Okay folks - apology number 1. This is HUGE. And this is only the first chapter. My god, I'm writing something the size of War and Peace. >_< Apology number 2: the saccharine content is high. But so's the angst. Hopefully it balances itself out. Apology number 3: It's a work in progress. And apology number 4: There's no real yaoi in it yet. Though if you look close you can probably figure out what pairing it'll end up in by the end of it. Easy hint - Squall's half of that pair. ^_^

Okay, enough of the apologizing. I hope you like it, or at least don't hate it, or whatever - either way, like it or hate it, lemme know? ^_^ I'd love to hear what people think.

Many thanks to Pandora for the beta of the first part of this, and to Larathia for the suggestion of the title (which I'm still going "Oh! DUH!" over), and for everybody who reads my LJ and not only validated the baby bunny when it first turned up but has encouraged it by clamoring for more.

And as always, I'm not Squaresoft, these boys and girls aren't mine, and I'm just playing around.

Fragments of Memories

Part 1 - Forgetting

By BlackRose

His dreams were of ice and fire.

Ice like diamonds; hard and smooth and bitterly cold, the taste of it on his tongue and the feel of it, liquid, through his veins. Cool blues and blinding brightness, smooth, so very smooth, wrapping him like silk...


"...get the..."

"...can't stop the bleeding..."

"...oh gods..."


"...can't if he's junctioned! Get the damn GFs out!"

And then the ice had faded, melted before the hungry flickers of fire and swirled away. The heat had leapt up in angry streams of bright flame to burn and crackle and someone, somewhere, had screamed...

Hallways and eyes.

Too many of both, everywhere. The bright halls stretched on forever and he'd lost count of the turns, lost any sense of where he'd started from. Somewhere huge and airy, with the sound of splashing water and too much space everywhere, vast and strange and nowhere he knew. He'd run and when he had stopped running there had been only hallways with doors and all the doors the same and he had been well and truly lost in a place he had never seen.

And everywhere were the people, and the eyes. All on him, all watching him from a distance, his skin prickling with their touch. Murmurs, whispers and watching eyes. The fear was a tight ball of sickness in his stomach, wrapped strangling around his chest to steal his breath. He stumbled on, the carpeting worn smooth beneath his feet, hallway and more hallway, and always the eyes following him.


He nearly bolted at the quiet voice, the fear strangling tight in his throat. A man was approaching him, hand held out. "Sir? Are you alright? Do you need some help?"

But the words didn't make any sense and he couldn't force any noise out past the cold lump of fear in his throat. Only when the man almost grasped his arm did frozen fear turn to panicked flight and he wrenched away, running blindly, his breath hitching on gasped sobs.

The halls curved, blurs of glass and metal and carpeting and eyes, everywhere the same strange eyes. And finally, at last, the halls put him back where he had started with the huge empty space and the splashing waters of the fountain and there were only more people there to watch and whisper and point as he passed. There was a scream trying to sneak its way out of his throat, stuttering forth in tiny frightened whimpers as he pressed his fist to his mouth.

A brief glimpse of something achingly familiar in the world of strangeness was like the best of blessings, the moment of heart stopping relief when the nightmare becomes just a dream fading in the morning light. Sobbing, he flung himself after the glimpse and the one thing which would make all of it right.

"I wondered if I'd find you out here."

Edea glanced up, automatically pushing back long strands of dark hair as she turned. "It's beautiful," she said simply. "All of it, the fountain..." She smiled, the spark in her dark eyes teasing. "I never knew you were such an architect."

Cid shook his head. "Hardly. It's all Shumi work. They gave me dozens of beautiful proposals - all I did was pick one and say yes, and they did all the rest."

Edea moved aside to make room for him on the bench. "You still have good taste."

"Of course I do," Cid replied briskly. "Look who my wife is."

Edea's eyes dropped, something bitter twisting the line of her lips. "Oh yes. Well, there is that. Your wife, the reason all of this is here in the first place."

"That's enough of that," Cid said firmly. "There's only so much guilt I'm going to let you wallow in. You're allowed one bout of that per day, darling, and that's all." The words were teasing but there was something serious in his tone and Edea, after a moment, tried to venture a hesitant smile. He leaned in to kiss her briefly, a gesture that earned a few startled glances from passing cadets.

"Cid," Edea reproved gently. "You're going to scandalize the children."

"They're just going to have to get used to it," Cid told her reasonably, reaching out to brush back her hair.

Edea opened her mouth to reply but the actual words were lost in a flash of commotion around them and then, without warning and before she could do more then stiffen, a body all but fell down at her knees and hands were clutched urgently in the fabric of her skirt. "Matron!"

Blinking, Edea glanced at her equally confused husband, then down to overbright eyes that were looking up at her with desperate intensity. "Squall?"

If anyone had asked her the day before, or even a minute earlier, Edea would have told them not to be silly. Squall Leonhart had been a solemn, self possessed child who had grown into a reserved and serious young man not given to outbursts of any kind, especially not emotional ones. Even when he had been small enough to carry about on her hip she could only recall perhaps a handful of times when she had ever seen him cry. Which did much to account for her astonishment when the grown young man at her feet, with a hiccuped gasp, put his bandaged head down into her lap and began to sob.

"Squall! What... whoa..."

"Irvine," Edea exclaimed thankfully. The young man skidding to a halt before them, a little flushed and out of breath from running, was a ridiculously normal sight after the one in her lap. "What's going on?"

"Don't know," Irvine gasped. "I spotted him up by the dorms - I was hoping I'd imagined it, because there's no way the Doc let him out of the infirmary this soon..."

"No, I don't think she did," Cid remarked a bit dryly, but there was worry deepening the lines around his eyes. "Irvine, can you take his other side? The infirmary's just down the hall, between the two of us we can carry him."

"No problem." But it was, because the moment Irvine stepped closer, reaching down to grasp one of Squall's arms, the other young man burst into a flurry of hysterical struggling.

"No - no! Matron!"

"Hush, Squall! Hush! I'm right here!" Edea hastily gestured Irvine back, leaning down to wrap gentle arms around the other young man's shaking shoulders. "Shhh... hush now, it's alright..." It was the same voice she had once used to soothe childish nightmares and the frantic cries of countless scrapes and cuts in her young charges and it worked with much the same effect now, quieting Squall's struggles and easing hard sobs into quieter hiccuping gasps that he muffled against her knee.

"There," Edea whispered gently. "There, that's better, shhhh, it's alright..." A meaningless flood of words where only the tone mattered and she kept it up automatically even as she looked up into the now truly worried faces of the other two men. She spared a moment to bless the discipline that kept curious onlooking cadets from lingering to stare as she gently tried to get Squall to lift his head. "Squall... shhhh... shhh, it's alright... Squall, can you get up? Do you think you could do that?"

His face, when he hesitantly raised it, was blotched with the tears that shown wet across his cheeks. There was something frightened in his eyes, all of his customary reserve stripped away, and his hand gripped hers painfully tight. "Matron?"

The whisper was broken and small and as far from his usual cool tone as it was possible to get but she tried to take heart from it. "Yes! Yes, Squall, I'm right here."

He swallowed. There was a quiver in his lip and she could feel the shudder of tremors as he clung to her. His eyes, when he looked up, could have been the same eyes of the child she had once taken care of and she thought, when he spoke, that she could hear the faintest echo of the baby lisp that a four year old Squall had hated passionately. "Matron... where are we?"

