One Wrong Step
September 2011

 

[Squall]

A headache throbbing behind my eyes, I hold a hand to my forehead and rub the limited area not covered by thick gauze.  I suppose I should assume that I'm finally feeling the effects of being attacked by an unseen opponent, but I've been hurt in many other fights and none of them have led to this type of headache.  No, this deep ache has only one cause in my experience--a green-eyed nuisance who, in this case, had the gall to steal a second kiss from me when I specifically warned him that there would only be one.

Fucking asshole.

Glancing over at the large blond, I watch him drive with both hands at the wheel and the speedometer needle hovering just under the posted speed limit.  It irritates me to see Seifer acting like a careful driver, and while the logical part of me recognizes that I’m angry at him for a completely different reason, I can’t help but to think that he’s annoying me on purpose.  The Seifer I know simply isn’t the type of man to drive like a grandmother who can’t see over the steering wheel of her car.

“You’re upset,” Seifer comments lightly.

Not replying, I focus on his lips and notice how they curl slightly into a perpetual smug expression.  The urge to punch him comes to mind, but he’d probably consider the attack as foreplay or something equally ridiculous.

“Hey, I had nothing to do with this,” Seifer defends, perhaps sensing the violent direction of my thoughts.  “I was surprised as you were when your dad handed me the keys and told me to drive you home.  I thought the guy had put me on his shit list for what happened with your mom.”

I huff at his guess that happens to purposefully avoid the real reason for my anger.  In all reality, I knew that my father would do something patronizing once he learned that we had taken a taxi to the hospital, but him encouraging us to use my mother’s neglected jeep was a surprise.  Given my unsteady state, I wasn’t allowed to drive, but only Laguna is naïve enough to claim that he doesn’t trust Seifer, and then twenty minutes later happily give that same man the keys to his wife’s car.

I suppose the illogical act is nothing new from my father, but that doesn’t help me when I try to predict whether or not he’ll eventually believe in Seifer and his abilities.  It would make things easier to have Laguna’s support, but I’m not about to waste my energy on trying to understand the thought process behinds his decisions.  He’ll make his choice one way or another, and until then, I have to make my plans without my father’s help.

The light ahead of us turns yellow, and in further ridiculousness, Seifer steps on the brake instead of the accelerator and slows to a stop at the eventual red light.

“Okay, I know that’s not why you’re angry,” Seifer says as he looks over with a pathetic gleam to his eyes.  “I fucked up with your mom, and you have every right to be pissed.  You wanted me to help her, and I only made things worse.”

I momentarily recall yelling at the blond for just that, but I know that the majority of the blame doesn’t lie with him.  Needing to voice that to Seifer, I say, “I forced you to go there when I obviously didn’t understand the situation.  I should have listened to you and waited.”

Seifer breathes a laugh.  “How much do you want to bet that you’ll never say that again?”

I glare at him in the clear message that I have listened to him many times before and often without regret.

“Okay, okay, for better or worse, you have taken me seriously in the past,” he agrees with a fleeting smile, “but that doesn’t change how I made a mess of things today.  If your dad bans me from that place, it seems pretty impossible to save your mother like I want to.”

“Then we’ll focus on Nida and the other kids,” I counter.  “I won’t let you give up at this point.”

Green eyes have a soft gleam while watching me and Seifer’s overall look is a bit too affectionate for my liking, but instead of saying whatever stupid thing he was about to say, Seifer yawns in a jaw-cracking manner that I haven’t seen since the other week.  And why wouldn’t he be tired?  What little sleep he managed last night was interrupted by a demon attacking him in his dreams.  Too soon after that, he was forced to protect me from his homicidal father, and not once, but twice called upon the power trapped within his human shell.  I don’t know what it means for him to use that power to exorcise a ghost, and I doubt Seifer could answer that question either, but the stress alone should be damaging enough. 

And lastly, without considering about his wellbeing, I pushed him directly into another dangerous situation that would have required the additional use of his unique abilities.  While it’s hard to admit, I realize now how that might not have gone well even if Roth’s ghost had been waiting for us.

“You need sleep,” I comment after the light turns green and Seifer has a delayed reaction with the accelerator.

“Yeah right, because that’s going to happen anytime soon,” he grumbles even as he lifts a hand to rub his eyes.

“You can’t avoid sleep forever.”

“I know, but…”  With a sigh, Seifer continues looking forward when he asks, “How about a trade, then?  In the most nonsexual way possible, sleep with me for the next few hours.  Then we can go hunting for Roth all you like.”

My headache throbs at his request, almost making me groan in pain.  “You have got to be—“

“I’m not trying a line here, Squall,” Seifer interrupts.  “You haven’t slept since two nights ago and lost enough blood this morning to make me want to faint.  You need sleep, too, and don’t fucking argue with me and say that you’re fine.”

“I would get better rest without you,” I point out, irritated at his new game to speak my name as if he never had an issue with it before now.

“Yeah, but I don’t think I could do the same without you.  Even after I woke up from my dream, I didn’t feel safe again until you came back home, and that’s not the first time I’ve noticed it.  I don’t know if it has to do with your home, or maybe with that protection charm I gave you, or maybe you’re just really good at distracting me, but whatever the reason, I don’t feel as exposed to wandering spirits when I’m close to you.”

I scoff at the useful excuse that would give Seifer a reason to crawl into my bed.

With a frustrated sneer, the blond tries a different approach.  “Fine, if you don’t want to believe that, can’t you at least agree that you’d be able to wake me faster if I’m right fucking next to you?  The last time I closed my eyes, I was strangled by some kind of demon and I couldn’t fight back—can you blame me for wanting a backup plan if it happens again?”

His reasoning still sounds too convenient, but then my eyes drift to the bruises decorating his throat and I remember how Seifer looked the moment I stepped into my bedroom.  There was honest terror in his eyes, and while I have seen plenty of fear in his verdant gaze as of late, nothing compares to last night.  Knowing that, it seems spiteful of me to say “no” to his request simply because I’m afraid that he’ll take advantage of the situation.  Worse, if some demon does take him away from me because I refused this one request…

Interrupting that thought, my cell phone rings in a piercing noise that makes me cringe when my headache announces its disapproval.  I glance at the name on the screen and frown when I know that I shouldn’t have a return call so soon.  Selecting the answer button, I lift the phone to my ear.  “Do you have something for me already?”

A light tsk sounds over the line.  <”Really, who taught you to answer the phone like that?  Would a simple ‘Hello, and how are you doing?’ kill you once and while?”> Selphie scolds, but I can tell by her tone of voice that her mind is on something else, something she doesn’t like one bit.

“Is this about those names I wanted you to look into?”

Selphie hesitates before asking her own questions.  <”What is this for, Squall?  Is this a new case of yours?  You weren’t really helpful with details when you called earlier.”>

“It’s something personal.  Is that a problem?”

<”That depends on your definition of a ‘problem’…”> she murmurs under her breath before saying more clearly, <”All right, assuming you have your reasons, you told me that Nida Piolt should be first on my list, but I don’t think you’re going to like what I found.  According to our records, a teenage boy by that name committed suicide earlier this year.”>

Not expecting that detail and unwilling to accept it, I’m forced to ask the detective, “Are you certain?”

<”Sorry, Squall, but the name matches the age range you were looking for and he was also a foster child, just like you said.  He apparently hung himself from one of the goal posts on the Rose High School football field, and I’m afraid that it doesn’t get any better.  Lian Xu also committed suicide, but over two years ago.  From the report, it sounds like she cut herself pretty badly and... All I can say is that it wasn’t her first attempt.”>

I curse at the information, my thoughts spinning at the possibility of Roth driving those children to suicide and then showing my mother their deaths time and time again.  And fuck that bastard to Hell, it’s not fair.  My mother and those children should have been free of his poisonous existence once a swat team member shot the sadist in the chest.  My father had said it perfectly when he insisted that Roth was dead and that he shouldn’t be able to hurt my mother anymore, but I didn’t imagine that the ghost could take things this far.

<”Squall,”> Selphie says softly, her tone suggesting that I’ve been quiet too long.  <”What could you possibly be researching that would include these kids?”>

“Zack Fair,” I say ignoring her question.  “Were you able to find anything on him?”

With a reluctant sigh, Selphie replies, <”His parents filed a missing persons report about seven months ago.  He’s almost eighteen, so he could be exploring the world or something else that guys do around that age, but if he’s associated to these kids somehow… Seriously, Squall, do I need to call his parents and tell them to not wrap any Christmas presents for him?  What exactly are you involved in here?  Is this…”>  Lowering her voice to a whisper, she asks, <”Is this something to do with Handsome?”>

I glance over at the blond, the man doing an admirable job of looking like he isn’t listening to every word of my conversation.  “He’s… involved.”

<”Damn, please tell me this isn’t about another set of futures that he couldn’t stop.  That guy has dealt with enough failures without this, and do you remember when he saw that picture of the latest Strangler victim?  It could have been his own child judging by that heartbroken look to his eyes.”>

While I wouldn’t have used the same words, I know exactly what expression Selphie saw on that day.  Seifer has never handled frustration well, even though his life seems to be full of futile struggles, and I doubt his reaction to this information will be any different.  Worse, these were people Seifer thought he had saved from a terrible fate, and now I have the responsibility to tell him that he only postponed their destiny.

<”Damn…”> Selphie repeats when my silence answers her concern for ‘Handsome’.  <”Well, I shouldn’t say this and it might not even matter, but Nida… He carved something into his arm.  It said, ‘I can’t,’ and he took his own life after that.  It could be nothing more than a suicide note, but both of those kids used a knife somehow.  Maybe that matters?”>

My blood goes cold at the knowledge of how my mother has tried many times to use a sharp object on her body, but it’s too early to assume that everything is connected.  “It might mean something,” I tell Selphie as my thanks for revealing the extra information from the police records.  “Send me whatever you can and I’ll look through it.”

<”I’m afraid it’s not much since these are minors we’re talking about, but I hope it helps.  Call me if you need anything else, and promise to return the favor if something comes up for me.”>

“It’s not my choice,” I say in reply to her vaguely subtle request that she wants to be notified if Seifer has anymore dreams.

Selphie laughs lightly at the rebuff.  <”It’s sweet that you’re taking his side.  Well, be good, Squall, and don’t get into any more trouble without me.”>

My stitched flesh twitches at her warning, and for my own wellbeing, I don’t say anything and simply end the call before Selphie can figure something out.  Even so, I stare at the screen of my phone for several seconds, waiting for the possibility of another call from the observant woman.  Meanwhile, in the darkness of the screen, I can see my reflection and dully admit that my father’s concern may have been more justified than I originally thought.

“Are you going to pretend that you don’t have something to tell me?”

With a sigh, I slip my cell phone back into my pocket.  “I’ll tell you later.”

“Don’t do me any favors, Sherlock.  I’m a big boy who can handle the truth.”

