Eyes on Me
Julia Heartilly was a singer, not a politician. As a Galbadian citizen, she'd known nothing about the ins and outs of Estharian politics; she knew Galbadia and Esthar were at war, of course, and she'd lost too many people to it. But she knew nothing about Esthar itself, except that they were the enemy.
Her world ran on tour buses, not tanks, and she hadn't paid attention to the details of why they were at war. But when the entire world began to pay attention to Esthar, it became more difficult to step aside from the international rivalries and make music that could speak to everyone, regardless of their nationality and their politics. Jim, her first violinist, had an activist streak in him; he kept trying to write anti-war, anti-Esthar, anti-Sorceress lyrics, but Julia didn't want to let warfare define her music. She'd already lost her first love to the war; she wasn't about to let it take anything else, especially not the music he'd given her the courage to sing.
And then, about a year ago, the news had come out: all of a sudden the Sorceress was dead -- or not quite dead -- or being launched into the sun, or into space, or something complicated like that. Julia's first thought had been relief; her second, that perhaps she'd get to sing in Esthar some day.
Fate, she'd decided, had a funny taste for irony.
The Estharians had decided that inviting a Galbadian singer to perform at the Freedom Celebration commemorating the anniversary of the Sorceress Adel's defeat would be a gesture toward the peace that hadn't yet established itself. Because of Julia's songs, because of her focus on life and love and things that she wouldn't let the war touch, and, ironically, because she hadn't let Jim have his way with the lyrics, the Estharians had chosen her.
The band members were thrilled -- it was the biggest gig they'd ever landed. Through the Freedom Celebration concert -- and its international video coverage -- they'd be in the center of everything, surrounded by politicians and stars and glitterati; they'd be able to meet producers and check out venues and make contacts. Suddenly, Julia wasn't a Galbadian pop star anymore; with the invitation to Esthar, her publicist could legitimately call her an international phenomenon. (And did so, with monotonous regularity.)
In the abstract, Julia had known that the new President of Esthar would be present at the Freedom Celebration. She'd even known that their President was a war hero, a wounded veteran who'd gone on to rally the country and the world against the rule of the Sorceress.
But until the dark-haired man in the formal uniform, leaning on a gold-topped cane and flanked by bodyguards, turned toward the stage and lifted those vivid sea-green eyes -- up until then, she'd had no idea that the President of Esthar was her Laguna.
When he recognized her, up there on the stage, the shock that ran through him was utterly unfeigned -- as was his delight in the next moment. Julia had always envied him that honesty of emotion, and that purity of feeling. She couldn't let herself be shocked; she was onstage under hundreds of lights, in front of dozens of cameras, and she had to keep smiling as brightly and emptily as ever while she finished her mindless dance-fluff number.
With the hand that didn't hold the microphone, she signalled a change in the set to her orchestra. She could practically feel their baffled stares; she suspected she was in for a scolding later, for throwing off the schedule on a concert this important. But she just couldn't mind whatever scoldings they'd give her -- not when she was looking out past the stage lights and Laguna was there, alive and smiling, despite the way she'd feared she'd never see him again.
The war and the presidency had changed him; he no longer moved with the same graceful abandon with which he wore his emotions. His injured leg was stiff, and he leaned so heavily on that cane that it tore at her heart.
And the lack of activity had had other effects as well. He'd grown more stout since she'd last seen him; though the uniform masked it a bit, it couldn't compensate for the solid weight behind each awkward step. But his face was still so familiar -- the light in his eyes, and that breathless wonder behind his shyest smile.
One of his advisors was trying to dissuade him from going closer; Laguna waved a white-gloved hand absently and continued on his halting trek through the room, to a small table left unclaimed at the side of the stage because the view was better from the front. It was so very, very like him -- president of the most powerful nation on the planet, hero of the Sorceress War, and he sat alone off to one side because he was too unassuming to choose a place in the center.
Jim must have followed her glances, because he wrapped the dance number with half the usual number of flourishes and had already begun setting the key and tone shift for the rest of the orchestra. Perhaps he wouldn't scold her later, after all.
"I'd like to give this next song to the man who inspired it," Julia said into her microphone. Enough of the audience had recognized the introductory chord sequence that the room burst into whispers and murmurs and questions.
It had been her first number-one on the charts, the sweet love song inspired by a shy young soldier's shining eyes and constant presence in the audience; and yet Laguna didn't react in the slightest, as though he had no idea she was speaking of him. --As though he'd never even heard the song.
Given the timing, there was a good chance he never had.
Not the time to cry, Julia reminded herself fiercely, keeping her eyes wide so that the heat of the stage lights would help her control the shimmer of the tears she couldn't let herself stop to shed right then. He didn't die of his wounds, he's safe and well and president of the country even; I can't stop to cry at the thought that he might never have heard me sing this for him...
On the lighting board, Annie dropped the backlights by half and bumped the follow spots; she flashed Julia a thumbs-up, then shifted the fill-wash to a moon-blue as Jim led the orchestra into her first verse.
My last night here for you,
same old songs just once more.
My last night here with you?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
I kind of liked it your way,
how you shyly placed your eyes on me.
Oh, did you ever know
that I had mine on you?
She could see it in his face, the first moment he understood that she was singing about him. His eyes widened in astonishment, and he covered his mouth with a hand, caught between embarrassment and delight that she'd remembered him after all this time.
As if she could ever forget.
He drank in her music as though it were water amid the desert, and he a dying man; she'd always loved that in him, the way her music transported him to a better world that she only wished she could share. She'd given up any pretense of singing to the rest of the audience; she walked over to his side of the stage, and stood and sang his song for him, standing at the edge of the world only he ever saw in her.
Darling, so there you are,
with that look on your face.
As if you’re never hurt,
as if you’re never down.
Shall I be the one for you,
who pinches you softly but sure.
If frown is shown then,
I will know that you are no dreamer.
The rest of the room had long since caught on; the journalists were setting off so many flashes that her vision was nothing but a bunch of starbursts, but there was a silent, almost respectful arc of empty space between the stage and the President's table.
Laguna, the silly, adorable man, hadn't even realized it; there was nothing in his world but his little table and her smiling face as she sang to him.
...Damn it, she didn't want the song to end.
But Jim was playing the last refrain at the lower volume that signified a wrap; she could have cordially hated him right then, except that he didn't finish on the last note. He swung back into the instrumental backing, but still at half volume -- and then during a pause in the violin line, he plucked the microphone out of her hand and gave her a nudge with his hip under cover of a rill from the clarinet.
"Go get him, tiger," he murmured, grinning far too much.
"I can't see the stairs," Julia murmured back. "Damn the paparazzi anyway--"
Still fingering the notes softly, tapping the strings with his fingertips, Jim took her hand as though this had all been planned as a flourish in advance, and he led her off the stage to Laguna's table. Catching the percussionist's eye, he sketched the second time-shift in the air, then strolled back up to the stage as he added his violin to what had suddenly, inexplicably become a slow dance built around their song.
Laguna was only then realizing what her musicians intended for them to do; he pushed himself awkwardly to his feet, his back against the wall for support, the tallest wallflower she'd ever seen.
"I -- I can't," he said, sounding wretchedly miserable about it. "My leg; I'm afraid I haven't the balance anymore..."
"Lean on me, then," Julia said, and took his hand, because she wasn't about to let him pull away this time. "After all those times you supported me, how could I not return your gift?"
"Oh, dear," Laguna said, and swallowed hard, as nervous as a schoolboy on his first date. But he took a careful step forward at her coaxing, and she slipped an arm about his waist -- yes, there certainly was more of him than there'd once been, and his face burned pink when he realized she'd noticed his weight gain.
"I -- I'm sorry, I know I've gotten -- I'm -- not what I once was, I'm--"
"You're still the sweetest man I've ever known," Julia said, and stepped close enough to rest her head against his chest, close enough to feel his solid girth.
"Oh," he breathed, astonished; and then he put his arms about her gently, one hand barely resting against the soft thick chignon confining her hair. His heartbeat fluttered beneath her cheek just as charmingly as she'd thought it would, when she'd wondered if she'd ever have the chance to know.
"And stay there as I whisper how I loved your peaceful eyes on me," Julia sang softly against Laguna's breast, eyes closed against the spattering of flashbulbs, content simply to sway in his arms. "Did you ever know that I had mine on you?"
He'd choked up, the silly, overemotional sweetheart; she felt him swallow hard, and the hand that rested lightly between her shoulderblades was trembling.
Entirely too soon, though, Jim's gentle dance came to an end; Laguna cupped a hand against her cheek, his eyes full of a thousand tangled-up things they'd never had the chance to say before.
And then the paparazzi descended in a roar.
"President Loire! President Loire, how long have you known--"
"--are you and Miss Heartilly--"
"--we'd like a few words--"
"--will you tell our viewers at Channel 9--"
"--how long have you been having an affair with the President--"
"--pop diva Julia Heartilly and president Laguna Loire of Esthar--"
"Oh, Hyne," Laguna said, sounding sick, and he tried to back away from the jostling crowd. But they'd closed in on all sides, and they were pushing each other and Laguna with the abandon of a school of sharks on bloody meat.
Julia had trained her voice for a reason.
"Will you inconsiderate morons BACK OFF?" she shouted, loud enough to be heard clear across the hall even without her microphone. "He's a wounded veteran -- let him sit down!"
But they weren't about to allow the story to get away; someone had picked up a folding chair, another had torn Julia away from his side and shoved a microphone into her face, and a third shoved a chair under the President's knees with no warning.
With a choked cry of fear, Laguna twisted away from the sharp shove at the back of his knees, clutched for balance at a reporter who wasn't expecting it, and fell heavily to the floor. The reporter fell as well, and that cleared a stunned instant's breathing room before the mob surged forward again.
"NO FUCKING COMMENTS!" the President's tall, dark bodyguard roared at the top of his lungs, and his big burly comrade was throwing photographers out of his way as he plowed through the mob to Laguna's side.
