'I told you so' expression that makes me want to poke him directly in the stitches.

Laguna steps forward to stand in front of me, and with bright green eyes, he studies my face.  "I think I see what Ward means when he says that he never knows what to expect from you.  It's what made you a good quarterback--you always did things you're not supposed to do given the situation.  I thought it was brilliant, but Ward always said it was reckless."

I stare dumbly at the long-haired man, forgetting how Ward and Laguna apparently used to watch my games back in the day.  It's hard to think of the pair sitting in the bleachers and watching a high school football game, but then again, it's not like there are many other options for sports in this area.

"What did Kiros think?" Squall asks dully, but the light to his eyes suggests true interest.

"Kiros?" Laguna starts with a fond grin.  "Well, he found it hysterical whenever Seifer would get the other team chasing their tails because of some strange play, but that isn’t saying much since he also laughed when the play would end in disaster.  We had a good time watching those games.  It's a shame that we haven't done anything similar in years," Laguna ends on a somber note.  He doesn't let that last, however, and pats a heavy hand against Squall's shoulder.  "Come, your mother is waiting.  And if you don't mind, Seifer, it would probably be best if you wait here."

"Actually, I think I'll go wait outside if that's alright," I respond, showing a look to Squall that we need to talk.

Noticing that glance, Laguna nods and says to Squall, "Raine has been moved to her room.  Find us there when you're ready."

Once the older man leaves the infirmary, I pull the door closed again and ask the first thing on my mind--"There's a third guy out there?"

"Hn, Kiros is my other godfather.  He was on the police force with my father and Ward, but he has since started his own security company," Squall comments as if it wasn't something to worry about and as if security officers don't walk around with guns and an inferiority complex.

"So what's his thing?  Is he bigger than that ogre of an uncle you have?"

Squall breathes a laugh at the idea.  "No, not even close to Ward's size, but that only makes Kiros quicker when pulling a weapon."

"Shit, that's not funny," I complain, but the brunet doesn't show me any sympathy over the matter.  I guess all I can do is cross my fingers and pray that I don't have to deal with a third overprotective father-figure while trying to convince Squall that I'm serious about him.  And then, if by some crazy miracle I somehow get my way, I can die a happy man when one of those ex-cops places a bullet in my skull for assaulting their precious boy.

With a quirk to his full lips, Squall asks, "Is that all you wanted to say?"

I sigh at the question that forces me back to serious matters.  "No, there's something else.  Before your dad showed up, your mom said something that might be important.  At the end there, she wasn’t apologizing to me, but to Nida."

"Nida?" Squall repeats, all humor lost.  "One of the children who was kidnapped along with Mom?"

"Unless you happen to know of another Nida in her life...?"  When Squall doesn't seem to know of anyone else, I surmise further, "She probably has been shown dreams about him, and if I'm right, I don't think it's too crazy to assume that Roth is having a grand old time harassing another one of his old victims."

Squall frowns at the theory that puts another innocent person in the destructive path of a dead man.  "I'll do some research and see if I can locate his current whereabouts."

With nothing else to do until Nida can be found, I open the door and step aside to allow Squall out first.  "Will you apologize to your mom for me?"

Squall seems to think about it for a moment before shaking his head.  "No, you can do that yourself when this is done."

I breathe a humorless laugh at his high standards.  "You're a hard man, Loire."

Not replying to that, Squall pauses in front of me during his exit and looks up at me with his blue-gray eyes that are even more incredible when in close view.  "I want to thank you for telling my father the truth.  It was unnecessary, but I don't particularly like lying and hiding things from him.  It's... harder when it comes to my father."

I look closely at the brunet, and while the exact words weren't spoken, I swear there is something different about his gaze.  "Are you implying that I'll be sticking around long enough that your dad will start to ask questions?"

The question causes a slight twitch of his left eye, but nothing more.  "I already said you could stay as long as you need."

"That's not what I'm talking about and you know it, Sherlock.  Are you going to give me a chance to love you, or are you going to continue pretending that nothing can happen between us?"

Averting his gaze, Squall looks to the hallway and his escape route when he says, "I'm not certain what to think..."

Before the distracted brunet can notice my fool's grin, I bend in to brush my lips against his in a soft kiss that Squall surprisingly accepts for a glorious fraction of a second.  He doesn't jerk away, either, but instead slowly leans back to stare at me with a cross-eyed expression given the closeness of our faces.  Squall doesn't say anything while staring at my face, which leaves it up to me to explain my actions.

