Cherry Blossoms

Squall returned to his room to find the place littered in boxes. Many were full, and there were signs that indicated there had been more of them not long ago.

He blew out a resigned breath, blowing his bangs away from his eyes. Wonderful - he'd lost another roommate. He wondered vaguely what the reason was this time, but decided it didn't really matter.

"Move," growled a voice behind him, and he got out of the doorway to find his now-ex roommate standing behind him, glaring. The boy marched stiffly into the room, picked up another box, and walked out again. Squall chose an out-of-the-way seat on his desktop, where he could view the proceedings without the risk of a box falling on him.

He wasn't going to ask any of the obvious questions, like 'what do you think you're doing?' or something like that. He'd learned how to deal with this situation through many repetitions, and had found that such obvious questions usually answered themselves without any help from him. Instead he just watched and waited for the other boy to come back.

Squall realized - though not with any great degree of surprise - that he couldn't remember the boy's name. It hadn't mattered. He'd only been here a few weeks, and Squall generally only returned to his room to sleep or study - neither activity requiring much in the way of socialization.

After somewhat more than a half dozen boxes had been moved, the ex's evident frustration with the whole situation came to a head. "You know what your problem is?" he demanded. "You don't know who your friends are, that's what."

Squall cocked his head; as far as he was concerned he knew exactly how many friends he had. None. Pretty easy number to keep track of. The other boy growled at the indication of incomprehension.

"You know, I tried to keep Seifer off your neck. He comes around here a lot, always looking for you. Not me, you. No wonder you're never in here. Well, I'm not taking one more punch for a kid that doesn't know how to say so much as 'thank you', I don't care how short you are. You can damn well take your punches like the rest of us. I'm out of here." And he grabbed another box, to carry it wherever his next room assignment was.

Alone for the moment, Squall shook his head. He knew very well why Seifer was always around. Seifer got his kicks by making the other cadets jump to his tune, making them react the way he wanted them to. Squall had decided early on that that was not a game he wanted to play, and it infuriated Seifer. Lately he'd taken to beating up anyone ever seen in Squall's company, since invariably he lacked the imagination to locate Squall himself. It had probably just been his - former - roommate's turn, that's all.

Well, at least he'd have a few days of quiet to catch up on his studying, until another roommate was assigned to him. He'd gotten a little behind lately; he might have to study with Quistis to catch up. The prospect was not pleasing; she was brilliant, and significantly ahead of him in classes, but she had an unpleasant tendency to ask uncomfortable questions about his 'feelings'. The only advantage to studying with her was that Seifer wouldn't hurt her - he drew the line at beating up girls. He might kill them, but he wouldn't hit them; he had a rather twisted sense of honor that way.

The ex-roommate disappeared with the last of the boxes. The dorm room was half empty now, silent. Squall slipped off his desk and into a chair, pulling out a textbook on the Guardian Forces and junctioning. The day faded into night, the only light in the room the one over his desk, and the only sound the turning of pages. He couldn't take notes - Seifer took a positive delight in spilling notebooks, and spilling things on notebooks. So he memorized, instead.

* * * * * * *

One week later he was completely caught up with his classwork, with an aced test to top it off. Quistis was all for celebrating with an ice cream in the cafeteria, but didn't push when Squall balked. He 'celebrated' the way he did everything else; alone. He left Quistis at the Cafeteria hallway, and made his way outside.

Garden was timeless; you felt the same in Garden whether it was summer or winter, its halls and corridors never-changing. But outside the gates it was spring, a brisk and sunny March day. Squall liked to find a spot under a blossoming cherry tree and just watch the clouds float by for a while - the smell of the flowers brought back half-forgotten images of days when life hadn't been about classes and tests, and the sheer feeling of space between him and any other human being was relaxing.

Of course, it never lasted long. People seemed to feel he needed looking after, and invariably someone would come after him just as he'd succeeded in taking his mind off the hook. And so it was today; an older cadet moved into his field of vision and frowned at him.

"You'd be Squall Leonhart?" he asked, and Squall nodded. "You know better than to go outside of Garden alone," the cadet continued. "There's all sorts of monsters out here. Come with me - the Headmaster wants to talk to you."

