Standard Disclaimer: FFVIII belongs to Square-Enix, yadda yadda yadda… You know the rest.


One Good Shoulder – Chapter Twenty-one

Raine arranged the cleaned glasses on the shelf, trying to keep herself busy. The evening was drawing to a close and the pub was quiet. She doubted that there would be any visitors before last call, but she kept the establishment open regardless. Glancing at the clock, Raine decided to get a head start on cleaning up. There wasn't any point in staying up late again. Ducking into the kitchen, she began washing the dishes.

While the water poured from the faucet, the bell on the pub door jingled. "I'll be out in a sec," Rained announced. After drying her hands, she stepped out to the bar. Furrowing her brows, she scanned the empty pub. Didn't she just hear the door open? 'Great, now I'm hearing things.'

A familiar face popped up from beneath the bar. "Surprise!" Laguna grinned.

Raine squeaked and swung at him in reflex. Instinctively, he jerked back out of range. Raine grabbed the folded newspaper sitting on the bar and waved it at her visitor menacingly. "Laguna! Don't scare me like that!"

"Shh!" He held out a finger to quiet her. "Don't alert Elle, yet. I got an idea for keeping her here with you, but..." His gaze flitted to the stairway for a moment. "Um, I kinda want to keep it quiet until after you hear it first." The soft patter of footsteps crossing the loft above snapped Laguna to attention. He darted behind the bar and into the kitchen. "Meet me out on the hill after Elle goes to bed." Exiting out the back door, he left Raine alone in the pub.

Under the huge full moon, Laguna fidgeted on the grassy hilltop. 'Raine, will you... Nope, too quick. Raine, I want us all to be together. That's a better opener. Yeah. Raine, I want us all to be together. Will you marry me? Oh, man. Oh, man. Breathe, man. Cramping up is one thing, but passing out is way uncool. Same with getting sick. It's just butterflies, or pigeons, or panicking seagulls in the stomach. Maybe getting down on one knee will be a good idea. The leg won't be so much of a factor. Breathe. Breathing is cool. I like breathing. Fresh country air. Relax.' He pulled the simple gold rings out of his pocket. Once again, he wished that he could afford diamonds, but this was the best that he could do. He slipped the larger of the two onto the third finger of his left hand, just to see what it would look like. 'Huh. I'll have to be careful not to get it caught on anything.' Satisfied, Laguna pulled the ring off. Or tried to. No matter how hard he tugged, the ring would not budge past the knuckle. 'C'mon! It should come off the same way it went on. It's not like my knuckle grew any in the past few seconds.' The joint popped, but the ring stayed on. Conceding a temporary defeat, Laguna let his finger rest.

After verifying that he did, in fact, put the correct ring on his finger, Laguna poked at the smaller ring in the palm of his hand. Would she like it? Would she yell at him? The moonlight shone on the smooth metal band. 'Happily ever after?' Was it possible? Was this insane?

"Laguna?"

His heart jumped at the sound of Raine's voice. Closing his left hand, he tried to hide it behind his back, as he turned to face the petite woman.

She approached him. "I'm glad you came back."

Suddenly, he couldn't say anything. Not a word. It was like he was caught in a mute nightmare. He scratched at his head, trying to gather himself, but all he wanted to do was run before a crippling leg cramp seized him. He waved to Raine and turned around. This would have to wait until morning. He wasn't ready. Would he ever be ready?

"Laguna!"

'Now or never!'

In his dream, he twisted around and grabbed her hand, slipping the small gold ring onto her finger. She stared at it in bewilderment, which melted into joy. He lifted up his own beringed hand and smiled. Nothing more needed to be said.

Tears welled up in Raine's eyes and she wrapped her arms around him in a sudden embrace. This was no dream. All of his fear evaporated at her acceptance. Nothing had ever felt more right than standing under the moon with Raine in his arms. For a long while, they held onto that moment of perfect contentment.

It was Raine who broke the silence first. "Laguna... We should leave for Deling tomorrow morning."

He tilted his head, trying to follow. "Hm?"

