One Wrong Step
February 2012

 

[Seifer]

Snowflakes drift down from the sky.

They are my favorite kind of snowflakes: puffy and large, lazily floating like frozen feathers from dark clouds.  I feel their icy caresses when they brush against my face, a friendly touch that brings a smile, a slight one, to my lips.

Entranced by the falling snow, it takes a while before I gradually realize that something isn’t quite right.  I’m not cold and I can’t seem to look away from the dance of white ice, but even if those facts strongly suggest that this is another one of my many dreams, I know that it isn’t.  This isn’t the shell of a stranger, but my own body standing in a place that I don’t know, not that it seems to matter.  There isn’t the typical suffocating air of urgency about this dream, just an odd sense of peace.  Peace and snowflakes.

Still, something isn’t quite right.

Squinting, I look more closely at the falling bits of ice and recognize that they aren’t the perfect white I had thought, but softly tainted by a reddish hue that, while faint in color, immediately makes me think of blood.  Blood shouldn’t be on snowflakes, not ones freshly falling from the sky… but who am I to dictate what is allowed in a dream?

A hand rests on my shoulder and words are spoken, but I can’t understand what the person is asking me.  The voice, however, makes my smile widen as I think about my no longer mysterious lover and the feel of his strong hand.  Then, without warning, the snowflakes are suddenly falling up, promptly swallowed into a darkness that should make me afraid of ghosts and demons, but for once in my meager life, I’m not afraid.  Not of the pitch black void, not of the sound of nothingness, I’m not…

~ > < ~

“You’re not what?”

Blinking slowly at the clear and understandable voice, it takes a moment before I can focus my eyes and realize that the darkness in front of me has nothing to do with my dream.  Instead, I’m too close to the body held tightly within my arms, and leaning back, I gaze up into the vaguely amused expression of Squall Loire.

Lightly rumpled from a night of sleep, Squall is a beautiful sight with his dark hair falling forward as he looks down at me.  His blue-gray eyes shine with interest, his full lips quirk into a secretive smile, and I can’t help moving a hand under his shirt to make certain his flesh is warm and living to my touch.  As of last night, I would have bet good money on the chance of Squall leaving me alone by morning, but here he is, comfortably trapped within my arms.  A beautiful sight, indeed.

“Did you dream of something?” Squall prods when I don’t answer.

Snowflakes and stains of blood flash through my memory before I answer with a sleepy smile, “Nothing useful or life-threatening, if that’s what you’re asking.”

His expression quiet and unreadable, Squall lifts a hand to brush something from the corner of my eye.  “Don’t ever lie to me about your dreams, Seifer.”

“Do you think I’m lying to you right now?”

“Not this time, but you’ve tried to mislead me in the past,” Squall says.  “Consider it a warning for the future.”

After a wasted moment of blatant staring, I push up from the mattress and move onto my knees to lean over the smaller man.  “That’s an interesting warning after last night.  May I ask what kind of future we’re talking about here?”

Meeting my eager gaze, Squall hesitates in brief thought.  “You talked about one amazing day rising above everything else… Let me have that day before tomorrow brings whatever it brings.”

I smile at the answer that is far more than I expected from the cautious man, and with his implied permission, I bend down to make my claim on the full lips that are mine for the length of today.  Squall leans into the kiss, only the smallest hint of resistance remaining within the stormy-eyed beauty.  His lips move softly but purposefully against mine, taunting me with a kiss that never deepens as his tongue and teeth toy with my lips.  For a fleeting second, I think to complain about his prudish treatment, but Squall efficiently distracts me with his seductive lips and a cold hand massaging my neck.

Before I realize that I’ve lost control, Squall slides his free hand down my shirt-covered chest and, in an unexpectedly cruel move, digs his fingers into the exact spot where Ward had assaulted me last night.  I flinch back at the abuse, and in my moment of weakness, Squall shoves his other hand against my collarbone to knock me completely off balance.  I land on my back in awkward pose that puts me only an inch from the edge of the mattress.

“Fucking hell, that hurt.  If you didn’t want the kiss—“

My complaint is cut short when Squall straddles my thighs, his eyes intense with barely restrained passion.  It’s almost too much to meet his gaze while knowing about the years that have led to this point in time, but I can’t make myself look anywhere else.  Lifting my hand, I brush aside the bangs of dark chestnut that hang over his face, subjecting myself to the full force of his storm-colored eyes.

“What do you want, Squall?” I ask in a voice that is soft with promise.

Dark eyebrows slowly furrow into the bandage still covering his stitched skin, the man’s expression not the look of someone who is about to fulfill a fantasy he has nurtured since he was a prepubescent teenager.

“Something wrong?”

“… What am I doing?” Squall asks in a near whisper.

“Well, I was of the assumption that you were about to show me what I’ve been missing all of my life.”

Squall shows me a familiar scowl, clearly not in the mood for my cliché sense of romance.  “I have a stack of files to research and people to contact, but I sat here and watched you all morning.”  With an accusatory glare in my direction, he adds, “This isn’t like me.”

My lips curl into an inevitable smirk, even though I know it won’t help my cause.  “Do I need to remind you that you were researching until late last night?  And before our little nap yesterday, you were awake for two days straight?  Don’t tell me that you don’t deserve a moment or two of peace.”

Something in his eyes tells me that, no, he doesn’t think he deserves anything until this case is solved and everyone is safe from the whims of a serial killer.

“Hey, I understand where you’re coming from, Sherlock, but if you ask me, there’s nothing you need to do at this exact moment.  You already arranged meetings with the parents of those kids for later today, and I’ve watched you review those files forward and backwards.  The thing is, if you keep going over old ground like that, you’re eventually going to get stuck on the wrong answers.”

Squall scoffs at my biased logic.  “And having sex with you will prevent that?”

My dick twitches at the suggestion, something Squall feels judging by the shift of his gaze.  “Shit, I don’t know if it’d help, but it damn well can’t hurt.  I mean, I highly doubt the good men and women of the Garden police force are celibate creatures, and they have hundreds of cases on their plates at any one time.  We’re all human, Squall, even if you refuse to accept it.”

His eyes narrowing, Squall focuses on me for a long moment before asking, “Have you always been the type to give speeches?”

Realizing that I’ve been full of speeches lately, I chuckle and muse, “I guess it’s an old quarterback habit to give the game-winning talk, especially when it looks like the team is about to suffer a big loss.”

“A big loss, huh?” Squall murmurs as his eyes shift in thought.

“A tragic one,” I maintain.  Lowering my hand from his hair, I follow his jawline with my fingers until I go lower to the claim I had made at his throat last night, my touch against bruised flesh bringing a shiver to pale skin.  “How about we try this again and you tell me what you want.”

His gaze is quiet for what feels like a moment too long, and when Squall finally does move, he leans away from me into a stiff pose.  Disappointed but not surprised, I let my arm fall to the mattress and patiently wait for his simply worded rejection.  Squall’s voice doesn’t sound, however, and just before I think to question him, I’m startled by his chilled hands slipping under my shirt.

With his infinite patience, Squall gradually lifts the cotton material to my chest and watches every inch of my exposed flesh as his hands barely touch my skin.  Unable to keep motionless under that scrutiny, I curse within a growl before grabbing my shirt to fully remove the barrier, my hasty action bringing a humored smile to full lips.  With thoughts of kissing away his silent laugh, I try to place a hand at Squall’s neck to pull him closer, but he pulls my arm aside before he leans back over me.

A shaky breath leaves me when his heavy necklace touches my bare skin, the lion pendant cold and perfect compared to the hazier version in my dream.  The thick chain pools on my chest as Squall bends down to drag the tip of his tongue along my collarbone, his attack precisely focused on the curve caused by a bad break in high school.  While Squall’s mouth lingers on that part of my body, his deft fingers slowly trail from my shoulders and down along the outer lines of my chest, his examination a familiar and enticing one.  His thumbs eventually brush against my nipples in a frustratingly light touch, pulling a needy groan from my lips. 

Wanting more contact, I place my hands at his waist and try to encourage Squall into lowering from his knees, but the attempt backfires when Squall pushes away to sit on my thighs.  Although his gaze has a scolding hint, Squall keeps his hands on my body and meticulously follows the lines of my ribs before reaching the bruise at my stomach, the area colored with a mix of angry red and deep purple.  The very tips of his fingers trace the shape of the bruise, the imprint of Ward’s knuckles almost discernible within the shades of ugly color.

When his lips tighten in displeasure, I try to assure, “If you think this is bad, you should have seen me after a football game.”

Blue-gray eyes, sharp and brutal, lift to meet my gaze.  “I don’t think you would have liked me looking at your body back then.”

“I think you’re focused on the wrong problem, Sherlock,” I counter as I lower a hand from his waist and press the heel of my palm against his crotch.  “If you had looked at my body like you’re doing right now, there’s no way I could have ignored my attraction to another man.”

Instead of jerking away from my touch like the last time, Squall rolls his hips to rub against my hand.  “And you wouldn’t have blamed me for seducing and corrupting you?”

“Maybe, but at this moment, I feel like blaming you for failing to seduce me long before this,” I say as I stretch out my fingers to reach his balls.

Squall’s lips part in a silent moan, making me want to do a lot more to the strong-willed man, but Squall takes that option away from me when he gracefully retreats.  Not giving me room to argue, Squall pulls at the waistline to my boxers and reveals my own interest in our unexpected activities for this morning.  His hand slips under my stiffened cock, his cool skin soothing in the moment before he causes even more heat by dragging his tongue along the side of my dick.

Bracing myself on one elbow to watch the show, I reach out to thread my fingers through thick chestnut and smile encouragingly when blue-gray eyes glance up at the touch.  Squall huffs at my offered support, and in a decisive move, he wraps his lips around the reddened head of my erection.  I groan when he goes deeper and gently grazes his teeth at the ridge leading to the shaft.  Pausing there, Squall curls his tongue up against the tight bundle of nerves sitting exposed for his whims, and after a few strong strokes of his tongue, he pulls back to repeat the steps and go deeper each time.

My breaths shortened, I try to calm my body from the overwhelming sensations caused by the living version of my longtime lover, but then Squall has to make things difficult by slipping a hand to the very base of my dick to massage that area in the same rhythm as his mouth.  The knuckle of a bent finger rubs against my sac, and while it seems accidental, the exact placement of that knuckle reminds me that Squall rarely acts without thorough consideration and precise intent.

When Squall does something seemingly impossible with his tongue, I have the abrupt realization that it has been maybe a year since my last blow job, even longer since a good one.  In hindsight, it was apparent that I never stood a chance against Squall’s practiced technique, and I can only hope that Squall has already reached that same conclusion.  Unable to give fair warning, I come into Squall’s mouth with my hand clutching hard onto strands of dark brown hair and an apology caught in my throat.

Squall takes it all in stride, and after a thick swallow, he laps up the remaining mess with a heavy tongue and a dutiful air.

“Fucking shit, that was pathetic…” I say while getting my breathing under control.  “Before you judge me, I swear I usually have more stamina than that.”

With a sly glance, Squall asks, “What, you aren’t going to say that my mouth was better than your dreams?”

After a moment of surprise, a laugh leaves me at the question that seems to be both mocking and honest in its intent.  “And what about you?  Are you finally going to believe me when I say that I’ve seen us together just like this and that I’m tired of our relationship only existing in my dreams?”

Blue-gray eyes shift in silent thought while his eyebrows lower into a vexed expression that reminds me of so many years ago.  Back then, I didn’t know why Squall decided to believe in me and my shaky visions, and now I’m taunted by the answer that eluded me for over a decade.  He may have believed me once due to his love, but apparently that same love isn’t enough to trust me a second time.

Holding back my frustration, I pull on the front of Squall’s shirt to drag him within range for me to press a kiss to a furrowed eyebrow.  I place a second kiss at the side of his nose, the edge of gauze brushing against my lips before I move to his flushed cheek.  When I move farther down to full lips, however, Squall retreats a mere centimeter away and stays out of reach when I try to nudge closer.

“We’re not going to have sex,” Squall announces, his voice hoarse but firm.

“We’re not?” I ask, more than a little confused.  When Squall simply hums in confirmation, I prod further, “Then why take time with the foreplay when there’s no main event?”

“You asked me what I wanted,” Squall reminds me.  “I’ve wanted to taste you for years, and now…”

“…And now?”

With a cold and beautiful smile, Squall replies, “I want to watch you destroy Roth.”

His low voice radiates with violent intent, leaving me aroused and half naked on his bed when Squall slips off the mattress and moves for his bathroom.  Disappointed, I flop back onto the bed and watch Squall’s swaying ass in the moment before the bathroom door closes between us… but not all of the way.  Immediately interested, I move onto my side and stare at the cracked opening that isn’t more than an inch wide.  I mentally struggle with the sight, wondering if it’s an invitation, an unwanted mistake, or simply a door that didn’t close all of the way.

Then, in my moment of indecision, I see a sliver of Squall’s unclothed body hovering beyond that barrier, hesitating for a fraction of a second before the door is gently pushed closed with a soft click of the latch.

Muttering out a curse, I immediately realize that I had missed the subtle invitation from my cautious lover because I doubted his offer for what it was.  Frustrated, I grab my discarded clothes and slide off the bed with the basic plan of moving into my own shower and handling my teased cock by my lonesome.  Before that, however, I glance over my shoulder at the closed door and pledge under my breath, “That’s not a mistake I’ll make a second time, Squally-boy, so don’t give up on me.”

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

Squall sits in a stiff pose on the edge of an ancient loveseat, his dark leather pants clashing noticeably against the garish floral pattern.  In his lap is a heavy mug of coffee, the brunet wiser than me when it comes to not drinking heated liquid just before learning something unexpected.  As I stifle my coughs from coffee going down the wrong pipe, Squall speaks out with obvious disbelief toward the given information.

“You said Zack joined the Army?”

“That he did,” Asella Fair replies with a proud smile unique to mothers.

While Squall processes the new information, I focus on the woman sitting across from us.  Asella welcomed us into her home with the understanding that we needed help to locate the man who drove Nida to suicide.  She has been a proper hostess from the start with the immediate offer of coffee, a courtesy that is complemented by her soft southern accent.  Her purple jumpsuit begs for a fashion intervention, but being a woman in her early fifties, Asella looks strong and vibrant and able to smack anyone who may point out that purple really isn’t her color.