The infirmary, normally a quietly ordered place, was in a state of chaos when they arrived. Zell was the first to see them and his yelp carried over the cacophony of voices. "Thank fucking gods! You found him!"

Doctor Kadowaki was a heavy-set middle aged woman with a no-nonsense attitude honed over years of patching up training accidents and dispensing cures for every teen-age or childhood ailment known to man. She pushed her way past a few of her medical aides, her glare thunderous. "There he is. Damn it, I didn't even think he could get up. I stepped out for one minute and he was out of here like a shot. I was about to call an alarm."

Squall, who had been pressed tight to Edea's side all the way there, refusing to let go his grip on her, shrank back before Kadowaki's ire and Zell's relieved crowding outburst and the stares of the aides. Edea, for the first time in over ten years, found herself picking up a role which she had thought long abandoned. "Zell! Back up this instant, give him room. Irvine, go stand over there with him, get out of the way. Hush now, Squall, it's only Doctor Kadowaki, do you remember her?"

"Remember?" Kadowaki queried sharply. She stepped forward but didn't make any other sudden moves, her eyes on Squall.

"He doesn't know where he is," Edea said softly, trying to tug a resisting Squall forward.

Kadowaki's expression softened slightly. "Oh. Well, I'm not too surprised. Head injuries of that magnitude... a little scrambling of the memory, especially at first, is to be expected."

Off to the side, Zell made a strangled sort of noise. "Doc... no disrespect or anything, but it's not like we've got that much memory left to be scrambling!"

The doctor's steel eyed gaze made the younger man back down. "I'm aware of that, Mr. Dincht," she said firmly. "Now... Maybe it would be better if you and Mr. Kinneas waited outside while I get my patient settled back in bed." It was an order rather then a suggestion and Irvine, with a nervous tip of his hat, edged for the door with a protesting Zell dragged along behind him. Kadowaki's gaze swept the rest of the room. "That goes for all the rest of you as well. Consider yourselves on call and get out of here. Yuni, tell the afternoon med class that they have the day off, but I'll expect a full report on the pathological blood disease chapter next class period. Headmaster, Mrs. Kramer, you can stay."

Her clipped words cleared the infirmary like a gale force wind until, in moments, there were only the four of them left in the room. "There," Kadowaki said when the door closed. "That's better. A body can actually hear themselves think." She turned back to Squall, who was tucked behind one of Edea's shoulders despite her best efforts to draw him forward, and her tone was quiet and gentle. "Hello, Squall. Do you remember me?"

After a long moment Squall slowly shook his head, just once. The tears had trickled to a halt before they had reached the infirmary but his eyes were huge in a too pale face beneath the winding reams of bandages wrapped around his head and his grip on Edea's hand still trembled. Kadowaki nodded. "That's alright, it's nothing to be worried about. I'm a doctor, and I just need to take a quick look at you. Does your head hurt?"

Squall's gaze turned imploringly to Edea, who nodded encouragement. The younger man swallowed, hesitantly edging out from behind her though he kept his grasp on her hand. "Y...yes. Just a little."

The professional mask of Kadowaki's expression never wavered. "Okay. Well, why don't you come over here and sit down... yes, Mrs. Kramer can come with you... and let me take a look at your head, alright?"

It took a bit of maneuvering and some more reassurance before they got Squall onto one of the medical beds, Edea at his side as Kadowaki deftly cut through the bandages on his head and Cid hovered nervously in the doorway. Squall suffered the attention with only minor flinches, his lower lip caught between his teeth as Kadowaki slid the bandages off to reveal rumpled, raggedly shorter cut hair beneath.

"There now, that's not so bad," the doctor said cheerfully, her blunt tipped fingers moving across his scalp. "Just tell me if this hurts."

"Bruised," Squall whispered.

"Yes, I imagine you've got quite the headache," Kadowaki said. "Any sharp pains? Nausea? Dizziness?" But Squall shrank from the barrage of questions and she let it slide for a moment, frowning lightly as her fingertips traced over the lines of fresh scars beneath his hair.

Squall glanced at Edea, nervously wetting his lips. "Matron?"

She squeezed the hand held between both of hers. "Yes, Squall?"

He hesitated, not meeting her eyes. "Was... was I in an accident?"

Well, that was certainly one way of putting it, and maybe he was remembering. Edea nodded encouragingly. "Yes, you were. A very bad one."

"Oh." Squall paused, thinking about that, a frown drawing his brows down. "Am I in trouble?"

Edea blinked. Kadowaki, who had stopped her examination to listen, raised a single eyebrow. "Ah... no," Edea said hastily, fumbling. "No, Squall, of course not."

"Oh." Just that and no more, the same syllable that had greeted confirmation of the accident. There was something horribly earnest in Squall's expression as he considered. "Is Seifer in trouble?"

Kadowaki was drawing breath but Edea raised a hand, hushing her. "Squall," she said gently, "can you tell me what the last thing you remember is?"

The frown deepened, crinkling the scar between his eyes. "I... I don't..." Squall broke off, biting at his lip again as he tried to remember, his expression crumpling.

"That's alright," Edea said hastily. "Don't try to force it. You know me, right?" A nod. "And Cid, you know Cid?" Another nod. "Good, that's good, that's a start. Squall..." she hesitated, thinking hard, the worry feeling tight and cold in her stomach. "Squall... can you tell me how old you are?"

She heard Kadowaki's indrawn gasp. Squall glanced away from her and Edea watched, heart hardly daring to beat, as the young man studied his free hand for a moment, frowning as he slowly counted something out on his fingertips.

When he spoke, there was nothing but quiet pride at an accomplishment in his voice. "Four."

Edea had to close her eyes. She heard Kadowaki swear, softly, and Cid's muffled curse from the door and her reaction, she found, even after so many years, was automatic. "Stop that instantly, both of you." She took a deep breath and opened her eyes, meeting Squall's pale gaze before turning towards her husband. "Darling," she said firmly, "you may want to go call President Loire. I think he needs to know about this."

"Come on, come on, come on..." the chant was quick, impatience in every syllable, in time to the thump of Laguna's fist against the wall of the plane as he stared out the window. "How long does it take to fucking land this thing?"

"Relax," Kiros counseled for probably the hundredth time. "They said his condition isn't critical. He's not going to die."

"Don't say that word!" Kiros didn't flinch and after a heartbeat Laguna closed his eyes, pressing his forehead to the thick surface of the window. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I... fuckfuckFUCK, this isn't supposed to happen! This isn't supposed to fucking happen!" His fist tightened, trembling, and he slammed it again into the wall with a dull thud.

"He'll be alright," Kiros said quietly, putting as much firmness into the words as he could. "Laguna - he's young, he's strong. He'll be fine."

"I can't lose him," Laguna whispered brokenly. "I just found him, I can't... oh gods..."

"He'll be alright," Kiros repeated patiently and then the pressure began to change as the descent started and in the distance out the window, far below, he could see the late afternoon sun shine bright and golden against the smooth curves of Balamb Garden.

It was Selphie, so upset she was hopping from foot to foot, who met them at the gates. "They won't let us in to see him!" she exclaimed before either man could speak. "Matron and the Headmaster are in there but they won't let us in and we're his friends, we were there, but they're making us wait outside and they said you could go in and it's not fair!" The last word was nearly a wail and both men winced, Laguna taking a step back and holding up placating hands.