"I don't want to wait," she answered, "I don't want to get talked out of this. I don't want you to get threatened or hurt. I want us all to go to Deling. We'll get married there and, once we have the license, we'll apply to adopt Ellone."

Laguna smiled. "Sounds like you got this all figured out." He leaned back, still holding her. "I guess I wasn't the only one thinking about getting hitched. Though, I never thought you would be the one to suggest eloping."

She shrugged, "Well, it's not like we have the money for much of a ceremony. And we'll need all the funds we can get for the adoption fees."

"Is it really that expensive?" When Raine nodded, he remarked, "But we're adopting her, not buying her!"

A screech reached their ears, alerting them to a flying monster coming their way. "No way!" Laguna cringed and oriented towards the monster. "My gun is still at the house!"

Raine grabbed Laguna's hand and they raced away, ducking low. Out of breath, they stopped at the pub door. "Go rest in the house next door," she told him, "We'll leave first thing in the morning."

With dawn threatening the horizon, the low rumble of an idling pickup truck growled in the garage. Raine paused at the back door of the pub, running through her mental checklist one more time. The note reading, "Left for Deling with Ellone. Back in a few days. Raine." was posted on the front door. Spare changes of clothes for both her and Ellone were packed and in the truck, along with a knapsack with some food and water. Her purse with slung over her shoulder, containing the necessary papers and money. Laguna carried a still-sleeping Ellone, wrapped up in a blanket. Raine had managed to rouse her enough to get her dressed, but the little girl insisted on going back to bed before she could find out that Laguna had returned. Once they were through the door, Raine locked the back door. Yawning and wishing that she managed even a few minutes of sleep during the night, Raine lead the way to the rickety garage.

Laguna took up step besides her, noting that she was still rubbing at her eyes. "Maybe I should drive? I'm pretty good at autopiloting on a catnap's worth of sleep. Maybe you can catch some shuteye on the way? It's a long trip. I kinda wish we could spare the cash to take the train from Timber, then we could all get some sleep."

Raine gave a wan grin. "You didn't sleep well either?"

"Heck, no! I was too excited."

Reaching the truck, Laguna buckled Ellone into the middle seat, trying not to let her slump to one side. Once the girl was secured, Raine held out her keys to Laguna. Before climbing into the truck, she noticed with some amusement that Laguna's machine gun was hanging from old rifle rack.

An hour into the trip, with the sun shining over the distant mountains, Ellone finally woke up. Her head was nestled against Raine's side and the woman's arm was draped around her. Confused, she looked around the truck and squealed when she saw Laguna at the wheel. "You came back!"

Laguna winced and rubbed at his ear and Raine snapped out of her doze. He reached with one hand to tousle Ellone's messy brown hair. "You bet I did! Guess where we're going?"

The little girl glanced out the windows, seeing nothing but fields. "We're gonna get groceries?"

"Nope! We're going to Deling City!" He tousled her hair one more time. "Me 'n' Raine are gonna get married and adopt you!"

Another squeal lanced through truck and Ellone bounced in her seat, restrained from jumping on it by the seatbelt. "All together! Happy ever after!"

Looking for a way to distract Ellone long enough for her to calm down, Laguna blurted, "Did you see the ring I gave Raine?"

Raine obligingly showed the little girl the simple gold band. Ellone fingered it, her eyes wide. Now that Ellone was awake, Laguna reached for the radio dial and turned it on. "Kiros is still in Timber," he remarked, "When we get to a town, I'll give him a call, so he can meet us in Deling. Ward's up there, too. I bet the commute to the prison he works at is a pain. He's living with his sister and her family in Deling for now. Since he can't talk anymore, she helps him out with things." He smiled at Ellone. "She makes really good cookies. She would send Ward little packages of them when we were in the army. His mom did too, until she passed away a few years ago. Hey, what do you guys want for breakfast?"