Squall sighed and got to his feet. Monsters didn't particularly worry him - not this close to Garden. Countless 'practice missions' by cadets kept the area close to Garden relatively monster-free. He wondered what the Headmaster wanted with him; being outside certainly didn't merit the attentions of the most important man in Garden. He trotted behind the older cadet, shorter legs forced to work harder to keep up.

* * * * * * * * *

"Squall, I'm a little concerned," said the Headmaster. "You've been here - what, seven years now? - and you've gone through several dozen roommates. It's Garden policy to have a roommate while you're a cadet, and I can't make an exception for you - but we're actually running short of boys your age who are willing to room with you. Can you tell me why that might be?"

Sure, Squall thought. Seifer finds out who they're staying with and beats the living daylights out of them. Next question? But he didn't say anything. Garden frowned on cadets casting blame; if Headmaster Cid didn't already know what Seifer was doing, for Squall to point it out would only land him in trouble. He just shook his head - there really wasn't anything he could say that would change anything. The Headmaster wouldn't be able to control Seifer, he had too much important work to do. Briefly Squall felt something half-remembered in his mind - something about the Headmaster, and Seifer, and the one trying to control the other. But it slipped away before he could get his mental fingers around it.

"Well, we have a new student arriving today," Cid continued. "I'm going to put him with you, since you're both free and an established cadet. Try not to scare this one off, okay?"

"Yes, sir," said Squall dutifully, though he honestly had no idea how he'd manage that. He wasn't the one beating his roommates bloody, after all.

"Good lad," smiled Cid. "Well, off with you. It's a nice day, you should enjoy it. Your new roommate should be settled in by sundown; you can say hello to him then."

"Sir." Squall bowed and left, not bothering to say he'd already been enjoying the day. Well, he wouldn't be able to go back outside now, at least not to the blossoming cherry tree he'd been sitting under. The cadet who'd fetched him had chewed out the gatemaster for letting Squall out alone and unarmed. So he went for the next best thing; he headed for the second floor deck, and sat on the rail, one leg dangling free with the other curled up under him. The breeze was light and cool, ruffling his bangs and making little waves in the tall grasses of the fields below. Almost like water waves, really...why did that make him sad? A faint memory...sea breezes over rocks and the sound of fireworks...then the image was lost.

He shook his head. The good mood was gone, and trying to bring it back would just make things worse. Oh well. Might as well get some studying done, then.

Oh, yeah. New roommate. Probably no chance at studying then - there was always a few days where they kept trying to talk, to make friends. Squall knew there wasn't any point in wasting time on that - Seifer would find them, and then they'd be gone. Why make friends with someone who wasn't going to stick around? This new guy would probably be worse - being new to Garden he wouldn't have heard about Seifer yet, and would be all the more determined to force Squall into roles he was unsuited for.

There was a godawful unholy racket coming from the dorms. It was so unbelievably loud that - with the acoustics of the hall - Squall couldn't figure out which room it was coming from at first. He wondered why the administrators hadn't clamped down on it; such noise was considered a deterrent to study and therefore undesirable. Maybe they couldn't get too close or their ears would bleed; it certainly seemed loud enough.

Squall's heart filled with dread as he realized - after getting closer - that the din was coming from his own room. Hello, new roommate. He'd be lucky if the administrators didn't punish him along with the new kid; after all, he was supposed to know the rules by now. He clamped his hands over his ears and ran the rest of the way to the room.

Inside was a blond kid even shorter for his age than Squall was, his hair done up in a ridiculous spike. His puffed-out cheeks and pursed lips indicated he was whistling to the music that was so loud Squall was getting an earache even with his hands over his ears, and he was pulling out some very worn magazines and putting them on a shelf in a time-honored method - chucking them like frisbees, and seeing which ones landed properly.

Squall located the source of the noise - an oversized boom box, of course - and turned it off by the simple expedient of unplugging it, as fast as he could. His eyes were wide with unaccustomed nervousness - the administrators could be along any time, and if he had to face down the disciplinary committee his week was shot. "What the hell d'you think you're doing?" he demanded.

"Hey, chill out man," chirped the blond. "I'm just getting settled." He cast a curious eye at Squall. "You must be my roommate - either that or this place has pretty lax rules about who can go in whose room. Yeah?" He grinned wolfishly.