"Selphie... Selphie, I'll tell you everything that happens, I promise, I'll see if they'll let you in... I've just got to see him right now, can you tell me what happened, what's wrong?"

Selphie sniffled. Her face was angrily blotched and she was hiccuping slightly. "You'd better," she warned. "You'd better tell us everything. They'd better let us see him! They said he doesn't remember but we're his friends, he'd remember us, I know he would!" Selphie stamped her foot, turning on her heel and marching back into the Garden without waiting to see if they followed her or not.

"Remember? Kramer said he was hurt! Selphie, what's going on?!" Laguna's voice was plaintive as he hurried after the girl, Kiros trailing behind.

There was a cluster of Squall's friends outside the infirmary when they got there. Quistis, in uniform, was seated on a bench, Irvine beside her with an arm looped across her shoulders, their heads bent together in silent support. Zell was in motion, three long steps from one wall of the bridging walk to the other, back and forth like a sentry guard in quick and angry gestures. The blonde glanced up as Selphie and the two men approached, pausing his pacing for a moment.

"Did they..." Selphie began breathlessly, but Zell shook his head sharply.

"No change." He glared at Laguna, jerking his chin at the older man. "He can go in."

Selphie slumped and Laguna, hands twisting nervously against each other, looked from one of the SeeDs to the other. "Do you know what happened?"

"Survival training," Zell replied, the words bitten off sharply. "He had a couple of cadets with him. They ran into a fucking clutch of dragons - one of the things split his head wide open while he was covering the cadets, busted right through the skull."

Laguna was turning a pale shade of green under his tan. "But... but he's okay, right? Kramer said it wasn't critical, he said..."

"How the fuck would I know?" Zell exploded angrily. "They're not letting us in there!"

"Zell!" Quistis pushed herself to her feet and Zell, though his expression was rebellious, backed down. "We don't know how he is," she told Laguna quietly. "But he was up this morning. I don't think - physically - there's been any complications."

"But he doesn't remember," Laguna said quietly, half question, half statement.

Irvine cleared his throat. "Didn't have any idea where he was," he said. "I don't think he recognized me or Zell. He knew Matron."

Laguna swallowed. "Okay. I... I'll find out what's going on. I'll tell you. I..." He broke off, shaking his head, then pushed past Zell to the doors of the infirmary.

Inside, Edea and a woman Laguna vaguely recognized as the Garden's head doctor, were seated around a desk. Their quiet voices broke off as he entered and the doctor waved him over. "It's about time," the woman said a bit sharply. She looked tired.

Laguna had to keep himself from clutching at the desk. "Squall... is he..."

"Asleep," Edea said softly, pointing back at one of the doors that lead off of the main room. "Cid is with him."

"And you, Mr. Loire," the doctor added, "need to sit down so we can tell you what's going on."

In sleep, he really didn't look any different. A little pale in the afternoon light seeping through the thin drapes, a little too vulnerable in the white medical shirt with his bare knees drawn up and his arms tucked in, cheek pillowed on his hands as he slept. But not different. Not radically changed. He was still a young man and sleep only stripped away some of the tension Laguna had always seen in him when awake.

Laguna hesitated in the door before taking a step inside, letting it slide shut behind him.

"You have a right to know," Edea had said bluntly. "You're his father."

"He's not going to remember you," the doctor, Kadowaki, had warned. "Right now, the only thing he's remembering is four years in an orphanage."

"But it's not permanent," Laguna had pressed. "I mean, it's amnesia, isn't it? He... He could wake up and be fine, right? Or just suddenly remember... that's how it works, right?"

"Maybe," Kadowaki had said grimly. "It's hard to say. I spent four hours yesterday putting the piece of his head back together. According to x-ray and soft tissue scan, he'll be fine, good as new in a week, but evidence says otherwise. He could wake up and remember everything, or slip into a coma the minute we're not watching. Head injuries like this aren't any kind of exact science."

And there he lay, the object of all of their concern, curled neatly onto his side as he slept. Dark hair was spiked out across the white pillow, rumpled and roughly cut shorter in ragged swatches across the back of his head - Laguna tried not to think of the injuries that had made it a necessity or the x-rays that Kadowaki had shown him as she detailed just what had happened.

"Squall," Laguna breathed softly. The room was quiet and still and he shut his mouth quickly, fearing to break that.

Four years old. Before there were sorceresses or gardens or gunblades. Before he had ever touched the smooth power of a Guardian Force or let one nestle inside the space of his mind. Before any of the things that had created the cool and efficient young man Laguna had first laid eyes upon in his office, standing there like a challenge with nothing but the mission on his mind.

Squall... as a child. He couldn't imagine it. He couldn't grasp the image in his mind's eye and there were times when he felt the loss of that keenly, a whole swath of life that he should have known and been there for, vanished into the pages of history. But this... this wasn't any way that he wanted to reclaim those missing years. Not at the cost of Squall's mind.

Laguna breathed out slowly, feeling the tight knot in his stomach grow harder as he stepped forward.

Pale face on a pale pillow and Squall was frowning slightly in his sleep, dark brows drawn down to wrinkle the line of the scar that arched between them. Loose strands of hair had fallen forward across his eyes and Laguna, without thinking, reached out to gently brush them back.

Squall's eyes snapped open at the touch, deep grey in the dim light, and they both jerked back.

"Squall?" Laguna whispered hopefully, but the answer was already before him in a pair of wide eyes that now, more than he could ever remember, looked like Raine's - unmasked, untouched by cynicism or bloodshed or military training or the hardness that always seemed to lurk at the depths of Squall's gaze. Just two eyes, startled and a little curious as they watched him.

Laguna found breathing was harder then he remembered it to be.

"Who're you?" Squall asked. Not alarmed but a bit dubious, and there, like Edea had described, was a touch of soft lisp as an adult mouth mimicked the sound of a palette too soft to form the words quite right. "Are you a doctor?"

He discovered, to his own surprise, that his tongue still worked. "No," he said quietly. "No, I'm not a doctor."

Pale eyes studied him. There was a trace of a familiar firm set to the chin but it was almost more of a sulk, the corners of Squall's mouth turning down as he regarded Laguna. "Good. I don't want any more medicine."

Sulking. There was no doubt about it. Sleepy and sulky and stubborn, the way only a small child could be and Laguna swallowed painfully. "I think they just gave you something for your head... does it hurt?"

Dark brows drew down more. "No." And then, a heartbeat later, more reluctantly, "Not that much."

The older man forced a weak smile. "Didn't taste good?"

"It was a pill," Squall announced firmly, emphasizing the last word in disgust. "And it got stuck on the back of my tongue and it was sour but she wouldn't let me spit it out." It was possibly the longest single sentence Laguna had ever heard the younger man utter, and all of it was delivered in the clear tones of an aggrieved child.

He was going to lose any semblance of composure. The lump in his throat was hard to swallow around and he could feel the sting in his eyes, his breath shuddering as he drew it in. "Just be sure you say something if your head hurts more," he managed. "I know pills aren't fun, but headaches aren't either."

Squall tilted his head to the side, regarding Laguna with a frown. "Are you crying?"

He tried to laugh but it came out more on the ragged edge of a sob. "I'm trying not to," Laguna admitted softly.

The younger man nodded solemnly. "I try not to too," he confided with the simple trust of a child. "'Cus I have to be strong. For Sis."

Laguna reached out with a shaking hand and gingerly smoothed back the wild tumble of Squall's bangs, something the younger man allowed with only a small duck of his head. "I think your Sis must be very lucky, to have a brother like you."