Her quirks aside, though, what bothers me about the woman is that she doesn’t seem to be worried about her son, but instead seems to believe that Zack is alive and well while training to become a professional killer, perhaps a promotion from being a recreational one.  She may not have any reason to suspect her son of terrible crimes, but if I had almost lost a child to a sadistic killer, I would be more concerned whenever that same child, no matter his age, suddenly disappeared a second time in his life.  Her cheerfully naive attitude is more than a little grating.

“I’m sorry,” I interject with as little skepticism as I can manage, “but didn’t you report him missing several months ago?”

“We did, but that was before we received his letter,” Asella says after a sip of her milk-lightened coffee.  “I tried to tell the police that he’s fine, but they seem a little stubborn about wanting to talk to him in person.  Say, Jed, why don’t you get that letter for these boys?”

Jedediah Fair nods and pushes up from his recliner of cracked leather, a stark contrast to Asella’s flower-bedecked sofa chair.  “Maybe they can convince them to stop harassing us about our boy.  Zack wants to reach the top of his class; he doesn’t have time for this nonsense,” he grumbles while moving with a slight limp toward the fireplace mantle.  Compared to his wife, Jed looks more worn down by age, but he admirably tries to hide those aches and pains.

Jed takes a small white envelope from its resting spot against a propped frame with a picture of a young boy with deep blue eyes, shaggy black hair, and an honest smile that probably won the hearts of his teachers through the years.  He’s the same boy I’ve seen naked and chained to a workbench, and as I stare at that innocent photo, my stomach churns at the memory of Zack sitting with a straight back and tear tracks staining his cheeks.  While his two classmates were sobbing and whimpering wrecks, Zack was too stubborn for a nine-year-old and he often told the others to not give Roth the satisfaction.  “He’s just a bully,” was a common phrase by the boy.

But more than that, I remember when Raine’s eyes would meet Zack’s and how his deep blue eyes would harden in a determined expression, as if Zack was trying to mentally lend all of his strength to Raine.  I got the feeling that he was the only one who believed they were going to make it out of that situation alive, and now here I am, thinking how that same kid might be killing innocent boys.  I’m a little disgusted with myself, but I learned a long time ago that even good, generally honest people can commit ugly crimes.

An elbow presses against my side, making me jump as I discover that I’ve been staring a bit too hard at the school photo when, apparently, Asella had started talking again.

“… and he mentioned bringing a special girl to dinner, although that didn’t happen before he left.  Our Zack doesn’t like to show it, but he has a shy side, and I think he wanted this girl to see how brave he is,” Asella says while Jed hands the letter to Squall.

With a careful touch, Squall opens the unsealed envelope and pulls out the folded piece of paper.  I glance over his shoulder to read the letter that is surprisingly brief:

Hey Mom and Dad—

I heard that you’ve been worried about me.  Sorry for not telling you, but I decided to enlist like I always said I would.  They say I have the potential to join one of the special ops teams, but I have to work hard, which means I won’t see you for a long time.  Next time you hear from me, I’ll be a first-class soldier!

Zack

I slump back into my seat, relieved to know that the kid somehow escaped the fate of his former classmates.  Maybe his skull is too thick to hear the whispers of the dead or maybe Roth had no interest in the cockier youth, but whatever the case, I was wrong about the kid and that doesn’t bother me one bit.

Squall pulls a small camera from his pocket and asks, “May I take a picture?”

“Of course,” Asella insists.  “Maybe if you show it to the police, they’ll understand how we were premature to make that missing person’s report.”

After a few clicks from his camera, Squall lifts his gaze to comment, “There isn’t a stamp on the envelope.”

“Oh, that little friend of his… What did Zack call him?”

“Cloud,” Jedediah prompts.

“Ah yes, Cloud.  He came around several months ago with that letter, saying that Zack sent him a handful to give out.  Knowing our Zack, though, he probably wanted that boy to check up on us and report back to him.”

Squall nods in understanding while refolding the letter and placing it back into its envelope.  He stands up and steps over to the fireplace, placing the letter against the framed photo of the younger Zack.  “Thank you for your time, Mrs. and Mr. Fair,” Squall says dully, his mind probably elsewhere.  “We’ll see ourselves out.”

With Squall halfway to the front door, I sigh at his lack of manners.  It’s a damn good thing Squall is a magician at what he does, because there’s no way he’d win over clients with his blunt personality.   “What he meant to say is that you’ve been very helpful.  We’ll keep in contact about whatever we discover, and you can pass that along to Zack.  I’m certain he would like to know.”

Asella smiles warmly at the promise.  “He would, thank you.”

“Squall gave you his card.  If you think of anything else, please call.  Oh, and the coffee was great,” I add, stealing a last gulp before standing up.

“Come back anytime,” Asella offers.

Flashing a patented smile, I nod my head in thanks before walking to the front door.                             

Once outside, I pause when I see that Squall didn’t bother to claim the driver seat of his mother’s jeep as he had this morning, the man instead brooding on the passenger side.  Slumped in his seat, he looks a bit too much like a teenager waiting impatiently to go home after being forced to endure a torturous day with the parents.  It’s adorable, and me thinking so is probably a good sign that I’m a hopeless cause when it comes to the dark-haired man.

A small smile stuck on my face, I walk to the waiting jeep and slip into the driver’s side without saying anything to disturb Squall.  In that silence, I take in the sight of his cheeks slightly blushed from the cold, the tips of his eyelashes golden in muted sunlight, and his full lips faintly pouted in thought.  Squall is a beautiful man, no doubt about it, but that isn’t the lure that finally caught my attention.  No, my downfall lies in the hands of his unbelievable strength, both in the physical sense and in his single-minded way of helping strangers and family alike.

It’s somewhat ironic how the strength I respect so much is the final, wavering barrier between us.

My eyes slip down to the deep red mark that stands out against pale skin, and I hold back the instinct to touch my claim on the elusive man.  This morning was a very welcomed surprise, but oddly enough, I don’t feel satisfied by the unexpected tryst.  I’ve had many so-called relationships end the moment after a blow jobs, and even more end after a night of fucking, which makes this current void new and unsettling for me.

While I have been trying to convince Squall that I’m serious about us and that I’m not using him to test different waters, I didn’t recognize the full truth of my pledge until today.  Unless I have Squall in every meaning of the word, I have a bad feeling that I won’t be satisfied with anything less.  It doesn’t help that I have a shitty record when it comes to being a patient man.  I could ruin everything in a matter of seconds if I’m not careful, and yet this is the first thing in years that I have wanted so badly…

“Well, it looks like I was wrong,” I say in an attempt to distract myself.  The last thing I need is to blurt out a premature marriage proposal while we’re hunting down a serial killer.

Blue-gray eyes narrow when Squall finally acknowledges my presence.  “Wrong about what?”

“About the Fair kid.  It sounds like he’s busy being a soldier and doesn’t have the time to piss, let alone kill babies.”

With a lifted eyebrow, Squall contends, “It was just words on paper, Seifer.  Even if Zack had written that letter, it wouldn’t have proven anything.”

I stare at the dark-haired man.  “What do you mean ‘even if he had written it’?”

“There were hesitation marks throughout that note and there weren’t any declarations of love or gratefulness to his parents.  That letter wasn’t written by an apologetic son who won’t return home for an unknown amount of time.”

Overwhelmed by Squall’s observation, I lift a hand to cover my eyes and clench my teeth in frustration at being swayed by something as basic as a handwritten note.  That letter could have been written by anyone and for any number of reasons: by Zack’s father in an attempt to console his wife, by someone who doesn’t want people to discover that Zack is dead, or even by Zack himself to throw the police off his trail.  I should have been skeptical from the first mention of a letter, but instead, I took comfort in the fantasy that Zack was okay and out of harm’s way.  Stupid, so fucking stupid…

“It’s understandable for you to want to believe in that letter,” Squall comments, and it almost doesn’t sound like pity.

“It was a pretty little lie, and I fell for it.  The dumbass thing is that I know better than to trust things that sound too good to be true, because they’re usually just that—too good to be remotely true, and then someone gets hurt in the end.”

“Is that so?” Squall asks with a sidelong glance that can only be described as shrewd.

“Don’t even go there, Sherlock,” I growl in return.  “Me wanting to be with you isn’t a ‘too good to be true’ situation.  If anything, I’d call it a ‘damn it, why didn’t I notice things earlier’ fuck up.”

Blue-gray eyes focus on me, and not with the distrust that has been common as of late, but with a more attentive gleam as he finally treats my words with some credibility.

“I do want you, Squall, and I’ll keep saying it until you believe me.”

His gaze closing off just slightly, Squall comments, “This isn’t the time or place.”

“Of course not,” I agree with a smile that doesn’t last long.  “Well, obviously Zack’s parents don’t know anything.  What’s the next step?”

“What do you think?”

Considering what we learned from the parents, I realize that there’s only one obvious step.  “You want to go after the messenger, that Cloud kid.”

Squall nods and points to the key already sitting in the ignition.  “Let’s go.”

“Go where, exactly?  Do you know where to find him?”  Before Squall needs to answer, I realize, “Oh wait a minute, didn’t that munchkin mention how Cloud once lived in his same house?  And let me guess, since I was the one driving last night, you were too distracted to notice where the munchkin lives when we took him home.”

“Just drive, Seifer,” Squall grumbles while purposefully moving his gaze to look out the side window.

The drive across town is a long one, especially when a light snow starts to fall and several drivers seem to baulk at the idea of a few snowflakes on the road.  Nothing is said between Squall and me during that time, only my voice sounding while I mock the morons who haven’t figured out how to drive in snow when we’re already a couple months into winter.  Squall huffs on occasion, a few times in amusement at my words and a few times in annoyance at my driving.  The most consistent source of his irritation seems to be whenever I stop for yellow lights, which I find more entertaining than I probably should.

In the last few blocks before our destination, Squall grumbles something under his breath, but I catch enough to be curious.

“And what exactly am I doing on purpose?”

Squall glares at the question, but I’m not the unfortunate focus of his chilled gaze.  Instead, he watches the dashboard when declaring, “Only student drivers and people over sixty drive consistently below the speed limit like you do, so stop fucking with me.”

A laugh escapes me at his unexpected critique.  “Are you suggesting that I should break the law?”

“You stopped at four yellow lights, ones you would have made if you had gone faster.”

“You know, most other mothers would commend my safe driving.”

His eyes flash with anger at being compared to a mother.  “We don’t have time to waste, and you’re making a joke of it.”

“Shit, I didn’t…”  All humor lost, I exhale a breath when I realize that Squall has probably been counting every second that could have been used to save Raine.  “Listen, I’m not trying to make a joke out of anything.  The truth is that I fucked up pretty damn big back in college, and if I get so much as a speeding ticket, they might take away my license.”

Squall doesn’t immediately comment upon my admission, but I can feel it when his pale-eyed gaze shifts to my face.  “Are you referring to your DUI?”

My chest constricts at his guess, even when I should know by now that Squall has a way of discovering undesirable truths.  “How long have you known about that?”

“I came across it while looking for you.  Ward also made certain I was aware of your arrest when it came up during your background check.”

I glance at the brunet, curious what other secrets he knows, but I can only handle one thing at a time.  “I was a stupid kid.”

“You could have killed someone,” Squall says, going right for the low blow.

It’s a shame that my first response is to huff out a laugh.

Appalled, Squall demands, “Do you find that funny?”

“No, it’s not funny, not in the least.  It’s just that you’re completely right while I...”  I hesitate, not wanting to admit my faults to the brunet, but I can’t stop myself either.  “Back then, I decided that if I was going to kill someone, I would dream about it beforehand.  If there was no dream, then there was no reason to worry about getting behind the wheel of a car while stinking drunk.”

“But didn’t you say you drank to block out your dreams?”

“And thus the flaw in my theory.”

Squall stares at me, his eyes cool and unreadable as he considers the information I have thrown at him.  That silence lingers as we reach the narrow street lined with older, rundown houses that could be beautiful if anyone gave a damn.  Instead, the neighborhood has a depressing air instilled by immobile cars with missing parts, dead trees sporting only a string or two of Christmas lights, and more than one foreclosure notice visibly adhered to a front door.

I pull the jeep over at the end of the street and switch off the ignition before leaning back in my seat.  Squall undoes his seatbelt, but doesn’t get out.  Instead, he watches me while waiting for something, and God help me if I know what he needs to hear.

Unable to handle the silence, I dive blindly into the deep.  “Do you remember what I asked you after I was evicted?  About how I felt like I had taken the wrong step at some point in my life?”

Squall continues to stare, which I decide to take as a “maybe” from the silent man.

“The first time I felt that way, it was when I managed to stay sober for a week.  I got a good look at my life and I didn’t know where the hell I was, and I almost mean that literally.  Half my stuff was gone, hawked to pawn shops for money and booze.  My car had been repossessed when I wasn’t paying attention.  Probably the worst of it, though, was that I had been living in filth with old pizza, beer cans, and dried puke everywhere.”  Phantom bugs crawl over my skin at the mere thought of that place, goading me into scratching my arm.  “That’s when I started to hate what I had become.  I decided to get as much distance as I could from that part of my life, but no matter what I did or where I went, it didn’t make a difference.  Nothing changed for years…

“And then I bumped into a stalker at my favorite coffee shop and he pushed me forward, helping me to take the steps I was too afraid to take alone,” I sum up, my lips quirking into a smile at the memory of seeing Squall on that horrible day.  For a fraction of a second, I thought I was being visited by a ghost of Christmas past, but I quickly came to my senses when hot coffee splashed against my legs for the second time in a handful of minutes.  Squall had searched for me when no one else cared, and while I didn’t understand it at first, I’m grateful for his tenacious nature.

The click of an opening door snaps me out of my thoughts, and when I turn, I find Squall with his back to me and one foot out the door.

“You have left the person you were behind,” Squall says in a confident voice, “and it’s for the best that I never met him.”

Stunned, I watch as the dark-haired beauty steps into the winter air and closes the door behind him.  There’s a sense of finality to his actions, as if Squall had made decision about me and wasn’t about to be swayed by stories from the past.  Frankly, it’s an unbelievable choice from a man who thrives on information and clues to determine his next move.  He’s giving me the option to be someone who isn’t chained by an unwanted past, and my heart speeds up as I consider the possibilities.  Of course, the future is another problem considering that words only go so far with Squall, but I don’t have to be weighed down anymore.  I can learn to take action again, to move forward without tripping backward...

Fortunately for me, Squall is an easy man to follow.