I waste another moment while looking out the side window, noting that we’re almost to my building, but not close enough that I could distract Seifer from what he wants.  In a weird way, I have to think that this proves how much I love the blond idiot: I want more than anything to prevent his constant pain, and yet, when he asks me directly for something that can only hurt him, I don’t know how to refuse.

“Well?” Seifer prods.

Deciding that there’s little point to soften the blow, I relent, “According to Selphie, Nida and Xu both committed suicide in the last two years.  Zack has been missing for months without any leads, and given his association to those two, it’s probably safe to assume the worst.”

Seifer doesn’t say anything for several seconds, forcing me to look at him to judge his reaction.  His emerald eyes are hard while he continues to stare forward at the road, but that doesn’t prevent the slight buildup of moisture as he copes with the idea of more lost lives.  I would have expected him to hide that sight of weakness, but instead, his hands stay on the steering wheel and his knuckles become bone-white from the strength of his grip.  It’s strange to see the silent form of anger from the volatile blond, and not for the first time, I don’t know how to react to him.

“I’m going to fuck him up,” Seifer eventually pledges in a hoarse voice.  “One way or another, I’m going to make that fucker feel every twinge of pain that each of his victims have felt.”

I stare at the green-eyed man, but in my mind, I see Seifer as he was when he stood between me and his unseen father.  Like then, my chest feels sore with the pride I feel for the blond, and not because of his words or his anger, but because he has somehow found the strength to use his powers when he continues to claim that they are a curse upon his life.  In contrast, I consider his powers to be one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed, and it would be troublesome if Seifer ever discovered that little fact.

His hard gaze shifting my way, Seifer asks, “Are you going to help me?”

“Until you’re satisfied,” I reply, knowing that Roth’s end won’t be enough after so many years of disappointment.

An unidentifiable gleam enters his eyes before he returns his attention to the street ahead of us.

The remainder of the ride home passes in silence, Seifer never increasing his speed as we approach my building and eventually pull into the empty space next to my motorcycle.  As I step out of the jeep, I notice the spare helmet sitting at the back of my bike and I think about Seifer’s outburst earlier this morning.  It has always been a dance between us, one of us trying to get closer to the other, but never close enough to get burned.

At least, that’s how it was until Seifer demanded for his one kiss, a kiss that I can’t forget, and damn him for crossing that line.

The sound of Seifer closing his door encourages me to move and not let him catch me in a distracted moment.  I’m the first to the stairwell, but that has become somewhat commonplace ever since Seifer learned about his father’s attempt to shove me down the concrete steps.  I almost want to ask Seifer if he thinks there is still something to fear after the events of this morning, but I know from the necklace against my skin that nothing is around.  The metal is cold and soothing against my burnt skin, acting almost like a healing balm to the flesh it had damaged with its protective energy.  It shouldn’t be that way, and yet I have a feeling that there’s more of Seifer in his protection charm than he may realize himself.

We reach my condo without conflict or obstacle, and yet when I open the door, I’m immediately reminded of everything that had happened only hours ago—the pain of an unexpected and vicious attack, the sudden icy chill that was unnatural and terrifying, the perfection of white light that flowed from the blond—and I’m not certain how to focus on the mundane task of cleaning up the mess in front of me.  The whole place smells of burnt coffee, the collection of my father’s books lie in pile beneath fallen shelves, and the kitchen is colored in the dark stains of my spilt blood.  My home has been violated, and while this wasn’t the first time my furniture has been upturned from a fight, I don’t like how this particular instance was completely out of my control.

Sighing out some frustration, I pick up the fallen coat rack to hang up my jacket, but Seifer obviously has different plans.  His arms wrap around me in a suffocating hug, pinning my arms in a hold that I could easily escape if Seifer forces the point.  In the meantime, I relax within his arms and stare forward at the bare coat rack, waiting for Seifer to say whatever he needs to say.

His breath is warm against the back of my neck when he speaks.  “You never told me if you liked my kiss.”

The comment isn’t much of a surprise, especially when I was expecting some version of his implied question a lot sooner than this.  The cocky ass wants to know if I’m willing to accept all of his pledges and delusions based on one incredible kiss, and there’s only one answer I can give—“Why should I believe you?”

His arms tighten around me in frustration, but his voice is soft when he says, “Don’t pretend that you weren’t looking at that mess in the kitchen.  I almost lost you today, and it makes me sick to think about it.  All I want to do is hold you, but you keep pushing me away, and God damn it, why do you have to be so fucking stubborn all of the time?”

“Because I know you,” I argue in response.  “For years, I watched you flirt with nearly every girl and woman around you, and you have never turned an interested eye to another man.”

“Well, of course you never saw me do that.  I can see dead people, Sherlock—don’t you think I’ve learned how to hide the parts of me that I don’t want others to know about?  Especially the parts that people would consider ‘not normal’?”

“So, this isn’t normal…”

“That’s a cheap shot, but for a jock in high school, no, it wasn’t normal to want another guy,” Seifer says with a disappointed hint to his voice.  “Even so, don’t you think there’s a reason why I never harassed you along with my friends?  Maybe I wasn’t brave enough to help you back then, but there was no way in Hell that someone was going to make me hurt you.  Not my worthless friends and not my fucking father.  I guess a part of me knew that if I touched you, it wasn’t going to be for that reason.”

My heart pounding and my head hurting, I don’t dare respond to his little confession.  The word “convenient” dances around my thoughts once again, but I also remember Seifer’s face whenever he would stumble upon my fights with some of the football players.  Every single time, Seifer would walk away and say that he wasn’t going to be a part of it, but in that split second before leaving, I liked to imagine that there was disgust and anger in those vibrant eyes of his.  It was a nice fantasy, and that’s why I never risked looking long enough to see what was really there.

With my silence, Seifer tries a different approach.  “Tell me the truth, Squall.  Why did you believe me when I told you about my powers?”

“… I didn’t.  I looked into your information and it was legit.  That’s all.”

“Liar,” Seifer whispers.  “If you didn’t believe me, not even a little bit, you wouldn’t have listened to me in the first place and you definitely wouldn’t have checked out my story.  So what’s the real answer?”

My lips twitch into an annoyed sneer.  “I might have been… influenced by other factors.”

“In other words, you loved me enough to believe in the impossible,” he clarifies without hesitation, somehow not sounding incredibly arrogant about the fact, “but that leads to my next question—with all of the other men out there who would fall down onto their knees to have you, why in the world did you choose me?”

Dragging out every word, I insist irritably, “It wasn’t by choice.”

Seifer hums in vague regret before he releases me from his demanding hug, but promptly encourages me to turn around.  With a hand lifted to my face, he brushes a thumb just beneath white gauze, his rough skin catching on the loose threads of cotton.  “If you think you didn’t have a choice, why assume that I do?”

I frown at the comparison, but he places a pair of fingers at my lips to silence my retort before it sounds.

“No, you’re right.  I did have a choice all of these years, but I made the easy decision that only made things worse.  So much could have been different back then if I understood what choice I was making, but I can’t change that.  I can only change this moment right now.”

I gaze up into tired green eyes, and all I want to do is deny his words and the lingering touch of his skin, but that would require being able to figure out another reason for his recent flirtatious actions.  It would be too cruel if Seifer was doing this in some odd form of repayment, especially if he knows that he can’t go all of the way.  Meanwhile, he has already pledged to save my mother, something that is vastly more important to me than the meager concerns in my own life.  No, Seifer isn’t doing this for me, but that means he is somehow doing this for himself… and that makes even less sense than the rest of my theories to this point.

“What’s going on in that head of yours?” Seifer asks while leaning in close with an obvious purpose.

“I’m trying to decide how I should castrate you the moment I determine why you’re fucking around with me.”

His eyes brightening, Seifer smiles his seductive smile and counters, “Then it’s a damned good thing that this isn’t a game and I actually want you.”

Watching that curl to his lips, I’m overwhelmed by years of seeing that fucking smile directed at every pretty thing that crossed his path, and I suddenly can’t take it anymore.  I grab the front of his shirt and jerk him forward to remove the minimal distance between us, telling myself that I need one more taste.  One more taste that isn’t interrupted by blood and pain, a taste that I’m prepared to remember for the rest of my life, assuming it will be necessary.  And Seifer doesn’t disappoint.

Our mouths clash against each other in a desperate kiss where I want to prove Seifer wrong and Seifer is stubborn enough to think that he has already proved himself right.  His tongue has the annoying habit of pinpointing the more sensitive spots in my mouth, as if Seifer knows exactly how to slow down my thoughts and make me want more of him.  Needing to regain ground, I slip my tongue beneath his and draw a throaty groan from the larger man, just like I did earlier this morning.  I was almost certain that he would taste different after calling upon his inhuman powers, but Seifer is exactly like I remember with his dominate tongue, his strong hand at my waist, his solid chest beneath my hands…

…and then his thigh slips between my legs and presses hard against my crotch, the man making a very clear statement that I’m not prepared to accept.

I jerk back sharply with the harsh moment of clarity, but before I have the freedom to figure out if I should be enraged or reluctantly impressed by his boldness, Seifer loses his balance because of my reaction.  He wraps his arms around me in a hasty move and nearly topples us both to the ground when he can’t find the right footing.  I manage to brace the impulsive idiot instead of pushing him away, which eventually leaves the blond with a loose arm around my waist and his chin resting on my shoulder.

“Shit, that didn’t go as planned,” he complains against my neck, his voice revealing the exhaustion that probably led to his unsteady balance.

Abusing the chance to regain some distance between us, I strongly suggest, “Use my bed and get some rest before you hurt yourself.”

“Not without you.  I’ve already made that clear.”

While I was on the edge of surrendering to his request before Selphie’s call, it now seems like a poor choice given his show of stupidity.  If nothing else, I don’t see Seifer getting much sleep when he’s this focused on other things, and given his record thus far, I’m probably the worst distraction there is for the blond.

A harsh laugh reaches my ear, Seifer once again assuming things because of my silence.  “God damn it, I can’t win with you, can I?  You’re positive that I don’t want you, and yet you’re also suspicious about me taking advantage of your body if we’re within a foot of a bed.  You’ve got to tell me, Sherlock, which guy am I?  The one who’s straight and confused, or the one who’s going to fuck you whether you want it or not?”

“Are you assuming those choices are mutually exclusive?”

In a sluggish move, Seifer straightens and shows a serious expression.  “Or I’m none of the above?”

With a lifted eyebrow, I simply stare at him for the suggestion that doesn’t coincide with the things I know about the blond.  While I’m willing to believe that he isn’t the same person he was in high school, that doesn’t mean the foundation of his personality hasn’t changed.  Arrogant, unrefined, hot-headed, charismatic, intuitive… There is so much to Seifer, but an open-minded and devoted lover isn’t something I can easily associate to him.

Seifer frowns at my lack of response, and with an irritated curse, he shrugs off his coat.  “You know what, just forget it.  I’ll deal with this myself and go to my own bed.  At least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you can’t haunt me if I’m killed first.”

I grab his wrist when he moves to hang up his coat, and with the flat of my thumb, I make certain to clamp down on a particularly painful nerve.  “Don’t you dare say it like that.