At the nearest town, Raine listened to Laguna chat with Kiros through the payphone. "We're gonna need two witnesses. Yeah, we're on our way to Deling... I'm serious, man. We're gonna do it... Hey, man. It was her idea... We're thinkin' we'll do a real ceremony later, once things are settled down... That would be great! Meet us at the usual...Yeah! Just like old times! Let Ward know, okay? ... Yeah, I know he'll probably be working. But he'll be around in the evening, right? Raine called the courthouse for info on this stuff before I called you. She said that we can get the papers at the clerk's office and then go to some guy in the evening to get us hitched. Even got the name and address and already called him. Raine thinks of everything, man... Hey, my gil's almost up. I'll talk to ya in Deling... Later."

The rest of the trip to Deling City was long and mostly uneventful. The greatest excitement was a brush with carsickness from Ellone, resulting in a hasty pitstop. When truck pulled into Deling, it was late afternoon, which was very good time thanks to Laguna's speeding. Raine scanned the alien streets. "We should go to the courthouse now. We don't have much longer before it starts closing and there's no way that Kiros could have beat us here from Timber."

Laguna wearily nodded in agreement. "Y'know, I never woulda thought that I'd get married like this. It's kinda weird with everything goin' so fast."

"I know. I thought I would have bells and dresses and flowers," Raine admitted with a sigh, "But we just don't have the time or money for that right now."

Glancing to Ellone, Laguna nodded again. "Yeah." He squinted at the street signs. "Hm... Left or right? Ah, there'll be signs pointin' the way eventually." He turned right.

By the time they parked at the courthouse, Raine was frantic. "We're going to be late! Laguna!"

Laguna hid his gun under the benchseat and locked the truck. "How was I supposed to know that I had to take a left?" He broke into a jog to catch up with Raine and Ellone.

"You lived here!" Raine shot back.

They were barely in time. After fumbling for their identifications and filling out blanks on forms, they paid for their license at the clerk's office and received the instructions on what they needed to do to validate their marriage. "You have ninety days to have an officiant validate the marriage with two witnesses other than yourselves present. Then bring the license back here and we'll issue a certificate."

Raine stared at the piece of paper in her hands as they walked out of the courthouse. It was like looking through the fog of a distant dream and she couldn't quite shake the detached numbness. She counted that as a blessing, since it was better than shaking with nervousness.

The path to the Galbadia Hotel was like returning home to Laguna. His eyes flicked to the board along the sidewalk that was advertising tonight's entertainment in the lounge. The name of Julia Heartilly was absent. 'She probably doesn't hang around little stages like this one anymore. Maybe that's a good thing.' As much as he wanted to see her again, he didn't really want run into her on this occasion. 'Not cool, man. Not cool.'

He paused in his step, realizing that Raine was slowing down. Her eyes were fixed on the towering white facade of the hotel. Even Ellone was gawking at the Promenade's flashy fronts and crowds of people. She clutched Raine tightly, as if she was afraid the sea of people would sweep her away. Laguna guided his family into the hotel, where Raine stared at the greeter. With a smile, Laguna whispered to his almost wife, "It's okay. She's paid to do that. She doesn't know you from anywhere."

Down a set of stairs to the lounge, Laguna spoke to the waitress, who kindly reminded them that minors were not allowed. Laguna rubbed at his neck and laughed in embarrassment. "I guess we'll go to the restaurant, instead." Addressing the waitress, he leaned towards her. "Hey, if a skinny, tall guy with dark skin and long braids comes in here, can you point him to the family-friendly section?"

After the waitress agreed, the guests were seated in the restaurant. Musing over the prices on the menu, Laguna muttered, "Man, now I remember why we stuck to the lounge." Then he tried to decipher the names of the dishes. "Man... Raine? Um, do you know what some of this stuff is? I mean, I can kinda guess, but..."

Raine shrugged and shook her head. "I run a pub, not a fine restaurant. Soup, steak, and salad are my holy trinity."

"Sounds perfect to me." A wide grin spread across his face. "Hey, if you ate pasta and antipasta, would you still be hungry?"

Raine held back a groan, though she was smiling at his silly joke. She didn't want to spoil his fun by reminding him that the word was antipasto, not antipasta. Sighing at the prices, she set the menu down. The appetizers were almost as much as the entrees, which were nearly double the price she would charge for her fare in the pub. She eyed the cheapest item on the menu. "So, what's the soup of the day?"