Cold air flows over my flushed skin when I leave the jeep and hurry after the brunet.  Squall didn’t go far, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jacket as he gazes up at the cloud-covered sky.  Small snowflakes flit down, easily caught by the slight breeze and Squall’s misty breath.  Bits of ice cling to dark hair and glitter in the smothered daylight, enticing me to glide my fingers through the thick locks.  Squall surprisingly allows the intimate touch, but shifts his cold gaze to my face in a silent warning that I’m pushing it.

“You were thinking pretty hard there,” I comment.  “Is it anything I should be worried about?”

Squall stares at me for a moment longer before glancing to the house.  “We’re missing something.”

“Missing something?  Like what?”

“I’m not certain…”

“And I’ve heard that tone of voice before, which means you’re toying with a theory.”

Blue-gray eyes shift in quiet thought.  “What if we’re following the wrong breadcrumbs?”

“You mean the bright-as-day clues that have led us this far?” I ask in vague disbelief, but when full lips slip into a frown, I realize that he seriously thinks it is a problem.  “Okay, I suppose it’s possible for us to be distracted by this stuff when those dead kids are the ones involved, but be honest here, Squall: do you really think we’re off track, or are you bothered by it being too easy to follow these particular breadcrumbs?”

Squall hums in consideration of my question, but doesn’t voice an answer when he steps toward the house Sora currently calls home.  Accustomed to his silence, I follow his lead and turn my attention to the building ahead of us.

The two-story house is in decent condition, but no better than the rest of the homes on this street.  Stray vines climb along the sides of the building, hiding the chips and cracks of an old paint job.  Basic Christmas decorations hang in the front windows including handmade snowflakes, strings of popcorn, and pipe cleaners in the distorted shapes of reindeer and angels.  Undisturbed snow covers the yard, however, striking me as strange given the presence of kids.  Hell, Sora alone seems the type to play in fresh snow, and he definitely has the charm to drag others into his games.

With every step forward, I recognize that the aura of the house is the same as a person who smiles too much: it seems normal and pleasant at first, but after a while, it becomes obvious that it’s a facade.  I’m not certain what the house is trying to hide, but at least it doesn’t feel dangerous.  The kids here are safe with a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs, but I get the sense that they’re not loved like children should be, and for all I know, the house could be embarrassed about that fact.

Ice crunches when Squall’s boot lands on the first step of the porch, the sound seeming to serve as a summons since the front door abruptly jerks open to reveal an unanticipated sight.  Cheeks flushed, Riku clings onto the doorknob and stares dumbly at Squall as if the dark-haired man was the one to appear without warning.  Pale lips part in an expected question, but then close when Riku’s surprise passes and his shock is replaced by a stern look.  After a glance over his shoulder, Riku closes the door behind him and motions us to the side of the house.

“I think Sora is in trouble,” Riku says in a rushed breath.  “We were supposed to meet hours ago, but he never showed and he’s not here.”

I smile at the teen’s sense of drama.  “Are you saying that the munchkin got cold feet before your first big date?”

Sea-green eyes narrow into a harsh glare.  “It wasn’t a date, you asshole.  Sora called me last night and he was the one who setup the meeting.  He wouldn’t have bailed on me without calling or texting or something.  This isn’t like him.”

“He has a cell phone?” Squall asks, perhaps curious how Sora could afford one.

Sora gets into enough trouble that I bought a prepaid one and made him promise to always carry it,” Riku says with deep frustration in his voice.  “I’ve been trying to get ahold of him, but the phone goes straight to voice mail.  Sora never lets his phone die or turn off like that.”

I glance up and focus on a window on the second floor, wondering for a moment if the munchkin had decided to leave this place behind him, but I quickly dismiss that thought.  The kid was obviously agitated by the idea of Riku running away, which makes it pretty senseless for Sora to run off himself without any warning to his friend.  Maybe something did happen to the kid, but there are usually innocent explanations behind situations that appear worrisome at first glance.

“Did he tell you anything interesting last night?”

Even though he shows a suspicious glare at my question, Riku decides to answer.  “He said that he and Kairi ran into you guys at our school, and that… Are you seriously looking into Nida’s suicide?  I mean, Sora was really torn up by Nida’s death, and if you’re just playing with him—“

“We’re serious,” Squall states firmly before turning his back to us and opening the gate to the backyard.

Riku glances at me in a silent question, to which I shrug and motion for him to follow the brunet.  We step through the gate and trail after Squall until he waves for us to stay put, which means leaving us in about a foot of snow while he continues forward, eventually stepping around the back of the house.

Since Squall chooses to keep us unenlightened, I decide to ask the kid, “Did your lover boy happen to mention anything else on the phone?”

“He’s notRiku bites off his anger and answers, “Not really.  He said something about Vince wandering around outside and about curfews, and then Sora hung up to go get him.”

“And who’s Vince?”

“His latest roommate.  Some smart kid with a pretty messed up background.”  Riku lifts a hand to brush pale strands of hair from his face.  “The thing is, before Sora hung up, he made me promise to meet him today.  I went to the school and waited for over an hour before I started to think that something was wrong…”

“Don’t worry about the munchkin.  He looks like he can handle himself, and that’s assuming something actually happened to him.  I mean, do you honestly think there’s a reason for him to get sucked into something dangerous?”

Fidgeting on his feet, Riku admits, “Not really, but things happen to Sora.  There have also been all those stories on the news about that guy who kills kids…”

“Doubtful.  Compared to that fucker’s usual victims, your buddy is too old and doesn’t have the right features.  There’s no reason for him to be targeted.”  Noticing Riku’s stunned look, I force a smile and tell him, “I hear things, and well, at least it’s one less thing to worry about, right?”

“That might not matter at this point,” Squall announces before stepping around the corner.  He tosses something at the teen, Riku fumbling with the object before getting a solid hold on it.  The black cell phone stands out against pale skin and a house key hangs from a leather strap between his fingers.  Without a spoken word, I can tell by Riku’s expression that he’s very familiar with it.

Gripping hard on the phone, Riku stares at Squall in search of answers.

“There was some kind of struggle,” Squall explains.  “I found that in the snow.”

“No, the old lady… She said she didn’t hear anything…” Riku argues in a near whisper, apparently not so ready to believe something had happened to his friend after all.  “Is Sora Do you think Sora is…?”

Blue-gray eyes shift to the side while Squall considers his answer, but the teen doesn’t have any intention of waiting.  Riku darts past the brunet before Squall can restrain him, not that Squall tries very hard to stand in the boy’s way.  As I trail after the hotheaded kid, I glance at Squall in a vague attempt to understand his gain in letting Riku witness a potential crime scene.  Quiet eyes stare back at me, no regret visible in the cool depths.

I walk around the corner of the house to find Riku standing in the middle of the backyard, his shoulders slumped and his hand loose around Sora’s phone.  Two steps in front of him, the snow has been upturned by strong activity and it doesn’t have the feel of a disturbance caused by normal play.  The dark splatter of blood on white snow has plenty to do with that feeling, although the handful of quarter-sized droplets isn’t too much blood to lose.  I’ve done worse damage when breaking my nose, not that I’m going to belittle Riku’s fears by telling him that.

“… Who would do this?” Riku asks, his voice rough and low.

“I don’t know, kid,” I reply when Squall doesn’t seem to notice the question, his gaze elsewhere in thought.  “You said that the munchkin likes to get involved in things.  Did he mention anything that could have led to this?”

“No, nothing like this,” he says with a shake of his head.  “When Sora gets involved, it’s usually in some stupid schoolyard fight against the latest bully.  He also gets into trouble with his foster mother for a lot of the same reasons.  He doesn’t like watching other kids get pushed around.”

I almost smile at the description, curious how the pint-sized kid does in these fights of his.  “He sounds like someone who won’t go down easy.”

Riku scowls at the comment, his green-blue eyes focused on the spots of blood on snow.

Blood and snow...  I had almost forgotten about my dream from this morning, but I doubt it had anything to do with this situation.  The setting and emotions are all wrong, not that I’m particularly comforted by the fact.  Hoping for more answers, I look away from the place of obvious struggle and take note of the jumble of footprints that lead away from the house, but never go back.  Meanwhile, the footsteps from the back fence lead to and from the middle of the yard, but it seems like a weak escape plan for someone carrying body, either struggling or deadweight.  And yet, there’s no wavering in the steps, no second guesses about taking the easier path out the front gate instead.

Squall walks into my line of sight at that point, the brunet following close to the path of footsteps.

“Hey, should you be doing that, Sherlock?  Isn’t this a crime scene or some shit like that?”

He doesn’t acknowledge my worry while moving to the back fence, and after a moment of study, he pushes the wood to reveal a gate that leads into the next yard.

I frown at the sight.  “That’s odd.  Don’t fences usually exist to keep the neighbors and their pets out?”

Riku looks up and makes a halfhearted sound of realization.  Sora mentioned it once.  The previous owners of these two houses were related or something, so they had the gate made, but there should be a heavy lock on it.  The current neighbors got pretty upset when some of the older foster kids would cross through their yard while trying to sneak in past curfew.”

Just as the teen finishes his explanation, Squall bends down and retrieves something from the snow, eventually displaying a large lock with the latch cut in half.

“Looks like someone was prepared,” I mutter at the find.

“Someone who knew there would be a lock blocking his path,” Squall adds while glancing over his shoulder into the neighbor’s yard.

“Okay, I get that people don’t normally carry around a set of bolt cutters,” I concede, “but who’s going to want to rob a place like this?  It seems like a stupid chance to take, especially when the house is full of kids who could wake up at any moment.  The payoff can’t be worth the risk.”

“There’s nothing to steal,” Riku contributes, his voice full of frustration.  “We’re pretty certain that the old lady’s only income is the money she gets from supporting foster kids.”

“And yet, the lock has been cut,” Squall maintains before closing the gate.  His gaze lowers to the covered ground, the glare of white snow adding a metallic sharpness to his eyes.  “He had no interest in the house.”

“That’s a pretty big assumption, Sherlock.”

Taking the bait to explain his thoughts, Squall points at the initial trail of footprints that lead from the gate to the center of the backyard.  “If he was after the house, he should have followed the fence and stayed hidden in the shadows, but he walked out in the open.  What he wanted was right here.”

I glare at the series of footprints, trying to figure out whatever it is that Squall can see in the mess of snow.  “So what, one of the kids brought something out to him?  You do realize how that could be anything from stolen goods, to illegal drugs, to freshly baked cookies, right?”

When Squall doesn’t say anything in turn, I lift my gaze to find the dark-haired man with his eyes lightly closed in thought.  I readily recognize the expression as the one Squall shows whenever he’s about to say something he finds distasteful, but unavoidable.  Since the topic of our non-relationship treads those lines, I have witnessed this particular look on several occasions.

Reopening his eyes, Squall asks, “Who is Vince?”

Riku glances at me before replying, “Vincent Valentine, I think.  He shares a room with Sora.  I don’t know much more about him than what I already said to Seifer, but what does he matter?”

“You made it sound like Sora was watching over him,” Squall continues to prod.  “Maybe Vince is younger and new to the system?  Maybe about eight- or nine-years-old and dark-haired?”

His eyes going wide, Riku whispers, “How did you--?”

Fuck no.”  The sharp curse escapes me when I realize what theory Squall is playing at, and with his pale gaze focused on me, I point an accusing finger at the brunet.  “It can’t be that.  It can’t be fucking that.”

Squall crosses his arms over his chest in the unspoken question of “Why not?”

“You have no evidence!” I lash out with growing anger.  “You can’t connect these two cases just because it sounds good.  Where’s your proof beyond a kid who sounds like an easy victim?”

“Too many circumstances,” Squall retorts in a calmer voice.  “We came here to learn more about Strife, and this is the scene we come across.  Assuming Zack is dead—“

“You can’t just assume a guy to death, Loire,” I interrupt, knowing that it stems from the childish need to have at least one of the kids alive.  Just one…

Blue-gray eyes show a flash of pity before Squall continues, “Strife delivered that letter to Zack’s parents, which makes him the likely writer.”

“Maybe he didn’t want Zack’s parents to worry,” I try to argue.

“He saw us yesterday at the location of Nida’s suicide.  That could have caused him to panic, triggered his need to kill, and forced him into taking another victim, a risky victim from a familiar location where he knows every escape route.”

Clenching my teeth, I insist, “You still don’t have proof, and if you ask me, it sounds like you’re making these connections for your own convenience.  After all, if these two situations are linked, you don’t have to feel guilty about abandoning Sora while we continue our hunt for Roth, right?”

A subtle tightening of his lips and shadowing of his eyes changes Squall’s expression from reserved to harshly frigid, a trick I’ve seen before from the brunet, but that experience does nothing to lessen the overall effect of his glare.

“What are you two talking about?” Riku demands, his eyes shifting between Squall and me.  “Zack?  And I assume you mean Cloud?  What do they have to do with Sora’s kidnapping?”

“Maybe something, but probably nothing,” I reply before Squall can fill the kid’s head with more false hope.

Squall scoffs at my resistance and asks, “Why was Sora taken, Seifer?”

“What do you mean?”

“Whoever came here, whether to rob this place or kidnap a young boy, was interrupted by Sora’s appearance.  That person lashed out and injured Sora, but didn’t leave the boy behind or kill him.  Why?”

I struggle with the question, not liking the only answer that comes to mind, but when Squall lifts a dark eyebrow in a taunting manner, I’m forced to give him the response he wants.  “For the record, there could be a million different reasons, but if the guy knew the munchkin and liked him, then it’s possible that he didn’t want to hurt the kid more than he already did.  He could’ve taken Sora for medical attention or…”  When I hesitate, Squall nods for me to grudgingly continue, “Or he took the kid because Sora knows exactly who he is.”

A surprisingly strong hand grabs my arm, and with fingernails digging into my jacket, I’m grateful for the layers of winter clothes.  Lifting my gaze from the offending hand, I find myself staring into young eyes that shine with a worrisome degree of violent intent.  I suppose it was only a matter of time before the kid snapped, but I was hoping for a weeping mess instead of a potential murderer on my hands.

“Are you saying Cloud was the one to hurt Sora?” Riku demands, which is almost amusing since I’m the last person this kid trusts.  Still, I’ve earned that mistrust by saying things he doesn’t want to hear, and whatever the truth might be at this moment, it probably fits into that category.

“Come on, kid, you’re standing in the same spot we are—do you really think we can tell anything from a few footprints in snow?”