Julia pulled away from the chattering harpy who had her arm, and felt something tear in her dress; Laguna was white as ash and trembling, his arms wrapped tightly around his stomach, and he looked to be on the verge of tears.
The big bodyguard lifted him into his arms as carefully as though he were a child, and looked at Julia; she nodded at the unspoken request, and shouted over the noise, "Take him to my dressing room!"
The dark bodyguard took no shame in manhandling the paparazzi out of their way; he actually drew his weapons as Julia frantically keyed her code into the lock and let the big bodyguard carry Laguna inside. Then she shut the door behind the two of them firmly, and threw herself back into the feeding frenzy to try to appease the journalists, so that Laguna wouldn't need to.
"Yes, I wrote my first song for him. No, we're not having an affair. Tonight's the first time I've seen him since before the war. He always came to the bar where I sang for the soldiers, and he loved my music, and I loved the way he smiled... No, we never had an affair. I'd never even danced with him before tonight. I'd always wondered if I'd ever have the chance, and tonight was a bit of a dream come true. No comment. --No comment. --Yes, I care for him -- nobody could hate him. He's a good man, and a kind man, and you couldn't have a better person in charge of this country. --No further comments. --I said NO."
Julia keyed the door open again, just enough to slip herself through; the president's bodyguard blocked the rush that surged forward, and she heard a yelp from a reporter who ended up with pinched fingers as she slammed the door shut behind herself, trembling all over
Laguna was in tears, sitting awkwardly on the edge of the couch with his clothing in disarray and the big bodyguard holding a stethoscope to his abdomen.
"I haven't felt him move, Ward," Laguna choked, scrubbing the tears from his face with a shaking hand. "What if I've hurt him? What if--"
Julia's world tipped upside down and shook itself a few times; clutching at the door for support, she said, "Laguna?"
He staggered to his feet, his shirt unbuttoned and a snug inner girdle unfastened and his bare belly obviously swollen --too obviously, too distinct a distension to match his face and his hands; and Julia hadn't realized he could be so pale.
"Oh, Hyne," he breathed, and turned as though he meant to run somewhere, somehow; but instead he swayed on the first step, and crumpled at the second.
Julia's half-choked scream was much less helpful than the big bodyguard's lunge to catch him.
She wasn't going to faint. That wasn't going to help anything, least of all Laguna. She wasn't going to faint, and she wasn't going to have hysterics. She was going to... well... she was going to help Ward, his friend -- she remembered Ward now, though he'd had many fewer scars and rather more hair at the time. She was going to help Ward take care of Laguna.
Laguna... who must have been spending his -- her -- entire career keeping the secret of a woman's body beneath the soldier's uniform and the clear tenor voice, though he'd always been startlingly lovely -- and now he -- she? -- Laguna was pregnant.
Laguna was pregnant, and still trying to keep the secret.
All right. She could handle this. She could.
But ...he hadn't waited for her.
She'd waited all this time for him, always wondering, always hoping, and he'd never come back, and now here he was -- clearly pregnant, clearly someone else's lover, and he'd never had the courage to tell her that she'd never had a chance... and... it hurt. A lot.
But if it turned out to be Julia's fault that Laguna lost the presidency -- or, Hyne help them all, the baby--
...panic later. Taking care of the president, her... her pregnant friend, came first.
Ward was cradling Laguna carefully, unwilling to put her -- him, got to keep thinking of him as him, can't let it slip to the press-- unwilling to put him down but unsure of what else to do.
Julia put a hand on Ward's shoulder, then bent to take Laguna's pulse. His heartbeat was rapid, but strong enough to reassure her; Laguna had simply passed out from too many shocks too close together, on top of the hours with his breath and blood circulation restricted.
She couldn't take the child's pulse nearly as easily as his, though. For the moment, the best she could do would be to call a doctor and hope -- no, not any doctor; too many in this town would be delighted to provide 'anonymous sources' in response for a large check from the company that broke the news. They needed Laguna's doctor -- Laguna had to have a prenatal doctor, didn't she? --he?
"Can you set him down for a moment, Ward?" she murmured. "There's something else I need to check."
His hesitation was clear in the set of his shoulders, but Ward carefully settled Laguna's limp form onto the sofa and brushed his hair back from his face with a big, gentle hand.
Feeling oddly shy, Julia reached down to touch Laguna's belly.
It was harder to think of Laguna as a man when she could feel the fullness of a ripening womb beneath her palm, and careful, gentle pressure revealed the curve of the child resting within.
The child lay very still, and Julia's heart leapt into her throat and lodged there.
"Oh, Hyne, please," she murmured, and pressed her fingertips more firmly against Laguna's abdominal wall.
There was a drowsy, disgruntled lurch within, and Julia could have cried with relief. "The baby's moving," she said to Ward, who broke into a wide grin at the news. "My sister's baby didn't like being prodded either; the little one's just wriggling a bit, but -- we were dancing. We may have rocked him to sleep; if we're lucky the baby didn't even notice the fall..."
Ward nodded reassuringly, and patted her hands in a quiet see? It'll be all right.
Only Julia was fairly sure it wasn't as easy as that -- falls could be dangerous for pregnant women, and she didn't think a pregnant Laguna would be all that different. "Ward, does she -- I mean he! -- does Laguna have a prenatal doctor? He's far enough along that someone should put a fetal monitor on h-him for a few hours, to make sure the baby's not in distress, and to make sure he's not c-contracting, and--" Her voice cracked, and she gulped hard and stammered, "I'm blathering now, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry; Hyne, I never would have thought -- never in a million years -- but if Laguna's baby is hurt because I wanted to dance with him, just for once, and I hadn't thought about the damned paparazzi, it's my fault and I... I don't know what I...!"
Hyne take it, she was crying after all.
Ward gathered Julia into the crook of an arm as though she weighed nothing. He brushed awkwardly at her tears with a fingertip, and wagged his finger in front of her nose.
"But it's all my fault--"
The finger pressed to her lips, and Ward shook his head.
A few more fingers joined the first, until he was convinced she would stay quiet about questions of blame and guilt; when she nodded meekly into his hand, he flashed her an oddly shy smile and set her on the end of the sofa next to Laguna. Then he fished a notepad out of his pocket and scribbled on it quickly.
I call dr., you talk. Where can we go that dr. can meet us w/o press?
"Oh," Julia said. "The musicians are staying in a suite on the 27th floor, and I have the corner room -- you dial and I'll talk, and you can carry Laguna while we take the service elevator in the back, all right?"
* * * * *
The doctor Ward had called was a briskly efficient, middle-aged man who brooked no nonsense; under his direction, Ward and Kiros had Laguna out of the uniform and into a soft flannel pair of pajamas in about two minutes. The doctor crisply dictated how Laguna was to be placed in bed -- lying on his side so that the weight of the womb wouldn't compress important arteries, hips tilted forward but not too far, pillows gathered to support his abdomen and to prevent him from rolling onto his back. Then, with Ward steadying Laguna's shoulder and hip, the doctor broke open a capsule of ammonia and waved it lightly beneath his nose; Laguna flinched back from the smell, and made a rather pitiful noise of protest.
"...ngh...!" Blinking back tears at the fumes, Laguna asked fuzzily, "What...? I mean... where...?"
The doctor had already discarded the ammonia capsule, and flicked up the pajama top in order to apply the sensor patches of a fetal monitor to Laguna's belly.
Laguna was slowly reconnecting to the world, and his eyes widened when he saw Julia. Then he looked down at the doctor's hands on his bare, distended abdomen; he clutched the bedsheet up to his chin desperately, stuttering in panic.
"Don't! I mean -- not in front of-- I mean-- oh, Hyne, please, Dr. Rheinmann, not right now..."
"The young lady was the one who spoke to me on the phone," the doctor said. "I assure you she's already well aware of your condition."
"She is? I mean -- she did? I mean -- of course Ward wouldn't, but-- um--"
"Yes, she did." Dr. Rheinmann flicked aside Laguna's bedsheet and tugged down the waistband of the pajamas despite another frantic yelp, applying another sensor patch low on the curve of his abdomen. "And you wouldn't have needed to face me if you'd had the sense to say no to the diplomatic functions, stop compressing your abdomen with that idiotic corset, and rest while you wait for the end of your gestation."
"I'm the President," Laguna said, still miserable. "I can't say no to everything--"
"If you'd said no to this, you wouldn't have fallen and risked a miscarriage," the doctor said, brutally blunt, and all the color faded from Laguna's face again. "Make your choice, boy. Your child's life depends on your caution now."
"Oh, that's going to go over just great," Kiros muttered, digging a hand through his hair. "'Sorry, gang, the President's calling in pregnant for the next couple months. You can just run the government without him.'"
"If he expects to keep his child, then he'd better try," the doctor snapped at Kiros, not giving an inch. "As I said, it's his responsibility and his choice."
"Can you imagine the press conference, Doc?" Kiros drawled. "'The president got himself pregnant? How the hell did that happen?' 'Well, he used to be a man, but then the animals that got their hands on him during the war made him an it!' Yeah, that'll make for great headlines."
"Kiros," Laguna whispered, and there were tears standing unshed in his eyes.
"'So how'd the president get itself pregnant, you say? It took it up the ass from some shemale out in the backassward hinterlands,'" Kiros continued doggedly, "'and it's got a gutful of spawn that for all we know could turn out to have fur and claws because the Shumi thought he was too bald as well as too male and--'"
Julia hadn't even realized she was moving before her hand cracked across his face.
"Stop it!" she shouted. "Both of you stop it right now!"
"Tell me I'm wrong!" Kiros challenged her. "I damn well dare you. You tripped over the mess he's made of his life tonight. I've been standing here for the past half a year watching him fuck up everything he spent his life fighting for because those damned animals thought they were improving him -- and he doesn't even stop to think that the thing he's got growing in his gut could kill him! It's not human, nothing about this is-- and this mad-scientist asshole just wants to finish observing his experimental test case so he can get his exposé published in all the medical journals--"
"Get out," Julia said, shaking all over.