The wide eyes hardly seemed to blink. "Why are you crying?"

He closed his eyes, then had to wipe hastily at his cheeks as the building tears threatened to spill. It took him two breaths to try to speak again, his voice breaking. "Because someone I love very much is hurt," he whispered. "And I'm very worried about them."

Squall bit at his lower lip. "I hope they get better," he offered quietly.

"I hope so too," Laguna replied wholeheartedly, the words wavering.

The door hissed open quietly and Edea peered inside. "Laguna, are you... oh! Squall, you're awake!"

"I'd better go," Laguna said quickly. "Doctor Kadowaki probably wants to take another look at you." Squall's expression turned rebellious and Laguna tried to smile. "I bet if you're good, your Matron could ask the doctor to find a better tasting pill."

"I think they all taste bad," Squall muttered, but the rebellion faded into more of a resigned sulk.

Laguna resisted the urge to touch him again and turned away. At the door Edea half reached out, looking worried. "Laguna?"

"I..." The tightness in his chest was stifling and he shook his head, waving her back. "I'll just be outside," he managed and she let him go.

They were all waiting, out in the brightness of the corridor, clustered around the door to the infirmary in anticipation. Selphie was clutching Zell's sleeve, bouncing in her frustration, while Quistis' hands were clenched white knuckled to her chest. It was Kiros, leaning against the rail of the walk, who took one look at Laguna's face and moved forward to motion them all back. "Laguna?"

The words wouldn't come. Laguna shook his head mutely, trying in vain to swallow back the tears that wanted to fall. A hand touched his shoulder and when he looked it was to find Zell, the younger man's face pinched. "You've gotta tell us how he is," the blonde said, voice low. "Please..."

"He doesn't know," Laguna gasped, the first sob bursting heavy and hard through his chest. "Oh gods... he doesn't know anything is wrong..." he couldn't continue. Kiros reached out to pull him into a hard embrace and Laguna gratefully clutched at the other man's support, struggling not to cry.

A light hand touched his back, resting there gently. After a heartbeat there was another one, nestled between his shoulder blades, and then they were all there, reaching out to touch and be touched, their arms a solid link from one to the next. Squall's closest friends, clustered around in silent sympathy, a tight knot of warmth and shared emotion, punctuated by Selphie's quietly hiccuped sniffles. Laguna put his head down on Kiros' shoulder, eyes squeezed tight, and let the tears fall.

Nearly an hour later found them all in the Garden cafeteria, clustered around a table. The room was nearly deserted, and those cadets that did enter looking for a between class snack didn't venture anywhere near them, giving the table and those around it a wide berth.

Someone had gotten a cup of coffee for Laguna; it sat at his elbow, untouched and long since stone cold. His head was down, pillowed on his crossed arms, only one hand moving occasionally to tug at the disarrayed strands of his hair. Kiros had seen him to the cafeteria with the rest of them before going to talk to Kadowaki, leaving Laguna with a final brief squeeze of the other man's shoulder.

They had waited patiently until he could speak again. He had told them, voice quiet and rough, everything that the doctor had told him. He hadn't once raised his head, his words muffled against the table top, but no one had asked him to speak up or repeat anything.

"He doesn't know," Laguna had repeated softly as he had finished. "He doesn't remember anything, but he doesn't know that. He doesn't know there's anything wrong." His voice had broken on the last word and he had fallen quiet. Around the table no one else said anything either, heads bowed and thoughts unshared.

Selphie was the one who broke the silence at last, her chair scraping loudly across the floor as she pushed it back and surged to her feet. "Get up!"

Nobody moved and Selphie thumped her fists on the table top. "Get up," she repeated insistently. "Get up, get up... we can't just sit here moping, we've gotta do something!"

"Like what?" Zell demanded. "What the fuck are we supposed to do?"

Selphie grabbed the back of his chair, jerking him away from the table. "Shopping! Get up!"

"Have you lost your mind?" Irvine snapped angrily.

"No," Selphie said indignantly. "Come on, that's what you do when people are sick! You go get them stuff! Flowers and candy and cards and balloons and books and magazines because they're stuck in bed and bored and you need to cheer them up!"

"This isn't like having pneumonia, Selphie," Quistis began to protest, but to all of their surprise it was Laguna, raising his head from his arms, who spoke up.

"Yes it is," he said slowly. "Selphie... Selphie's right." At their astonished looks he sat up, raking his hair back impatiently. "Think about it! Try to think about it from Squall's point of view! For him, it's like it was fourteen years ago. Can't you remember when you were four? If you'd been in some accident so bad they had to take you to a strange hospital where you didn't know anybody... wouldn't you have wanted your friends to show up with presents?"

It took a moment, everyone around the table silent, their eyes distant as they thought. Irvine was the first to move, shoving his chair back as he grabbed for his coat and hat. "Shit. Come on." And then everyone was in motion and Selphie, skipping towards the door with renewed vigor, was waving her hand in the air.

"Come on! It's early enough, the stores will still be open. We can take a car into town! I'll drive!"

The momentum lasted long enough to get them to Balamb before it began to fall apart again. "What are we gonna get?" Zell asked as he slid out of the car.

Irvine made an irritated noise. "Stuff to keep him from getting bored. Hyne knows how long they'll keep him in the infirmary. You roomed with him, didn't you? What's Squall do when he's not working?"

Zell rolled his eyes. "Like he's ever not? Shit... he reads, sometimes. Books, or magazines. Guns and Ammo monthly, that kind of stuff."

Laguna started to open his mouth but Selphie beat him to it. "Balloons," she exclaimed excitedly. "Chocolate and balloons, great big bright colorful balloons!"

The two younger men were protesting and even Quistis looked dubious but Selphie, with complete disregard for them, pointed off down the street. "Come on! There's a kids type stuff store over here... I bet they'll have balloons!" And she was off, leaving the rest of them to follow.

The shop was brightly lit over a riot of colors, racks of children's clothes and shelves of toys. They all stepped inside hesitantly as Selphie bounded up to the counter to ask about balloons. The woman behind the counter looked a bit taken aback at the number of teenagers who had just crowded into her shop, but she obligingly pulled out a selection of balloons for Selphie to look at.

The others were standing about, looking around at a bit of a loss. It was Zell's voice that spoke up first and there was a tone in it that Laguna had never heard before, something almost wondering. "Hey... hey!"

"What is it?" Quistis wanted to know. Zell had dropped down to scoop something out of a basket on the floor and when he stood up he had something in his hands that he held out to her almost hesitantly, frowning.


It was a plush stuffed mog, all white fuzz and rounded shapes, about as tall as Zell's forearm. Quistis reached out to touch the little red pompom ball dangling from it's head with a fingertip, her lower lip caught between her teeth as she thought. "Mog...?"

Selphie, who had turned around to see what Zell had found, abruptly clapped her hands. "Mogster! I remember Mogster!"

Quistis caught her breath in surprise. "I do remember!" she exclaimed. "But Mogster was missing his red ball, wasn't he?"

Irvine was grinning. "Because Matron was tired of sewing it back on. He was supposed to be for everybody..."

"But Zell always had him!" Selphie added excitedly. "You were always hogging him!"

"I did not!" Zell said.

"You did too," Quistis replied. "And remember when you and Seifer got in the fight over him? Gods, I can't believe I'm remembering this... you got in a fight, and Seifer hit you..."