With a deep wince, Seifer tries to free his arm while maintaining, “Fuck you, Loire.  If you actually cared, if you actually loved me like you claim, then you would give me the benefit of the doubt.  Instead, you seem to get real excited at the idea of hurting me, so why don’t you enjoy this moment for what it’s worth?  It’s bound to be a great show if that demon finds me again.”

Anger heating my blood, I shove the larger man against the wall and hold him there with a hand wrapped at his throat.  “I have never fucking enjoyed your pain.  Never.”

His eyes surprisingly calm in his anger, Seifer watches me and cruelly asks, “Why should I believe you?”

Everything stops—my anger, my thoughts, my heart—at the words I’ve used too many times against Seifer.  Even when I know his intent was to hurt me, that knowledge doesn’t soften the ache within my chest.  Ever since he learned of my misdirected feelings, Seifer hasn’t once questioned them.  He may have been confused by their existence and frustrated by my refusal to act on them, but he didn’t doubt my love for him… Not once, until now.

How pathetic to be ruined by Seifer’s childish act to mirror my defensive answer to his constant pleas.

I loosen my hold at his neck and sigh at the bruises beneath my fingers, knowing that I probably caused more damage.  With a careful touch, I trace my fingertips along the proof that someone wants him dead, and just like that, one very important thing becomes clear—I can’t let Seifer die because I’m a stubborn fool.

“Go to my bed and wait for me there,” I say while continuing to focus on his bruises.  “I want to clean up this mess first.”

Placing his hand over mine, Seifer argues lightly, “And why should I do something like that?”

I look up into bright green eyes and see his hope behind the haze of exhaustion.  “Because I might not give you another chance.”

Hn, there is that,” he agrees with a slight curl to his lips, the victorious hint making me wonder if I had been conned by the blond.  The vague smile, however, quickly vanishes to be replaced by a serious look when Seifer insists, “But hey, don’t treat me like I’m useless.  I’ll clean up, too.”

With a lifted eyebrow, I glance over my shoulder at the kitchen and the splatter of dried blood.

“Right, I think I’ll leave that to you and I can work over here,” Seifer says as he releases my hand and steps over to pick up a piece of fallen paper.

I watch him for a moment, musing about how this is my hero, a man who controls amazing powers and faces down demons, but also does whatever he can to avoid the sight of blood.  I indulge in the thought that my blood makes it that much harder for the blond, and for a second, I almost believe it.  Removing my jacket, I place it onto the coat stand before moving into the kitchen and inspecting the damage.  There isn’t that much blood since most of it had fallen onto me or else soaked up in the towel I had used, but there’s enough splatter to make things bothersome.  And then there is the small matter of the knife sticking out from the pantry door.

Grabbing the handle, I manage to free the knife without damaging the cabinet even further, but the blade isn’t as lucky.  Warped just enough to make it useless, I sigh at losing one of my favorite knives.  Despite its ruined state, I imagine the knife would have been “lost” anyway with enough time, even if Seifer would deny ever touching the thing.  Resigned, I drop the knife into the sink to be handled later, and from the cabinet underneath, I grab a towel and a bottle of cleaner to work on the rest of the kitchen, purposefully ignoring the bout of dizziness when I stand back up.

As expected, it doesn’t take me long to wipe down the counters, cabinets, and floor, even when I go over everything a second time with a new towel.  Once finished, I toss the towels into the trash and walk over to where Seifer had picked up the fallen bookshelf and was carefully putting my father’s books back into place.  He doesn’t have the order exactly right, but it’s good enough for now.  Meanwhile, his eyes are red and his eyelids linger a bit too long with every blink as Seifer stares at the titles.  The sight reminds me of my nephew, Alec, when he was three-years-old and would constantly refuse naps with the claim that he wasn’t tired enough to sleep.  Alec, however, never demanded for me to take his naps with him.

Seifer finishes with his armload of books before acknowledging me, his eyes soft with need.  “Are you done?”

Hn, I just need to grab my laptop.”

“Your laptop…?”

“I can do some research while you sleep,” I say, but Seifer places a restraining hand against my chest when I take a step toward my desk.

“Did you forget how you’ve had less sleep than me in the last two days?”

“It’s just preliminary research.”

Seifer snorts.  “Right, and once you get a hint of something interesting, you’ll run off to investigate it further and try to do so without me.  Sorry, but I’m not letting you get started.  Sleep first, research later,” he insists while shoving me in the direction of my bedroom. 

It’s not surprising how Seifer has caught onto that habit of mine, and unfortunately, I have to acknowledge that he might be right about me pushing things too hard.  If nothing else, I could miss an important detail if I attempt to do research while half-asleep and that won’t help anyone.  Relenting, I increase my pace to move out of reach of Seifer’s hand and walk toward my bedroom without his unrequested aid.

Once entering my room, I pick up the pillow that had fallen on the floor next to my bed, knowing that it’s same pillow Seifer had held against his chest when I found him late last night.  Not wanting to deal with that memory, I toss the pillow back into its proper spot and look over to the other side of the bed where Seifer had moved.  My eyebrow lifting in disbelief, I immediately decide that the sight of Seifer removing his jeans wasn’t a distraction I wanted right now.

“Give me a break, Sherlock,” Seifer complains when noticing my look.  “I want to get some decent sleep and that means being comfortable.  I swear that the boxers aren’t going anywhere.”

It’s a decent point, and while I normally wouldn’t try to sleep within the confines of leather pants, at least not intentionally, there’s no way I’m sharing a bed with Seifer without some kind of barrier to keep me safe.  Moving onto the mattress, I lie down on my back and immediately close my eyes, pretending that I’m not doing something incredibly stupid right now.  Recognizing the boundaries I’ve set, Seifer breathes a laugh before crawling into bed and lying down with a fair distance between our bodies.

“Hey, Squall…”

Despite myself, I glance over at the blond, his head propped up on a fisted hand in a manner that makes him look like a cliché fragrance model.

His smile not completely arrogant, Seifer says, “Thanks for trusting me this far.  I know that it can’t be easy for you.”

“Whatever…”

“Yeah well, for the record, I know that you’re not going to tell me what you think about our kisses, but I think they are something incredible.”

I frown at Seifer for the statement, but I know that his constant assertions of interest are starting to take hold of me.  Seifer may enjoy flustering people, but he only goes so far before growing bored of the game, and he has passed that limit a few pledges ago.  This is slowly beginning to feel like something different than what I assumed it was.

His smile widening, Seifer flops onto his stomach and burrows into his pillow.  “Just thought you’d like to know.”

I close my eyes and curse to myself that, if Seifer actually wanted me to get some rest, he shouldn’t have said something so suggestive.

Forcing my mind into other directions, I focus on the tasks ahead of us with locating more information about the grown children my mother once called students.  Even if they are dead, there is plenty of information that we can learn from the way those kids lived their lives in the weeks before they were driven to suicide.  Maybe Roth gave them nightmares like he did to my mother, and if they told anyone or wrote down the details, it could help us to find the ghost without getting my mother involved a second time.  It’s a longshot, but if it can be done this way, it would be far better than risking my mother’s sanity or Seifer’s safety within the mental hospital.

A half-hour or so passes with similar thoughts, leaving me awake and formulating questions for the parents without being too offensive, and that’s when I hear a strange sound from Seifer.  I open my eyes to look at the sleeping blond and find him curled on his side in a slight ball with his arms crossed over his chest.  His eyebrows furrowed, Seifer moves his lips as if saying something, but no other noise comes from the man.

Concerned, I inch close enough place my hand at his brow and brush a few strands of hair from his forehead, my mind briefly returning to the other time I touched him like this.  It was the night that boy was murdered, and with Seifer seemingly asleep, I thought the stray touch was justified repayment from the blond after he had shaken me with his talk of Heaven.  In contrast, the kiss I had placed against his forehead was a selfish desire and nothing nobler than that.

When my thumb drifts to his lips, Seifer moves as if given unspoken permission and wraps his arms around my waist, making me doubt his unconscious state.  When I’m about to call his bluff, however, I notice a thin trail of moisture at his cheek before he buries his face against my side.  Asleep or not, it’s hard to refuse Seifer the comfort he needs when I have no good reason to deny him that human connection.  I place a hand at the back of his bruised neck and rub my thumb along the softer strands of hair, a touch that soothes his breaths into a softer rhythm.  It takes another minute longer for his lips to relax from their soundless speech.

As I watch him slip into truer sleep, I reluctantly realize that this is yet another thing Seifer wasn’t lying about.  His impossible powers that allow him to view the future, his deceased father wanting to kill me, his desire to help my mother no matter the risk to himself, and now his ability to sleep better when I’m near… And it’s a little troubling to consider what I might believe next from the conniving blond.

==========================================================================

Adjusting my sunglasses to sit better while pressed against fresh gauze, I lean back against the side of my mother’s jeep and view upon the football field covered by trampled snow.  A few memories rise to the surface at the sight, mostly of Seifer after an important win and the smile he would show at that hard fought victory.  It was an addicting smile, one of raw emotion that hid nothing, and it was always ruined by a cheerleader or some other bouncy girl running up to the blond and kissing him in a dramatic fashion.  I’m not certain what made me angrier back then—the whorish actions of those girls or the way Seifer clearly enjoyed the attention.

“Man, this brings back a lot of memories,” Seifer comments as he steps around the front of the jeep.  “I’m pretty certain that I spent more time on this field than I did in a classroom.  While it ended up being a dumbass move, those were undoubtedly the best years of my life.”

When Seifer moves next to me, he stands closer than appropriate and his lips can’t resist a smug curl at getting his way this morning.  My fingers twitch at the idea of wiping that smile from his face, but I know that this is my fault.  Seifer obviously needed his rest, and while I had indulged his desire for physical contact, I didn’t anticipate that I would find my own degree of comfort with the large blond attached to my side.  When I woke up hours later, I discovered Seifer awake and sliding a finger along the healing injury caused by a broken beer bottle.  Against what it should have been, it wasn’t a sensual touch, but something with its own form of intensity that made me shiver all the same.

“What about you, Squall?” he asks with a widening smirk.  “Did you see any of my games?”

“… Every one.”

Instead of a victorious laugh, Seifer simply nods at my admission.  “I was wondering if that was the case.  I saw you a couple times, and all I could think was, ‘What the fuck would make the Ice Prince come out and watch a football game?’  I thought you might have had a thing for one of the marching band geeks or that you liked seeing some of the assholes on my team get plowed in a bad play.  I never guessed that I was the reason you came.”

Not liking the sound to his voice, I point out firmly, “You weren’t the reason for all of my decisions, not even most of them.”

“I’m well aware of that, Sherlock,” Seifer comments with a blissful smile, “but enough of your choices were because of me.  It makes a guy feel important.”