"Yeah," said Squall shortly, half of him still trying to listen over the ringing in his ears for the footsteps of administrators. Quickly he shut the room door. "Don't turn that back on," he snapped.

"What, you got no taste in music?" asked the other, surprised.

"I have no desire to fight the disciplinary committee," replied Squall shortly. "You can't play stuff that loudly in the dorms."

"Really?" said the blond, eyebrows raised. "It wasn't that loud."

Squall stared, incredulous. "You need to get your hearing checked," he said seriously. "The walls were vibrating, and they're made of stone."

"You were just seeing things," laughed the roommate and held out his hand. "By the way, I'm Zell."

Squall looked at Zell's hand like it was holding a fistful of live cockroaches. This guy was nuts, and that was just one of the things that disinclined him to take his hand. "Squall," he said.

Zell took a moment to realize that Squall was not going to shake his hand, then said, "Tch. Boy, you're just a barrel of fun, aren't you. Well, don't worry. We'll get along great, you'll see."

Squall was not so sure. Zell was loud, chaotic, and grinned too much. Happy people unnerved Squall; he always felt like they were getting a joke he missed. Well, at least he wouldn't have to put up with it for long. Seifer would take a positive glee in ruining this chirpy guy's sunny outlook. For the first time Squall felt mildly grateful for Seifer's games.

* * * * * * *

Squall knew the day Zell met Seifer. It was pretty hard to miss the tanned blond laying on his bunk covered in bruises, with a black eye and a split lip. He looked at the injuries dispassionately; Seifer wasn't usually quite so rough - the Instructors frowned on students being so damaged as to be unable to coherently answer questions or see the problems on the board, though otherwise fights weren't against the rules. Seifer aspired to working on the Disciplinary Committee, but hadn't made it yet; Zell looked like Seifer's application for the job.

For Zell to be this beaten up, he must've either really angered Seifer, or just not known when to stay down. Both really amounted to the same thing in the end. He put his books down on his study desk, and waited. His roommate had proven incapable of shutting up even in his sleep - Squall knew he didn't have to ask what had happened because Zell always volunteered such information.

"Hey, Squall," said Zell through stiff lips. "You know about a kid named Seifer?"

"Yes. Everyone does."

"Ya coulda warned me, man," mumbled Zell. "The guy's psycho. Really eyeball-rolling psycho."

Squall's lips quirked, but he was sitting at his desk so Zell couldn't see. "You didn't say that to his face, did you?" he asked mildly.

"Well, yeah," said Zell. "After he called me a 'chicken wuss' and I punched him in the stomach, anyway. Things sorta went downhill from there."

Squall shook his head; so much for any evidence of Zell having two brain cells to rub together. "I can imagine." Well, it was a mistake he probably wouldn't make twice.

Maybe wouldn't make twice. It was possible, anyway.

"You shoulda seen me, Squall," said Zell, his split lip trying to grin. "I bet he looks worse than I do."

Oh, really. Somehow, Squall doubted that. Even in the unlikely event that Zell really had done better in the fight, Seifer had contacts in every committee and access to healing potions. He probably didn't look like he'd been in a fight at all by now.

"Hey, Squall?" asked Zell. "How come he was after you? Kept wanting me to tell him where you were, like I'd know that."

Here we go again. "He's after me because I don't play his game," said Squall, unwilling to admit that Zell had gotten beaten because he was his roommate. "I don't get into fights for no reason."

"Neither do I," said Zell with a touch of pride. "Hey, we got something in common after all."

Not really, thought Squall. Not if just being called a chicken-wuss is enough to make you fight. Still, he looked pretty bad - and he probably should have warned Zell about Seifer. He'd wanted the guy to tone down, but nobody deserved to be beaten so hard their eyes wouldn't open. He sighed; he was at least partly responsible for his roommate's condition - something would have to be done. "I'll be back," he said, and left the room - making sure the door was locked behind him.

Doctor Kadowaki was somewhat surprised to see Squall in her office while still able to move under his own power; usually he only entered the Infirmary when so badly injured he had to be carried there. When he asked for a healing potion she gave it to him without question; she felt such a serious child probably had a good reason, and knew she wouldn't be able to pry the truth out of him concerning it. It was unprecedented that the boy would show any concern at all for another person's welfare, and she didn't want to discourage that.