Zell's eyes had gone wide. "He didn't hit me," he exclaimed indignantly. "He bit me! Bastard left a set of teeth marks in my arm!"

Quistis was giggling, her hands over her mouth as she tried to cover the sound. "And Matron was so mad she didn't let either of you out of the house for days..."

"Oh gods, I remember... stuck in the house with Seifer and Matron had us helping with all the chores and Seifer blamed me for everything... I did not break that glass, he did..." Zell shook his head, looking at the stuffed toy in his hands wonderingly. "All over a silly stuffed mog. I can't believe they even still make these." He started to drop it back into the basket full of stuffed toys but Laguna, sliding around Quistis, grabbed his arm.

"No! Get it!"

Zell blinked at him. "Huh?"

"Get it," Laguna insisted. "Look, the only thing Squall's remembering right now is when you were all kids together. And if you remember having a stuffed mog..."

"...then he will too," Zell finished softly, eyes huge. "Shit. Oh shit." He was clutching the mog tight, looking around at the contents of the store with a new realization. "Guys! What did we have? Come on, think!"

It was like unleashing a floodgate, all of them reaching back to memories that, for almost all of them, were so distant as to be nonexistent. "Crayons," Quistis said quietly. "Didn't we all used to sit around and color? When it was raining and we couldn't go outside..."

"Coloring books!" Selphie chimed in. "But Irvine ate my favorite red crayon!"

"I did not!" Irvine said hotly. "You lost it."

"You ate it," Selphie insisted. "And Matron broke all of them in half so there there was two of each and we wouldn't fight over the colors..."


"Remember that castle Squall and Seifer worked on for days...?"

"And the games..."

Each thing seemed to spark the memory of others and they were all over the store, reaching for things and exclaiming over them, excitedly passing them around. The store clerk, having watched the infestation of teenagers become a rather alarming horde in motion, approached Laguna as the only adult in sight. "Is there... anything I can help you with?"

"We're just looking for some things," Laguna assured her hastily. "For a friend." She still looked doubtful and Laguna swallowed. He found he actually could say the words that she would understand, despite the lump they brought to his throat. "For... a little boy. He's in the hospital..."

"Oh!" The woman's tone changed at once. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. I hope it's not serious?"

Laguna managed something like a smile. "No... ah... but we're not sure how long he'll be there."

"Well, if you need anything later, you can always come back," the woman pointed out reasonably. "Do you need some help picking things out? How old is he?"

"Four," Laguna forced himself to say, absurdly proud that his voice only barely wavered on the word. "But he's very serious for his age," he added hastily.

The woman flashed him a sympathetic smile. "Even a serious four year old needs stuffed animals when he's sick. It's all about comfort. I hope your little boy gets better soon."

"So do I," Laguna said hoarsely. "Thank you. Really." He pressed her hand gratefully and moved away before he could lose any more of his composure then he already had, wiping a quick hand across his face as he drew in a breath.

Zell was crouched down beside a low shelf of children's books, one finger trailing over the spines as he tilted his head to look at the titles. He glanced up as Laguna came near, waving the mog he still held at the older man accusingly. "If this doesn't work, I'm going to feel like the world's biggest idiot."

Laguna took the mog from him, gently straightening one of the things little fabric ears. "I think it will," he said softly. "I think he'll be really glad to see this guy again."

It was dark by the time they returned to Garden, the last dim dregs of the sunset just visible over the ocean. It was a mixed group that filed in through the parking garage, bags and and packages in hand, half elated, half subdued, as though no one was quite certain what to feel. Conversation had been muted since they had left Balamb, broken only with half filled thoughts - "Do you think...?" "Will he...?" - that no one had the heart to finish, much less answer.

"Will they let us in to see him?" It was Quistis who voiced it, quiet and troubled, as they turned the corridor towards the infirmary.

"They'd better," Selphie said darkly. The brunette's good cheer and enthusiasm had faded noticeably and there was a rigidness to her back and set in her jaw that spoke volumes for her opinion of anyone's chances of keeping them from seeing Squall.

"It'll be fine," Laguna replied firmly, but he couldn't have said if it was for their benefit or his own.

Clinging to the remnants of optimism or no, the sight of Cid Kramer, slumped on the bench outside of the infirmary, stopped them all in their tracks.

Cid looked up as they clustered around, wearily slipping his glasses back on. He looked tired, his thinning hair disarrayed and a tight line drawn heavy between his brows. Laguna felt his chest tighten painfully. "Squall...?"

The other man nodded towards the infirmary. "Edea is with him." He ran a hand through his hair, leaving it twice as rumpled as before. His voice was quiet and pained. "We told him."

"Told him?" Zell echoed, voice cracking.

Cid glanced at the younger man but his eyes, when they came to rest, focused on Laguna. "He kept asking... things we couldn't answer. We finally just told him."

"About the amnesia," Laguna managed, his own voice none too steady. "You told him... did it... did he...?" But Cid was shaking his head.

"No. He doesn't remember." Cid sighed, taking his glasses off again to rub at his eyes. "He was rather upset."

"I just bet," Irvine said flatly. "By the way, here's fourteen years of your life you don't remember."

"He had to know," Cid snapped, voice harder then Laguna could remember ever hearing it, and all four of the younger SeeD immediately backed down.

"But... if he knows now... can we see him?" Selphie asked, pleading. "Please, sir? Please?"

Cid shook his head and his tone was gentler. "Not tonight, Selphie. He's had so much to adjust to already today - I'm sorry. But in the morning, I promise you - you can see him then."

Selphie's voice was thin and small, echoing the voice of the girl she had been. "But..."

Laguna reached out, touching her shoulder. "It's alright, Selphie. He's probably asleep right now. We'll just come back in the morning, first thing, right?"

"Right," Quistis echoed, the others reluctantly chiming in until Selphie, with a stamp of her foot against the floor, finally jerked her head in agreement. Irvine looped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close enough to ruffle her hair.

"Come on," he said. "We could probably all use food. I know I'm starving."

Selphie's answer was a muffled sniffle but Quistis agreed, and then Zell. Cid, pushing himself upright, seemed to really look at them all for the first time.

"What's all this?" he asked, gesturing to the various bags.

Zell, cheeks flushed abruptly red, was the one to answer. "Stuff. Um... for Squall."

Cid shoved his hands into his pockets, blowing a low breath out. "Presents?"

Selphie rubbed a hand over her eyes, still sniffling. "Stuff. To make him feel better. We just thought..."

The older man reached out, almost - not quite - brushing her shoulder. "I'm sure he'll appreciate it, Selphie." He looked around at them, at their faces, then sighed softly. "One item, children. One each. You can give him the rest tomorrow, but knowing you thought of it might make him rest a little easier tonight."

There was stunned silence for a heartbeat, and then Selphie flung herself forward, her arms around Cid's neck as she plastered a jubilant kiss across his cheek. "Yes! Thank you! Sir, you're the best!"

Flushed, Cid waved her back, but his attempt at a stern tone was at odds with his smile. "Really, Miss Tilmitt - not in the corridor. You're setting a bad example for the cadets." But he ruffled her hair, worse than Irvine already had, and gestured to them all to hurry them up. "Come now - one thing each. Put them all in one bag. I'll make sure Squall gets them."

"Sir," it was Zell, still flushed and now a little breathless, grabbing at Laguna's arm to drag the older man forward, "couldn't Laguna take them in? Please? He already saw Squall earlier..."