I huff at his nonsense and push up from the jeep to walk toward the far goal post.  Seifer moves quickly to match my pace, and while he does a decent job of making it appear accidental, his ungloved hand brushes against mine.  The fleeting touch makes me wonder about the depths of Seifer’s need for physical contact and whether or not I could escape his hold if I gave into his demands… But that isn’t what makes me wary of the blond.  If he held me forever, that would be the fantasy ending that I’ve wanted for too long.  No, what makes me afraid to accept his love is the uncertainty of when he’d let me go and how hard I’d fall.

“Over here, Sherlock,” Seifer says from several yards away, drawing me out of unwanted thoughts.  “I guess the guy decided to get comfortable while waiting for the elevator to Heaven or Hell.”

Trusting his sight, I follow after the blond as he walks toward the taller set of stands that are painted deep blue and pale silver, the colors of the home team.  Seifer moves toward the end of the bleachers and stops in the middle of the track lanes that encircle the field.  With a sigh, Seifer shoves his hands into the pockets of his coat and looks up into the stands, his green eyes unwavering as he stares at the empty seats.

“Hey there, Nida,” Seifer greets as if meeting with a lost friend.  “Enjoying the view around here?”

Unable to take part in the conversation, I watch the blond as he speaks to the deceased teenager.  Seifer and I have already discussed about the questions that should be asked, but while I wait for that first question, I notice the rapid shift of emotions that flit across Seifer’s face before his lips pull back into a sneer and his eyebrows furrow in anger.

“Say that again,” he demands in a growl.

Recognizing that his tone holds more fear than anger, I move closer with the thought to ask him what is happening, but I hesitate when a thin flow of white light emerges from his shoulders and covers most of his back.  The light isn’t as dense as when he had fought against his father, but the visible form of his power is there nonetheless.  Watching that silent flow of energy, I decide that I have spent too much time around Seifer and his romantic talk since, like times before, the white light seems to follow a specific set of lines that almost, in an abstract fashion, look like…

“Wait a—God damn it!  Fucking sorry excuse of a ghost…” Seifer spits out as he turns sharply, surprising me almost as much as himself when he finds me a closer than before.  His mood shifts to show his pleasure at my approach, but that lightness is promptly lost to a disappointed frown.  “Sorry, Squall, but this is a dead-end.  Nida knew exactly why we came here and he wants nothing to do with it.”

While it’s a disappointing response, I was prepared for the possibility.  “He’s still afraid of Roth.”

“Oh, it gets better than that.  He had some advice for me,” Seifer says with a glare in the direction of the empty stands.  “He said that no one escapes Roth a second time.”

I frown at the supposed advice, uncertain what purpose it could serve.  To my knowledge, Seifer didn’t know Roth prior to my mother’s kidnapping, and with him unable to decipher his dreams to figure out the man’s location, Seifer didn’t meet the living person.  Meanwhile, Seifer has only mentioned being haunted by his father and no other ghost.  Nothing else has attacked or threatened Seifer

Except…

My breath is lost when my eyes lower to the dark scarf covering Seifer’s throat and the bruises beneath.

A shaky laugh comes from the blond.  “You never disappoint, Sherlock.”

Unable to accept my own theory despite Seifer’s implied confirmation, I point out, “You said a demon came after you, not a ghost.”

“I saw a black shape in my dreams—what the fuck else was I supposed to assume it was?” Seifer bites out defensively, but he then adds more calmly, “There was nothing human in what I saw, and really, knowing what we know about Roth, I’m not certain ‘human’ was the right word for him anyway.”

I stare at the blond as my thoughts stall, refusing the possibility that I could lose both my mother and Seifer to a man who died over a decade ago and shouldn’t have any influence in the living world.  Worst of all, I can’t touch the sadistic bastard.  There is nothing I can do, nothing except place my trust in Seifer and shove him into one dangerous situation after another when this isn’t his problem.  From the beginning, he had no real reason to do any of this.  His mother isn’t the one in danger, and he never met the children from her class.  There isn’t a reason to risk his life for any of this… No reason except for one possibility that I have refused to believe thus far.

“I don’t know if it’s true,” Seifer amends even as he pulls at his scarf.  “Ghosts get confused all of the time, and the kid could be fucking with me because he can, but… I think it makes a weird kind of sense.  I have felt the aura Roth leaves around your mother—it’s dark and ugly, and it’s exactly the kind of stain a terrorizing demon would leave behind.”

I automatically lift a hand to my forehead and wince when my fingers press against gauze.  “But it doesn’t make sense, Seifer.  You told me that the demon was the ‘Johnny Strangler.’  How can that thing also be Roth?”

“Because he’s good at what he does,” Seifer counters, his green eyes flicking to the goal post where Nida had taken his life.  “You told me how the kid had carved the words, ‘I can’t,’ into his arm, but the way he exists in death, those words and similar ones are sliced all over his body.  ‘I can’t,’ ‘I won’t,’ and ‘Never’… They all look fresh, too, like he took a knife to his body just minutes ago.”

I cross my arms over my chest, uncomfortable with the suggestion that Nida’s ghost shows the invisible wounds from his life.  Seifer was reluctant to describe what he sees when we go to the mental hospital, but he did explain how the ghosts of the insane aren’t like other spirits.  In death, they show the physical form of their sickness, and for Nida to show such wounds, Roth had apparently reached the teen’s very soul and tore him apart.  Worse, no one noticed or cared enough to get Nida the help he needed before he could place his hand on a length of rope.

While it pains me to see my mother in a mental hospital, I now understand that she is probably alive because she’s in a place where suicide isn’t an easy task to achieve.

“Roth knows how to twist minds,” Seifer continues, “and while he didn’t say it straight-out, I got the sense that Nida killed himself before Roth could convince him to do something terrible.  With Nida gone, what if Roth got to someone else?  Maybe someone who hasn’t been seen in a while?”

I frown at the implication of his words.  “You think Zack is the Strangler.”

Seifer shrugs and reasons, “That kid witnessed every horrible deed that was done to your mother, and after he was rescued, he was treated to a sadist ghost trailing after him.  I don’t know about you, but I think serial killers have been born from a lot gentler stuff than that.”

I don’t want to even consider his theory.  I don’t want to believe that one of the children saved along with my mother is now a killer himself, but even as I think that, I know I’m letting emotion get in the way of reason.  If I want to save my mother and possibly others, I need to look at everything with a clear mind and consider every solution, no matter how ugly an option may be.

“A person doesn’t start with killing children,” I rationalize out loud.  “If Zack is doing this, there should have been signs before he disappeared.”

“In other words, you have some really awkward questions to ask his parents.”

With a sigh, I accept the truth of Seifer’s words.  It’s not the most pleasant of situations, but I’ve had worse discussions with parents over the years.  In a strange way, it may be a relief to his parents to learn that their son, despite his crimes, could still be alive after all of these months.  Of my various clients, I find the parents of lost children to be the most tiring.  They never stop believing in a happy ending, which means practical thinking and planning for the worst are rarely welcomed when it comes to speaking with distressed parents.  If I had my choice in cases, I’d rather vengeful spouses over lost children any day of the week.

“Hey, what’re you guys doing here?”

The vaguely familiar voice sounds from downfield, and glancing over my shoulder, I watch the approach of two young teenagers.  Due to the crocheted scarf covering most of his face and a similar hat concealing spiky brown hair, I don’t immediately recognize Riku’s friend, not that I’ve spoken to him for longer than a few minutes.  The other teen with him is clearly not Riku or even male, but I can’t place a name to the young woman with deep red hair.  Considering their matching scarves, I decide that crocheting may be a hobby of hers.  From what little I know about Sora, the boy doesn’t seem the type to sit in one place and work on crafty project to the end.

“Well, if isn’t the munchkin,” Seifer says with an easy smile.  “And who’s this pretty thing with you?”

The girl frowns and wraps thin arms across her chest.  “I don’t give my name to strange men.”

It’s okay, Kairi,” Sora assures with a laughing voice.  “These are the guys who found Riku when he went missing.  Squall is cool, but Riku warned me that this other guy is an ass and that we shouldn’t listen to him.”

While the red-haired girl partly relaxes at the information, Seifer mutters something under his breath about ungrateful virgins and returning a gift box of small condoms.

Pulling his scarf down to free his nose and mouth, Sora asks, “So, what are you guys doing here?  Don’t tell me that… Are you looking for Riku again?”

Seifer snorts at the question.  “We’re not some kind of posse to that boyfriend of yours, kid.  We have better things to do than dealing with his emo-ass.”

“Boyfriend…?” Sora squeaks.

At the sign that things didn’t go as we had assumed for the boys, Seifer stares with surprise in his green eyes… until a more mischievous gleam brightens his gaze, prompting me to speak before the blond can cause further damage.

“We’re here for a case of mine,” I say with a pointed glare at the scheming blond.

“A case?” Kairi speaks up with concern highlighting her voice.  “Did something happen here?  Are the police involved?”

“It’s nothing for you to worry about,” I respond, but instead of easing their minds, I receive matching stares of annoyed disbelief from the pair of teens.  Apparently they have learned to not trust that particular phrase, perhaps from their friend Riku.  I can imagine him telling them those exact words in the days before he ran off, planning to never see his friends again.

“Don’t get so riled, kiddos,” Seifer says with a wave of his hand.  “We’re looking into a suicide that happened here earlier this year.  Maybe you heard of it?”

Sora’s expressive eyes widen at the information.  “You’re talking about Nida.”

“You knew him,” I say given the tone of his voice.

“Yeah… Yeah, I did, but why do you care about him?  Was he in some kind of trouble?”

“More than you could’ve guessed, kid,” Seifer murmurs, earning confused stares from the pair of teens.

“They don’t need to hear about that,” I warn quietly.

“Hear what?” Sora demands with a firm step forward.  “Do you know something about Nida?  Do you know why he took his life, or why he never told anybody about what he was thinking?”

Seifer sighs at the string of questions.  “Sorry, but I think Squall is right with this one.  It’d be better if you didn’t know the details.”

“Don’t decide that for me,” Sora argues with a shimmer of moisture to his eyes.  “No one would’ve noticed anything if Nida didn’t kill himself at school, and even then, people barely blinked at his death.  Nida was practically my brother, and now he’s gone and no one else cares, so don’t tell me what I can or can’t handle.”

Seifer glances at me for permission, but I’m distracted by Sora’s attachment to a teenager three or four years his elder.  “How was it that you knew Nida?”

Sora hesitates with a frown, but still replies, “We lived in the same house.  It was my third foster home, and other than Riku, he was the first guy to sit and listen to what I needed to say.”

With that answer, Riku’s half-formed comment about Sora not having a “real family” makes sense, as well as the reason behind the boy’s ill-fitting clothes and his slow physical development.  While there are plenty of loving foster families within the system, there are also the people who only do it for the money and subsequently forget about the children they are supposed to watch over.  It’s disappointing, but there’s only so much a society is willing to do for the unwanted souls out there… or the ugly stains, depending on the point of view.

“Are you happy now?  Will you tell me what you know about Nida?” Sora asks with a pleading edge to his voice.

“We can, but you won’t find any comfort in the information we have,” I warn the boy, but by his firm stare, I know that he won’t believe me until hearing the words for himself.  I nod in respect of his stubbornness and relent, “Nida was being terrorized by a sadist.  We think that man wanted to control Nida’s life, and Nida took it back in the only way he knew how.”