“Nothing around here suggests Cloud is involved, but both of you are talking about him anyway,” Riku insists while tightening his grip, apparently not letting me escape with my unhelpful answer.  “What else do you know?”

Exhaling a frustrated sigh, I glare at the silent brunet.  “This is your fault, you know.”

Maybe recognizing the tenuous hope he has given the teen, Squall uncrosses his arms and admits, “I know it seems like little more than a guess, but this is how I work.”  In a quieter voice, he adds, “This is how I found you.”

And that’s the undeniable truth right there.  Where other people have failed, Squall has the magical ability to take broken, seemingly insignificant bits of evidence and create a story that ultimately leads him to a final answer.  An old fashioned soda glass led him to Riku, a graffiti-based image saved a woman from death, and the sounds of buses and drink orders brought him back into my life.  Nothing definite, nothing to place bets on, but Squall hasn’t been wrong.  Not yet, at least.

“You’re a smart man, Sherlock, but we both know that you’ve been distracted by your mother’s situation,” I say as gently as possible, but I still earn a glare from the brunet.  “Tell me that you’re certain about this and that we aren’t about to sacrifice two kids to a potential murderer because you want to follow the theory that serves your mother’s best interests.  Tell me that, and I’ll follow you wherever you want to go.”

Squall hesitates briefly, a moment of consideration before he states firmly, “My mother would never forgive me if I placed her ahead of a child’s life.”

A smirk crossing my lips, I return my attention to the bulldog at my arm.  “There you have it, kid.  Squall and I have things to do, and you’re not invited.”

“I’m going,” Riku demands.

“For the love of—“

“I didn’t tell him,” Riku interrupts, sounding more like the pubescent teenager he is.  “He doesn’t know anything, and this had to happen before I could… He needs me, and I have to be there for him.  You can understand that, right?”

I glance at the dark-haired beauty and focus on stony blue-gray.  “I understand the sentiment better than you know.”

With growing hope, Riku presumes, “You’ll take me then?”

“Fuck no,” I reply with a snap of my arm, hitting the silvered-haired teen in the gut and shoving him back a couple steps in slick snow.

Furious, Riku snarls at me and balls his hands into tight fists, but that’s all he manages before Squall steps between us.  It takes a single glance at Squall’s face before Riku shows a defeated expression, his arms lowering another second later.  “I want to help,” he tries one last time.

“Then go home,” Squall says in a strict tone.  “We can’t help Sora if we have to keep an eye on you.”

Riku opens his mouth to argue, but surprisingly changes tactics with a shake of his head.  “Promise that you’ll bring him home to me and not back to this place.”

Squall offers a slight nod in response.

With an exhaled breath somewhere between relieved and beaten, Riku lifts a hand to brush aside pale hair that continues to fall into his eyes.  “Do you really think Cloud Strife has something to do with this?”

“That appears to be the case,” I reply, but not a full believer just yet, I can’t keep the sarcasm from my voice.

“Do you know where he is?” Squall asks.

“No, not since he lived here, but that guy….”  Riku swallows thickly, his eyes distant in thought.  “We had a couple classes together last year, and while he’s always been a little strange, it was worse before he dropped out of school.  There were rumors about him taking steroids, so maybe that had something to do with it.”

“Steroids?  We haven’t heard anything about him and sports,” I ask, honestly curious since I’ve seen what the guy looks like and “on the juice” isn’t a descriptor I would’ve used.

“He didn’t do sports, at least not with the school teams, and I think that’s what made it a little strange when he started to gain some noticeable muscle.”  Riku glances over his shoulder at the spots of blood on snow and scowls at the sight.  Sora actually felt bad for him.  He knew Cloud wanted to follow after Zack and was willing to do anything to make it happen, but Zack had some pretty high goals.  He was going to be an elite soldier of some kind, and Cloud… Well, even if he was on steroids, he wasn’t that impressive.”

I hum at the scenario, my gaze drifting toward Squall as I’m reminded of my own need to do anything to gain the dark-haired man’s attention.  I’ve already tasted the powers trapped within me and I’ve felt the potential danger they can cause, but I don’t hold the same fear toward them as I usually do.  A large part of me knows it’s because I was able to protect Squall, but another darker part of my mind recognizes the chance of putting the brunet forever in my debt if I save his mother.  I’m not certain if I would actually force that debt on Squall or if he would allow me that power over him, but the thought is there and its existence frightens me when I think about it too hard.

“We should go,” Squall says, already walking toward the front yard.

Impressed how thoughtless the brunet can get when focused on his cases, I look to Riku and offer, “Do you need a ride home?”

The teen considers it, but shakes his head.  “I need to cool down and take the time to think.  Just… tell me the truth—what are the chances that Sora is still alive?”

“Sorry, kid, but I don’t have an answer for you beyond my promise that, if he is alive, Squall will find him, and we’ll get him back to you.”

His smile tight, Riku nods his thanks before we trail after the impatient brunet.

Once in front of the house, the silver-haired teen pulls the hood of his jacket over his head and jesters with a vague wave before stepping into the street to use the sidewalk across the way.  His head down and his hands shoved into his pockets, Riku looks more like a punk-ass kid hiding a can of spray paint rather than a teenager who listens to his elders.  While I can hope that Riku isn’t planning something stupid, like looking for Strife himself, I know that the kid will do exactly that.  Our best bet is to find Strife first.

Looking for Squall, I spot him sitting in the driver’s seat of the jeep with his arms crossed over his chest and his head bowed in thought.  The engine silent, I frown at his apparent decision that we aren’t going anywhere just yet.  Opening the side door, I slide into the passenger seat and get comfortable with my arms folded behind my head.

“I have a bad feeling about that kid,” I say while eyeing Riku’s back.  “Do you think he lied about not knowing where Strife lives?”

“I’m not certain it matters,” Squall comments in a distant fashion.

“I’m sorry, are you saying it doesn’t matter that he’s walking straight into the hands of a killer?  Or are you reconsidering Strife’s role in all of this?”

Blue-gray eyes shift in thought, and I doubt he even heard my question.  “Taking Sora was a risky move, something Strife did on his own.  The Strangler, however, has been meticulous, leaving no piece of useful evidence behind.  Nothing like this mess.”

“For all we know, you mean,” I say in correction.  “Those other boys could’ve been runaways, and who notices footprints in alleyways or wherever else those kids hide.”

“Either way, last night was a mistake when there haven’t been mistakes…”

With a chill in my blood, I realize the direction of his thoughts.  “Sounds a lot like Roth.”

As if a decision had been made, Squall uncrosses his arms and switches on the jeep’s ignition without a word of warning.  The wheels spin on wet ice before the jeep jumps forward into the street, and given my knowledge of how Squall drives his motorcycle, I promptly grab for the seatbelt.

“God, Squall, don’t tell me that we’re going to Roth’s old place,” I half-beg, not wanting to revisit that place in the physical world.  It was enough to be trapped there in my dreams.

“The house was sold years ago,” Squall says in a factual tone.

“Okay, I don’t know what’s more disturbing—that someone bought the house of horrors or that you know it’s off the market.”

“It was cheap,” Squall explains, although I’m not quite certain what part he’s trying to explain away.

“Then where are we going?”

“Roth’s first workshop.”

I shiver at his decision to use that particular terminology, not that I know what else to call a place designed for torturing women.  “Alright, then let’s say that everything we have been assuming thus far is true.  That means we’re about to go face-to-face against a serial killer, and while I’m surprisingly fine with that, there are also two kids involved who are either dead or in serious trouble.  Shouldn’t we call the police or something sensible like that?”

Jaw muscles clenching, Squall focuses on the street ahead of us without offering a vocal answer.

While it’s interesting to watch the brunet’s sense of reason clash against his need for personal vengeance, I know that I’m not ready to see a child be murdered with my own eyes.  “Call up your lady detective, Squall.  I know you like her, and better yet, she seems to trust your word.  If you’re lucky, she might not even question how you figured out where a most-wanted serial killer has been hiding all this time.”

“I’m not worried about that,” Squall argues, his grip on the wheel tightening.

“Then what’s the problem, Sherlock?”

His eyes not quite looking my way, he says guardedly, “This may be our only chance with Roth.”

Leaning forward, I try to catch his gaze when I ask, “And what, do you really think that I would let a witness or two stop me from sending that fucker to Hell?”

Blue-gray eyes study my face before full lips twitch into a vague smirk.  “You’re too reckless.”

“Only when it matters,” I maintain, wishing that we weren’t in a speeding car right now.  God, those lips are begging for a hard and fast kiss.

Squall reaches into a jacket pocket and tosses his cell phone at me.  “Call Selphie and put her on speaker,” he commands, just before gunning the accelerator to make it through a very questionable yellow light.

“Right, because we wouldn’t want you to drive erratically,” I mutter while navigating through his phone.

His contact list is a strange sight with series of pseudonyms instead of a single recognizable name including “Angry Warthog,” “Bars Enough,” and surprisingly “Chickenwuss,” the sight of which almost making me laugh since Squall mentioned that he had forgotten the nickname for Zell until I had brought it up again.  Still, witnessing the risk Squall takes with his alternate life as “Leon,” it makes sense for him to use this simple tactic to keep both his family and his sources safe from prying eyes.  In the same vein, it doesn’t make finding Selphie’s number a simple matter.

“What name am I looking for here?”

“’Artemis’.”

“The huntress goddess, huh?  Seems like a name that would suit the gunslinger.”

With a dark eyebrow lifted, Squall asks, “You know Greek mythology?”

“To a point,” I admit with a grin.  “I discovered in middle school that the paintings from back then are full of naked lovelies.  It was by accident that I learned some of the legends at the same time.”

Squall snorts and murmurs, “Figures.”

Before I select the option for “Artemis,” I skim through the rest of the list in search of the name Squall chose for my cell phone, and it seems a bit too obvious when I find it.  “Really, you couldn’t think of something better for me than ‘The Quarterback’?”

“That’s not yours.”

Already hitting the dial button for Selphie’s number, I don’t have the time to ask more than, “Wait, then what name did you give me?”

Squall does an excellent job of looking like he didn’t hear the question.

The phone rings once before a click sounds over the line.  <“Hey there, sunshine.  I’m kinda busy, so is this business, personal, or should I even ask?”>

“Business,” Squall replies in a firm tone, “and I need you to avoid saying anything that would attract attention.”

<“Hmmm, that depends—what are you going to do for me?”> the detective counters playfully.

“I may have a lead on the ‘Johnny Strangler’.”

There is a momentary pause on the line before Selphie replies in a more serious tone, <”I’m listening.”>

“We don’t have time for me to explain everything.  Meet us at the entrance to the old Olympus chemical plant, and I’ll give you the condensed version there.”

<”Now wait a minute, do you think he’s there or is this some kind of hunting expedition?”>

Squall hesitates before replying, “I would prefer you to come alone, but if there’s someone you can control, a second gun could be useful.”

<”Damn it, Squall, if this is something big—“>

“He’s worried about me,” I cut in when it sounds like the woman is on the edge of blowing everything.

<”Wait, is that Handsome?  Squall’s got you involved in this, too?”>

“Kind of.  See, there’s more happening here than a guy who likes killing kids, and it’s not going to stop unless I do something.”

Grumbling comes over the line, her irritated words unintelligible as Selphie debates the possibility of this being a really bad plan.  By her tone, I’m guessing that this isn’t the first time Squall has asked her to do something questionable, not that Selphie hasn’t done the same to Squall on several occasions.

“We’re on the way now,” Squall offers as motivation for her to decide more quickly.

<”Don’t you dare go in without me, Squall Loire.  I will kick your fine ass if you even breathe on that building before I get there.  Understood?”>

When the brunet doesn’t seem about to make that promise, I decide to take the detective’s side.  “Don’t worry, gunslinger.  We won’t make a move until you’re there to join in the fun.”

<”I’m holding you to that, Handsome!”> Selphie says in a rush before hanging up, apparently not fully trusting my ability to keep Squall in place.

Squall grabs the phone from my hand and shoves it into his jacket pocket before directing a freezing, although brief glare in my direction.  With the snowstorm getting steadily worse, the other drivers on the road have become sloth-like obstacles for Squall to dodge, which thankfully means he can’t focus on me for too long.

“Don’t give me that look, Loire.  What’s the point in calling for backup if you’re not going to wait for them to get there?”

He huffs, obviously not sharing my opinion.

Before I can add fuel to the fire, Squall takes a hard left turn that encourages me to grab onto the handlebar above the side door.  At this point, it seems wiser to let Squall drive without any additional distractions like my running mouth.  Silence, however, turns out to be harder than I thought when I’m suddenly assaulted by the reality of the situation.  Two kids, one of whom I know and like, are potentially being tortured by someone who may not be in control of his actions, but instead swayed by a demonic ghost with a silver-tongue and a vendetta against me.

I should prepare for this, ready my powers before things get out of hand, but I’m once again reminded that I don’t really know what I’m doing.  Thus far, I have reacted to fear and need, but if I’m going to do this right, that has to change.  I have to fully accept my powers, allow that strange energy to flow throughout my body without resistance… And somehow, that frightens me more than the idea of facing a sadistic ghost who wants me dead.

Needing a distraction from my own thoughts, I point out to Squall, “You still haven’t told me what name you gave me in your phone.”

Squall glances at me, his eyes sharp with understanding.  Hn, I’ll tell you when we’re done.”

And once again, I’ve been figured out by this man with little more than an innocent phrase on my part.  Some of my anxiety passes at Squall’s certainty that there will be a later, but I can’t shake my apprehension at the knowledge that he trusts my abilities a bit too much.  One of these days, I should figure out where Squall finds the strength to believe in the impossible, whether it’s in my powers or in his own farfetched theories.  It seems so unlike him…

Or maybe it’s just like Squall to make his own choices about what is believable and what is impossible, and I can only hope that he’s right.

~ > < ~

Squall parks the jeep on cracked asphalt that once served as an entryway to the building complex of the Olympus chemical processing plant.  Tall chain-link fences encircle the entire area with a scattering of signs that declare the hazards beyond the unimpressive barrier.  A bright yellow triangle with the image of skull and crossbones seems a little overdone, but I suppose it gets the message across crystal clear.