Squall got back to his room without incident, and handed Zell the potion without comment. Zell, however, was full of comment. "Hey, thanks, buddy," said Zell as he downed the contents of the bottle. "How'd you get one of these away from Kadowaki? I heard she's really strict about using them." He sounded better already; stealing a glance, Squall could see the puffiness fading, the bruises going from fresh purple to fading blotchy yellow.

"I asked her," shrugged Squall, not really sure how he'd managed it himself.

"Well, I owe you for this, man," gushed Zell, as hyperactive as ever now that his muscles would let him move.

"No, you don't," said Squall, meaning it, and tried to get back to his studying.

* * * * * *

A few nights later, Zell was awakened to the sound of moaning. He stretched and checked the time; about one thirty in the morning. There was a sound of movement; in the dim light provided by the alarm clock, Zell could just barely make out Squall throwing his arm out.

"....nnngetoffme...go 'way...."

Still a bit muzzy-headed, Zell said, "Hey, Squall? Wake up, you're having a nightmare." Usually that was all that was required; Squall wasn't a light sleeper but human voices generally woke him.

Not this time, though. He tossed and turned on his bunk, mumbling incoherently. Zell frowned; that wasn't right. Usually the guy slept in one position the night through, unless it was a nightmare - but even nightmares didn't make him move this much, they just made him talk. Must be a really bad one. He sighed; he really was tired, but he couldn't leave Squall like that. He forced himself to get out of bed, and leaned over his roommate's bunk. "Hey, Squall, wake up," he said, a little more loudly - and reached out with one hand to shake Squall's shoulder. It felt kind of like invading the guy's privacy; they'd been roommates for about a month and never once had Squall touched him an any way - and he'd made it quite clear he didn't feel like being touched either.

Yeah, an invasion of privacy all right. The moment Zell laid a hand on Squall's shoulder, the boy exploded into movement.

"...getoffme..." he growled, and the other arm swung around so hard it clubbed Zell to the floor.

He sat up, and shook his head. Well, he was wide awake now. "Ya didn't have to hit me," he grumbled, but got no reply. Standing up, he realized that Squall was still asleep. He'd just knocked Zell to the floor and he was still asleep?

Zell reached out again - more carefully this time - and touched Squall's arm. Almost immediately he yanked it back; it was hot. He gulped - keeping an eye out for the flying other arm - and tentatively touched Squall's face. Burning hot - and the touch didn't wake Squall, when Zell knew that it should have.

Not asleep. Fevered. Well, Ma Dincht's little boy knew just what to do about that. He threw on some clothes and darted out the door, heading for the Infirmary at top speed.

* * * * * * * *

There was enough commotion to wake the boys in the rooms on either side as medical cadets got Squall to the Infirmary. He didn't just react violently to Zell, it was found - anyone who got too close got some, and the moans and half-coherent cries were getting lounder. Squall hadn't chosen his weapon yet, but all cadets had some hand-to-hand and kept fit. It took four older cadets to get him onto a gurney, and Zell wasn't allowed to tag along in case it was contagious.

The boys in the neighboring rooms had surprising attitudes, at least as far as Zell could tell. As one, when they realized who it was heading for the Infirmary, they groused over lost sleep and headed back to their beds. Not a one gave a damn about Squall other than the fact he'd woken them up.

This made no sense to Zell, none at all. Yeah, he could be cold...but he'd gotten that potion when Zell needed it, hadn't he? And he'd never once teased Zell the way other cadets sometimes did, even if he could be bitingly sarcastic when he felt Zell had asked something stupid. He didn't deserve that kind of cold shoulder, not when he was sick. Shaking his head, he went back to bed - he'd head over to the Infirmary as soon as he had time tomorrow, see if they would let him in.

The next day crawled by for Zell, even the hour in hand-to-hand combat that he usually really enjoyed. As soon as his classes were done he sprinted for the Infirmary - grateful that at least he could still outrun Seifer, even though Seifer was bigger. Kadowaki didn't seem surprised to see him.

"You're the one that called him in, aren't you?" she asked. "The new student."

"Yes, ma'am," said Zell with a grin. It was good to be recognized. "Is he okay?"