"Tell me I'm wrong."
"Get the hell out!"
"I'd like to see you try and make me, little diva--"
Ward picked Kiros up by a fistful of his shirt, and carried him over to the door, and set him outside just hard enough to stagger him.
"All right. All right, I'll go cool off. But don't leave that quack alone with him," Kiros said urgently, as Ward closed the door in his face.
Dr. Rheinmann was calmly adjusting the readings on the fetal monitor, as Laguna clung desperately to the blanket he'd buried his face in, his shoulders heaving with sobs.
"This type of uncontrolled emotional upheaval isn't healthy for the child either," the doctor said almost conversationally, all his attention focused on the readings from the sensors he'd applied. "If he panics himself into contractions, there isn't much I can do for him; his endocrine chemistry's too much unlike a woman's for the usual drugs. I told him this was a terrible idea from the start, between the media attention and the binding he uses for concealment at this late stage..."
"You get out too," Julia said, fists clenched.
The doctor actually looked at her for the first time then, brows arched. "Excuse me? Girl, it's my duty as a physician to make sure he understands the risks he's chosen to take, and the risks he continues to choose. If he marches out there in uniform for the Freedom Celebration despite all this, I won't be held responsible for the consequences--"
Ward was much less gentle when he picked the doctor up by the scruff of the neck and deposited him outside the door.
He looked at Julia warily; she looked back just as warily. The only sound in the room came from the beeping of the fetal monitor and the little choking gasps of Laguna's tears; Ward wavered and broke, hurrying over to gather Laguna into his arms, blanket and pillows and all.
He couldn't speak his reassurances, but he rubbed Laguna's back tenderly, smoothing his hair, breathing in little anxious huffs that were as close as he could come to a vocal reminder of I'm here, I'm right here.
The fetal monitor was chattering something that involved printouts and beeps; Julia looked at the screen, and couldn't even begin to make sense of the numbers and the abbreviations. "Ward," she asked softly, "do you know what the monitor's protesting about?"
Laguna sniffled hard and gulped back his tears long enough to say, "K-kicking. He h-hates it when I'm upset... I'm s-such a useless, sopping wreck--"
Ward planted his palm over Laguna's mouth, with a stern look. The tears spilled free again; with a soft sound of frustration, Ward held him closer, rocking him back and forth as though he weighed no more than the child he carried.
"No matter what I do," Laguna whispered, and gulped hard. "No matter what, I l-lose something precious. I can't choose. I can't sacrifice my country, and... I can't sacrifice my c-child...!"
"You don't have to, silly," Julia said, and sat next to Ward so that she could hold Laguna's hands. "Those two stubborn blockheads have been fighting over you for months, haven't they."
Ward gave her a startled look that quickly shifted into consideration; Laguna made a tearful attempt at excusing them.
"They c-can't help it. Dr. Rheinmann doesn't care about the country, and Kiros cares about me but not about the b-baby, and..."
"They can too help it," Julia interrupted him, fierce and stubborn. "They have no right to treat you like a bone to be torn apart in the middle of their arguments!"
His eyes glittering with a dark amusement, Ward turned Laguna's chin toward her in a silent listen to her, she's making sense.
"But they're right," Laguna murmured, and scrubbed the back of his hand across the tear-streaks on his face. "I can't have it both ways, can I? Even tonight... the President has to preside at the Freedom Celebration, but... my son needs his mother to rest..."
"Who says the President has to be there at the Freedom Celebration, when a flock of idiot reporters has just knocked him down and aggravated his war injuries?" Julia asked. "You can't send Ward; I'm sure the ceremony takes a lot of speech-making. But Kiros can certainly make speeches in your place."
Ward's broad grin and a nudge in the ribs conveyed I bet he'll just love making speeches in your place. The good-natured sarcasm was palpable in the air; Laguna elbowed him back, and then ran a weary hand down his face.
"I've needed to rely on the 'war injuries' so many times already--"
"You've got at least two dozen networks with live footage of their own correspondents mobbing you and knocking you flat this evening," Julia said. "Have Kiros tell them their assault and your fall caused you to sprain your back. The injury and the therapy could certainly take you out of the limelight for several weeks -- or even, say, the next few months."
Laguna streaked his hand across his eyes again, blinking at her in growing astonishment. "My dear, when did you get to be so devious?"
Ward snorted his opinion of that; Julia translated wryly, "It's not our fault you wouldn't know 'devious' if it walked up and bit you, you sweet silly man."
"...Um." Biting his lower lip, Laguna looked away, and mumbled, "The jury's a bit hung on that particular topic."
"Well, then the jury is made up of fools," Julia replied, and tweaked the tip of his nose. "You are the sweetest and the silliest man I've ever known. Isn't he, Ward?"
Ward nodded, and rumpled Laguna's hair for him.
"I can give you two parts of that," Laguna said, still awkwardly uncomfortable, one self-conscious hand cupped against the fullness of his belly. "But... Kiros wasn't wrong; I'm ...not exactly..."
"You're a man," Julia said. "You're a man who's been given something more. A unique gift, and a treasure entrusted to you alone." She cupped a hand behind his head and kissed his forehead lightly. "Be proud of your treasure, you silly darling. And be happy. Don't ever be ashamed of him, and don't ever be ashamed of yourself."
She'd meant it to cheer him up. So when Laguna's eyes welled up with tears again, Julia didn't know what she'd done wrong.
"Oh, Hyne, please don't cry," she begged, and looked up at Ward for help. "What did I do? I didn't mean to--"
Ward patted her shoulder with a big, gentle hand, even as he offered Laguna the box of tissues at the bedside; Laguna took a handful, and blew his nose, and scrubbed fiercely at his cheeks, and said in a breaking voice, "I'm sorry--"
"Don't be sorry!" Julia said, hands on her hips. "Tell me what I did wrong, so I don't--"
But Ward put his hand over her mouth before she could finish, and tucked her head against his shoulder, and tucked Laguna against his other shoulder, with one strong arm curved carefully about his waist. Ward tilted her chin down a bit, so that she could watch his hand patting Laguna's snugly rounded belly; then he let her go.
"I don't understand," Julia said, frustrated at herself; Laguna made a little hiccuping sound that was half sob and half chuckle, and blew his nose again.
"Ward's right; not your fault... just... h-hormones..." He took another handful of tissues and scrubbed at his face, gulping for air. "You're both ...both too kind to me, and... I'm a sniveling mess, and... my poor son...!"
Ward nudged a fingertip under Laguna's chin affectionately. When Laguna lifted tear-bleary eyes to him, he laid his cheek against the back of his hand and closed his eyes and whistled breath through his teeth in a soft mimicry of snores.
Laguna blew his nose again, and mopped at the tears on his face for the dozenth time, and said a bit peevishly, "I'm not that tired. I need to give Kiros the details of the speech, and--"
Ward rolled his eyes.
"...Yes, I know Kiros wrote most of it. ...Nearly all of it. But he's got no taste for the dramatic, and..."
Ward patted the bed firmly.
"I'm not about to put a lady out of her own bed!"
Ward glanced at Julia for permission; she nodded vigorously, and so he patted the bed again, then folded his arms and cleared his throat.
"But I can't, I couldn't..." Laguna looked to her for help, then realized how much of a lost cause it was; she had her arms crossed in a playful imitation of Ward's much more imposing posture, and Laguna's shoulders drooped.
"You should listen to Ward more often, you know," Julia said. "He's a wise man."
"I'm an officer and I like to think myself still a gentleman, and I am not about to take your bed from you!" When Laguna crossed his arms right back at them, it simply emphasized the pout of his rounded tummy, and those silly blue flannel pajamas really didn't do much for his dignity either.
Julia was sure he thought his posture made him look stern and impressive, though, and so she tried to fight back giggles that would hurt his pride. "I should take the bed because it's my room?" she mused, a finger to her lips. "But if this were your room, Laguna, and if I were a pregnant guest -- then what would you do?"
"Of course I'd give you the bed," Laguna said, bristling with righteous indignation. "As I said, I'd like to think I am still a gentleman!"
"You are," Julia agreed, smiling at him. "And I'd like to think I am still a lady, however devious I may have gotten. And since you're my pregnant guest, it's clear that the only polite thing to do is to see that you rest comfortably!"
"But you're-- but I'm-- but--" Laguna sputtered to a stop, only then realizing the corner he'd talked himself into.
"You wouldn't force me to be a rude and inconsiderate person, would you? As an officer and a gentleman?" Julia asked, and fluttered her eyelashes at him for full effect.
Laguna's voice quivered somewhere between scandalized and unwillingly impressed. "You manipulative creature, how did you just do that?"
"It's called scheming," Julia said, and patted his cheek lightly. "It's one of those skills that comes along with deviousness. Be a dear and lie on your side, will you? The doctor was quite emphatic about that."
"Ward," Laguna said warily, even as he shifted around to lie down where she pointed. "Did you have any idea she was so devious when you let her kidnap us both?"
Ward smiled the smile of a cat with a full bowl of cream; he fluffed a pillow and tucked it beneath the curve of Laguna's belly, then patted his hip with a big, careful hand.
"I didn't ask if you approved, I asked if you suspected -- oh, never mind! I can tell when I'm both outnumbered and outgunned, honestly." With a small huff, he settled his head against his pillow and tried a sideways glare. "And I'm not tired."
Ward didn't even bother to 'reply', tucking a blanket over him in gentle amusement.