Cid hesitated, eyes meeting Laguna's, then slowly nodded. "Alright. Just for a minute. Edea was going to try to get him to sleep."

"I'll be quiet," Laguna promised feverently. Zell's hand on his arm swung him around, the expression on the shorter blonde hard and intense.

"You come back and tell us how he is," Zell told him fiercely. "And you tell him who this is from." The stuffed mog, all plush and white, was thrust into Laguna's hands. "You hear me, Laguna? You come back and you tell us!"

"I will," Laguna swore, and Zell, after a long moment, nodded and let him go.

A quick bout of rustling and rearranging emptied one of the bags. Into it went a box of crayons and a coloring book, courtesy of Quistis and Selphie after a hurried conference, and a suede pouch filled with bright, glittering glass marbles from Irvine. Cid, who had watched the selection and seemed to understand the point of the things, raised a brow at the last. "Irvine, that's not..."

The younger man grinned, touching a fingertip to the brim of his hat. "Those damn things you were always fishing out of the heating vent at the bottom of the stairs - or as close as I could get. Right in one, Sir."

Cid made a non-verbal sound, shaking his head. "Alright, then. That's one each. Mr. Loire?"

"Right," Laguna managed. Bag in one hand, mog in the other, and with marlboros on trampolines doing stunts in his stomach, he trailed after the other man to the infirmary. Their gazes followed him, clustered like a supporting push against his back.

Inside the infirmary doors Cid's hand stopped him, the other man's voice soft. "Laguna - he asked about you as well."

The marlboros were abruptly joined by a very large elnoyle. "Oh," Laguna said, his voice a squeak. "Ah... what did you.. I mean..."

Cid took his elbow, steering him towards the little room Squall had been in earlier. "Edea told him you were a friend. Anything else is for you to tell him."

Laguna nodded, sharply, his throat too tight to speak. And then the door was there, Cid reaching out to open it, and he was stepping across the doorway with no idea of what he was to say or do.

Edea was there, her dark hair swept back in a haphazard sort of way and apparently secured with one of Kadowaki's pens stuck through the mass. She was seated beside the bed, speaking softly to what, at first glance, was nothing more then a heap of blankets. Only at second glance did the tip of a shock of dark hair resolve itself against the pillow.

She glanced up as they entered, slipping off of the stool she had been sitting on. Cid beckoned to her and, with a last comforting pat to the blanket wrapped body on the bed, Edea came to join them. Her husband nodded towards the bed but Edea shook her head.

"He won't sleep," she whispered softly. "Kadowaki said it would be too dangerous to give him anything." She hesitated, her pale hands clenched tight together. "He's afraid."

Laguna swallowed hard. "Wouldn't you be?"

Edea nodded. "Of course..." she paused, dark eyes going wide, then reached out. One finger set the little dangling red pompom of the stuffed mog to swinging. "Oh." Edea's breath caught for a moment and she hastily wiped a hand across her face, though her eyes were already red-rimmed. "Thank you," she said simply.

"Thank Zell," Laguna clarified. He slipped the mog into the bag with the other things and inclined his head towards the bed. "Could I just...?"

She nodded. "You can try to talk to him, if you want. He hasn't said much. Not since..." she spread her hands helplessly, shrugging. Laguna nodded and she reached out, pressing him arm lightly. "We'll be just outside," she told him, and turned, with Cid, to leave the room.

Leaving Laguna there, alone, with nothing but the quiet sounds of the ventilation and an uncommunicative heap of blankets on the bed.

Taking a deep breath, he went to the bed, setting the bag down on the floor and taking Edea's place on the stool. "Squall?"

There wasn't any sort of response for long moment and then slowly, reluctantly, the edge of the blanket shifted enough to show him a glimpse of two grey eyes watching him cautiously from beneath the cover of the fabric. Laguna braced his elbows against his knees and tried for a smile that wavered badly. "Hi," he managed, keeping his voice soft.

The eyes continued to regard him warily for another minute before Squall, twice as rumpled as he had been early, pushed the blankets back enough to free his head and shoulders. "You were here before," he said, his tone accusing.

"Yeah," Laguna breathed. "Yeah, I was."

Squall's eyes narrowed, his brows drawing down. Unlike earlier there was something achingly familiar in that look - a closed off wall behind grey eyes and a firm clench to the jaw, but over it all was the look of a powerfully sulking child. "Matron said you're a friend."

His entire face ached with the effort of trying to maintain a reassuring smile when his stomach was in knots and his chest felt too tight to draw breath. "I guess so."

Squall mulled that over for a minute. One arm captured a pillow, hugging it close to his chest and half obscuring his face except for the steady gaze of his eyes. His voice was muffled against the pillow. "You were worried about somebody."

"I still am," Laguna admitted. "But he seems to be doing okay."

The frown turned thunderous, distorting the scar that ran across Squall's forehead. "Do you mean me?"

Laguna had to close his eyes. "Yes," he said quietly, his voice cracking over the word.

When he opened his eyes again Squall was staring right at him, unblinking, both arms now wrapped around the pillow so tight that the fabric threatened to burst. The younger man's voice was small and breathless, his entire body held tense. "Do I know you?"

It was fierce and demanding and frightened, all at once. Laguna felt his entire chest seize up, his heart raggedly skipping a beat in a painful jump before resuming. "Squall..."

The younger man's voice overrode his own, words tumbling out in a frantic flurry of blurred syllables and half lisped vowels on the verge of childish tears. "They said I don't remember things. They said I forgot lots of stuff, and the stuff I do remember isn't right. They said... I don't understand. How can you remember wrong? Matron said something happened, something really really bad and I don't understand..."

It was instinct. Pure, blind instinct. To reach out, to enfold, and all he could remember was a little girl's small figure in his arms, the weight of her and her arms flung around his neck. It had been instinct then and it was no different now. If the body was that of a grown man and the position was awkward and the whole thing stiff and tense and a pillow sandwiched in the middle - it didn't matter. It was all in the hiccuped breath of a frightened child's voice and the instinct to protect. No matter what.

Squall stiffened in his grasp, going rigid, but Laguna tucked the tangled head of dark hair beneath his chin and wrapped an arm around the tense shoulders. "Shhh," he whispered. "Shhh, Squall... it's alright. I promise. Hyne, I promise. It'll be alright. It'll be okay. I swear. Shhh."

A tremble shivered through the back beneath his hands, Squall's voice hushed and tight, whispered against Laguna's collarbone. "I know you, don't I? I... I'm supp... suppos..." he stumbled across the word, breath catching. "I should..."

Laguna held him tight, his eyes closed. Tears slid hot across his cheeks to fall wet into short cropped strands of hair. "It's alright," he repeated hoarsely. "It's alright."

One hand reached up, catching at the sleeve of his shirt and staying there, poised, unsure whether to push away or cling close. "Who are you?" Laguna felt the words more then heard them, breathed thin and small against him where Squall's cheek, almost feverish hot, pressed against his shirt.

Laguna's hands tightened on the thin material of the younger man's shirt. So many shocks all in one day, and he could feel the tremble beneath his hands, coming in shivering waves. "Someone who cares," he whispered. "Someone who cares alot." But that wouldn't be enough and after another breath he found the words. "My name's Laguna."