“Somebody did that to Nida…?” Sora asks in a shocked breath.  “But… who?  Who would do that to him?  And why?

“This is going to be a hard pill to swallow, kid,” Seifer interjects, “but some assholes out there don’t need a deep reason to fuck up other people.  They do it for shits and giggles, and everyone else suffers for it.”

“But…” Sora hits a fisted hand against his thigh.  Nida was a good guy.  He always tried his hardest, but he was never recognized for it.  He even had perfect grades, but some girl was selected as valedictorian because she had good grades and did debate or something.  Nida had a part-time job and couldn’t do things like that.  He couldn’t even go to college because of money, and I thought…”  Sora takes a breath and continues, “I thought that’s why he killed himself, and now you’re telling me that somebody drove him to it?  For a laugh?”

There is no response to offer the teen, even when there should be.  Nida may have been targeted because of his connection to my mother, but if Fate was kinder, none of them should have crossed paths with Roth in the first place.  Roth selected my mother out of every other woman in this city to torture and eventually kill.  According to the profilers back then, he chose Raine due to her faint resemblance to his abusive and deceased mother.  I’ve seen pictures of the woman and I don’t think she looks anything like my mother.  The reality is that only one person can possibly understand the motives behind the terrible crimes he committed, and I don’t particularly want to know anything from the depths of Roth’s mind.

Sapphire eyes fix on mine.  “Who did this?”

I almost smile at the question had I demanded of Cid so many years ago, but it’s disappointing that my answer has to be the same as his—“There’s nothing you can do.”

But—  He’s interrupted by a hand grabbing onto his arm.

Sora,” Kairi says in a scolding tone.  “Didn’t you hear them earlier?  This is a case of theirs.  They are going to do something about that guy.  Isn’t that right?” she asks with a glance in my direction.

While I simply nod, Seifer decides to offer a more dramatic response.  “Don’t worry, kid.  Squall is going to find him, and once I get my hands on the bastard, he won’t be able to hurt another soul ever again.”

Kairi rubs her hand along the boy’s arm.  “See, Sora?  They are going to handle it.  You don’t need to do anything stupid.”

With a betrayed looks to his eyes, Sora asks, “Is it stupid to want to help a friend?”

“No, of course not, but you don’t always think about the consequences.  How many more times are Riku and I going to have to see you with bruises or a broken arm because you tried to help a friend?”  When Sora winces at the question, Kairi plows on ahead, “This isn’t a normal person, either.  If that man was able to hurt Nida like he did, I think it’s better to leave this one to more experienced people.”

Biting his lower lip, Sora maintains, “I still want to help.”

An elbow nudges my side, and when I glare at the interfering blond, he glares back and nods toward the teen.  Sighing at his soft spot for the pair of boys, I suggest, “Perhaps you can tell us about Nida and the last months before his death.”

Blue eyes brighten at the chance to talk about his friend.  “Really?  But will that actually help?”

“Why do you think we’re here, kid?” Seifer asks with a pleased grin.  “We don’t know where the man is hiding, but Nida did.  If we know what Nida was up to, we might be able to find the bastard who did this to him.”

His smile relieved, Sora says, “You two really are doing this, aren’t you?  I mean, you care about what happened?”

“More than you know,” I reply under my breath.

Apparently satisfied without a clearer response, Sora begins, “Well, what do you need to know?  I mean, Nida was kind of secretive, but if anyone knows something, it’s me.”

Kairi wraps her arms around her chest.  “How about we go somewhere warmer first?  The school is closed for the winter break, but they open up the gym for students.  That’s where we were going, actually.  If we ask the teacher, we might be able to use a classroom.”

“Sounds like a wise plan to me,” Seifer readily agrees as he takes a step forward and slaps a hand against Sora’s shoulder.  “Come on, let’s go figure out how to hunt down that bastard and make him pay.”

With a firm nod, Sora walks alongside the large blond toward the school, quite the mismatched pair as they trudge through old snow.  I move to follow them, but Kairi clears her throat in a purposeful manner, sounding a bit too much like a grown woman on a mission.

Riku told me that you’re helping him with his… problem?” Kairi probes, her voice low enough to not attract her friend’s attention.

I lift an eyebrow in response, uninterested in speaking about the silver-haired teen’s personal issues without his consent.

Kairi smiles when apparently getting the answer she wanted.  Riku has been struggling for a long time, and while he seems calmer when Sora is around, I can see it in his eyes how he needs more.  And the stupid thing is that Sora cares about him, too, but he’s younger and hasn’t realized that part of himself yet.  If they were the same age, maybe they would’ve realized things together.”

I glance at Seifer’s back, the blond not yet recognizing that we haven’t joined them.  “Age doesn’t solve everything.”

“I know, but… I love them both so much and I want the best for them, sort of like you and your boyfriend.”

My teeth clench at the second assumption by these kids that Seifer and I are involved, as if being with another person was as simple as standing next to him.  Before I can point out that fact, however, the unexpected roar of a motorcycle draws my attention to the street beyond the chain link fence lining the back-end of the field.  The bike is one of those overdone types, bigger and louder than necessary, and it looks even larger given the relatively small stature of its rider.  Dressed in dark pants and a black trench coat, the idiot rider had decided against a helmet and openly stares at us through a pair of stylized sunglasses.  By first impression alone, there’s something I don’t like about the guy.

“… Cloud?”

I glance down at Kairi, her hand lifted to her mouth in surprise while she focuses intently on the rider.

Hurried footsteps sound in snow before the motorcycle roars again and speeds off down the street, making me sigh at another moron making a bad name for people who ride.

“Hey Kairi, was that really Cloud?” Sora asks.

Kairi nods, “I think so.”

Trailing behind the teen at a more casual pace, Seifer asks, “Was that a friend of yours?”

“Kind of,” Sora replies.  “He lived in the same house as Nida and me, but I haven’t seen him in a long time.”

“His real name is Michael Strife,” Kairi adds, “but he has this way of staring out into space.  It makes him kind of flighty and someone gave him the nickname ‘Cloud,’ you know, like with his head up in the clouds?  It kind of stuck.”

“And did you see what he was riding?  I swear that was Zack’s bike.”

 “Zack?” I say, my mind leaping to impossible conclusions.  “That wouldn’t be… Zack Fair, would it?”

Blue eyes blinking, Sora replies, “Yeah, do you know him?  Or wait, maybe you found out that he was friends with Nida?  They were pretty close.”

I glance toward Seifer, the blond frowning with his own amount of surprise at the connection between the two youths.  Normally, it’d be safe to assume that they would have parted ways in order to avoid reliving their shared tragedy, but apparently they found a measure of comfort in staying friends and depending on each other instead.

Sora folds his arms behind his head and describes further, “Nida told me that they knew each other from way back in elementary school.  When Nida moved to the home out this way, Zack would still make time to visit.  Cloud started to tag along with them at some point.  The thing is, I swore Cloud didn’t like that bike.  He always got so nervous at the idea of riding it that he’d get sick to his stomach.”

“But Zack liked to threaten Cloud with giving him that motorcycle,” Kairi says with a weak smile.  “Remember, Zack talked about joining the army and saving the world from bad guys.  He had a plan for all of the stuff he’d have to leave behind.  Nida’s death was hard on him, and since he didn’t have a reason to stay, I assumed Zack finally did what he wanted.  Cloud having that motorcycle probably proves it.”

When Sora nods in agreement, I pray for the pair that their theory about the teen is true.  It’s far kinder than the other reasons I have considered behind Zack’s disappearance.

“Alright, kids,” Seifer says with a clap of his hands.  “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m frozen.  How about a change in plans and we take this to someplace else with a heater and hot drinks?  In repayment for your information, of course.”

Kairi shows a suspicious glance at the blond, but Sora brightens at the idea and begins to rattle off suggestions as Seifer herds them toward the jeep.  I notice that Ward’s diner is one of the first choices by the spiky-haired youth, but Seifer promptly tries to dissuade him into another option.  As the others walk off, I linger a moment and look over at the empty bleachers.  I don’t know if the ghost is there or somewhere else, but I can’t walk away without telling Nida one last thing:

“When everything is finished, we’ll come back and tell you.  Maybe then you can heal.”

==========================================================================

My laptop resting on crossed legs, I stare at the photo on the screen that shows three teenagers sitting on a set of stairs.  The oldest teen sports black hair spiked with more than enough gel, and he smiles with an open and free smile while wrapping a muscular arm around the neck of another dark-haired teen.  In contrast, there’s nothing striking about the second boy with his meek smile, slight build, and plain clothes, and it’s no surprise that the boy was often lost in the background.  At the other end of the photo is a youth with blond hair spiked in a similar fashion as the bolder teen, but he doesn’t smile while holding a bent leg against his chest.  The space between him and the pair of close friends is palpable, and judging by the focus of his pale eyes, it’s something unwanted.

Staring at the photo, I feel bothered and anxious while trying to understand what happened to these boys and how we can prevent another needless death.  The answer should be there, but finding it is another matter.

“God, you can’t still be doing that shit,” Seifer complains as he lifts his head from my pillow, using his arm braced around my waist for support.  His eyes squinting from the light of the laptop, Seifer focuses on the leftmost teen.  “Well hey, isn’t that Nida?  And let me guess—the other two are Zack and that one kid, Cloud or whatever.”

Kairi found it on her computer.  She thought it might help.”

“A good kid, that one,” Seifer says tiredly and slumps back down to the mattress.  “So, why are you awake and not sleeping with me?”

“I think I’m too frustrated to sleep,” I reply as I lift a hand to rub my eyes.  “The problem in dealing with minors is that the available information out there is minimal at best.  Even Selphie’s research doesn’t provide much insight.  Meanwhile, I feel like I’m on the edge of something, but I don’t know how to find that last bit of information we need to reach the answer we’re looking for.”

Seifer hums at my tired rambling.  “That’s great, so five more minutes?”

At the suggestion that he isn’t listening to me, I glance down at the blond and find Seifer with his eyes closed and his body relaxed in a sign that he’s more asleep than awake at this point.  I indulge in a smile at his childlike way of falling right back to sleep after being wakened, and before I realize what I’m doing, I stroke my fingers through the soft spikes of his hair.  Seifer purrs in satisfaction at the touch and tightens his hold around my waist without opening his eyes, the man boldly continuing his sham of being asleep.  Bastard, he obviously has me figured out more than I thought.

Staring at this man lying on my bed, I try to pinpoint the moment that things went so completely out of my control.  I knew that giving Seifer any leeway would result in him shouldering his way into a spot of his own making, but allowing him in my bed wasn’t the beginning of my troubles.  Perhaps it was foolish to surrender to his unexpected demand for a kiss, but then again, it was even more foolish to bring Seifer into my home from the start.  I should have never searched for him, not when he was finally becoming little more than a memory... which is nothing more than a lie.  I would have never forgotten the man who had snuck into my heart and made me believe in his impossible dreams of my lost mother.