Looking beyond the fence, I take in the sight of the burnt chemical plant.  I remember being in the second grade when the news of the explosion ripped through the school.  Several kids and at least one teacher lost relatives that day, and with the resulting chaos, we were all sent home.  I spent most of the day with my grandparents, my mom not showing up until late that night with smears of soot on her body.  She had tried to warm people about the pending explosion, but no one listened.  It was a miracle she wasn’t killed herself, but in repayment for trying to help, she was held by the police as a bombing suspect until they identified the mechanical failure that had caused the explosion.

My mom held me for a long time that night, and I had to hide my fear when her hot tears fell onto my skin.  Even back then I had a good idea that I would eventually share her unfair fate of seeing futures that couldn’t be saved, but I didn’t like the reminders of what I couldn’t avoid.

Squall leaves the jeep in a swift move, forcing me to hurry after the man who has the nerve to claim I’m the reckless one.  He reaches the fence before me, his hand going to the heavy chain and lock that prevents unauthorized entry.  It’s a joke of a security measure when several sections of the surrounding fence are leaning at dangerous tilts.  If someone really wanted to get beyond that chained gate, it shouldn’t take anymore skill than a strong kick.

“Why in the world would Roth use a place like this?”

“Olympus went bankrupt after the cleanup, and there were no other buyers for the property,” Squall explains in a clinical manner.  “With no owners and the hazard signs keeping stragglers away, Roth had the luxury to do whatever he wanted without anyone hearing the screams of his victims.”

I frown while staring at the burnt building, wondering if it should look familiar to me.  Surely there should have been another dream, another chance to stop Roth before he had hurt Raine, but nothing sparks a memory.  Nothing, and I pray it’s not because I chose to forget those particular dreams, even if I was only a kid at the time.

The quiet clang of metal draws my attention back to Squall.  He lifts the lock and points out how the metal has only a few spots of noticeable rust, an obvious replacement for whatever previously secured the corroded chain.

“Well shit, it looks like someone else has found a use for this place,” I say cynically, a part of me wishing that Squall had been wrong about this.

Letting the chain and lock fall back to the fence, Squall takes a step back and glances along both sides of the fence before heading right.  Not given a choice, I follow the brunet as he moves purposefully toward a far corner of the fence.  It’s not until we’re steps away that I notice the opening that had been made by someone who wasn’t bothered by the bright red sign with flames hanging just above that spot.  Squall kicks at the opening to widen it before he slips through, startling me into a poor attempt to grab him that results in a clatter against the fence.

Squall glares at me for the noise, to which I glare back through the chain-links.

“I thought we were waiting for a pair of guns,” I remind him, knowing that he has more patience than he’s showing now.

“I didn’t make that promise,” Squall retorts and starts to walk off.

Forced to chase after him, I drag myself through the opening that is just barely big enough for my body, although something tears as I hurry through.  Glancing down, I see that a healthy chunk of my jacket lining was sacrificed to the fence, which hopefully means that my pants are still intact.  With a long stride, I catch up to Squall and make another move to grab him, but he reverses the hold in a sharp motion.

Shoving me hard against the wall of a side building, Squall pins me in place with his bent arm pressed against my chest.  “We can’t afford to wait for Selphie,” Squall insists in a low voice.

My breath partially lost, I can’t speak louder than a whisper.  “Then what was the point of calling them?”

“To clean up our mess,” he replies with a blood-chilling gleam to his eyes, and I instantly decide that I don’t need to know Squall’s plans for this child killer, especially if Cloud isn’t as innocent as we have assumed thus far.

Lifting my hands in surrender, I remind him, “I’m not here to fight you, remember?”

The question was meant to be rhetorical, but Squall shows a startled expression of realization.  “But you have been fighting me… this whole time…”

“Hey now, that’s a little unfair,” I argue, but the rest of my case is cut short when Squall abruptly turns and steps away.

“I dragged you here without giving you the chance to prepare.  I didn’t even think…”  Halting his rambling, Squall straightens and focuses intent blue-gray on me.  “Do you think you can’t do this?”

My arrogant side wants to laugh at his first show of doubt, but the sound that comes from me doesn’t have a hint of confidence to it.  So much for proving myself to this man.

Seifer…”

“I’m afraid of failing you, okay?” I blurt out, surprising myself as much as Squall.  “I don’t know what the fuck I did to send my bastard of a father to Hell, and I don’t know if I can do it again.  And now, if I falter in front of that demon, he could lash out against those boys or your mom.  Even worse, he could come after you and make me watch…”  That weird laugh leaves me again.  “This is the first time I’ve had a lot to lose, and I don’t want to lose any of it.”

Pale eyes unreadable, Squall stares at my face for a long moment before he steps close enough to almost touch me.  His silence continues when he presumably tries to come up with some trite words about how I can do this and how he believes in me.  I don’t need those easy words, but somewhat calmed by his close presence, I decide to allow him the chance to convince me that everything will be all right.

Full lips part in a false start before Squall finally says, “I want to see your powers again.”

Blinking, I stutter out, “Y-you… what?”

With a vague smile, Squall lifts his hand to my chest.  “You can do that for me, right?”

I find myself nodding before I realize what I’m committing myself to, and with that agreement, Squall turns and renews his path to the main part of the chemical plant.

Regaining my sense with that distance placed between us, I hurry after the man and demand, “Wait a minute, did you actually see something when I—“

In a sharp move, Squall holds a finger to his lips, efficiently avoiding the answer I’ve wanted from him ever since my father first attacked the brunet.  While it’s obvious that Squall can’t see the same spirits I do, something has caught his attention whenever I face a ghost.  Maybe it’s as basic as Squall being intrigued by my fights with something beyond his understanding, but I can’t shake the feeling that he’s hiding something, and thus far, I haven’t liked a single thing he has kept from me.

As we approach the main building, Squall points toward the far side where an old pickup truck sits unprotected under the falling snow.  A quiet curse escapes me when I notice the flashy motorcycle hidden behind the pickup, the sight of Zack’s bike proving that this is really happening.  Allowing me that whispered outburst, Squall increases his pace to a side entrance where the door hangs open.  Inside, Squall takes a right-hand turn down the hallway with the directness of someone who knows where he is going.  I follow his lead when he walks close against the wall and eventually slows to a stop when we approach a series of rooms with cracked windows that view inside.

Squall glances beyond those windows, his posture relaxing minutely when he whispers, “They must be farther in.”

As Squall walks off, I look into the room to discover that it’s some kind of laboratory, which makes sense with this being a chemical plant and all.  The remains of police tape and dark stains on otherwise clean bench tops, however, suggest that Roth had another use for the room.  The idea brings a chill to my spine, and when I shift my focus to Squall, that chill spreads to the rest of my body.

While partially lit from holes in the high ceiling, the hallway gets darker with every step away from the side entrance, and the place looks as inviting as a scene from a horror movie.  To add to the ambience, I can feel the bitter energy of the souls that had been unfairly and cruelly ripped from their living bodies, but strangely, no ghost makes itself known to my eye.  Instead, the spirits hide in the shadows like frightened rabbits, heightening my anxiety about the demon lurking in the darkness ahead.

Noticing my delay, Squall glances back and frowns in a silent question.  While I can assume many versions of that question, I imagine his greatest worry is if I’m willing to continue with this reckless mission.

I sigh at the reality that I’m too far into this mess to turn around now.  I try to step carefully on the floor littered with glass, but I can’t replicate the soundless steps Squall had managed moments ago.  His expression serious and hinted with something else, Squall waits for my approach before he leads us down the hallway toward a pair of double doors, one of which held up by a single bent hinge that looks about ready to give way at any minute.  Holding the other door open, Squall motions me ahead into the shadowed hallway.

After a few glances inside empty rooms, Squall increases his pace to the far end of the hallway where the explosion damage is the worst.  Trailing after him, I eventually hear the faint echo of weak coughs that must have caught Squall’s attention.  Inching through the opening that has hinges but no door, Squall glances into the room and then freezes in place at whatever he sees.

“I know you’re there,” a young male voice abruptly sounds.  “Come out where I can see you.”

Hesitating, Squall motions for me to stay back as he moves forward, foolishly thinking that I’d make a good backup to whatever plan he has in mind.  Squall makes it two steps inside, however, when the voice speaks again with clear agitation.

Both of you.”

Sighing, I follow after Squall and walk onto the factory floor that immediately opens up into an expansive room filled with pieces of broken machinery and fallen tanks.  Snow flutters into the room from the jagged holes in high ceiling, briefly reminding me of my dream before the sound of muffled struggling turns my gaze to the back corner of the room.  Bound to an exposed support beam and gagged with his own scarf, Sora looks lively while jerking his arms in the frantic effort to escape, but any relief I feel at finding the munchkin alive is tempered by the blood matting his hair and the distinct puffiness to the corner of his mouth.  I wonder what the kid said to deserve a heavy punch like that.

“You’re interfering,” the male voice growls out.  “Why are you here?”

My blood goes cold when his words echo those of the demon in my dreams.

Turning my focus to Cloud, I take in the sight of the teen with his blond hair spiked into stiff peaks, his overdone outfit made primarily of leather, and his sapphire eyes shining with a special type of crazy.  In his arms is a barely conscious kid with dark hair and a dull gaze of red eyes, the boy standing in a limp pose despite the knife pressed against his deeply bruised throat.  It’s almost ridiculous for Cloud to treat the boy as a hostage, as if he didn’t already have plans to kill the kid, but I’m not about to point out the fact to the fucked up teen.

“Let the boy go, Strife,” Squall demands in the voice he usually reserves for “Leon.”

Cloud laughs, the sound chaotic and strange.  “You can’t have him.  I need him to help Zack, and you’re in the way.”

“Zack Fair?” I speak out from surprise.  “Is he here?”

“Y-yes… but no…” he answers with a confused expression, and then plows forward, “That’s why I have to continue.  I have to do this.”

“What is it that you have to do?” Squall asks with a step forward, but halts when Cloud tightens his hold on the knife.

“He’s lost.  I have to give him a way back.”  Cloud hugs the unmoving boy closer to his body and adds, “Sephiroth said this is the only way.”

Feeling cold at the name that too closely resembles “Stephen Roth” to be a coincidence, I stare at the teen and question, “What did this Seph-y-Roth tell you, kid?”

The kid tilts his head as if considering his answer, but Cloud doesn’t say anything as his eyelids flutter almost closed.  A slight breeze picks up and snowflakes swirl around the spiky-haired teen, seemingly caressing his pale skin.  And then I see a wisp of darkness that flows between the pure flakes.  Without need of thought, I step directly in front of Squall, much to his annoyance judging by a low growl and his hand grabbing the back of my jacket, but I don’t care what plans I’ve ruined for the brunet by being in the way.

“I know you’re here, Roth,” I say in the dual attempt of gaining the attention of a murdering sadist while also trying to convince Squall that he doesn’t need to step into the path of another dangerous ghost.  It’s a shaky plan, but it’s not like I have many other options.  “Show yourself before I make you come out.”

A low, humorless chuckle sounds as the breeze picks up speed, the wisps of darkness condensing into a very familiar shadow for a terrible second before the figure of Stephen Roth takes a solid form.  My entire body shivers from the memories sparked by his appearance, and I’m surprised by how much I remember of the man—his strange cat-like eyes, the cold curl of his lips, and the arrogant way he holds himself.  Unlike his old self, however, his silver hair is ridiculously long, almost to his ankles, and the pale strands sway and twist among the dark feathers of a single, very large wing.  It looks like this fucker has made quite an image for himself in death.

“The name is Sephiroth,” the ghost corrects in a superior tone.

“Is that so?” I mock in an effort to hide my instinctual fear.  “I’ve got to say that ‘Seph-y-Roth’ sounds a lot like some magician hack who does birthday parties and bat mitzvahs.”

His smirk untouched, Roth places a hand at Cloud’s head.  “This one couldn’t understand me at first, but I’ve grown fond of the name.  He believes me to be an angel.”

The retort on my tongue doesn’t sound when I watch the kid look up at the spirit next to him, his sapphire eyes fondly focused on Roth.  It becomes more disturbing when Cloud leans into the ghost’s touch, the teen looking like an obedient dog who lives for the commands of his master.

“Kid… Can you see that fucker?”

Angrily shifting his gaze to me, Cloud scowls.  “You should show more respect.”

As I stare dumbly, Roth chuckles at the demand.  “He’s less refined than what I’ve seen of your abilities, but it makes him more… manageable.”

“You fucking—“

“I would be careful if I were you,” Roth interrupts.  “His hand isn’t very steady.”

I glance down at Cloud and the dark-haired boy in his hold, immediately noticing the thin trail of blood slipping down the boy’s neck.  It becomes very apparent that Roth is the one in control and it won’t be an easy matter to strip that power from the sadistic man.  I don’t have the energy of Squall’s home to help me this time, and if I call upon those shadows, there’s little chance of Roth sticking around for the show.  Worse, I have to consider Cloud’s role in this mess, and it isn’t a good sign that he already has a history of killing helpless kids.

“What’s happening, Seifer?” Squall asks cautiously, but he still gains the attention of the ghost.

“You brought that woman’s son with you,” Roth comments with a strange light to his eyes.  “Interesting that you chose him.  While he has many of her features, he’s a dense thing.  And to think, I originally had so many plans for him.”

My teeth clenching, I raise a guarding arm over Squall as if that would somehow provide better protection against the sadistic spirit.  “Let me guess—were those the same plans you had for Lian Xu and Nida Piolt?  Is that why they’re dead?”

A muffled yell sounds from Sora, but I can’t afford to turn my attention away from Roth.

“And what right did they have to live?” Roth demands with a flex of his wing.  “I held their lives in my hands, their fate to be determined by my mercy alone before I was crudely interrupted.  I may have lost my life, but I never released my claim on them.  The girl was worthless, a fledging woman with no purpose except to become my first experiment.  The boy had some potential, but he was ultimately weak and unable to envision the legacy I offered him.”

Thinking that the kid was actually pretty strong to refuse the legacy of a serial killer, I prod further, “And Zack Fair?  What was his ‘fate’?”

Cloud makes a strangled noise while gripping harder onto his hostage.

“As of yet undecided,” Roth assures while stroking his fingers at Cloud’s head, the blond spikes swaying as if physically touched.  “I found this rough, untouched gem because of that fool, and for that reason alone, I’m tempted to be merciful.”

“Then… Zack is alive?”

Roth chuckles darkly.  “Aren’t you asking the wrong questions, dreamer?  Instead of those broken toys, shouldn’t you be more concerned about what I have planned for your future?”