"I'm not," Laguna insisted. "I'm too frightened to be tired. I'm such a clumsy fool -- I know it's psychosomatic; I know my leg spasms more when I'm nervous. If I'd just kept myself calm, I might not have fallen, and if I've hurt him because I'm too -- too insecure, too much a coward--"
"It's not your fault," Julia said, startled. "It's my fault -- I've been a celebrity ever since your song became a hit; I should've expected that the journalists would go mad at the chance for a gossip column with a headline like that. It's my fault for not thinking, and--"
Ward huffed in exasperation and gave a quick, pithy charade of tearing a camera away from a journalist, breaking it in half, and shoving the sharp bits up somewhere unpleasant. He glared at them both until they looked away; then he patted Laguna's side through the soft curve of the blanket, and gestured toward the door.
"Oh -- but -- but Kiros doesn't like theatrics. Really, I should at least tell him where to make the dramatic pauses, and when to--"
Ward put a big solid hand on his hip and pointed a finger at him sharply, the clearest Sit, boy Julia had ever seen anyone use on something that wasn't a dog.
Ward shook his finger sternly, and then gestured at the fetal monitor.
Laguna wilted immediately.
"I'll be good," he murmured, with those vivid green eyes dimmed by guilt as he smoothed the blanket against the fullness of his unborn son. "I'm sorry I'm such a nuisance, Ward."
Ward curved his hand against Laguna's cheek gently, with a wry quirk to his lips.
"...Yes, I know you're a pushover for a pretty face. Frankly, I'm not certain whether I should be smug or concerned about that, given the number of state secrets I persist in relying upon you to keep." Tilting his head against Ward's careful hand, he added, "Shouldn't you be lecturing that drama-impaired logician out in the other room? He's so ...sensible. Coaxing a grand, resonant, magnificently emotion-wrought performance out of him is going to be like wringing blood from a rock, I'll have you know."
Ward huffed again, and then turned to touch Julia's shoulder. He glanced back and forth between her and the fetal monitor; she nodded vigorously, anxious to reassure him.
"Don't worry -- I'll be sure to call the doctor if the monitor gives any alarms, or if Laguna has any sort of difficulty, or anything like that. I promise."
He nodded grave acceptance, entrusting her with the responsibility of caring for his stubborn, impulsive friend; then he stood and slipped out surprisingly quietly for someone of his size.
Even before the door slid closed, they both heard Kiros' voice from the suite, sounding near frantic despite Laguna's teasing words about his sensibleness: "How is he? Is he all right...?"
Softly, sadly, Laguna murmured, "I've always known that Kiros cares about me. I just wish... that he could care, just a little bit, about my son."
The silence stretched out awkwardly again, punctuated only by the steadily beeping monitor; Julia struggled for something to say. Because something like So, how long have you known you preferred having sex with men? I really would've appreciated knowing that before I spent so long pining over you, especially if you never intended to come back for me really wasn't a good conversation-starter.
"Funny, isn't it," Laguna said, with a faint, crooked smile; he never had been able to bear silence, had always needed to fill it with his bright chatter. "Of all the times I fantasized about what it might be like -- the two of us, together, waiting for a baby's birth -- somehow this particular arrangement never suggested itself to me. Life has the most remarkable ways of astonishing a person."
"You -- but... I mean... you really thought about it?" Julia asked, bewildered. "But -- then why didn't you ever come back? I thought -- isn't your lover a man?"
Laguna sighed deeply, and began to try to sit up.
"Oh no you don't," Julia said, and braced both hands on his shoulders to keep him still. "Ward will snap me in two like a matchstick if I let you go and hurt yourself!"
"This really isn't a conversation I can have while lying here like a three-year-old put down for a nap," Laguna said, his face faintly pinked with embarrassment. "I think better on my feet--"
"No, no, no," Julia scolded. "You don't think on your feet. You pace and chatter and fidget on your feet, and your leg cramps up when you get nervous; and if I let you walk around fretting and you fall again, I'm serious, Ward will break me into tiny bits--"
With a rueful laugh, Laguna held up both hands. "Yes, yes, I surrender! I won't get up and pace, I promise. Just let me sit up? ...please?"
It was the please that did it, that and the laughter in those unfairly shining eyes. Cursing herself for a fool for a dozen different reasons, Julia slipped her arms about him and helped him sit up, hating herself for enjoying it -- the warmth and the weight of his body, the faint caress of his breath, the gentle strength in the hand he used to steady himself against her shoulder. ...And even the heavy warm fullness of his belly; even the soft, silly tickle of the flannel pajamas.
She wished she could be disgusted, because it would be easier that way: easier to convince herself she wasn't still hopelessly in love with her shyly smiling young soldier, now that he'd so clearly found another to love. But she couldn't find it in herself to be disgusted by his condition. It was simply ...a part of him. It was a part of the overflowing joy in life that he spilled into the world at large, whether or not the world deserved it.
The pajamas hadn't been designed for maternity needs; she wondered if he'd borrowed them from Ward. They were a bit too broad in the shoulders but drawn snugly taut over his roundness, scrunched up a bit from the stretching, revealing the deep curve cradled by the pajama bottoms. His girth had forced him to leave the drawstring untied, and he tugged at the hem of the top in embarrassment at what it revealed. But then he surrendered the last scraps of his body-modesty with a rueful sigh, instead seeking a comfortable position to sit.
She couldn't stop watching his hands; the loving wonder with which he touched the visible flutter of a strong kick from within, the gentle delight as he curved both hands tenderly against his distended belly...
...she wanted that for herself. She wanted to feel Laguna's gentle hands touching her with such breathless adoration, touching their baby. Theirs, not his alone, his from some other lover--
Damn it all to hell. She was not going to be jealous.
...except that she already was.
Trying to distract herself, she gathered up the blanket and tried to tuck it over him; Laguna caught her hand.
"It's nearly July, you know," he said, rueful and amused. "I indulge Ward because he's so very overprotective, but... can it be our little secret if the blanket happened to be tossed aside?"
Julia nodded because she didn't trust her voice not to break; she gathered up the blanket, hugging it to her chest, knowing she looked like a sulkily jilted lover, but she couldn't help it. Laguna's face tightened with concern; he reached to cup a warm hand against her shoulder, then against her chin, and the anxious dismay in his eyes was too unfair.
"I've hurt you, haven't I?" he murmured. "Of course I've hurt you -- to come stumbling back into your life like this... I've always been so horribly awkward at everything, when I'm around you."
Julia shook her head a little, but couldn't find words to argue.
"I can't seem to help it," he said, with a small sigh. "You're always so beautiful and so graceful that my heart skips and my tongue ties itself into knots, to say nothing of my stupid leg, and then everything else just goes downhill from there... I like to pretend I'm a gentleman, but really what I've always been is a clumsy lovestruck fool."
"Don't say that if you don't mean it," Julia said, and her voice broke despite all her training. "You love men, don't you? You love a man--"
"I didn't know she was a man when I fell in love with her," Laguna said meekly, twisting the bedsheet between his fingers. "It was as much a surprise to me as to anyone."
"You'd think some things would be a little hard to overlook when you're having sex with each other," Julia said, and hated herself for sounding so bitter. "Can't you even lie to me? Can't you just lie and tell me that you never came back for me because you didn't know how to tell me you were gay? I'd rather be a fool who fell in love with a gay man than to have to think that I waited for you all this time, praying you weren't hurt, scared every single time I saw news of a battle, terrified you were dead because you'd never even written, but you just forgot--"
His brow furrowed with distress, Laguna leaned forward awkwardly and pulled her into his arms, cradling her head against his shoulder, carefully rubbing between her trembling shoulderblades as she wept.
"I never forgot you," he murmured into her hair. "And I've never stopped loving you. It's just that... things got complicated."
"Complicated?" she choked.
"I couldn't have asked you to wait for me!" he protested. "If you'd agreed when I'd asked you to wait for a fool like me-- I couldn't do that to you, not when -- I mean, I should have died by any rights, but instead I went and took over the enemy government almost by accident and -- oh, dear. It won't make any sense anyway, but I should at least try to start at the beginning?"
"Make it good," Julia muttered, hating the tears trickling down her cheeks.
He dug a hand through his hair, and sighed a little. "After the Estharian soldiers caught up with us, when I was injured -- the Shumi saved my life, as well as ...rearranging me so that this could happen," he admitted, patting his belly. "Only they didn't exactly explain what they'd done. And I was glad to be alive, of course I was, but I didn't know if I'd ever walk again. I couldn't ask you to wait for a cripple, and ...and honestly, I never even found out where the Winhill post office was," he mumbled, guilty-voiced. "The townspeople didn't like me much. Raine was the only one with the patience to put up with me while I was trapped in bed and going stir crazy. --Crazier, I suspect. You know how I get when I get nervous and I can't pace? Well, multiply that by half a year. I suspect the poor dear had to nurse me back to mobility just to shut up my chattering!"
Somehow, Julia didn't find that hard to imagine at all. It would have been charitable to disagree with him, but she couldn't find a way to argue. And then Laguna had launched himself into the next tangled-up, nearly sheepish ramble about how hopefully he hadn't caused too much trouble for anybody but he'd kind of gone and saved the world and he hoped maybe she might forgive him for it.
"So then when I'd just gotten back on my feet, the sorceress Adel kidnapped little Ellone because she wanted another body, and I couldn't just let the Estharians take her. I did get her back; that was one thing I did right! But I was going up against a sorceress while I wasn't entirely, um, recovered. I certainly hadn't been able to keep in fighting condition while I was bedridden. I could walk again, but throwing myself back into a war zone... it really was remarkably stupid of me, even in a life Kiros will assure you has been more than filled with spectacularly stupid decisions on my part. And, when you're talking about potential marriage prospects, being a recent ex-invalid planning to take on the sorceress who rules an entire flying city-state with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and servants at hand -- that just isn't a job description with a whole lot of career advancement potential. ...Or even survival potential really. I don't have the faintest idea why Kiros and Ward followed me into that mess..."
Because they love you and they'd die for you, you silly man, Julia thought tiredly, blinking hard at the tears as she rested against his warm, solid strength and tried not to think about how fragile the heart beating beneath her cheek truly felt.