"Not just yet," said Kadowaki, "but it's not contagious. Was he...oh, I don't know...a bit 'not-there' yesterday afternoon at all?"

Zell thought about it. "I dunno," he admitted. "Squall's never much into talking. He didn't get a lot of his homework done though."

Kadowaki nodded. "Well, that clinches it. You remember the immunization shots?"

"Oh yeah," said Zell. "Those really hurt."

The doctor nodded, smiling a little. "Yes, they do hurt, but they keep you cadets from getting sick. Well, it it appears that Squall just had a reaction to the shots, that's all. Not very serious if you catch it in time, and it looks like you did. We had to tie him down for a while until his fever broke, but he's sleeping now if you want to say hello."

"Ummm...." Zell had no idea how Squall would take that. It was possible the answer would be 'very badly'. On the other hand...the image of those other cadets last night, pissed off because Squall had interrupted their sleep, haunted him. Didn't Squall have any friends at all? Didn't anyone in Garden care?

Kadowaki looked at him curiously, noting his concern and worry. "You're the one, aren't you," she mused. "You're the one he got the potion for, am I right?"

Zell blushed; maybe he'd just gotten Squall in trouble, but he was terrible at lying. He nodded.

"It's all right, Zell, you're not in trouble and neither is he. I just wondered, that's all. Go on in, but try not to wake him." She watched Zell's face blossom into another sunny grin, and shook her head as he darted inside. Amazing, really. Squall was usually so terrible at making friends, but if she was any judge he had one now. Probably couldn't shake Zell off if he tried, which was good - at least as long as they didn't kill each other...

* * * * * * *

Squall looked very small in the medical bed, designed as it was for full-grown people. Pale, too, with some of his sweat drenched hair plastered to his head. Zell's wiser half was telling him to get back to his room; he knew Squall well enough by now to know that the boy hated to be seen in any state of 'weakness'. But Zell had Ma Dincht's teaching behind him too, and that teaching said one did not pass by on the other side. Nobody else gave a damn about Squall - well, then, Zell would.

Just to be sure he really was all right - because he sure didn't look it, even if he wasn't tossing around - he reached out and touched Squall's hand. He grinned - yep, cool. Cold, even, but that could just be the air conditioning, or poor circulation. He could see Squall was still breathing. He jerked his hand back quickly when he saw Squall's gray eyes snap open. Oh yes, he was better now.

Squall looked around, confused, and frowned. He tried to sit up, and immediately put a hand to his forehead as though he had a headache. After a moment of sitting very still, he put his hand down and seemed to notice Zell for the first time. If anything he looked more confused. "Zell?" he asked, sounding uncertain. "What are we doing in here?"

We? He was as surprised to find Zell nearby as he was to find himself in a hospital bed? That clinched it - he needed a friend. Nobody could look after themselves all the time, even such self-reliant types as Squall. "Um, you took bad from the shots, the Doctor said," he explained.

Squall took a moment to digest that, then nodded in understanding. He cocked his head to one side, face blank as he looked at Zell. "And you?" he asked.

Under that direct stare, Zell felt a bit defensive. "I jus' wanted to be sure you were okay," he said. "You got a problem with people giving a damn?"

Squall didn't look away, but his eyes got that clouded look that said he was thinking. After a moment he shook his head and fell back on the pillow, letting his eyes close. When Zell realized he wasn't going to say anything more, he left.

Kadowaki stopped him before he managed to get out of the Infirmary, though. "Zell - look after him, will you? He won't make it easy on you, but he needs a friend."

Zell looked up at her, blue eyes unusually sharp. "Yeah, I kinda guessed that," he said slowly. Then he grinned. "Don' worry about it. I'll take care of everything, you'll see." He darted past her, out into the halls, happy again. Kadowaki wondered what Squall had done - probably unintentionally - to make such a cheerful boy so quickly devoted to him. Surely something besides just the potion...?

* * * * * * * *

Squall wasn't asleep in the hospital bed. Once awake, the unfamiliar surroundings kept him from sleep. He just didn't want to deal with people right now.

Zell was...puzzling. Why had he come here? For that matter, how had he, Squall, ended up in this bed? He certainly didn't remember coming here, though that in and of itself was hardly unusual.