I scoff at his threat.  “Didn’t you already try something about that?  I don’t remember it working out quite like you planned.”

Losing some of his humor, Roth insists, “I had your life in my hands.”

“That’s right—you had it, and then you lost it,” I point out as I decide upon a sketchy plan to lure the ghost within my reach.  If I was able to surprise my father with a punch that actually landed, then the same trick could work against Roth, assuming that he doesn’t get to me first.  “And doo know what stopped you from strangling me to death?  A two-decade-old protection spell on a stuffed dragon that was so weak, I almost forgot it was even there.”

“…You lie,” Roth states lowly, the spirit moving a step away from Cloud.

“Why should I lie about that?” I ask with exaggerated innocence.  “I watched my mom seal that spell with a kiss to the toy’s snout.  It was a darling piece of magic when I think about it.”

Cat-like eyes narrow into dangerous slits.  “Tread carefully, dreamer.”

Thinking to myself that I’m beyond the point of being careful, I take a small sidestep away from Squall when saying, “You know, now that we’re face-to-face like this, there’s something I’ve really been wanting to know—did death bring you the revelation about who brought the police to your door and a bullet through your chest?”

Pale lips twitch at my suggestion, and when Cloud stands to defend his master’s honor, Roth waves him back.

Enjoying this for what it’s worth, I continue, “Do you know that you have a bad habit of telling your victims everything, including your mother issues?  Really, who gives a fuck if your mommy never loved you?  Maybe she saw you for what you really are—nothing more than a monster with an impotent dick.”

Rage darkening his translucent face, Roth screams out a banshee’s call when he launches at me.

While it was the outcome I wanted, I failed to fully anticipate how spirits aren’t limited by the same restraints as those of us in the physical world.  Roth flies forward with his single wing flared open, and my mind stumbles over the dramatic sight caused by his long hair and fluttering coat.  Breaking me from my stare, Squall hisses in pain and retreats several steps before Roth collides against me, one of his hands going straight through my chest.  My heart does a funny beat at the touch of unnatural energy, and trying to escape, I trip over my own damn feet.  Falling backward, I automatically reach for Roth, and from luck alone, my fingers grasp onto a chunk of silver hair.

We end up in a strange heap on the ground, my body slipping through parts of the ghost while he tries to get a second hold on my heart.  I strike out with a punch to his face, but lying on the ground, my range is too limited to cause significant damage.  Roth reels back at my attack, and with spider web cracks appearing on his pale cheeks, he stares at me with a wild-eyed gaze.  Not giving him the time to think, I push up from concrete and place my hands at his long throat, returning his favor from the other night.

Driven to his back, Roth sneers at my choice in attacks.  “Is that supposed to achieve something?”

“Ask me again in about five minutes,” I retort, letting my anger rise with the knowledge of everything this man has done and what he may yet do.  The shadows respond quickly this time, either because I’ve gotten good at this or because they are hungry to take this sadist into the darkness, but like the other times, they play their frustrating watching game while I’m forced cling onto the ghost.

Sensing the presence of those shadows, Roth asks in disbelief, “What are you?”

“Fuck if I know.”

Roth tries to disappear, but even as the rest of his body fades, his neck remains solid and unmoving between my fingers.  I growl at the effort it takes to keep the dead man in place, my hands burning as if I had a tenuous hold on an electric eel thrashing in ice-cold water.  My muscles twitch at the unworldly energy and my head starts to ache from dealing with both Roth and the shadows, which makes it a welcomed relief when a tiny circle of darkness slips from the shadows and warily comes closer to the trapped demon.

A howl abruptly sounds from the side, vaguely resembling a long and angry “No.”  I turn my head to see Cloud running at me, his knife held over his head while sapphire eyes burn with honest hate.  My fingers feel heavy and stiff when I recognize that I may have to release Roth to save my own neck, but I’m quickly relieved of the necessity of making that decision.

Squall steps into the teen’s path and, without hesitation or mercy, he punches Cloud in the face.  Given the teen’s momentum, Cloud’s feet swing up into the air before his back lands hard onto unforgiving concrete.  I almost feel bad for Cloud at the sight of his very broken and bloody nose, but Squall doesn’t seem to feel the same way when he kneels down, grabs the front of the kid’s jacket, and punches him even harder than before.

Two strikes later, the clatter of metal sounds against concrete, and I can breathe again knowing that Cloud isn’t going to use that knife again anytime soon.

“Worthless,” Roth hisses at the limp form of his puppet.

Returning my attention to the pinned ghost, I’m forced to hide my disappointment when I see that the small demon had retreated during Cloud’s distracting attack.  While still present, the shadows seem wary of taking an offensive stance, not that I understand why.

Roth smiles at me, apparently seeing through my mask.  “They tried to take me once before.  Don’t think that this outcome will be any different.”

“I’ll make it stick,” I pledge.

With a tilt of his head and a flash of cat-like eyes, Roth replies, “Then I only need to get rid of you.”

A weird laugh leaves me at his threat, but before I can question his methods, a sudden breeze blows thick snowflakes into my face.  I almost mock the pathetic attack, but the wind quickly gains speed and begins to lift dirt and chips of glasses into the air.  A larger sliver of glass slices across my neck with enough speed to cut my skin, the resulting droplets of blood then falling through the spirit’s smirking face and onto pale concrete below.

My body flushes with the need of urgency, and placing all of my anger and fear into my call, I growl out, “Take him now, you fuckers, or be prepared to lose him forever.”

A strange, keening whine sounds from the watching shadows, and with the speed of someone about to lose an important prize, three circles of darkness slide across broken concrete to move under Roth.  Small black hands grab onto his shoulders and hair, their touch angering the ghost such that the force of his controlled wind doubles in intensity.

Seifer!”

I automatically turn my head at the scream, just in time to see a glimmer of metal and wet blood.  I recoil from the flying knife, but not far enough to avoid the point of the blade.  I yell out in pain, but have enough sense to keep my hold on Roth’s neck despite my instinct to lift a hand to my face.

My left eye squeezed tight because of flowing blood, I direct a single-eyed glare at Roth.  “Cute, but you should’ve killed me.”

I clench my fingers as hard as I can, my grip causing fine cracks to appear on porcelain skin until the ghost’s human shell shatters and reveals the toxic darkness hiding beneath.  The shadow creatures become overly excited at the broken façade, their odd chittering loud enough to be heard above the howl of wind.

As numerous small demons crawl out from the ground and grin with finely pointed teeth, I gradually realize that there could be a big problem with this scenario.  Just as I think that, dark hands reach past me to grab Roth and cut me in their eagerness, but it’s not my clothing or skin that tears from their talons.  Hurting in a way I’ve never experienced before, I choke back a scream that wants to sound, refusing to give Roth that pleasure.  It’s a front that is particularly hard to maintain when the larger shadows decide to come out and play.

Dealing with his own problems, Roth loses his concentration and resorts to more physical methods to escape me, but it’s hopeless for him to touch my living form in his panicked state.  His large wing knocks aside several of the small bugs, their presence quickly replaced by the strong grasps of the larger creatures that look almost human in shape, but with soulless amber eyes and vicious smiles.  Like with my father, the larger shadows are the ones that try to pull Roth into the darkness hovering beneath him; meanwhile, the other bugs taunt and tear at Roth, particularly at his vulnerable wing.

In an attempt to speed up the process, I press down on Roth’s neck, but the ghost lashes back to grab onto my arms, his hands surprisingly firm in their grasp.

“I won’t fall alone,” Roth growls, his eyes burning with conviction.

“Sorry, but us living folk aren’t welcomed where you’re headed.”

His smile toothy and mean, Roth contends, “That only applies to your body.”

My eyes narrow with uncertainty as I try to remember if my mother talked about any such thing, but then Roth is jerked down a couple inches into darkness.  I cry out at the feel of the world shifting in a very wrong way, causing my vision to double and my heart to pound in an erratic beat.  My muscles ache all over and my head spins as if an avalanche of rock and sharp debris had just assaulted me.  I don’t have a fucking clue what just happened, but incredibly, my stranglehold on Roth doesn’t loosen.

The drum of boots running on concrete sounds, and too sore to even think of flinching away, I glance to the side in anticipation of Cloud awakening with a deep urge to kill.  Instead of blond hair, however, I see a flutter of dark chestnut before Squall drops to his knees and slides up against my side.  Strong arms wrap around my waist, and before I can understand the clarity that his presence brings me, Roth screams out in an echo of my father’s cry when he came in contact with the brunet.  My lips curl from the thought that Roth has finally gotten a taste of the pain his victims had felt time and time again.

The shadows titter at his cry, and with the vague sound of “yes, yes” echoing within their nonsense, they latch claws and teeth onto Roth’s body to double their effort in dragging him downward.  I’m forced to release my hold, and in a worrisome moment, Roth surges up with his injured wing flailing and his teeth gritted in desperation.  The shadows, however, don’t release their hold before a frighteningly large demon rises from the ground and places a hand around Roth’s exposed throat.  The creature glances at me, and with a glimmer of blues and soft brown within amber eyes, the shadow smiles cruelly before dragging Roth to whatever Hell exists for men like him.

The shadows depart rapidly after Roth, their exit causing a harsh wind to fill the void left behind and to throw more dirt into my face.

Exhausted, I drop to my side, barely kept sitting by Squall’s hold around my waist.  Stormy eyes shine with worry when he examines my face, and getting a good look at the damage Roth had left behind, perfect lips tighten in displeasure.

I try to smile, but fail when small cuts are angered by the pull of muscles.  “Be honest—did I look cooler than the last time?”

His lips falling into a scowl, Squall grabs the front of my jacket with a jerk.  Expecting a punch or slap for my ill-timed question, I close my eyes in readiness for his assault, which makes it a pleasant surprise when his mouth clash against mine.  My arm heavy and sore, I hold the brunet as best as I can while Squall controls the desperate kiss.  The taste of blood intermingles with our tongues, the flavor only making the kiss harsher and more incredible as Squall claws at my chest.

“Drop it!”

I jerk back at the unexpected demand, and looking up, I stare dumbly at the sight of Cloud on his feet despite his mess of a face and the thick blood dripping off his chin.  In his bare hand, he holds a pointed chunk of broken glass raised above his shoulder, ready to strike and kill.  The only thing stopping him is the gun pointed at the back of his head, and I marvel at the steadiness of the lady detective’s hand.

“I said drop it,” Selphie repeats in a stern tone.

Focused on me, sapphire eyes waver in an expression trapped between despair and confusion.  “How could you?  Sephiroth was an angel, sent from Heaven to help me… To help me save Zack and bring him back…”  His hand tightening around sharp glass that cuts into his hand, Cloud asks, “What am I supposed to do now?”

“Where is Zack, Strife?” I ask cautiously, worried about the lies Roth had told him.  “Maybe we can help you instead.”

The teen stares at me wordlessly, looking like he honestly doesn’t know how to answer the question.

Selph!” a man’s voice calls out from the other end the room.  “We have body over here… Well, what’s left of it, that is.  Looks old.”

At the announcement, a heartbreaking noise leaves Cloud before he drops to his knees and yells out in pure agony.  Cloud lets the piece of glass fall, and to smother his cries, he wraps his arms over his face in an awkward barrier.  Without a glimmer of sympathy, Selphie moves in with practiced speed and shoves Cloud to the ground before grabbing his wrists to handcuff him.  Cloud surprisingly doesn’t struggle, but continues to groan in misery from something that seems greater than his injuries or being arrested for a list of potential crimes.

“…Zack is dead, isn’t he?” I say to Squall, although I can’t pull my eyes away from the blond teen.

Squall replies with a muttered, “It appears so,” before pulling back.  The zip of his jacket startles me, and staring with a single wide eye, I watch Squall remove his jacket, shortly followed by his sweater and undershirt, both oddly damaged.  It’s not until the smell of burnt fabric reaches my nose that I realize his protection charm must have gained enough heat to burn through his clothing.  I quickly move my gaze to his chest and find an arch of damaged skin.  While it doesn’t seem much worse than an ugly sunburn, Squall doesn’t allow me a more thorough examination.

Shoving his folded undershirt into my face, Squall declares, “The bleeding won’t stop unless you apply pressure.”

I reposition the shirt to better cover my sliced skin and leave my right eye uncovered, which unfortunately gives me a clear view of one pissed off and very armed lady detective.

“What on Earth happened here?” Selphie growls out, but before I can attempt an answer, she interrupts, “Didn’t I tell you to wait for me?  Didn’t you promise me that no one would do anything until I had the chance to show up?  And look at what happened—Handsome is bloody as all hell and he could have been killed!  If nothing else, I should arrest the both of you for trespassing and interfering with a police investigation.”

My clumsy apology barely sounds when Squall, his sweater and jacket back on, stubbornly argues, “My mother’s life depended on our action.  I couldn’t wait and do nothing.”

Her anger promptly fading, Selphie looks to me and asks, “Is that true?  This has something to do with Raine?”

Although curious why she would believe me more than Squall, I nod in response without greater detail.  I don’t know where her partner is hiding, and I don’t need him hearing the wrong things.

Selphie sighs and mutters something under her breath about being a pushover.  “Okay, I’ll forgive you this one time, especially if this kid is actually involved with the Strangler case.  The sooner we solve that mess, the sooner I can stop staring at the photos of dead children.”

Squall frowns at her misunderstanding.  Selphie, he is the Strangler.”

Shocked, Selphie stares down at the battered teen, and after regaining her sense, she curses in a rather crude and lengthy fashion that proves her street cop roots.  I manage to catch something about “dumbass babies shouldn’t kill babies,” and I instantly feel bad for the detective.  This wasn’t the outcome she wanted, and who can blame her?  It’s so much easier to believe that monsters actually look like monsters and not like a confused and hurting teenage boy.

“Is everything okay there?” says a male voice, the same one that had called out earlier.

“Not certain yet,” Selphie stalls in an exhausted tone.  “What about those boys?  How are they doing?”

A man in the blues of a police officer steps into view, although the swagger of his walk and the way he tips the bill of his hat makes me think of a cowboy who’s wearing the wrong getup.  His pink lips lift into a seductive curl that seems out of place in this situation, but with the way violet eyes focus on Selphie, I imagine that his grin has more to do with instinct than intention.

“They’re hurt and tired, but alive,” the man replies while stopping next to Selphie.  “I’ve already called for a couple of buses and they should be here in a few minutes.”