"Well, anyway, in order to get Ellone back, I kind of not-quite-killed the sorceress," he mumbled. "So we had to get rid of what was left of her before she caused any more trouble. And that's not easy either; it turns out that when they all-the-way die, they can take over other women, so figuring out what to do with her not-a-corpse got complicated too. So we figured we'd launch her body into outer space. We didn't know what else to do with her, really. And then after we got done with all that, I turned around and discovered I'd kind of gotten myself elected president when I wasn't paying attention. Ward says it serves me right; I'm not so sure I'd agree..."
"Trust me, it does," Julia sighed. "I'm certain you entirely deserved that."
"That's not very kind of you," Laguna said, a bit sulkily. "...Unless it is kind of you, of course. I'm still not quite clear on how he meant that. I mean, I was kind of the president of Esthar while I was still technically missing in action from the Galbadian army, you know? And, well, there was that whole 'years and years of war between Galbadia and Esthar' issue to think about. So I think maybe technically I was supposed to capture myself and turn myself in, being the enemy leader and all, but I -- I really didn't want to. I shudder to imagine what the court martial would have been like, and... I mean... um."
He gulped for breath, then said all in a rush, "I'm so sorry, but there really wasn't a good point for me to try to find you in the middle there. First I didn't think I was going to survive and then I was running off to do something pretty suicidal and then I'd kind of gone and taken over the enemy government by accident, and... it was... um... I-know-you-hate-this-word-but it was complicated? ...I'm really, really sorry," he added awkwardly, patting her back with a careful hand.
"...Hyne." Julia gulped hard, and reached over for another of the tissues from the box on the nightstand. "Only you. Only you in all the world could make that kind of insanity nearly make sense..."
She wiped her eyes, and glared miserably at the streaks of her stage makeup on the tissue; she'd probably just turned herself into a soggy raccoon. "So... I mean... did the Shumi experiment on someone else too? Is that where you met him? --I mean her?"
"Oh, they weren't experimenting," Laguna said anxiously, patting her hands. "They knew exactly what they were doing! It's hardly their fault I didn't realize what they'd done. They meant well -- they thought I'd been, er, partially gelded. Or would it be spayed? ...Um. I'm not so sure I want to think of myself as having been prenatally spayed because I'd been born a boy. But I suppose, looking at it from their perspective, that's why they were so very sympathetic -- in any case. They're ...both, and I ...wasn't, and I was the first human they'd ever cared for; I took care of one of their little chaps in the prison, and they were grateful, and... anyway. They weren't experimenting with me; they were doing the best they knew how, and -- truly, I'm so grateful I have no words. ...All right, maybe just a few. I'm certainly never out of words. --But I'd never, never regret my son's life, even if he was a bit of a shock at first!"
Parsing through the blur of information, she picked out a new nugget amidst the torrent of madness that he made sound so nearly inevitable. "...You were captured and imprisoned too?" Julia asked faintly, leaning her forehead against his shoulder for support.
"Er, did I forget to mention that part?" Sheepishly, he scratched behind an ear. "Adel's men weren't best pleased to find three mad Galbadian soldiers trying to infiltrate the place and assassinate her without any backup. Looking back on it now, I can laugh, because if I don't I would likely go mad with delayed terror; but I'm fairly certain your major had quite a personal grudge against me."
"Caraway's a general now," Julia said dully, eyes closed. "My mother says I should have married him ages ago."
"He's a cad and a boor," Laguna said in vigorous indignation, "and a jealous wretch who nearly got Kiros and Ward killed because they were stupidly loyal enough to follow me out on the fool's errand he hoped to use to dispose of me! You should certainly do better for yourself! And I'm not simply saying this because he abused his authority to try to have me killed; he's a cad and a boor regardless of our rivalry for your hand--"
He caught his breath to launch into another tirade, but then choked and wheezed a little at a vehement kick that Julia felt as clearly as he did. To her bewilderment, he seemed to crumple at that reminder, patting his distended abdomen with a hand that wasn't quite steady.
"But then," he murured, "I have quite lost any right to advise you on matters of the heart, haven't I. If nothing else... he stayed for you."
"I never asked him to," Julia muttered. "And he hardly gains points for staying when he sent you off on a suicide mission against a sorceress in order to get you out of his way!"
Laguna chuckled softly, still a bit breathless from the kick in the lungs. "Well, I would tend to think not, but I must confess a slight bit of personal bias on that issue."
He shifted his weight carefully, trying to ease his discomfort without disturbing her; Julia sighed to herself, and decided that as long as she was a hopeless fool, she might as well be damned in the bargain. She slipped her arms around his waist, nestled her head against his shoulder, and began to rub firmly at the hollow of his back; he made a startled noise that quickly faded into a near moan of relief.
"You are an absolute angel of mercy, my dear," he declared, eyes drifting closed in helpless bliss as he rested his cheek against the crown of her head.
For the first time, she realized where the greatest difference in him had come from. The first time they'd talked the night away -- the last time she'd seen him -- he'd been a wide-eyed, stammering boy, too nervous to sit in a lady's bedroom, so obviously a virgin and so painfully aware of it that she'd felt old and worldly-wise by comparison. He still stammered and blushed just as charmingly, and he still rambled off into anecdotes at the drop of a conversational happenstance -- but his agonizingly self-conscious discomfort with his body had been lost along the way, most likely at the hand of the one who had introduced him to sexual pleasure.
Before, he'd skittered away from the bed as though it might explode into flames at any moment. Now he lay beside her, resting as comfortably as his child-burdened body would permit; and he no longer flinched with that frantic boyish shame. He was simply ...content, touching her, letting her rest against him, feeling her hands move upon his body in what she had to admit she'd offered as a deliberately pleasurable, almost sensual massage. After he'd shared his body with another, he'd lost both his anguished humiliation at his sexual ignorance and his hypersensitive, nearly terrified awareness of her body.
And yet, somehow, the experiences that had taken his ignorance hadn't taken his innocence.
For that gift alone, she could have blessed the unnamed lover who'd taught him what it was to love. Whoever he was, he must have been kind enough to handle Laguna's young, trembling, wide-eyed fumblings toward sexuality, not with mere physical lust but with the kind of appreciation that treasured his innocence and yet kindly filled in his lack of experience. For all the pain he'd been put through in the war, he had never had that bright spirit broken, and his lover had held him lightly enough to let him leave when his meandering path through life had taken him to nearly accidentally save the world.
If she were truly honest with herself, Julia wasn't sure she would have been as generous. He was warm and radiant and wonderful, even more so now that he'd matured into the potential he'd always held behind that boyish awkwardness, and she'd always loved the hope-bright possibilities she'd seen brimming in his eyes. And now that he'd been awakened to his own potential, now that she'd held him in her arms and he hadn't flinched away, she knew how much it was going to hurt when she had to let him go again.
But then, she didn't have to let go yet. Not just yet.
"Why are you trying so hard not to tell me anything about your lover?" Julia asked, idly curious.
Then Laguna flinched, like a child caught with a hand in the cookie jar. In dismay, he asked, "Was I being that obvious about it?"
"Only to those of us who are masters of deviousness, treachery, and deceit like myself," she told him.
He sounded so pathetically hopeful that Julia wasn't sure whether she should be amused or guilty.
"Or to anyone else with eyes," she admitted with a sigh, and patted his belly in a wry reminder. "It's not like I could have missed noticing that you've had sex, you know. Honestly -- if you love him so, why would you hide him?"
"That's -- she's not -- I mean, she is, technically, a he, but she's -- oh, dear," he said feelingly. "It's ...complicated."
Julia fixed him with her best teasing glare. "How can it possibly be more complicated than finding yourself standing in the middle of the enemy nation you'd conquered nearly singlehandedly when you'd barely recovered enough to walk, except that you apparently haven't the common sense to recognize the impossible -- and so you and the two maniacs who worship you just fought your way in and overthrew the Sorceress in charge and then didn't notice the rest of the country was busily electing you president?"
"...Um." Laguna looked up at the ceiling, lost in thought. "I'm fairly sure there's an answer to that. Give me a minute to think of one."
"More complicated," Julia pressed, warming to her subject, "than finding yourself pregnant because you rescued an animal in a prison you got yourself locked into when you were captured in the middle of saving the world because you were too polite to just disobey the irrational orders from a jealous bastard who wanted you dead to keep you out of his way?"
"Oh, good heavens, it wasn't the Shumi who got me pregnant! They were just the enablers, so to speak--"
He looked away, but hadn't broken yet, with more resolve than she'd thought he had in him; suddenly it wasn't quite so ludicrous that he could run a country. And so Julia decided that as long as she was so far into it, she might as well pull out all the dirty tricks in her arsenal.
She sat back on the bed so that she could look him in the eyes, one foot tucked up under herself so that the slit in her dress showed off the curve of her other thigh, and she took a deep breath and bent forward and curved both hands against his belly.
He'd been doing an admirable job of not looking, up until she'd brought his unborn child into the picture; he couldn't resist looking down then, and his eyes caught and stuttered at the pale sweep of her thigh and her cleavage and the wicked little smile at her lips, and he froze like a startled mouse looking at an entirely too smug housecat.
"Why won't you tell me?" she asked, in her best husky, sultry diva-voice, and caressed the roundness filling out the silly flannel pajamas as though he were wearing silk and a great deal less of it. "I thought you were happy to be expecting your son -- you couldn't be so cruel as to to be ashamed of him...?"
He had to swallow hard three times before he managed to rasp, "No."
"If you're not ashamed of your son, why are you ashamed of your son's father?"
"No," he gasped, eyes closed tight, but he couldn't make himself push her away, and she made certain to continue those distracting little caresses over the curving that he couldn't bear to ignore. "I'm not ashamed of her; it's... it's not my secret to tell..."
"But then -- don't tell me he's ashamed of you!" Julia cried, and the outrage in her voice was nearly entirely feigned. ...Nearly, but not quite entirely, because a good performer always found a nugget of truth to tie her emotional projections to.