But to reach the core of all those events, I should go back even further to middle school and the day I returned to my locker for a forgotten textbook.  If I had remembered that damn book, I wouldn’t have stumbled upon Seifer kissing some nameless girl.  If I hadn’t seen that insignificant even, I wouldn’t have spent the subsequent years wondering how he would taste, and when given the opportunity, I wouldn’t have taken the risk to discover that the only possible description for his kisses is that they taste just like Seifer.  A perfect, overpowering taste that almost makes my years of frustration seem worthwhile…

And apparently this is little more than a lesson in futility.

Sighing, I remove my hand from soft hair and close my laptop to immerse my bedroom in darkness.  After placing the device onto my nightstand, I maneuver myself into a resting position without disturbing Seifer, but end up with my shirt raised to my chest and his arms somehow settled within that area of exposed flesh.  It’s particularly suspicious how one of his hands rests directly on top of the injury that Seifer had been examining this afternoon.

Whatever action I could take next becomes moot when harsh banging sounds from the front of the condo, the noise loud enough to startle Seifer into sitting up.

“What the fuck... Is someone trying to ram down your door?”

I stare past the open door of my bedroom, and after a silent debate about what would happen if I stayed in bed instead of answering the heavy knocks, I come to the reluctant decision that the door can withstand only so much abuse.  I slide out of bed and take my time walking to the front room despite the increased strength to the knocking.  I switch on the light in the moment before I unlock and open the door, catching the man outside in mid-knock.

“You’re disturbing the neighbors,” I warn in a cool tone.

Ward glares with an anger I haven’t witnessed in a long time, and that anger deepens when pale eyes focus on the gauze on my face.  “Where is he?”

Unafraid of the large man, I move into a firmer position between him and my home.  “I take it that my father spoke to you about what happened?”

“He told both of us,” another voice speaks out.

Surprised, I glance to the side and find a man with dark brown skin leaning against the wall, hidden in the shadow of the stairwell.  Kiros?”

The lean man smiles with a flash of white teeth.  “It’s been a while, Squall.  I see that you still enjoy causing Ward’s blood pressure to top the charts.”

I huff at his attempt to push the blame onto me.  The truth is that Ward once was a man who was difficult to anger and had an encouraging personality, but that changed when my mother’s kidnapping occurred.  His family was hurt in a way that could never be undone, and now he becomes irrational whenever a new threat enters our lives.  While Kiros denies it, he has also developed a habit to overreact, although he seems to get his satisfaction out of watching Ward do the dirty work while spurring him on.

“Shit, is that the old man?  Is there an emergency or something?”

And of course Seifer would be curious about what was urgent enough to wake us this late into the night.  The fact that he wandered out of my bedroom while wearing boxers and an old undershirt isn’t going to help matters.

A heavy hand clamps down on my shoulder and Ward pulls me aside.  Before I can properly react, my wrist is grabbed by a different hand as Kiros keeps me in place.  Stunned by the coordinated actions of my godfathers, I lose precious seconds while Ward approaches Seifer, grabs the front of his shirt, and punches the blond in the stomach hard enough such that Seifer’s bare feet lift from the ground.  Frantic, I slip free of Kiros’ hold in a clumsy but effective move and dart forward before Ward can strike Seifer a second time.  I grab his arm when he pulls back for another punch and kick out my leg to the back of his knee, succeeding in unbalancing the large man.  Ward drops to the floor in a loud crash, and I’m instantly there with my bent leg pressed against his thick neck.

“Don’t ever hurt him.”

Dazed and most of his breath lost, Ward forces out, “He hurt… you first…”

I scowl at the trapped man.  “What do you mean?”

“He means those new twenty-one stitches of yours,” Kiros says from a different position.

When I look up, I find the dark-skinned man standing in the kitchen and staring in the sink.  My chest tightens when he uses a gloved hand to pick up the bent knife I forgot to throw away in a safe manner.  Kiros makes things more difficult when he produces a plastic bag from somewhere and places the knife inside.

Seifer helps me in the kitchen,” I inform the police officer turned security specialist.  “There are other reasons for his prints to be on the handle.”

“I’ll keep that in consideration,” Kiros replies as he closes the bag.

“I don’t know what Dad told you, but Seifer didn’t attack me,” I insist.

“Then who did?”

Meeting dark eyes, I see that he’s waiting for the wrong answer and the opportunity to pounce on what sounds like insanity.  When no other plausible reply comes to mind, I take a chance.  “It was his father.”

Kiros scoffs.  “His father, a man who was murdered about twenty years ago while serving his sentence in the prison upstate, somehow held a knife to you and cut up your face?  That’s quite impressive.”

I shouldn’t be surprised, but that’s more detail than I was expecting from the man.  “How did you find out about that?”

“I do all of Ward’s background checks,” Kiros reminds me.  “However, I will admit to digging a little deeper when I learned that his new hire was your latest mistake.”

I open my mouth to argue, but I’m beaten out by the sound of harsh laughter.  I turn to look at Seifer seated on my couch, the blond slumped over with his arms wrapped around his stomach.  While I’ve never been on the receiving side of one of Ward’s punches, I know the damage that they can cause.  Seifer is going to have a nasty bruise in the morning, which he’ll no doubt try to use as a sympathy card to swindle another concession from me.

“Shit, if everyone else thinks we’re doing it, remind me again why we haven’t gone the distance?”

“Don’t make this worse,” I warn.

“That’s not my plan, but we both know that they have no reason to believe me,” Seifer says in a strange tone that somehow sounds determined and resigned in the same breath.  “I was lucky with you, Squally-boy, but your uncles are going to need some kind of proof.”

Knowing what I do about his powers, there is no proof that Seifer can offer to support his claims.  His dreams come and go, and even if a ghost is lurking behind either Ward or Kiros, I doubt there’s anything a ghost can say that would convince them that Seifer has the true abilities of a medium.  I scowl at the blond, trying to convey my concern, but he shows a smile at my silent argument, a pathetic smile that makes me even more worried.

Kiros rounds the kitchen counter and places the bagged knife on a stool.  “You think you have proof?”

“I think so,” Seifer replies.  “At least, I’m assuming there are certain details you never shared with Squall about his mother’s kidnapping.”

Ward tenses beneath me and Kiros’ expression goes blank, serving as more of an answer than anything verbal.

“You… didn’t tell me everything?” I ask, betrayal sounding in my voice.

“Squall…” Ward starts in a placating tone, but I stop him with more weight placed against his neck.

“You told me that nothing would be hidden from me.  You showed me the police report.”

“Not everything gets into a report,” Kiros comments while eyeing Seifer.

“I trusted you, and for you to do this—“

“Give them a break,” Seifer surprisingly speaks out for the pair of men.

I turn my anger to the blond.  “You lied to me, too.”

“No, I made a promise to your mother.  Alive, or dead, or somewhere in between, she didn’t want your memory of her to be tainted by what that bastard did, and frankly, she deserves her way more than you.”  With a nod of his chin toward the older men, Seifer adds, “And if I’m right, Mrs. Loire forced those two into a promise, too.”

I look to Kiros, and when he bows his head, I accept the reason for their deceit, not that I like it.  Pushing up from Ward, I step to the couch and glare down at Seifer.  “What proof do you have for them?”

Seifer smirks at the demand.  “Sorry, but a promise is a promise, and if your parents are ever going to accept me, I can’t break my word to your mom.”

“You single-minded idiot…”

“He has a point,” Ward grunts as he stands up.  “There are things even your father doesn’t know about, and being the man he is, he never asked.”

“I’m not my father,” I point out.

“No, you certainly aren’t,” Ward agrees with a slight smile, “but you both love Raine and would respect her wishes to the very end.”

Never making that specific pledge to my mother, I cross my arms over my chest, determined to stay and hear whatever Seifer believes would sway the two former police officers into believing his word.

“Enough, Squall,” Kiros says.  “If you want us to trust your ‘friend’ here, then wait outside while he gives us his so-called proof.  Otherwise, we leave for tonight, and he had better be gone by the morning.”

Rebelling against his threat, I close my eyes while trying to think of a method to turn things my way, but no easy option comes to mind.  Meanwhile, Seifer is so close to rebuilding his life, and all of that progress could fall apart if he is forced out of my home and loses his job at Ward’s diner.  I could easily support him, but money isn’t what Seifer needs.  If his pride is damaged one more time, there is no telling what the idiot may try to do.

“Hey Sherlock,” Seifer says in soft voice to gain my attention.  “I swear that if this meant anything, I would tell you, but some of the things that happened to your mom were senseless and beyond cruel.  It’s nothing a mother’s child should have to hear, even when the child is as neurotic as you are.”

“’Neurotic’?” I repeat irritably.

“You can’t analyze every situation to fit your obsessive need for logic,” Seifer maintains with a quiet gleam to his eyes.  “More often than not, there isn’t reason for why bad things happen.”

I frown at being given a line that’s similar to the one he gave Sora, a kid half my age, but that doesn’t make the sentiment a lie.  Glancing at my uncles, I finally get the hint that I’m not going to win this argument, and if I want Seifer to be free to act against the ghost terrorizing my mother, I can’t continue to fight this pointless battle.  Uncrossing my arms, I reluctantly nod and walk toward the front door.

“This had better be worth it,” I grumble, not that anyone assures me of that fact.

Childishly, I go outside without my jacket and lean against the wall close to the door.  A part of me was hoping that I’d be able to hear them, but they keep their voices low as I try to guess what terrible things had happened to my mother.  I already know about the cuts to her breasts, the electrocution burns at her more sensitive regions, and the violations to her body.  Ward didn’t include the pictures when he gave me a copy of the police report, but I’ve seen enough crime photos to know what those injuries would have looked like.  To think that there’s something else, something worse, and everyone is bound by a promise to keep that something from me…

I frown when I realize an inconsistency with Seifer’s story.  I know for a fact that Seifer never met my mother before the other week, at least not in the physical world, which potentially leaves me with one of two options.  Either Seifer is lying about my mother asking him to keep things from me, or else… my mother died at some point and Seifer’s powers brought them together long enough for her to force him into a promise.

I swallow thickly at the mere idea of my mother crossing the line into death, and while I have nothing to back up my theory, I don’t know if I can bring myself to ask Seifer if that is what happened.  I’m fairly certain that he would tell me if I asked the right question, but… My mother is alive, and I don’t want to imagine her in death.  And damn it, maybe those bastards are right and it’s better if I don’t know certain details.  It may be irritating to have the truth withheld from me, but it could be worse to know the consequences of being unable to find her faster.

I don’t know how long I stand there lost in my thoughts, but eventually, the door opens and Seifer steps outside to hand me a blanket.  Despite the freezing temperature, I don’t take the blanket from him, earning a sigh from the blond.

“You know, you’ve been out here for almost an hour.  You’ll have icicles growing out of your nose any moment now.”  When I continue to refuse the blanket, Seifer shrugs and says, “Your loss,” before wrapping the fleece over his shoulders.