Squall let himself be held for another moment, quiet and still, and then his hand tugged against Laguna's sleeve. His voice was still small and hushed and a little hesitant. "My Sis knows a Laguna. She calls him Uncle Laguna. She told us all about him... she says he saved her. From a really scary place. And he's not afraid of anything." Quiet words spoken with the absolute belief of a child, simple and perfect. Laguna could feel them like the kiss of fire against his skin, burning even as they warmed.

Squall's hand tugged again. "Is that you?"

It took Laguna a long moment to find his voice again, feeling it crack and shudder in his throat. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess that's me."

Squall tensed, pushing, his grown strength letting him break free where a child might not have. Wide grey eyes stared up into Laguna's own, frowning hard. "You're Sis' Uncle Laguna?" When Laguna nodded the frown got worse, but it was a long minute before the younger man spoke again. More then long enough to make Laguna's nerves crawl, the muscles across his back and stomach knotted like tangled twine.

"If she's my Sis and you're her uncle does that make you my uncle?"

Laguna had to admit - from a four year old's viewpoint, it made perfect sense. Though he doubted either Ellone or Squall, at that age, had known what the world 'uncle' meant, beyond family of a sort. "Kind of." He took a deep breathe, feeling his stomach clench tighter. It was best, he told himself, just to say it. Just say the words. But it had been painful the first time, facing a grown man who could understand his words of explanation. It was worse facing the open gaze of a child. "Squall... Elle always called me uncle. But she's not really your sister, you know. You don't have the same parents."

The look turned rebellious and sulky. "I know," Squall said, with all the heavy disdain for an adult's stupidity that a child can muster. "She's still my Sis. And we don't have parents. None of us do. That's why Matron takes care of us." The younger man hugged the pillow closer. "Sis said my mum was named Raine. But she's dead. I don't remember." There was a pause as Squall shivered. "I'm not suppose to, am I?"

"No," Laguna breathed gently. "Don't worry. You were too young to remember, Squall."

A little of the tension faded. "That's what Sis said too," Squall admitted. He slanted another glance up at Laguna, questioning. "Did you know my mum?"

The breath was thick in his throat, aching, his tongue heavy and unwieldy around the words. "Raine was my wife."

Grey eyes flashed huge in the younger man's pale face as Squall struggled to take that in, frowning as he thought. He had, Laguna thought dimly, been an astonishingly serious child, the raw unshaped shadow of the severe man he had grown into. "But... you..."

When he let the breath out the words flowed with it, painful on his lips. "I'm your father."

A heartbeat, the words seeming to hang on the air, and then the pillow was thrown hard against his chest where Laguna reflexively caught it. "No!" Squall said, voice rising. "No! I don't have a dad! None of us do! That's why Matron's here!"

It hurt just as much as Laguna thought it might. More, actually. Sharp and painful and aching, like the rip of a bullet through flesh. "Squall..."

Squall grabbed up the other pillow, hugging it back to his chest, his legs tucked under him as he huddled on the bed. "I don't believe you," he said sharply. "I don't have a dad."

"Squall-" Laguna tried again, but when he reached out the younger man flinched back and he forced himself to stop. "Please. Squall... please just listen..."

Squall buried his face against the pillow, shaking his head in sharp, jerky movements. "No," he said, his voice muffled. "Sis would've told me. Matron would've told me!" His voice broke, trailing off in a muted hiccup. "Sis would've told me," he repeated adamantly.

Laguna tried to steady his own breath and couldn't, around the tight ache of unshed tears in his chest. Squall jerked at the touch of his hand on the younger man's shoulder, but he didn't move away, curling tighter into himself. When he spoke again it was low and broken, whispered into the pillow, and until he leaned forward Laguna didn't catch the words.

"...don't remember. I don't remember..."

The edge of the bed dipped as Laguna shifted to it and reached out. Squall's body was stiff and unyielding in his arms but the younger man didn't struggle as Laguna gathered him close, rocking gently. There weren't words. Not for this. There was only the muffled sound of half sobs and the tremors that ran through them both until at last the hands turned from the pillow to him, clutching at his shirt, Squall's head buried against his shoulder as the younger man cried.

"Squall," Laguna whispered against his hair. And then, softly, the word awkward on his tongue, "...son." The shoulders beneath his hands shivered and his collar was wet with the twin of the tears that swam hazy before his own eyes.

He didn't know how long they sat there. Long enough for the warm weight of a body in his arms to become something almost familiar. Long enough for the tears to dry, flaking, across his cheeks. Long enough for the sobs to trail into hiccups and the hiccups into muffled sniffles against his shoulder, as he soothed back ragged hair and traced gentle patterns through the material of Squall's shirt.

Long enough, somehow, impossible, for it to be almost right. Almost. And if he thought of it too long his eyes stung with tears that he didn't have the strength to shed any more.

One of Squall's hands shifted, tentatively, from where it was fisted against his shirt. Laguna started at first, feeling the younger man's fingers pluck at the collar of his shirt. The goal of those finger lay beneath the edge of the fabric and came free with a muted jingle, metal against metal.

Squall, eyes red and swollen, his head pillowed loosely against Laguna's shoulder, pulled back enough to be able to hold the chain and its two steel tags up where he could see them. One callused thumb traced across the worn metal, over the stamped imprint of letters. His voice was congested. "What're these?"

"Dog tags," Laguna answered quietly. "From the army."

Squall's brows drew down as he turned the tags over in his hand. The one he was looking at was reversed, the letters marching backwards across the surface. "You're in the army?"

"I was." Laguna reached down hesitantly. Squall let him take the tags, flipping them around so that the letters read the right way. "I left the army when I met Raine." He paused, watching the younger man look at the tags, then hazarded a guess. "Can you read them?"

Squall's head shook once, back and forth, his hair rustling against Laguna's shoulder.

If he just breathed, in, then out, then in again, the tears weren't quite so immediate and he could ignore the tight clench of his stomach beneath his ribs. "It has my name and rank. 'Cpt' - that's short for 'Captain' - 'Laguna Loire'."

The younger man considered, frowning slightly. "My name's Leonhart," he said at last, but the words didn't have the sharp accusation they had borne earlier.

"That was Raine's name," Laguna said softly.

Squall's fingertip trailed across the tag. "Sis did tell me that, once," he whispered. He had closed his eyes but the frown remained, etched tight between his brows. Laguna touched it gently with a fingertip, feeling the tension in the muscles.

"What's wrong?"

"Hurts," Squall muttered, ducking his head slightly. Laguna, who was feeling the ache behind his own eyes of tears and a surfeit of emotion, winced to think of it on top of the pain Squall had already been in. He brushed back the fringe of the younger man's bangs, smoothing the pad of his thumb across the tight muscles just beneath the skin.

"Why don't you lay down?" he suggested and Squall nodded, letting Laguna settle him back against the pillows once more. He drew the covers up, shaking them out a bit before tucking them around the younger man's shoulders. "Let me go find the doctor and get something for your head."

Squall made a face but didn't protest. Slipping off of the bed, Laguna brushed the bag he had left on the floor with one foot. "Oh Hyne... I almost forgot." Stooping, he retrieved the bag, showing it to Squall who was watching through half opened eyes. "These are for you."

That earned him the focus of the younger man's attention. "What is it?"

Laguna smiled, finding the expression came easier and more heartfelt. "Presents. From your friends."

Squall struggled up on one elbow, abruptly all wide eyes and centered on the bag in Laguna's hand, the pain in his head forgotten. "Presents?"

"Presents," Laguna repeated firmly. Reaching into the bag, he fished until his fingers encountered the soft feel of suede, starting to draw it out. He paused at the last moment, eyeing Squall. "Shut your eyes."