It seemed to be working quite nicely on poor defenseless Laguna, as well. "No!" he yelped, and even dared open his eyes to look at her again, but Julia wasn't about to let him off so easily.
"That's it, isn't it?" she breathed. "What an awful, horrible person, to go and abandon you like that -- was it because you're a man, and he hadn't expected you could get pregnant? The nerve -- the sheer gall of that -- that -- selfish, inconsiderate, irresponsible--"
"Julia, please," he begged, clearly miserable.
"A person's lover ought to take responsibility!" she told him fiercely; and she realized she was getting more upset than she'd meant to, because she couldn't help wondering if she might be a little bit right after all. "He should be there for you, when you're in your final trimester and you've been hurting and upset and trying to take care of all the world alone -- which in your case is even more apt than it might usually be for a single mother! If you can be president and keep struggling to take care of this entire stupid country, and he can't even take the time to take care of you--"
"But Ellone comes first!" Laguna cried. "Ellone has to come first! Raine can't be seen with me, she can't let anyone from the outside find Ellone. She can't let the next sorceress find her, or it'll all have been for nothing--"
And then a minute too late he clamped both hands over his mouth, wide-eyed with dismay. He curled up sharply, his knee tucked up and his hand knotted around his thigh in pain, and she felt badly for upsetting him so much that his leg cramped on him again.
But the fetal monitor continued its regular, unruffled chirps, with an occasional extra beep for the baby's stirrings within; she set to rubbing the spasming muscles in his thigh, silently, because he hardly needed to hear an 'I knew it' from her at the moment.
After a long, shivering silence, he whispered, "How did you do that...?"
"Oh, Laguna." She kissed his cheek softly, and threaded her fingers through his hair, and murmured, brow to brow, "That's why it's called deviousness, you silly gallant sweetheart. You love him, and you won't allow anyone to speak badly of someone you love. --I knew that sooner or later your heart would override whatever common sense Kiros might have managed to thump into you over the years!" she teased.
He still looked so utterly miserable that it hurt to see, though; she settled against him again, and this time she began massaging his middle instead of his back, because he seemed to be so very susceptible to reminders of the baby.
"Tell me," she said, half a suggestion and half an order, with her hand caressing an idle, gentle curve over his roundest place. "You know I'll pull it out of you sooner or later. What does Ellone have to do with why your lover can't be here with you through this?"
He fumbled through it awkwardly, hesitantly, glancing at her often to see if she was angry or revolted or hurt; Julia kept rubbing his middle with a steady, comforting touch, and she kept listening. It rambled as much as any of his stories -- more, even; he started with Ellone, with the way that the girl had to be protected from the chain of sorceresses' souls that stretched across time devouring the ones they touched.
And then there was Raine, who'd taken her in and protected her in a sleepy little village so fiercely inward-turned that anyone who hadn't lived in the village for five generations on either side was viewed with suspicion. Strangers weren't welcomed, which kept Ellone safe from snooping agents of the sorceresses; but then, a young, severely wounded Galbadian soldier hadn't been welcomed either. Not by anyone but Raine, who'd always had that soft spot for anyone who was in trouble because they were different.
And Raine's weakness for those who found themselves in trouble because of their differences stemmed in part from her own long-hidden secret -- that physiologically, she was male, though with so many feminine characteristics that it had been easier to live as a woman. But then, it was a tiny, insulated town, and she was living as a single woman running an inn. Inns were suspicious enough, because it was where strangers visited and stayed nights. Ellone could be excused, because she was a little girl staying through Raine's generosity. Laguna was old enough, and male enough, to set the gossips muttering.
And then there'd been Ellone again. She'd wanted a 'father' so desperately -- she'd taken to Laguna from the start, and she'd wanted so much for him to marry Raine, and had talked to her little friends wistfully about it, and their parents had talked about it much more crudely: a single woman who housed strangers, who'd been living under the same roof with a man for six months, and yet hadn't married him -- what was wrong with her? Had she no morals at all? Should Ellone be taken away from such a questionable and probably unwholesome living situation?
"Raine needed me to marry her after that, you see," Laguna murmured, head bent and eyes tightly closed, because he couldn't bear to look her in the face. "She couldn't continue to keep her secret and her family in that town without being wed. I had to marry her to make it right again. And I love her; I couldn't help loving her -- for her kindness, her courage, her stubborn independence that insisted that she would do what was right regardless of her neighbors' disapproval. She'd saved my life, and I'd repaid her by making her a source of gossip and risking her custody of her child, not to mention her life's secret. I love her, and she needed me to marry her, and... my only regret was that no law in the world would let me marry you both."
He stopped for a moment, fighting with himself, then continued in a lower voice, "I can't say that my motives were anywhere near pure. I love her, and I also feel so terribly guilty for what my staggering into her life has cost her... and... I mean, I know that she loves me, but... she'd never, ever wanted to leave Winhill. Ellone was part of her life before I was, and... when I went back and asked, she told me that the President's wife was too public a position for her, that she couldn't keep her secrets under the media scrutiny. I suppose I'd have an easier time believing it if I hadn't seen what gossiping busybodies she's kept her secret from there in Winhill. But she told me that if Esthar could be conquered by three silly madmen, then it wasn't enough protection to keep Ellone safe from the next sorceress. And I really couldn't argue that one, because I of all people knew exactly how silly and how mad we'd been.
"And... well... in the end, she couldn't leave. Not with Ellone to protect. I just... now that I've gone and gotten myself put in charge of things, I can't live there with her myself; I can't lead Esthar from Winhill, and she can't leave. There was nowhere I could hide her that would be better for Ellone than Winhill. I married her so that she could stay hidden with Ellone; I knew that when I left. And Raine loved her life there; it had always been her home, and I'd risked her home simply by surviving my wounds rather than dying quickly enough to spare her the rumors. I married her so that she could have a ring to show for our six months of gossip-worthy cohabitation as I healed. I gave her a missing soldier for a husband, to keep any local hotheads from thinking a single woman had to have a man to run her business. When I left, I didn't know if I'd live long enough to bring Ellone back, you see, and it was the only protection I could give her."
Then, suddenly angry with himself, he burst out, "I had no right to change the rules of the game for her by getting pregnant! I know that! If I'd had any idea it was even possible, I'd have taken precautions -- not that I'd trade his life for anything now that he exists, but I could have taken precautions if I'd known. I had no right to present her with the complication of a pregnant lover when she'd have had no way to brace for such a thing, no way to imagine it was even possible, not when we were both male -- or at least we both thought so at the time..."
"Raine took the news of your pregnancy badly?" Julia guessed, quiet-voiced.
"Eh? Oh, no, no! No, not at all -- I mean, she wouldn't take it badly if she knew, but. Um. I-didn't-tell-her. --So you mustn't think ill of her for leaving me alone through this! Because I'm fairly certain she wouldn't have if she'd known, but--"
"You didn't TELL him?!"
Julia hadn't meant to shout quite that loudly; Laguna cringed, and took refuge in chatter.
"I couldn't take the rest of her life from her! Not when I'd already caused her to risk so much and -- it's better this way! She'll love having an infant to dote on again, I know she will; it's not the baby that she'd have disliked about the news, it's just living with me-- or not living with me, but living with the President of Esthar, if you see the distinction? So this way she has the choice -- if she'd like to raise the baby, she can give it a peaceful life in Winhill, and if not I can 'adopt' a 'war orphan' and no one will be the wiser, and it's better for everyone all round--"
"Except, of course, that you're trying to rule the most powerful country in the world while keeping the secret that you're also a pregnant single parent, and you're driving yourself ragged trying to do it alone."
"I have Ward," Laguna protested. A heartbeat later, he added, "And Kiros too, of course! --just not quite the same way..."
"They're your advisors," Julia said bluntly, "not your lovers."
Distinctly pink around the edges, Laguna said, "They'd die of mortification if someone so much as hinted that! But they've both given me so much of themselves-- I could never ask for more devoted, more loyal--"
"They work for you, Laguna," she insisted. "They can be your most treasured friends as well as your employees, but it's still not the same. At the end of the day, even if you have one of them on guard around the clock, you get into bed alone and your baby's father isn't there to rub your back and listen as you tell all those stories that need to come spilling out of you before you burst with them. You need someone for you."
"I've managed all right so far--"
"You," Julia said in exasperation, "are the type of man who took down a sorceress nearly singlehandedly because you just don't recognize when you're in over your head! Anyone else would have said 'this is too much' and gotten backup. Not to mention a battle plan! You marched in with two overloyal fools, and even though you made it through, you told me yourself no one could have counted on surviving that. And you keep doing it. All the way through to tonight and that ridiculous speech -- the first advice you need on ruling a country, Mr. President? Sometimes, you have to learn to delegate! That's what they pay the bureaucrats for, you know!"
"...Oh," Laguna said. "Um. You'd be surprised how often Kiros tells me that too, actually. Or, well, maybe you wouldn't, considering--"
"Tell Raine what's happened," she said. "He has the right to know, and the right to comfort you when you need it."
"I can't," he murmured. "I can't make her make that choice. I just have to get through the next couple months and it'll be over and it'll be fine--"
"This shouldn't be a time you have to 'just get through!'" Julia said, forcefully. "You should be able to have enough time to yourself to treasure this! You might never let it happen again. You should be allowed to love your baby while you carry him, and not need to spend half your waking life fretting over how you're going to hide his existence from everyone--"
In hindsight, she could have kicked herself, because she should have known it would make him cry. If she'd been in his place, she'd have done the same. But at the same time, she couldn't not have said it, either. He'd made such a history of putting everything else in his life ahead of his own needs -- Ellone's rescue, Raine's life in Winhill, the entire damned country -- that as much as it hurt her to see his eyes filling with tears she'd caused, she couldn't tell herself that he hadn't needed to be reminded.
She couldn't apologize, and yet she couldn't just do nothing. She brushed the tears from his cheeks with her fingertips, and said, "Be gentler with yourself."