“Good to hear,” Selphie replies while jerking the handcuffed teen to his feet, not that Cloud really resists.  “Take this kid outside and read him his rights.  I’ll handle everything else in here.”

The police officer hesitates before he takes Cloud by the arm, careful to avoid the spots of blood.  “Whatever you command, boss,” he says, and with a shove at the teen’s back, he leads the way toward an open emergency exit while Cloud walks in a stumbling, drunken step.

“You brought Kinneas?” Squall asks, his tone oddly light with interest.

“Don’t go there, Squall,” Selphie replies defensively.  “You said I should bring someone, and I brought someone.”

Hn, I guess he has decent aim,” Squall concedes, “but he’s also the last person you should bring into a high pressure situation.”

“Well, whose fault is it that I didn’t know this was a high pressure situation, huh?” Selphie lashes back, her cheeks flushed with anger.  Irvy doesn’t ask questions, and with Handsome involved, he’s the only person I can trust to keep quiet.  Now, if you don’t mind, I want to check up on those boys.”

At Squall’s slight nod, Selphie hurries off in the direction of where I last saw the two kids.  Stretching to glance around her, I smile faintly at the sight of Sora kneeling next to the other boy, apparently serving as Vince’s current protector.  Blood smeared on the side of his face, the munchkin has a pathetic look while he holds tightly onto a small hand and says something I can’t hear.  Vince stares up at Sora, his red eyes not exactly clear and focused, but he encouragingly doesn’t seem as pale as he was when we first arrived.

“We should get you to the hospital, too,” Squall says, regaining my attention.

With a smirk, I ask the brunet, “How is that you get to avoid the hospital when you were fucked up with a knife, but I’m forced to march to a doctor after I get the same injury?”

“Because my mother is safe,” he counters, “and you look worse than I did.”

“God, you suck at comforting people,” I complain with a laugh before leaning down to steal a kiss from already blood-smeared lips.

While Squall briefly allows the kiss, he carefully pulls away with a frozen and bare hand stroking my cheek, his glove lost at some point.  “I thought I was going to lose you.”

“Is that so?” I mutter, momentarily lost in the sharpness of blue-gray eyes.

“I’m serious, Seifer.  When you screamed out, everything about you was… darker.”  His gaze shifting from intense thought, Squall adds, “I’ve seen how pale you get after seeing Heaven, and I was afraid…”

Surprised by the connection he had made, I ask the brunet, “Did you think Hell had gotten a hold of me?”

“It’s ridiculous, I know—“

“Ridiculous, maybe, but you weren’t wrong.  You saved me from a pretty ugly situation there, Sherlock, which only makes it harder for me to pay you back.  I’m starting to wonder if you’re doing it on purpose.”

Squall stares at me for a long moment for the half-joking comment, his lips slipping into a frown before he abruptly pushes up from the ground and offers me a hand.  Allowing him that escape, I accept his help with a smug grin, but I lose that bit of humor when my bum leg decides to give out.  Without asking, Squall moves my arm around his neck and takes his position as my crutch, and instantly I’m overwhelmed by the difference between the first time Squall served as my support and this moment right now.  God, how much I hated him and his perfect life, and only Squall could make me look past that petty anger to find a man I could trust and, incredibly, love.

As we walk forward, a female paramedic rushes inside with a large first-aid kit, soon followed by another paramedic rolling a stretcher onto the factory floor.  Selphie waves them over to the two boys, and that’s the moment I realize my dreams have saved another innocent life.  It’s an idea that is strangely hard to accept after years of disappointment, but there the kid is, grabbing onto Sora like a lifeline as the paramedics pull the dark-haired boy onto the stretcher.  Vince isn’t Zack or any of the other lives that were lost because of my failures, but that doesn’t change this fleeting sensation of relief and pride.  For at least today, I think I can leave that guilt behind.

About halfway through the room, I stumble on a piece of gravel as if it was a boulder, and while Squall keeps me upright, he also treats the happenstance as proof that I need help.  He tries to lead us toward the paramedics, but I continue to nudge us toward the emergency exit.  Squall glares at me for being difficult, as if he hasn’t dealt with that before.

“If I have to go to the hospital, you’re taking me,” I contend.  “I don’t want to be alone in that place.”

The brunet frowns, clearly wanting to ask questions, but he doesn’t while relenting and helping me outside.

Compared to the burnt shell of the chemical plant, the surrounding scenery is bright and clean with a fresh layer of snow.  I watch the dance of snowflakes as they fall down, but they aren’t as perfect as they could be with my left eye covered.  I let my arm drop with Squall’s shirt in hand and try to focus on the falling snow with both eyes, but the stain of blood on my eyelashes creates an ugly pinkish hue.

Reminded of my uneventful dream, I return Squall’s stained shirt to my face and take quick stock of my body.  While numb and stiff in all areas, I don’t feel too damaged, which hopefully means I didn’t foresee the last minutes of my life.  If nothing else, I like to imagine that my death would create a greater impact than a dream about snowflakes.

Seifer…?” Squall prods with a hand lifted to my shoulder.

I jump slightly at his touch, but not wanting the observant man to worry, I say the first thing that comes to mind.  “Did you know that I love this kind of snow?  My mom used to say that big flakes like these were the dresses of little fairies dancing in the air.”

Squall hums lightly.  “Is there a reason I should have known that?”

“Well, you seem to know everything else about me.  Just thought I should check.”

The brunet breathes a laugh and smiles, a gorgeous smile that shows a hint of perfect white teeth.  “You still manage to surprise me on occasion.”

Happy and unable to bear it, I try to lean over and kiss that smile, but the angle proves to be too much and my vision snaps from hazy to narrow and dark.  I feel myself slumping against Squall and I hear a bold curse from the reserved man, but my body is heavy and unresponsive as Squall slowly lowers me to the ground.  In the last moment of consciousness, I feel an ice-cold hand stroke my cheek followed by the touch of large snowflakes.  Not all there, I dully wonder if Squall has any connection to the winter fairies that are cold and perfect in every way…

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

From the beauty of fresh snow, I end up staring at a ceiling with a variety of yellow and brown stains that make me disappointed in some nameless fashion.  Slowly, I recognize other problems with my current situation, an important one being a lack of clothing in exchange for a backless gown that doesn’t provide any protection against scratchy sheets that have been bleached to death a few too many times.  At the scent of disinfectant, I’m struck by the fleeting memory of Squall suggesting a trip to the hospital, not that I was going to actually let him take me.

With a growl of annoyance, I sit up with the intention to escape, but the fast movement causes a wave of nausea that forces me to drop back down onto the thin mattress.  I press my arms against my face to block out unwanted light, the move causing my hand to brush against the thick gauze at my forehead that wasn’t there the last I remember.  Right, a knife to the face.  That could explain why I’m waking up in a hospital bed.

“Moron,” a voice chides, not the one I would have expected.

Peeking out from under my bent arm, I stare at the impossible image of Fuujin sitting next to my bed with a smile on her lips and a glint of humor in her single red eye.  Fuu…?”

“No moving,” she insists.  “Blood loss.”

I groan at her demand.  “It wasn’t that much blood, baby girl, just a cut to my face.  I’ll be good to go in another minute or two.”

With a shake of her head, Fuujin points to my bum leg.  “Glass.”

Surprised, I lift the bed sheet to glance at my thigh, and sure enough, a large bandage covers that area.  I don’t remember my leg being injured, but with the various debris lifted by Roth’s power, I suppose it’s possible that a healthy piece of glass could have sliced my thigh and that I thought it was nothing more than my knee acting out.  While annoying, hopefully it makes my blackout a little less embarrassing.

Resigned that Fuujin isn’t going to let me escape, I fold my arms behind my neck and prop my head to better talk to my apparent babysitter.  “So, not that I’m complaining, but what are you doing here?  It seems to me that you have more important things to do than watch over my unconscious ass.”

“Squall asked.”

I frown at the oddity of Squall calling Fuujin, but once I realize why he would have made such a request, I sigh out a complaint.  “Damn it, when I told him that I didn’t want to be alone, I meant that he was supposed to stay with me.  I didn’t think he’d call up a surrogate.”

Fuujin shrugs, unconcerned about my deal with Squall.

“Where is he, anyway?  The guy owes me something,” I say, recalling that I never got my taste of his smile before I blacked out.

With a tilt of her head, Fuujin stares at me as if I had asked a completely different question.  “Things good?”

“What, between me and Squall?”  At her nod, I gaze up at the ceiling while considering my answer.  “I guess everything is friendly enough, but… Is it incredibly selfish of me to want more?  I mean, Squall has given me a place to stay and a second chance to fix up my life, but he keeps teasing me with hints of what it’d be like to have more with him, and God help me, Fuu, I really want it.  More than anything.”

When she doesn’t respond, I glance over at the white-haired woman and find her smiling in a mysterious fashion.  “You think I’m idiot, don’t you?  That I don’t deserve Squall and I shouldn’t interfere with his life.”

“You think that?” she asks, her smile still in place.

“Just one of many depressing thoughts, to be honest.  I know I don’t have a good track record when it comes to the serious things in my life, but Squall has a way of making something incredible out of nothing, and when we’re together, I get this crazy idea that it could work between us.”

“You care,” Fuujin says with faint approval.  “You don’t.  Not usually.”

“That’s harsh, baby girl,” I complain with a cringe, “but I guess I don’t have much room to talk after what I did to you.”

Her red eye narrows slightly, probably from more than a few sour memories.

“Listen, I know I don’t have a leg to stand on, but I did and do care about you, Fuu.  You’re an amazing friend anyone can rely on, and I took advantage of that and made a mess of things.  I was a drunken idiot who was too stupid realize how much I was hurting you, but I swear—“

“Enough,” Fuujin interrupts while placing her hand on my stomach.  “Move forward.  Be better.”

I try to smile, but it’s hard when I don’t feel like I deserve her forgiveness.  I reach out a hand to hold hers, but at the last second, I notice something peeking out from her sleeve that makes me brush my fingers along her wrist instead.  “You kept this?”

Fuujin smiles down at the bracelet made of braided leather.  “Keeps me safe.”

With my forefinger and thumb, I play with the dark leather that I had given to Fuujin when we were in high school.  She was living in a bad house back then, one with a nasty spirit that had a thing against women, especially young and cute ones.  The spirit wasn’t strong enough to do any physical harm, but the thing definitely had a way of making a person feel unsafe and afraid to fall asleep.  Once I figured out the cause of Fuujin’s exhaustion and bad mood, I gave her the protection charm with the story that I had bought it from a crazy old palm reader who swore it would keep Fuujin safe.

Fuujin humored me by wearing the bracelet, and then continued to wear it when she was able to get restful sleep again.  Even so, I would have bet good money on her tossing the thing after the ugly breakup of our friendship, but here it is, and amazingly, the magic has thrived.  Being such a simple spell, it would have faded away years ago if she didn’t somewhat believe in the magic that keeps her safe.  I know it doesn’t mean she trusts me, but it’s enough for her to believe in my intentions.

A light knock sounds, and at my distracted call to enter, Squall opens the door to stand at the threshold without entering.  My heart does a funny jump at the sight of him, his gauze removed to show the stitched flesh crossing over the bridge of his nose.  Nothing else is visibly wrong with him, but I know that his chest is burnt and hurting beneath his sweater, all because of my protection charm and his persistent ambition to keep me alive.

“You’re awake,” he states in a neutral tone.

“So I noticed, Sherlock.  The real issue is why you weren’t here with me, waiting for me to wake up.”

Squall frowns at my childish complaint.  “Someone had to give the police a report, and you were unconscious.”

Annoyed at his perfectly sensible response, I mutter a curse before conceding, “Fine, since you have an answer for everything, where did my pants go?  I want to go home before something else happens to knock me on my ass.”

Squall shows a lightly scolding glare before turning to someone in the hallway, and with a beckoning hand, he takes a step back to allow a head of spiky brown hair to peek into my room.

I grin at the sight of Riku’s little not-yet-boyfriend.  “Well shit, if it isn’t the munchkin.  How are you doing, kid?”

“Better than when you found me,” Sora replies when stepping fully into view, the sight of him making me wish that we had found him faster.  His smile is lopsided as medical tape holds together the split skin caused by a fist to his face.  A white bandage stands out against his forehead, the rest of the white material hidden beneath his shaggy hair.  Some kind of brace covers his right wrist, not that I recall it being injured.  All in all, I have to give the kid credit for not losing his smile.

“Um, I’m glad that you didn’t leave yet,” Sora starts with a shift of his footing and an unsubtle glance at Fuujin.  “I wanted to let you know that I won’t say anything to anyone about what happened.  I mean, besides telling the police about how you and Squall saved me and Vince.  I owe you guys, so you can trust me to keep your secret.”

Startled by the teen’s topic of choice, I can only stare while coming to terms with the idea that Sora had a front row seat for my battle against Roth.  More worrisome is that he’s unafraid to admit it.  Most people live in denial when they witness the impossible, usually making up a story that explains everything in rational terms, but not this kid.  Upfront, honest, and fearless… I have to assume Riku is going to have his hands full once he admits his feelings for his small friend.

Squall gives me a look, reminding me that I haven’t said anything yet.  Rubbing the back of my neck, I tell the munchkin, “I appreciate the thought, but honestly, whether you tell people or not, I won’t regret my choice to help you out.  You’re a good kid, and if I hadn’t done something, your boyfriend would’ve had my head.”

Still shifting on his feet, Sora inches forward.  “Then, if you don’t mind, can I visit sometime and talk about what happened?  Maybe… with Riku?”

While I don’t care for talking about my curse, it’d probably be better to give Sora the full details instead of letting him make up his own answers.  I also can’t prevent a smirk when I’m struck by the vision of the silver-haired teen scowling at my every word when it comes to ghosts and dreams of the future.  “Let’s plan on it.”

Sora smiles broadly at the reply, stretching the medical tape to its limit.  “Thanks!”

“All right, stop corrupting my witness,” a voice announces before Selphie appears in the doorway.  Stepping behind Sora, she places her hands at his shoulders and leans close to his ear.  “Be careful around this guy, cutie.  He lies and can’t be trusted.”

“Now, wait a minute,” I argue with a finger pointed at Squall, “I’d like to see you control him when he gets an idea stuck in his head.  It was either sit back and let him get killed, or tag along for the ride.”

Selphie grins, clearly knowing how difficult the brunet can be, but she doesn’t give me any leeway.  “Next time put a collar on him.”

“And get strangled by the leash?  Not happening in your lifetime, girlie.”