“What did you tell them?”

“Almost everything: the basics about my dreams, the things I saw in the vision about your mom, and how I went to you with what little information I had.”  With a glance to the closed door, Seifer says, “They’re talking about me right now, trying to come up with another rational explanation for how I know the things I know.”

“They won’t be able to,” I say with confidence.

“Maybe, but man, that was one weird-ass interrogation.  They didn’t say anything or ask any questions for most of the time you’ve been out here.  They just stood there, listened to whatever I decided to tell them, and after a few questions about the interior of that shed, they told me to wait outside.”

“They think you’re a con artist,” I remind him.  “People who master the ruse of being a psychic have the knack of reading into a person’s actions and words.  Kiros and Ward didn’t want to feed you any information with a careless question or the wrong look.”

“Huh, if that’s the case, then maybe I should have pointed out how I’m oblivious when it comes to knowing what other people are thinking.  But then again, they might not have appreciated the use of your hidden feelings for me as an example,” Seifer says, his eyes glancing my way in search of a reaction, but when one doesn’t come, he smirks and slumps against the wall at the other side of the door.  “Speaking of which, I haven’t had the chance to thank you for coming to my rescue.  Honestly, I’m a little surprised that you put me ahead of that giant.”

“Ward had no reason to attack you like that.”

“Actually, in his mind, he had a very good reason.”

I glare at the blond with the message that Ward’s rationale was flawed and full of biased assumptions.

“Hey now, he thought you had landed yourself an abusive boyfriend.  I think I respect him more for attacking me first and asking questions later.  I would’ve done the same thing if I learned that someone was using you as a cutting board.”

“I’m not helpless,” I remind the blond.

“That doesn’t change anything to someone who loves you and wants to keep you safe.  It’s sort of like how you told that ogre of an uncle that he isn’t allowed hurt me.  ‘Not ever,’ I believe you said,” Seifer says with a conspiring smile.  “’Not ever’ is a very long time, you know.”

“Apparently I was caught up in the moment.”

“Is that all it was?  And here I got my hopes up thinking that you’d always be my hero.”

“Who’d save a moron like you?” I murmur under my breath, but by Seifer’s soft chuckle, he still got the general message.

A soft click sounds before the door opens, revealing Kiros at the entryway.  His dark eyes glance one side to view Seifer and then back toward me, some interest highlighting his gaze either due to the distance between us or else because I refused Seifer’s offer of the blanket.  Whatever his thoughts, it becomes a moot point when he lifts the plastic bag holding the bent knife stained with my blood.

“I’m still taking this,” Kiros says, allowing no argument, “but I’ll believe him for now.”

Kiros…” I whisper in relief.

“Don’t think you’re out of the woods yet,” Kiros warns as he places a hand at my shoulder.  “Ward is waiting for you inside.  Both of you.”

I nod in acceptance of my uncle needing more than a story from Seifer, but when I try to move inside, Kiros tightens his hold and bends in close.

“You look good, son.  Like you finally have a purpose in life,” Kiros says in a low voice next to my ear.  “Perhaps that’s why I’m eager to believe this latest ‘mistake’ of yours.”

As I stare in disbelief, Kiros pats my back while walking past and then makes his way down the stairs.  I almost think to follow him and demand to know what he finds worthwhile about Seifer, especially when Kiros hasn’t shown any restraint when voicing his disapproval toward the other men in my past, but Kiros isn’t the type to give straightforward answers.  If anything, Kiros may approve of Seifer simply because I refuse to make things easy for the blond.

With a shake of my head to clear my thoughts, I ignore Seifer’s watchful eye and walk past him to go back into my home.  Once inside, my gaze settles on Ward, the large man seated on the couch Seifer had occupied earlier.  His elbow braced against the armrest, Ward holds a fisted hand beneath his chin and stares at the bookshelf that displays my father’s collection of novels.  His posture slumped and his eyes tired, it’s almost like Ward has aged several years in the last hour, and I have to smother the returned desire to know what secrets they are keeping from me.

His eyes not moving, Ward seems to muse out loud when he asks, “Why in the world did you believe in something as ridiculous as a dream?”

A little annoyed by having that question constantly directed at me, I comment, “Kiros didn’t seem bothered by it.”

Ward snorts at the comparison.  “While I thought it was a joke of his, Kiros would tell stories about his grandmother and how she could read the future using chicken bones and handmade talismans.  Before he left just now, he said that his ‘Gran’ would be in good company with this one.”

I hum at the memory of Kiro’s stories about his eccentric grandmother, although I admit to sharing Ward’s assumption that Kiros wasn’t a believer when it came to her supposed abilities.

Closing his eyes, Ward recounts, “When your mother was missing, I remember the moment when you forced your way into Cid’s office.  To this day, I don’t know what you said to convince him to look into Stephen Roth, a man who wasn’t even on our radar, but I never questioned it since we were able to save Raine with that information.  I realize now that I should have been more skeptical.”

“Cid didn’t want to believe me, not at first,” I say in correction.  “He made me come back with proof.”

Ward scoffs.  “And what proof was that?  The word of a so-called psychic?  Or maybe you showed him a tarot card or two?”

Irritated at his sarcasm, I tell him plainly, “It was a speeding ticket.”

Pale eyes widen a fraction at my statement, but Ward isn’t the one to voice his surprise about that piece of information.

“Wait a minute there,” Seifer growls, placing a firm hand at my shoulder.  “After the hours of interrogation you put me through back then, it all came down to a random speeding ticket I saw pinned to a wall?”

I shake my head at his assumption.  “It wasn’t random.  With some prodding, you were able to recall a few digits of the ticket number, and you also swore that the signature said ‘doggie door.’”

Eyebrows furrowed, Seifer tries to think back.  “I guess I remember something like that, but what did that matter?”

“By your description, I realized that those small d’s were actually looped L’s, followed by a mess of other letters.”

Seifer’s frown fades as he slowly realizes how I could possibly know what the signature may have looked like.  “No… it couldn’t have been… your dad’s?”  When I nod once in reply, Seifer stammers, “But… but why?  Why in the world would Roth have that?”

“It was stupid chance,” Ward decides to contribute, his thick fingers rubbing the part of his scar that cuts into his forehead.  “Laguna liked to work the school zone where Raine was a teacher.  It was his excuse to see her during breaks.  We think Roth was observing the area when Laguna caught him speeding.  According to Raine, Roth would mock Laguna for being unable to see the monster sitting right under his nose.”

Stricken, Seifer stares at me as if searching for the right words to say.  I know from our meeting in the past that Seifer had seen the seemingly innocuous speeding ticket during his dreams, one of which happening days before my mother was taken.  What Seifer forgets, however, is that he had no reason to know the identity of the kidnapped woman until seeing her face on the subsequent television coverage.  It’s easy to look at the past and think of all of the things that could have been done differently, but that doesn’t change what was possible when living through that moment in time.

Not waiting for Seifer to come up with another apology, I finish my account.  “It took most of the night, but I found my father’s ticket book and Roth signature.  I showed the ticket to Cid, told him about Seifer’s dreams without revealing Seifer’s name, and asked to have Roth’s place monitored for twenty-four hours.  Cid humored me.”

Ward breathes a heavy laugh.  “Cid… He always had a soft heart for a good story.”

I shrug, not knowing much about the police captain except that he never forgives a favor.  Never.

The brief silence that follows is broken when Ward pushes up from the couch and groans from the effort.  “I think I’ve had enough for one night.  There’s only so much that an old dog like me can handle without time to think things through.”  Pale eyes hardening, Ward points a finger at Seifer.  “I don’t know what do about you yet, but until I figure it out, you should come down with the stay-away flu.  Got it?”

Seifer scowls at the suggestion, but he surprises me by not starting into the obvious argument in front of him.  Instead, he takes several steps back to the front door and opens it wide.  “Call when you’re ready to admit that you’re wrong about me.”

Ward’s eyes narrow at the dismissal, but it doesn’t last when he sighs with uncertainty and maintains, “Hn, but there were a couple things I got right.”  At my curious glance, Ward wraps a heavy arm around my shoulders, and after the lingering hug, he lifts a hand to ruffle my hair.  “Be careful with this latest mistake of yours.  He may make you believe in a future that doesn’t exist.”

It’s a good guess by the former police officer, but even when I have voiced my own doubts about Seifer’s optimistic descriptions of the future, I find that I don’t have a promise for Ward.  The older man must notice something in my expression since his lips curl into a weak smile that I’ve seen him direct at my father during one of the man’s more hopeless rants.  After a final pat to my back, Ward leaves my home more quietly than when he came, although he isn’t the least bit subtle when bumping against Seifer on the way out. 

Seifer growls when shutting the door and snapping the lock closed.  “Seriously, what do I have to do to prove myself to that ass?  Make a team of ghosts perform ‘A Christmas Story’ for him?  How about a song and dance number?”

A small laugh escapes me at his dramatics, and I inadvertently grab Seifer’s full attention with the noise.

“You find that amusing, huh?” he asks while crossing the room.  “Do you realize that he could probably kill me and get away with it?”

“I wouldn’t let him.”

Green eyes flash with interest at my pledge, but that fades a bit too quickly when he stands directly in front of me.  “It’s still hard to believe how, out of everything I told you, it came down to a damned speeding ticket.  Thinking about it now, the only reason I noticed the thing was because your mom would focus on it.  In an odd way, maybe it brought her some extra strength to see something from your dad.”

“She said it did,” I confirm, but when Seifer seems to dwell on his failure, I decide that enough is enough.  Turning sharply, I move to open the bottom drawer of my desk and shuffle through a collection of Moleskine notepads until finding the one I want.  Without warning, I toss the dark notepad at Seifer, the blond fumbling with it in his surprise.  “Start on page twenty-nine.”

Seifer eyes me for the cryptic demand, but he opens the notepad without asking for something more.  His annoyance gradually changes to surprise when he reads what is there.  “This is… You took down everything I said?” he asks, his gaze briefly looking at me.

“That speeding ticket could have easily been a dead-end if my father hadn’t left his pad at home.  If necessary, I was prepared to follow every one of your leads to the very end.”

“Shit, you even made little notes about how I was acting.  I’ve got to say, with the way I was fidgeting, I’m surprised that you didn’t think I was suffering from hallucinations caused by drug withdrawal or something else that could explain my dreams.”  Flipping a little faster through the pages of material, Seifer comments, “Still, it’s amazing how it only took that one speeding ticket to bring the fucker down.  I mean, what if he had used a fake name or somehow tricked your dad?  You could have lost your chance with that police captain.”

I lean back against my desk and wait for Seifer to be satisfied with the proof that I had heard his every word back then.  I thought it would only take a few pages, but he continues to look over each page, and knowing his moronic ways, he’s probably in search of accidental notes that reference my feelings for him back then.  I’m hardly that careless, and Seifer is going to be disappointed if he expects to find a doodle of our initials encircled by a heart.  That musing, however, is cut short when Seifer stops on a page and his previous good humor disappears.