He made a noncommital sound, head bent.
"Are you angry with me?" Julia asked, not entirely sure she wanted to hear the answer; but he looked up immediately at that.
"No, of course not -- just angry at myself! I never make the right decisions, I never do what I ought, especially when there are so many different things I ought to be doing and I can't do them all and I can't choose which to not do and-- and you're right, I ought to delegate more, I ought to take more time for my son's sake, I'm just... so frantic and so tired, and tired of being tired, and... I'm so sorry."
"Don't apologize," she said. "You've done your best. You've always done your best, and more."
"But it's not good enough, is it? He deserves more, and my country deserves--"
"How," Julia demanded, hands on her hips, "did you manage to miss my point so thoroughly? You deserve more. You deserve time to enjoy him. You deserve a lover whose hand you can hold against him, who smiles with you when he kicks, who brings you crazy things in the middle of the night just because you're craving something -- you deserve for someone to always be there for you. Not someone who lives in another country because he can't be bothered to make the effort to share your life."
"But it's -- that's not why--"
Julia waved a hand helplessly. "I know. You love Raine, you won't hear anyone speak a word against him. Fine. I surrender that point. But you're a young man in the prime of his life, and -- even without knowing about the baby, if your husband expects you to be satisfied with a lonely life and nothing but masturbation when you're apart from each other for months at a time--"
"Julia!" he yelped, and he could still blush after all.
"I still say it's a damned poor deal," she insisted. "He gets protection from the gossips and the life he always wanted to keep; you get a cold bed."
"That -- that's not -- oh, dear. " Pink-cheeked with embarrassment, he stammered all in a rush, "That's not how it was, really. She t-told me... she told me s-she wouldn't mind. She knew I loved ...someone else too. I mean, we... it took months for me to heal, and I talk all the time, and of course I'd... I'd t-told her all about... you, and she said ...she said... --um. So anyway! You can't blame her, because she's really not like that, really--"
"Hold on," Julia said, feeling nearly as upended-and-shaken as she had when she'd walked into a dressing room full of an unexpectedly pregnant man. "You told your husband about me, and he said he doesn't mind if you have a lover?"
"...oh, Hyne." He dug both hands through his hair. "I didn't mean to imply anything, I swear! I just -- I've always loved you, I've never stopped, and I couldn't even if you tied me up and -- and I don't know what else, but it would have to be dire, and even then I doubt it would work. And of course Raine couldn't miss that I love you; I'm so horribly easy to read. But I love her too, and I knew she needed me, and I didn't know if I'd ever see you again -- or what you'd think of me, since I was a deserter from your country and all. I married her, and I don't regret marrying her; I'm just so horribly selfish that I wished I could have married you too. But even a president can't just do that; there are, you know, laws and such, and -- anyway, Raine was the one who brought up lovers; I never maligned your honor or-- or implied that I'd -- taken any kind of liberties or-- anyway, I only mentioned it because you thought she'd asked me to -- to -- but she hadn't -- but that's not to say that I'd ever go and -- and try to force my attentions on you because of my title or -- or -- oh Hyne."
Julia turned around, knocked her head against the wall sharply twice, and would have gone for a third if Laguna hadn't caught her by the shoulder hastily.
"What on earth are you doing?"
"Let me get this straight," she said a little giddily. "I have been throwing myself at you all night, running my hands over your body, flirting with everything but a sledgehammer between the eyes, and you just now tell me your absentee husband doesn't mind if you take lovers? Laguna, are you sure you're not entirely gay? Because otherwise I'm going to have to seriously question my sex appeal here--"
"No!" He was blushing so fiercely she could feel the heat in his cheeks when she cupped a hand to his face; he kept trying to look away from her, up and sideways and anywhere but straight ahead -- or down. "It's not you at all -- sweet Hyne, it's not you; it's -- it sounds so trite to say it's me, but -- I can't marry you, not when I'm already married. And you have no idea how much I regret that I can't marry you right now--"
"Laguna Loire," Julia said, incredulous, "are you seriously saying you won't sleep with me because you can't marry me?"
"Well, er, yes," he said, and now he was both blushing and bewildered, and it was a devastating combination. "I'd thought that would be obvious. I mean... you were the one talking about how someone who's precious deserves someone who can always be there--"
"I take it back," Julia muttered.
"--and I can't marry you, and you deserve that," he continued doggedly. "I'd never reduce what you are to me to a one-night stand. You're worth so much more than that, and I can't offer you more, and--"
"Yes, you can," she growled. "You can offer me a whole damn string of one night stands. In fact, I'm going to be quite miffed if you don't."
'Boggled' didn't quite cover it, she thought judiciously, watching him. He opened and closed his mouth several times, trying and failing to come up with sounds, let alone coherent words. Then he thumped a fist against his chest hard enough to make himself wheeze, and tried again, and that time he managed to rasp, "Pardon...?"
Clearly, the words weren't getting through to him. She took his face between both hands and hauled his chin up enough to give him a thorough kissing.
"...mmmph!" Laguna said intelligently, and flailed both hands around. She didn't let him go until she was thoroughly out of breath, though; and then he was panting and rumpled and pink-cheeked, and so she couldn't resist an encore performance.
It wasn't until she started unfastening the buttons of the pajama top that he went from incoherent flailing to outright panic, though; he caught her wrists and tried to turn his face away, and so she sat back on the bed and tried to rein in her frustrated desire.
"I'm going to ask you what's wrong," Julia panted, with what she considered remarkable aplomb under the circumstances. "And if you tell me it's because you can't marry me, Hyne help me, I'm going to make you regret it. So. What's wrong?"
He clutched the edges of the pajama top together, but his hands were shaking too badly to refasten the buttons. "I'm... not exactly... um. Not what I used to be? Not a young soldier in training or, um, manly or fit or... slender..."
"You have about ten seconds before I try to molest you again," she said. "Fair warning. If you have a reasonable explanation, make it quick."
"I... um... I don't want to disappoint you, or... revolt you, or--"
"You don't seriously mean that," she said, flat-voiced.
"For Hyne's sake, Laguna, do you really think I'm that shallow?"
"No, no, no-- there's nothing wrong with you!" he said, so generous and so vulnerable that it made her hurt. "You deserve someone witty and charming and collected, someone who doesn't stammer and trip over his own feet and doesn't get lost in his own office building. Some young officer who's -- who's brave and bright and handsome, and slim, who knows how to smile to charm you off your feet and can dance without stumbling and -- and -- you deserve someone so much better than me, and right now, looking at myself like this, it's... it's just... not what I'd wanted to be for you."
"There's not a thing wrong with being a family man," she told him, and trailed her fingertips over his curve with a gentle, teasing smile. "Nothing wrong with it at all."
"Of course there isn't," Laguna said miserably, "when you're forty. When you're forty you can have a potbelly and gray hair and crow's feet and a limp, and people will say that you're distinguished. When you're twenty-eight and you have a potbelly and a limp and don't even have the crow's feet to pretend with, it's not distinguished at all."
"But I don't mind," Julia murmured, and touched the buttons of his nightshirt again.
"But I do," Laguna said, both stubborn and pitiful at once. "This isn't how I wanted to be for you! I'd -- I'd always wanted to bow over your hand and say something witty and debonair, and then I'd take you out to a candlelit dinner with crystal glasses and really good wine -- I'd have needed to ask someone what really good wine was first, but I'd have had a chance to prepare, you see. And... we'd dance the night away, and then I'd sweep you off your feet with roses. And then... um. --I'd wanted to be gallant and refined and charismatic for you, because you deserve someone who can be your Prince Charming, and generally not an awkward stammering scatterbrain, and... um... at least a bit more slender..."
"You're such a romantic," Julia said, smiling. "Straight out of the fairytales, my shining prince..."
"There's nothing wrong with wanting to do these things properly," he mumbled.
"There is when it means that you won't even try to woo me if you don't have a balcony to do it from, silly."
Laguna blinked, and looked over at the window. "There's a balcony right there," he said, and reached for the curtains; in a bolt of sheer panic, she grabbed his hand to stop him, and only then took a breath to laugh.
"No, Laguna," she giggled, holding his hand between hers firmly. "We can't open the curtains."
"Whyever not?" he asked, bewildered. "Moonlight would be much more suitable than that pathetic little table lamp."
"Telephoto lenses," she told him, as gently as she could. "There are cameras that can take recognizable pictures from a mile away. The prints combined with a headline would earn someone millions, and could cost you your presidency. No moonlight, love. I'm sorry."
Somehow, it seemed to drain the last bit of spirit out of him. She waited for him to perk up and suggest something silly and desperately well-intentioned, like a paper cutout-moon and candles, or even flashlights in colored glasses; but he'd just closed down, staring blankly, numbly through the back of the fetal monitor.
He made a helpless little sound of frustration, and asked, "Why can't I ever, ever do anything properly? I mean, people who run entire countries are supposed to -- to know what they're doing, at the very least. People like that are supposed to be able to accomplish things. And yet somehow I can't even manage to give you just one properly romantic evening..."
Julia couldn't pretend she understood why it meant so much to him; but she didn't have to understand why to understand that it was terribly important to him, somehow, to do things 'right' for her. She brushed a lock of long dark hair back from his eyes, and bent forward to kiss his forehead.
"Remember that conversation we had earlier, Mr. President?" she asked lightly. "About the word 'delegation'?" She pulled her cell phone out of her purse, and hit speed dial.
"Jim? Are you and the crew still enjoying yourselves at the bar? ...good. Keep 'em all downstairs for a couple hours for me, will you? I'm going to call you back; see if you can find Ward -- that's the President's big, quiet assistant, not the one who's going to be making the speech for him this evening. --Right, him. Okay; talk to you again in about two minutes."
As Laguna gawked at her, she slipped her shoes back on and picked up his uniform and dress shirt and laid them across the end of the bed, and said, "Put those on again; I'll be right outside."