The woman laughs in delight, and squeezing Sora’s shoulders, she announces, “Okay, cutie, I have a patrol car ready to take you home.  Do you have all of your stuff?”

“Yeah, but…”  With a pained gleam to bright blue eyes, Sora looks back at the detective.  “What’s going to happen to Cloud?  I know he hurt people, but I don’t think he meant to do what he did.  He seemed really confused and… At one point, he asked me to help him.”

Her smile tempered, Selphie says encouragingly, “We’re doing what we can for him.  Actually, just a few minutes ago, Squall called up an amazing lawyer and convinced her to take his case.  If things go well, Michael will get the help he needs,” Selphie assures, and then adds, “Between you and me, though, I think he’s also going to need a friend or two to pull him through this.”

His brow furrows in momentary conflict before Sora nods.  “I want to see him again.”

“Good for you,” Selphie says with a kiss to Sora’s forehead.  “Now, where’s home?”

Before the munchkin can reluctantly answer, I speak up for the dense teen, “1108 Oceanic Ave and don’t spare the horses getting him there.”

At first surprised, Sora soon smiles in a very dumb and obvious fashion.  “Yeah, that’s it, and I can show the way once we get close.  Thanks for everything!” he says, suddenly in a rush to be out of this place.  Sora waves before he slips past Selphie and darts into the hallway, a uniformed police officer hurrying past the doorway to chase after the young teen.

Waving back, Selphie quietly surmises, “That wasn’t his address, was it?”

It’s close enough,” Squall defends.  He then reaches into his pocket for his cell phone.  “I have a call to make.”

I grin with the knowledge that Squall wants to warn Riku about his returning friend and about the little lie concerning Sora’s living situation.  Squall steps out into the hallway, the brunet never moving farther than the single step inside, but I don’t have much of a chance to dwell on why he didn’t come to my side.

Fuujin? Selphie squeals in delight.  “I didn’t see you there with Squall in the way.  What are you doing here?” she asks while rushing inside and wrapping her arms around the quiet woman.

Surprisingly smiling at the hug, Fuujin replies, “Watching Seifer.”

“What, this guy?  Did Squall talk you into it or something?” Selphie asks with honest confusion.  “That’s foul play, even for Squall.”

“Old friend,” Fuujin corrects.

“Oh, that’s right, all of you went to the same school or something,” Selphie reasons, and then promptly dismisses the issue to move next to Fuujin.  “Wow, you’ve gotten so big since I saw you last.  Please, please, can I listen to the little kung-fu master?”

With an indulging look, Fuujin nods her permission.

Kneeling, Selphie presses her ear against Fuujin’s pregnant belly and smiles broadly with excitement.  “Man, I want at least ten of these things.  I’m so jealous that you and Zell are getting a head start on me.”

My head swimming from the sight of Fuujin allowing someone to be that touchy around her, I’m forced to point out, “You two seem to know each other pretty well.”

“Well, of course,” Selphie says.  Fuujin and Zell let me stay with them for over a year after Squall saved me.  We’re like soul sisters.”

When I show little more than a blank stare at the information, Fuujin places a hand on top of Selphie’s head and announces, “Number five.”

It takes a moment to catch onto her meaning.  “Wait, she’s one of Squall’s ‘investments’?”

“You didn’t know about how Squall helped me?” Selphie asks in surprise.  “I swore he would’ve told you all about that during your after-sex talks.  I’ve heard he’s pretty chatty after a couple rounds.”

Caught off guard, I choke and cough at her openness.  “For the record, and before Squall kills me, we haven’t explored that part of the relationship yet.  He also has a thing about respecting other people’s privacy,” I add as a subtle reminder to the detective.

Pouting, Selphie moves into a straighter pose.  “But you guys were all over each other when we showed up.  Surely there’s something happening between you two.”

And apparently subtlety doesn’t work with this girl.  While I struggle with how to handle this woman, Fuujin leans over and whispers something into Selphie’s ear.  Green eyes widening, Selphie stares at me and her lips form a silent “oh” at whatever Fuujin tells her.  To increase my stress level, Selphie giggles quietly as Fuujin pulls away, and they share a conspiring look that women do so well.

“Care to share your insight, Fuu?” I ask in a low voice, not that Fuujin was ever threatened by me.

Selphie waves off my question.  “Nothing to worry about, Handsome.  But hey, Squall really didn’t say anything about me?  I told him that he needs to be less creepy when he’s offering his help to someone and that he could use my situation as an example.  People don’t go to extremes like he does, at least not without some kind of end game.”

“Tell me about it,” I mutter, holding those exact thoughts when Squall first offered his spare room.  “So, what did Squall do for you?  Buy you a house or a pony or something?”

Selphie frowns at my sarcasm.  “No, he saved my life.”

Taken aback, I rub my forehead while trying to avoid the taped gauze.  “Shit, I didn’t—“

“You’re obviously tired,” Selphie says, “so I’ll forgive you this time, but remember that I owe Squall everything and I’ll always take his side, even if you’re in the right.”

“I deserve that,” I say in acceptance of her devotion to the brunet, something I’ve already witnessed from Fuujin.  “But now that you’ve said it, would I be a complete ass if I tried again and asked about what Squall did to help you?  The guy doesn’t like talking about his own heroics, you know.”

Selphie eyes me cautiously, trying to determine my sincerity before she relents, “I suppose I can give you the short version, but I want the courtesy returned.  If you ever, and I mean ever have something to tell me, I don’t want you to hesitate.”

“I might be able to do that, but you know that Squall comes first,” I counteroffer, all too eager to use Squall as an excuse whenever he decides that my foreseeing dreams are something he can handle without the interference of the police.

Pink lips twitch as Selphie resists a smile at my move to turn the tables on her by invoking Squall’s name, but she quickly loses her humor when her thoughts move to the past.  “One of these days, if you’re still around, I’ll tell you the whole story.  For now, all you need to know is that I had a stepfather who was an amazing cop, but abusive.  My mother took the brunt of it, but as you can imagine, I have quite the mouth on me.”

Fuujin places a hand at Selphie’s shoulder and squeezes lightly.  “Not deserved.”

“I knew that, Fuujin, but there was no one we could go to,” Selphie says with a sad smile at the red-eyed woman.  “I escaped my stepfather by going to college and then onto the police academy.  After years of nagging, I convinced my mother to find help at a women’s shelter with a wonderful reputation, but stupidly, I didn’t think about needing protection myself.  One late night, my stepfather waited for me at the entrance to my apartment building and pushed me into a nearby alleyway.  He had a baseball bat and I had a gun, but I couldn’t…  It was like I was a little girl again.”

I frown at her description, knowing exactly how it feels to be powerless in front of a father-figure, and I didn’t go through the years of physical abuse that Selphie had.  While I wish I could relay that to the detective, I hold my tongue as she continues her story with a haunted look to her usually vibrant eyes.

“He demanded to know where my mother was, and when I didn’t answer, he broke my arm and some ribs.  I eventually realized that it wouldn’t matter if I told him about my mother or not—he was going to kill me for betraying him.  I stopped fighting and waited for my fate when, without a sound, someone grabbed the bastard and shoved him face first into a brick wall.  I watched in amazement as that stranger took the bat from my stepfather’s hand and rammed the end into his back, hitting the sweet spot to make my stepfather piss his own pants.

“And that’s how I met Squall Loire,” Selphie states with the reverence of someone who knows her life is owed to one person’s interference.  “He was chasing down a bounty in the area, but set that aside to help me, and he didn’t stop there.  Squall held my hand while we waited for the police to arrive and sat next to my bed at the hospital.  I told him everything and admitted that I was terrified of going home.  It didn’t matter that my stepfather was in police custody—if he got out on bail or somehow used his contacts, he would’ve been able to find me there.  That’s when Squall sent me to Fuujin and Zell”

Selphie wraps her hand around Fuujin’s and looks up at the quiet woman.  “I didn’t mean to live with them as long as I did, but during that time, they taught me advanced self-defense techniques and helped me to build up my confidence.  And when I started to doubt myself, Squall convinced me to become a detective in spite of my stepfather.  I really don’t know where I’d be without their help.”

“I understand the sentiment,” I say, uncertain of my own limited future if Squall hadn’t found me when he did.  “But hey, you became the person you always wanted to be, and I imagine there are a lot of kids who are pretty darn thankful of that.”

Green eyes soft, Selphie rests a hand over mine.  “You’ll get there, too, Handsome.  I have faith in you.”

The faces of Zack, Xu, and Nida flash through my head, defeating her attempt to reassure me.  “I have a little bit further to go than you did, gunslinger.”

“Not as far as you think,” another voice joins in, encouraging the three of us to glance up at Squall’s unnoticed reappearance.  Like before, he stands at the doorway without moving closer, but he has somehow gained a shopping bag during his absence.  It’s a confusing sight when he was only supposed to make a phone call, but before I can ask anything, Fuujin stands up from her chair.

“Should go,” Fuujin announces, and with a hand to my shoulder, she leans down to tell me, “Make Squall happy.  Find happiness.”

At her unexpected permission, I smile up at the beautiful woman.  “I’ll do what I can, Fuu.”

“I’m gone, too,” Selphie says while pushing up from the floor.  “Reports have a tendency to breed if you don’t handle them right away.  I’ll be checking up on you two, though, so don’t think for a second that you’re in the free and clear about that mess today.  Next time, just wait for me, okay?”

“Don’t tell me,” I argue with hands raised in surrender.  “Tell it to the guy who made me chase after him.”

“But he’s not the one who’s afraid of me,” Selphie points out, her smile edging on seductive in its smugness.  “See you boys later, and remember, no rough sex until after all of your wounds have healed.”

While I grin at her advice, Squall shows an expression that most would call unreadable, except there’s a small detail of his thumbnail digging into the handle of his mystery shopping bag.  Selphie taps his nose with her finger, and after an exaggerated wink, she hurries after Fuujin down the hallway, calling out her name and demanding for something that sounds a lot like a date.  Sighing, Squall closes the door behind him and leans against the solid support.

“You okay there, Sherlock?”

Squall scoffs at the question.  “You’re the one in a hospital bed.”

I shrug at the technicality.  “It wasn’t my first choice, but that’s what I get for passing out.  At least you were smart enough to have Fuujin watch over me.  It turns out that she’s still wearing a charm I gave her years ago, which means I didn’t have any unwanted visitors…”  Saying it out loud, I suddenly realize, “And you somehow knew having Fuujin here would protect me.”

“I assumed,” Squall corrects.  “She mentioned that you gave her a bracelet to keep her safe.”

“Right, well, do me a favor and don’t tell Fuujin any details, especially when it comes to the ghosts and demons out there.  She has a kid on the way, and the last thing she needs is something else to worry about.”

“Is there a reason why she doesn’t already know?” Squall asks, always going straight for the hard questions.

“If you haven’t noticed, I don’t usually tell people about what I see.  You’re the only real exception, and it doesn’t help that I’ve been forced to tell everyone in your extended family about my visions to keep from being locked up in an insane asylum or killed in a remote location.”

Full lips curl into a slight, knowing smile.  “Speaking of which, Ward brought you some fresh clothes,” he says while lifting the shopping bag.

“No shit?  Does that mean I can get out of here?”

“After the doctor checks you over,” Squall warns.  “Although, he did say that you can get dressed, as long as you feel well enough.”

“Well, come over here and give me those clothes.  It’s too cold in here for me to dance around half-naked, no matter how much you may enjoy the sight.”

Squall stares for a second too long before he takes a step forward, his stride stiff and reluctant with every footfall.  It’s not exactly the “get better soon” attention I was expecting from the dark-haired beauty, and when he tries to put the shopping bag at the very end of the bed, I’ve had more than enough.  Ignoring my leg’s complaint, I lunge forward and grab Squall’s wrist before he can retreat.

“Whatever game you’re at, I don’t want to play it,” I say, my voice rough with building anger.

Stormy eyes focused on my hand, Squall comments distractedly, “You’re warm…”

“And you’re being cold,” I lash back.  “I thought we were finally on the edge of something good, and now you’re acting like—“

Seifer,” Squall interrupts softly, and with my tongue momentarily tamed, he places his free hand at my cheek.  As if wiping something off, he rubs his thumb over my flushed skin while careful enough to not disturb the fresh gauze.  “You were frozen when I touched you last,” Squall says in a hushed voice.  “I thought, maybe… that Roth did something to you.”

“He tried to, but you stopped him, remember?” I say with a hand lightly held to his chest.  “Speaking of which, did you have a doctor check you out?  Those burns looked painful.”

He carefully shifts away from my touch, even as he claims, “They don’t hurt.”

“You’re a terrible liar, Sherlock.”

“Am I?” he asks softly.

Assuming he means the years he hid his feelings from me, I smirk and lean in close.  “You’ve let me in, Squally-boy, and I’ve learned your tricks.  Don’t think that I’m going to be easily fooled again.”

Our resulting kiss is feather light and disappointingly brief, Squall allowing nothing more despite the quiver of his hand against my cheek and his body arching toward me in a wholly seductive manner.  Carefully pulling away, Squall bows his head such that his dark hair covers his eyes, efficiently hiding the burn of blue-gray I glimpsed before his retreat.  Such a beautiful cock tease, but lucky for him, I don’t think the hospital scene is the appropriate ambiance for experimenting with a new lover, especially if visiting hours get in the way.

“I’ll get the doctor while you dress,” Squall says.

“And then you’ll take me home?” I question with an ambitious grin.

Full lips lift into an indulging curl when Squall replies, “Then we’ll go home.”

I watch the brunet leave the room, itching to chase after him despite my half-clothed state and partial erection.  Motivated to put on clothes before I embarrass myself, I reach into the shopping bag and pull out a shirt, the sight of which instantly making me groan.  I don’t know what I was thinking, maybe that Ward had a spare key to Squall’s place or some other access to my clothes, but while the old man couldn’t get at my closet, he didn’t have to give me the exact shirt and pants I had borrowed weeks ago without his direct permission.  Obviously it’s going to be a long time coming before Ward decides to trust me again.

In the meantime, I need to figure out how in the world I’m going to be able to seduce Squall while dressed in his godfather’s clothing, let alone a bowling-style shirt that almost reaches my knees.  At least the pants will be easy enough to remove…

“Well played, old man,” I mutter while removing my hospital gown and chucking it across the room.  “Well fucking played.”

 

{Continued}

 

Author's Whining – Almost there….