“… You went there,” Seifer says with certainty as he stares at the roughly drawn map of Roth’s house and yard, including the shed that had immediately attracted my eye.

“I had to be certain it was him,” I say in defense of my choice, “and so you know, I only looked from a distance.”

Seifer lifts an eyebrow in disbelief, perhaps knowing me a bit too well.

“I wasn’t going to risk my mother’s life by walking onto that man’s property, but… I saw him.”  When I recall the swell of emotions I felt when I first laid eyes on Roth, I pause to calm myself before continuing, “He was exactly as you described with his tall and lean frame, his pale hair, and even his long black jacket with the loose belt.  It hurt to see him right there, and I regretted my decision to not take one of my father’s guns.  It almost didn’t matter that I was weaponless… But I knew that if I was injured or killed, no one else would be able to find my mother in time.  I left immed—“

In a near-tackle, Seifer wraps his arms around me and clutches hard onto the back of my shirt, causing at least one new tear in the thin material.  My initial shock gradually fades into confusion as Seifer clings onto me without explaining his overreaction.  Given no other option, I don’t try to escape his hold and simply wait for the man to calm down.

In a slow, barely controlled voice, Seifer says, “I didn’t tell you about my dreams so that you could get yourself killed.”

“I was careful.”

“Your definition of ‘careful’ scares the fuck out of me.”

I sigh at his exaggeration.  “He never saw me.”

“No, you can’t know that, Sherlock.  Something about your mother made Roth obsessed with her, and God knows if you have that same trait.  He could’ve taken you and done things that…”  His hold tightening, Seifer finishes, “I would’ve seen him torturing you to a slow death, and the thought makes me want to puke.”

When Seifer swallows thickly, I decide to err on the side of caution and assume that the blond is being literal with his comment.  I try to pull back in a subtle move, but instead of the resistance I anticipate, Seifer abruptly drops his arms to release me from his bear hug.  Not expecting that freedom, I bump against my desk and knock over a mug that had been left behind when Seifer lured me to bed.  The sound of breaking ceramic against hardwood and the splash of old coffee makes me wince and look over my shoulder, but Seifer immediately grabs my chin to bring my gaze back to his face.

“Given our track records, one of us is eventually going to do something stupid that’ll get someone killed.  Do really think I’m an idiot for wanting you to believe me before that happens?”

I scoff at the question.  “I think you’re an idiot who is too focused on the idea of us living short lives.”

Pale lips twitch into an almost smile.  “Point taken, but with everything I’ve seen, it’s hard to view the world in a kinder light.  And Hell, it’s not like I’m that excited about living the next fifty or sixty years like I’ve lived the last five or so.  My only relief has been these last few weeks with you.”

With a step back, I pull free of his hand and put some distance between us before focusing on his desperate gaze, silently telling Seifer that he doesn’t want to go down this path.

Seifer eyes the formed space, but instead of anger, he breathes a laugh while raking a hand back through golden hair.  “You know, I’m not as blind as you think I am.  I know what’s happening here.”

I cross my arms over my chest in a declaration that nothing is “happening” here.

With a rebellious look at my continued denial, Seifer starts, “When I was kid, I would beg my mom to take me to some traveling carnival that used to come in the fall.  Every year, she’d make up one excuse or another, and it wasn’t always an excuse.  I was too young to notice, but I’m pretty certain she had my same issues with keeping a job, which means money was probably tight.  It helped to live with my grandparents, but well…”

“Can you just get to the point, Seifer?”

“Let me get there,” he says with a wave of his hand.  “After a few years, she suddenly agreed to take me.  I almost didn’t believe her, especially when she said I had to finish my homework first, but we were there before lunch and didn’t leave until nightfall.  She didn’t skimp on anything, either: cotton candy, hot dogs, and at least two rounds on any ride that I was tall enough to get on.  I thought I was pushing things to point out a toy that had caught my eye, but my mom promised to win it for me.  I’m certain that the game was rigged, but she still managed to get it with her second try.”

I frown at the familiar story.  “That was your stuffed dragon.”

“You got it in one, Sherlock,” Seifer says with a weak smile.  “She said that Dog was my early birthday present and that I should take good care of him.  I had no clue back then, but by the time I was in middle school, I figured out that my mom must have known that she was going to die months before my birthday.”

Uncomfortable with the topic, I ask the blond, “What does this have to do with anything?”

Green eyes focus on me with an accusatory gleam that suggests I should know exactly where he’s going with his little tale.  “That was probably the best fucking day in my life.  I was a kid, so I didn’t even question what it might mean to have something I’ve always wanted dropped into my lap.  And because I trusted my mom, I was able to enjoy every single minute with her.  Maybe I should hate her for abusing my desire to go to that carnival as her goodbye to me, but I don’t.  When things get a little too hard, I still think back to that day and I remember how she laughed and smiled while winning me a stupid purple dragon.  She was beautiful, and I wouldn’t trade that day for anything.”

I know what he’s trying to tell me, but it’s not something I can accept so easily.  “You had one good day in exchange for losing your mother.  I wouldn’t call that a good deal.”

“Even if I was going to lose her anyway?”

“... …”

Stepping forward, Seifer places a warm hand at my cheek.  “I know you’re afraid, Squall.  You’re the type to think things through to every possible conclusion, and I know there are far more chances of us not working out compared to a happy ending, but…”  Rubbing a thumb along the edge of white gauze, Seifer continues his thought, “You once believed me without an ounce of evidence to back up my word, and then used that trust to find your proof that I was telling the truth.  Why can’t you give me one more chance like that?”

I stare at his face, his annoyingly handsome face that I had pushed out of my mind during the years since high school, and I can’t find a clear thought.  Only Seifer has this effect on me, and I know that should mean something.  All of my arguments and opposition seem pointless when Seifer is this close and asking for something as simple as the benefit of the doubt.

Sensing my weakness, Seifer smirks when he adds, “One more chance, Squall, and I swear that you’ll find the proof that you’re looking for.”

I shouldn’t believe him, especially when he has the look of someone who thinks he has already won, but with his rough hand against my cheek and his eyes focused on only me, I’m exhausted by my own stubbornness.  In the last several days, Seifer has told me things no one else knows, he drew upon the power he hates to save my life, and he revealed himself to my father and godfathers for the freedom to stay with me.  Anyone else would have taken such events as a statement of devotion, but I chose to be resistant to that obvious truth.

And for what?  What do I have to gain by fighting Seifer when I could have him instead?  Yes, it might not last long, maybe not even the length of a day, but as Seifer has already suggested, it could very well be the best day in my life.

Green eyes brighten as Seifer watches me, but before he can make a stupid comment that could change my mind, I press my mouth against his and slide my tongue along his smirking lips.  Seifer doesn’t hesitate with his response to deepen the kiss, and unlike the times before, I actually pay attention to his maneuverings that draw me in closer.  There is no reservation when his tongue strokes against mine, there is no uncertainty when his hand caresses my throat and unavoidably my Adam’s apple, and there is no subtly when his other hand squeezes my ass.  With his unending boldness, I’m not quite certain how I was able to see his desire as anything else.

Not to be outdone, I drag my fingernails down the old sleeping shirt covering his chest, and needing to touch skin, I slip my hand under the thin cotton to reach the waistline of his boxers.  I barely breach perilous territory when a strong hand latches onto my wrist and prevents me from fulfilling a few old fantasies of mine.  Pulling back from our kiss, albeit without any cooperation from Seifer, I stare at the blond and silently question the reason for his interference.

After showing a pained look, Seifer rests his head at my shoulder.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, because I would love to take this further, but I just spent an hour telling your overly protective uncles about how a very sadistic man tortured your mother.  I don’t want to get you exactly where I want you and have some random flashback ruin everything.”

Not considering how Seifer would have been affected by the retelling of what he saw, I feel a strange mix of defeat and respect at Seifer’s decision to tame this fire between us.  It’s the right decision, but I’m not accustomed to Seifer being the rational one and I have the immediate instinct to fight against his untimely logic.

In an attempt to further placate me, Seifer kisses the side of my neck.  “Our first time needs to be everything we have dreamed about and not stained by that fucker’s plague of an existence.”

“Is that a promise?” I ask, my voice sounding loss of breath when Seifer stumbles upon a healing bruise.

“A promise and more,” he pledges before grazing his teeth against that sensitive spot.

A groan slips free from my lips, and I can’t be certain if it’s in reaction to his words or touch, or maybe a bit of both.  As I thread my fingers into bed-messed golden hair, my lips lift into an almost smile when I realize that this stray wolf has finally gone for my throat, but not in the way I assumed he would.  Instead, I feel Seifer putting his mark on me in a spot for anyone to see, and I surprisingly have no urge to deny him that claim.

When Seifer finishes his task and laps a tongue along sore skin, I ask dutifully, “Are you satisfied?”

He chuckles, his warm breath felt against my neck.  “For you to ask a question like that, you obviously don’t know me as well as you think.”

“Or I know you far too well,” I argue before I lift a hand and press my fingers against his forehead to push the blond aside.  “If we’re not doing anything, I would rather go back to bed.”

“How cold,” Seifer complains while I make my escape.  “After all of that, you just want to fall asleep?”

I glance over the blond and casually take in the sight of solid legs covered in light-colored hair, the noticeable lump beneath his boxers, and the lift of his chest that Seifer does whenever he knows someone is admiring him.  He’s a cock in more than one meaning of the word, and it’s strange to know that my examination is the cause of his instinctual need to impress.

“Sleep is the safest option,” I comment before I turn my back to him and walk toward the open bedroom door.

One foot over the threshold, however, strong arms predictably wrap around my chest.  Before I can comment on his stupidity, Seifer rests his chin against my shoulder and leans his head against mine.  “I know that I’ve already asked a lot of you, but when morning comes, do me one more favor and don’t change your mind about us until I have a real chance to prove something to you.”

A bitter laugh almost escapes me at the plea.  “Would that really stop you?”

“Doubtful,” Seifer admits with a smile to his voice, “but this is a lot easier when you go along with it.”

Rough fingers slide under my chin and force me into an angle that is uncomfortable and awkward when Seifer draws me into another kiss.  It’s a clumsy attempt, but that doesn’t seem to matter when Seifer is the one leading the brief joining that ends with our faces very close and our eyes meeting in a quiet moment.  Gazing into clear green, I realize that the man has done it one more time, luring me into believing him when I have no good reason to do so.  And when he smiles softly and presses his lips against the gauze between my eyes, I know that I’m trouble with Seifer like no other man before him.

 

{Continued}

 

Author's Whining – Believe it or not, I’m still on track with this story… mostly.  Instead of a chapter and an epilogue left, it’s more like a chapter and a half-chapter joined with an epilogue that I need to write.  I’m currently planning to release those last bits together under the assumption that I have the hardest parts already written.  So yes, “One Wrong Step” will be done before the end of this year, even if it kills me in the process.  Thank you for indulging me with this endeavor of mine!  From the beginning, OWS has been a story I’ve always wanted to write, and it’s been a real pleasure to discover that other people have enjoyed the story as well.