"You can open your eyes, you know," came Kadowaki's voice. "I know you're not sleeping, so you can quit trying to fool me."

Squall opened his eyes to glare at the doctor, his expression clearly saying he was not in the mood for this.

"You can put away that sour look too, or I'll administer your medication with a needle."

Lips tightened for a moment, then his features resumed their habitual mask.

"You probably ought to be nicer to your new roommate. He probably saved your life."

A blink. Kadowaki bit back a sigh; he was only twelve - he shouldn't have so much control. Not for the first time, she wondered what had made this boy so reserved; it wasn't uncaring, of that she was certain. Too often she saw signs that he was biting back some emotional response, as though he feared to show it.

"You had a reaction to the immunization shots," she continued, "though Zell probably already told you that. You ran a high fever, woke him up in the middle of the night with your hallucinations. You hurt him, too, though you probably don't remember that. If he'd left you alone, you might have died. All he had to do was turn over and go back to sleep."

A frown; Kadowaki could read the question in his face - Why didn't he, then? But she wasn't going to try to answer that. She was the Garden's counselor as well as its chief medic - and as a result she knew every SeeD and cadet very well. Squall wouldn't believe her if she told him. He'd have to work it out on his own - if he could.

"You can head back to your room as soon as you feel up to it," she finished, "and take the day off. I've cleared it with your Instructors already. Your classwork should be in your quarters." She left him alone then; he seemed to need to think things out.

* * * * * * *

Zell came back from his classes to find Squall at his desk, cleaned up and dressed in his habitual black cotton fighter's pants and white shirt, but still looking a little pale and tired. He acknowledged Zell's greeting with a nod, not looking up from his studies - but Zell didn't mind; before now, Squall hadn't acknowledged him at all. A nod was progress.

"Hey, Squall...Seifer's looking for you again," he said by way of conversation. "I think it's cause he didn't see you in class today. I outran him this time, though."

"Tell him where I am, next time," replied Squall calmly. "If you do that, he won't bother you."

Zell blinked. This was new..."Yeah, but how do I know where you are?" he piped. "Besides - he just wants to be his usual asshole-y self to ya. You can miss that no problem."

"Tell him to look for me on the second floor deck," said Squall, still eerily quiet. He looked at Zell's face for a moment, and frowned a little. "I mean it, Zell. Tell him."

It was Zell's turn to frown. "Well...if you're sure..."

Squall nodded, gray eyes flat and hard. Then he turned back to his book.

* * * * * * * * *

Squall sat on the rail of the deck, sitting on one bent leg and letting the other dangle free, and mentally said farewell to the spring breeze with its fragrance of flowers and cherry blossoms. None of his previous roommates had known that this was his private retreat, so none of them could have told Seifer where to find him. He hadn't gotten involved in those fights; to get involved was to play Seifer's game, dancing to his strings, and if there was one thing Squall valued it was his own independence. That, and his privacy.

To be fair, none of his roommates had ever asked where he went, when he went off to be alone. Even Zell hadn't asked.

He didn't regret telling Zell much, though. There would be other places of retreat, other secret hideaways where other people couldn't find him. There were probably hundreds of such places in the Training Center alone.

But none of them would smell of flowers. None of them would ever have a breeze like this, pure and cold and sweet with the tang of rising life. So none of them would stir the ghosts of memories, where days hadn't been about classes and combat but had had something else, something that had made him smile. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had anything to smile about.

That was his repayment. Zell had possibly saved his life, when he'd certainly had no reason to. That was a debt, and it had to be repaid. So Squall would leave the ghosts in their graves, and surrender a bit of his freedom to get entangled in Seifer's games. It wouldn't save Zell's life, but it would make that life a little easier. It was awkward, but the best he could do. He slipped off the rail to stand on the deck, resting his elbows on the rail.

A heavy booted tread sounded behind him, two others sounding after it. Seifer and the posse, no doubt. "So this is where you've been hiding, runt," came the taunting voice. "Finally twisted it out of that little roommate of yours - we hardly had to hurt him at all."

A gloved hand clamped hard on his shoulder, and Squall said one last silent farewell to the wind, the flowers, the cherry blossoms...

And answered with a sturdy right hook to Seifer's jaw.