Grey eyes narrowed. "Why?"

"Because they're not wrapped," Laguna explained reasonably. "We didn't have time. So close your eyes and hold out your hands."

Squall looked rebellious for a moment, but curiosity won over stubbornness and he obediently shut his eyes, leaning back against the pillows and holding out both hands cupped together. Watching, Laguna had to force himself to draw breath. His hands, he found, as he lifted the little pouch from the bag and deposited it in those outstretched palms, were shaking.

Squall's fingertips closed around the pouch, examining by touch before he opened his eyes in surprise. "From Irvine," Laguna told him, watching as Squall carefully tugged the pouch open and spilled a few of the round marbles of multicolored glass out into one hand.

"Matron hates these," Squall confided softly, but there was something bright and open in his eyes as he tucked the marbles away again.

"Well, just don't leave them out where they get in Matron's way, alright?" Laguna said. "Close your eyes again."

"More?" Squall seemed honestly surprised, but did as he was told. Laguna handed him the book and crayons next.

"From Selphie and Quistis. I think Selphie sent the crayons."

It elicited a kind of quiet excitement from the younger man, both pleased and disbelieving, as though he wasn't quite certain what to make of the gifts. The pages of the coloring book had to be flipped through and Squall proudly - and for the most part correctly - identified drawings of different monsters that were common on the Centra coast from among its illustrations. Things common to the Balamb area, however, were passed over; bite bugs sparked no comment at all while the picture of a grat was frowned at dubiously for a second before being flipped past.

When that was done and the book and crayons set aside with the marbles on the bedside table, Laguna told him to close his eyes one last time and placed the stuffed mog in his outstretched hands.

Squall, upon opening his eyes, just stared.

"From Zell," Laguna told him. "He said to make sure you got it."

Grey eyes flickered to him, then back to the mog. Squall gingerly ran his fingers over the plush fur, straightening the one cocked back little ear, and with a tap sent the red pompom on its stiffened string to bouncing. "Zell?" he repeated, disbelief evident. "Zell sent me Mogster?"

Laguna nodded and Squall, after staring at him for a moment, looked back at the mog. "Zell?" he repeated again, as though quite sure he had misheard.

"They're all really worried about you," Laguna said gently. "We all were."

Eyes wide, Squall looked at Laguna, then to the bag. He shifted the mog from his hands to the crook of his elbow without thinking, cradling the stuffed thing there without the slightest thought. "Did... Did Sis send anything?"

"No." The brightness faded from Squall's eyes and Laguna leaned forward, daring to brush a light kiss across the younger man's bangs. "But she'll be here tomorrow. Maybe she'll bring something then."

"She will?" Squall held the mog tight, expression hopeful. "Sis will come here?"

"I promise," Laguna breathed, meaning every syllable of it. Squall laid back willingly when he pushed, settling content against the pillows, the stuffed mog tucked beneath his chin. "Do you still want something for your head?"

That prompted another grimaced face, but Squall reluctantly nodded. "Matron said I should."

"Alright. I'll go get the doctor." Laguna started to get to his feet again but Squall's voice, small and soft, halted him.

"Are you really my dad?"

He swallowed, closing his eyes for a moment. When he looked down Squall was watching him, waiting. "Yes," Laguna managed. "Yes, I am."

Squall rested his chin on the top of Mogster's plush head. "And you'll bring Sis here?"

"Yes." He reached down, just brushing soft strands of auburn hair. "Ellone will be here when you wake up. I'll make sure of it."

The younger man said nothing for a moment, then nodded slightly and settled down again, eyes half closed. Laguna brushed his hair back once more. "I'll be right back."

Another silent half nod. It took more then he had thought to take the first step away from the bed, forcing himself to turn away.

Edea, Cid and Kadowaki were waiting in Kadowaki's office and Edea half started to her feet when Laguna entered, her eyes wide. "Is he alright?"

It felt odd to breathe. Laguna ran a hand through his hair, raking it back from his eyes. "Yes. But his head hurts - is there something we can give him? Asprin... something... I don't know..."

"Just a moment," Kadowaki said at once, getting to her feet and heading back to the pharmacy shelves in the outer room. Edea was still staring, looking more then a little worried, and a glance down gave Laguna a clue why; his shirt was rumpled and tear stained and his eyes felt swollen. He rubbed a hand across them impatiently, drawing a deep breath to try to combat the congestion in his throat.

"Squall's alright," he repeated, trying to put a confidence in the words that he wasn't sure he could muster.

Cid shook his head slightly. "Maybe a better question, Laguna, is - are you?"

"I'll be fine," Laguna managed, but his voice was starting to crack across the words, breath hitching once more in his chest. "Really, I..." Kadowaki's return, a glass of water in one hand and a bottle of pills in the other, gave him a welcome excuse to break off. "I'll just take these to him..."

"I'll come with you," Edea said firmly and Laguna couldn't find it in himself to argue.

Squall didn't stir when they entered the room and when Laguna stepped closer he could see why - the younger man was sound asleep, one hand flung out across the pillows, the stuffed mog cuddled against his chest.

Edea tapped his arm lightly, leaning close to whisper softly. "Leave the water." Laguna nodded, setting the glass down carefully on the little table, and let Edea draw him out of the room. When he glanced back Squall hadn't moved, oblivious in sleep, his breath sounding steady through parted lips.

On the other side of the door Edea stopped, plucking the bottle from Laguna's hand and deftly twisting the top off. She shook two of the white pills out and handed them to him. "Here."

Laguna blinked. "But..."

"You look like you need it." She fished out another two and headed to the small steel sink for another glass of water. "I know I do."

Faced with that kind of logic, Laguna shrugged and tossed the pills back, grimacing as he swallowed them dry. "Ugh. Squall's right, these taste terrible."

"I wanted to give him the ones for the younger children - they're sugar coated," Edea told him. She downed the glass of water behind the pills, then returned both glass and pill bottle to their proper places on the shelves. "But the dosage is too small. He would have had to have taken five or more, and getting him to swallow even one is a chore." She leaned back against the edge of the counter, looking at him. Her hair was straggling from her makeshift bun, tumbled loose around her face. "You told him?"

Laguna closed his eyes, scrubbing his hands hard across his face. "Yes."

When he felt her light touch against his arm he started, looking up. Edea was watching him, her dark eyes shadowed. "Good."

He tried to smile, making light of it, and failed miserably. "I don't think he believes it, yet." He glanced back at the direction of Squall's room. "Will he be alright?"

"There's always someone here," Edea told him gently. "Doctor Kadowaki will stay for awhile, and then one of her aides will take over. They'll come get us if there's any change."

"Okay. Alright." He was dimly proud that he could manage to keep his voice mostly steady. "Do you know where Kiros went? I need to call Ellone..."

Edea's hand went to her mouth and he heard her, behind its cover, very quietly swear. "I'm sorry," she said hastily. "I should have thought of that." Sighing, she pushed back the loose strands of her hair. "Try the cafeteria. I think he went there with the children."

"Thank you," Laguna said. He managed to walk out of the infirmary with something close to his normal step, and all the way down the walk to the main corridor before having to catch himself against the rail, leaning against it as he struggled for a hard won composure that was rapidly crumbling.

---- end part 1 -----

You made it all the way to the end of this monster? Wow, I'm impressed! >_< Here's a bonus, then:


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