She wears a dress of midnight and when he looks a little more, underneath the mask he sees twin gold stars. Smoke curls around her, sinuous, and it fills his nostrils something powerful. Her fingers taper off into talons and the ones on her left hand idly stroke her thigh, circling and circling until he imagines it leaving lines on the fabric, pressing into her skin. He squeezes his gunblade tighter, cocking it with a tight click.
There is the merest curled corner of a lip, beneath that mask. He’s seen that look before- on bigger boys before they grind hapless creatures and other boys into the pavement, girls with low tops and tiger eyes. He feels the look shaping his features when he’s on the edge, chasing a win—
(s’that the best you’ve got, squall?)
—it is a hungry look. He always knows danger when he sees it.
"Stay away from me!" Has his voice always sounded so weak? Teeth grit and fingerclenched, he tries to burn her down with his eyes. The sweating president chokes under his iron hold. And she laughs- it surprises everyone with its warmth, swirling around like mead. He is reminded, inexplicably, of sand and salt, giddy and familiar. She shakes her head and her headdress sways, the beaked mask leering red in the studio’s fluorescent glow and he—
"Such a confused little boy. Are you going to step forward? Retreat? You have to decide.”
(have to have to decide
you have to-
do you want to go to garden?
no, I can’t I can’t make you. you have to
decide. decide. it’s to make boys big and strong and strong.
a swirling laugh. not saying you are a little boy little boy…)
—he tries not to clutch his pounding head. Is he eight or eighteen? Man or boy? He growls as she moves one weightless step forward. His arm is up before he knows it, Hyperion tip reflecting off the mask in warning.
He hears running but it is as if he’s in a tunnel and they’re a million miles away- one of them starts to call his name- he nearly swipes as she flicks a clawed hand and the footsteps halt. She steps forward, and he smells hot salt. His grip tightens. Deling sounds like a wounded animal in his arms. The woman slides closer as he yanks the noose of his arm, making Deling groan. Her lips part, glossy glistening wine red.
"The boy in you is telling you to come. The adult in you is telling you to back off.” He can’t stop watching her and her evertracing fingers. Her hair falls to the curve of her lower back, whispers against it, sways as she takes another step forward. With the scent of musky incense, the undertones of salt and sand and a dim remembrance, he won’t admit how close he is to groaning himself.
“You can't make up your mind. You don't know the right answer. You want help, don't you?” She tilts her head- that fall of hair wavers with it. The curve of her mouth is different now, he notices. Pursed and sympathetic; is she…is she sorry for him? She makes a clicking sound with her tongue, as a mother would to chastise a small child. “You want to be saved from this predicament,” she pronounces like a benediction. Saved? He glares, and he—
(you have to
do you want to be big and strong? seifer, you
you have to decide.)
— he feels clammy under his coat and the whimpering dictator. "Shut up!"
The curl of her mouth is benign, a queen granting a favour. "Don't be ashamed to ask for help. Besides, you're only a little boy."
(don’t be ashamed ashamed to ask for help, seifer. sometimes we all need help.
will you help help us seifer? for the forest owls?
ashamed to ask for
The president snickers, a weak hichichic sound that reminds Seifer of blunt secateurs. He jabs Deling’s neck, trying to dismiss the familiar echo in the woman’s words. "I'm not...stop calling me a boy."
Amused. "You don't want to be a boy anymore?"
"I am not a boy!" He thinks of the last time he saw his reflection- the coat emphasizing his tall, lean figure, the way the crosses on his coat draws out the width of his arms. He remembers his voice breaking, vaguely. Waking up hot in the middle of the night. Learning the name of a dark-haired girl in Timber. The taste of salt on his lips. He—
(gonna tell ya about my romantic dream!)
—he breathes, sharp. A dim memory bobs to the surface: a kiss to the brow full of promised comfort, patchy blanket pulled up tight to the chin. The taste of salt running through his lips and nose, cool on his tongue.
"Come with me to a place of no return. Bid farewell to your childhood."
She extends her hand, palm up. Beckoning.
(come on, seifer. time for
you have to have to
do you want to be big and strong?
you can play later dear, it’s time for dinner.)
He lets the fool president run, stumbling over the black wires snaking across the room. His mouth twists- it is a hungry look- there’s Puberty Boy, Chickenwuss and Messenger Girl. The woman waves her other hand and they are frozen in time. She tilts her head upward and the beak rises revealing a slow slow smile. Full of promised comfort and a shine of glory.
It is as if she knows he won’t take her hand- something in his eyes, his stance, he thinks- and she curls it back to her as she turns. And to the frozen onlookers, it appears that he walks taller, more man than boy as they dissolve through the wall, salt into water.