"You didn't say 'no,’ Squall.  Since it's the best reply I've gotten yet, I thought I should seal it with a kiss," I say with a slightly more tempered grin.

Clearly unimpressed, the dark-haired beauty moves out from my reach.  "You shouldn't take advantage of this."

"If I didn't, would you believe me when I say that I'm serious?"

With a frown, Squall steps past me and says over his shoulder, "I believe far too much when it comes to you."

More than a little surprised by his admission, I watch as he continues down the hallway and think about how I was once afraid of this man for the very reasons I find myself attracted to him now.  He's an honest man who doesn't need to rely upon lies and masks, but he's also very skilled at falsehoods when it comes to his business and hiding his feelings from me.  I know that it won't be easy living with him, and even so, I'm tired of not doing right by my powers, I'm tired of avoiding my feelings that are remotely connected to my bastard father, and I'm tired of hating myself for being born in the first place.  If it means that I have to be stronger and better than the person I was in my past, then that's exactly what I'll do.

"Love is terrible, isn't it?"

"Only when you don't get to embrace it," I reply automatically as I turn and face the lost teenager who has decided to acknowledge my presence.  Like her voice, her body is faded and struggling to remain in this world, even her eyes showing just a bare hint of their original blue hue.  The neglected thing has probably been here a long time, and the only real color to her body is the blood sliding down her wrists and hands.  Looking at those slit wrists, I add quietly, "But you already know that, don't you?"

The young woman shows a bland stare at my question and then returns her gaze to the window.  "He'll come for me... He promised..."

I sigh a regretful breath and tell her, "You gave up on that person a long time ago.  He must have been told by now that you stopped waiting for him."

Pale lips slip into a pathetic frown at the information.  "But... I'm here..."

"You aren't, and you've known that for a while now."  When she doesn't argue, I tell the girl, "Don't you think it's time for you to pass on?  Who knows, maybe your guy is waiting for you on the other side, wondering where the heck you are."

Her frown deepening, she lifts a bloodied hand and presses it against the window.  "Let me wait... just a little longer..."

I nod at her plea, not particularly interested in forcing an innocent spirit to somewhere she doesn't want to go, even if I knew how to do just that.  Sometimes I get lucky and lost souls will listen to me when I tell them that they don't belong here anymore, but this young woman obviously doesn't want to hear the truth.  At some point, she'll fade away altogether, and I can only hope that losing her grip on this world means she is taken to the next one and not that she's simply gone from all existence.

Leaving the infirmary, I walk with my head down and my eyes focused on the linoleum floor, not wanting to deal with the remaining ghosts in this place.  My mind, however, keeps going back to the sight of slit wrists, and I can’t avoid my own darker thoughts that toyed with suicide.  I feel like a fool for thinking, even for a second, how that could be the answer to my pain.  I don't want to be a lost soul stuck in a room forever because I gave up on love and everything else in my life.

To avoid that outcome, I know I should prepare myself for events to happen differently than I expect, and for the first time since fixating on the man, I try to seriously imagine my life if things don't work out with Squall.  It's a depressing thought, and yet I can't imagine Squall giving up on me.  He would be the honorable man he has always been, which means I won't be alone with my demons.  I already know that it's possible to depend on Squall without loving him... but I don't find much relief in that thought.  I want more than seeing him on rare occasions and a friendly handshake whenever we do meet.  I know what his lips feel like against mine, and I've dreamt about the rest.  There's no way in Hell that I can leave all of that behind without a fight.

I breathe a laugh at the realization that my thoughts have gone full circle.  I should be more honest and cope with the fact that Squall may not want me, but it's far more satisfying to imagine the things we could do together.  And God, the things we could do together...

"Sorry, Squall," I murmur while smiling at the numerous possibilities that come to mind, "but I think I've found my path in life and you're not going to convince me otherwise."




Author's Whining—A long time coming, I know, and I really hope that it was partially worth the wait.  You are all so wonderful for your support over the months, and man, it feels like the hits keep coming while I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life.  Meanwhile, ch7 is in progress and should be posted by next month.  I don’t think it’ll be as long as this chapter, but my muses like to fuck with me, so I’m not making any promises.

On a side note, this chapter has been brought to you by “Whataya want from me” (Adam Lambert) for inspiring the kiss scene, and also by “Sail” (Awolnation) and “The Cave” (Mumford & Sons) which have been on repeat during most of the writing process.  “Sail” especially is a nice song to have in the background as a non-distracting form of music.  And now, back to work…