She wheeled the fetal monitor along into the suite, just in case he fussed himself into a panic about this, and she even closed herself and the monitor into the suite's hall closet to be completely sure Laguna couldn't overhear her when she called Jim back.
"Jim? Right. Can you ask Ward the types of things Laguna likes to eat, and have the hotel send someone up with dinner for two? --Oh. And tell them to send sparkling grape juice, not wine. And ask Annie if she'd mind if I get into her aromatherapy kit... yes, I know she'll be after me with crystals next. It's in a good cause, I swear. --Yes, you can sic her and her crystals on me. --No, I haven't lost my mind, thank you very much. If you've got time to tease me, go check about the President's dinner, you ingrate! --No, I won't owe you one if I'm taking Annie and her crystals off your hands. --Yes, I'll claim my payback later. Go on, Jim. Go. --Bye."
Julia listened carefully for any unexpected protests from the fetal monitor while she washed off the tear-splotched mess of her stage makeup and reapplied a much, much lighter version for her 'date' -- a quick dash of blush and some lip gloss, and that was all, since she hoped very much to not need to pay attention to how she got herself into a bed this evening. Her hair had been steadily sneaking loose from its chignon, though, what with the amount of time she'd spent with her head on his shoulder; that took longer to repair, and the rap at the door startled her until she remembered the room service.
She asked the slightly perplexed young waiter to leave the cart as well as the food, tipped him, and sent him on his way rather than letting him linger to serve their dinner. The process of setting out the dishes (on the desk she'd hastily covered in a sheet as an improvisational tablecloth) revealed that Ward, at least, had respectable taste in presidential dinners.
Aside from the sparkling juice in a champagne bucket of ice, the waiter had brought them an antipasto plate of crudites, cold cuts and pickles, crowned with a chrysanthemum beautifully carved from what must have begun its life as an ugly duckling of a turnip destined for culinary swandom. Then for their main course their plates held lobster on crisp fans of snow peas and lemon-scented rice, paired with seared filets on beds of crisp-fried potato tendrils shaped into a nest of sorts, and a gravy boat...
...no, wait, that wasn't gravy.
Julia took a closer sniff just to be sure.
Not gravy at all; that was chocolate.
Julia put the lid back on the second course to keep herself from thinking about it too hard, and dug a handful of floating candles out of Annie's aromatherapy kit. The bathroom glasses weren't precisely elegant works of art, but when filled to varying levels with water and with lit candles floating in them, they could almost have passed for a deliberate centerpiece. And, although she appreciated live music as much as anyone, both secrecy and haste suggested that her rehearsal CD with the instrumental backing-lines of her concert songs would be a quick and discreet substitute.
Satisfied with the arrangements under the kind of time-pressure available, she tapped on the bedroom door as a friendly alert before letting herself back in.
Laguna was wearing his uniform jacket on top but he still had his pajama bottoms on with it, and he was crouched on hands and knees peering under the bedskirt. When Julia cleared her throat, he yelped as though she'd stepped on his toe and sat back on his heels hastily.
"I'm not doing anything rash, I promise! It's just that -- the doctor must have absconded with my, er... --I swear these trousers fit me three weeks ago! They really did!"
"I believe you," Julia assured him, trying not to grin too broadly, because it was clear that he was embarrassed. "Three weeks does make quite a difference in your waistline during your third trimester, you realize."
"Yes, but that's the problem," he sighed. "Right now, these just won't fit, not without a bit of, er, mechanical assistance, and the dratted thing has up and vanished, and--"
"The doctor didn't abscond with anything; Ward and I did," Julia informed him. "And you're not about to tie yourself back into it, either. Come here and let me fix your hair, and we'll be all set."
"You -- we -- huh? But--" Blushing, he gestured helplessly with a handful of trousers; Julia smiled.
"Wear what you've got on. Blue is a perfectly good uniform color, after all -- not usually baby-flannel blue, granted, but I'm not picky."
"...wait, my pajamas? But -- they're -- they're fuzzy!"
While Laguna was busy spluttering and tugging in futile dismay at the stubborn waistband of his dress-trousers, Julia unbuttoned his uniform jacket, and she smoothed the dress shirt over his tummy-curve and tucked the shirttails into the waist of his pajama pants despite a series of embarrassing little squeaks from her blushing victim.
She rebuttoned most of the jacket; but she folded back part of the collar at his shoulder, unfastened the top button of his shirt, and rumpled his hair artistically before gathering most of the length of it to tie back with a black silk ribbon.
"...There. You look quite dashing."
"I look as though I've dashed out of bed late for reveille," Laguna said, trying to tug the bedsheet over his pajama pants to hide what he could of themz
"Like I said, dashing!" Julia said, with a playful smile, and she kissed his cheek again before standing and offering him her hands. "Come on, darling. There's a wonderful dinner out there that you shouldn't let get cold."
"Yes, ma'am," he said dutifully, though he couldn't resist a furtive tug at the hem of his jacket.
Giggling, Julia tucked his arm through hers and helped steady him as he wobbled to his feet.
* * * * *
Somehow, the hasty, sketchy efforts she'd made at setting the stage were enough to steady him; Julia was certain that if he'd done it himself, he'd have spent the dinner criticizing everything that he hadn't done formally, but since it was her work, it was more than wonderful.
He exclaimed over the candles floating in the bath-glasses, and the music, and the nearly-a-tablecloth; then he straightened, cleared his throat a little, and made a courtly bow as he held one of the hotel chairs for her. Smiling, Julia let him help her into the seat.
Laguna flashed her a delighted, boyish grin as he took the sparkling juice from the champagne bucket.
"Raine taught me how to make these not explode all over the place!" he said proudly. "It's terribly useful to run a bar, you know. Here, watch--" And even with his white dress gloves on, he made quite a creditable job of removing the foil, twisting off the little wire guard, and popping loose the cork -- all without sending anything shattering or crashing to the floor.
Laughing, Julia applauded his feat as he poured the juice into wineglasses for them; he replaced the bottle in its bed of ice, then took his own seat -- and only then did he notice the 'gravy' Ward had had the hotel chef send with the meal.
At the discovery of chocolate to go with the steak, his eyes positively lit up -- in the moment before he remembered to be embarrassed. And then a moment later he tried to pass it off as though nothing unusual had happened, making an unknowingly overexaggerated, nearly silent-movie production number out of what? nothing odd about this gravy boat, no, nothing at all! but I'll just keep it all the way over here, in case maybe it could be dangerous.
Such a sweet, silly man. Julia hoped for Esthar's sake that Ward and Kiros could keep him out of any delicate diplomatic negotiations that involved bluffing.
...not to mention any high-stakes poker games.
He was still silently dithering about what to do about his inability to offer her 'gravy' for her dinner when Julia picked up her glass to attract his attention.
"If I try to propose a toast to the President of Esthar and the hero of the Sorceress War, you're going to panic on me, aren't you?"
Immediately, Laguna started stammering through protests; Julia reached over and set her fingertips to his lips until he'd subsided into blinking and blushing, and then she put his glass into his gloved hand.
"To Raine," she said softly. "Who gave you your life, and your first taste of love, and your son. Who cares for this crazy world enough to live to protect the little girl who protects our future, even though it meant sacrificing a life of happiness at your side. Whose generous heart is able to lend the treasure that you are to the world -- and even to me, for a little while."
"Oh," he said, husky-voiced; he swallowed hard, and touched his glass to hers gently. "To Raine."
Julia turned her most unfair smile on him, and said, "Tell me more about Raine, and about Ellone?"
That certainly did the trick. He forgot all about the need to hide the "gravy" chocolate in his enthusiasm for stories of the people he loved; she let him ramble for a few minutes, and then gently nudged him back toward remembering his food.
He doused his steak in chocolate without thinking to hesitate at how it would look, and took a bite, and sighed in rapture. Just to make sure the hook of distraction stayed set, Julia nudged him a bit more, this time about a half-told story of Ellone's adventures defending her snow-fort from a miniature Galbadian-army of snowmen led by the neighbor boys, and he launched back into reminiscences with his usual shining enthusiasm.
...It really did help her keep her stomach settled to pretend that the contents of the gravy boat were just gravy, though. Particularly when it went over the pickles and the antipasto. She'd have to thank Ward and the chef twice for their thoughtfulness, later.
Kiros had clearly been working on Laguna's diplomatic skills in the interim, as well. A couple of times, he realized with a start how much he'd been rambling, and he'd turn the conversation over to her -- abruptly, a little shamefacedly, and with no finesse whatsoever, but it was progress. So Julia told him about touring, and about the cities she'd seen, and her musicians and crew members, and the songs she'd written while she waited for him.
He listened just as avidly as he talked, and asked wistful questions about the people and the places and the landscapes, and Julia realized that a country's president would hardly be at liberty to visit a place and wander off looking for a tasty restaurant he'd heard stories about.
As a star better known for her voice than her face, a hat and a pair of glasses usually sufficed for her when she was curious; for him, there were protocols and schedules and ambassadors and bodyguards, when all he'd ever wanted before was to wander around talking to people and telling stories. There was an insurmountable gulf between 'travel journalist' and 'president of Esthar,' though, and while many would have said that Laguna had gotten the better end of the divide, Julia wouldn't have agreed with them. A simple journalist could have made his home in Winhill with his wife as they prepared for their unborn child; the president of Esthar couldn't have that choice.
So she told him as much as she could about the things he'd never be permitted to see without an armed escort: arriving in a town late at night after a blown tire on their tour bus, stopping in at a little mom-and-pop overnight diner, trading an evening's music for their meals, and watching the elderly cook straighten himself up carefully and offer a dance from fifty years earlier to his white-haired wife -- who still blushed like his young bride had, so long ago.
Lost in reminiscences, Julia looked up with a start when she heard him catch his breath raggedly, and then sniffle -- he was struggling to blink back his tears, the silly overemotional sweetheart.
"That's... that's marvelous," he choked, and wiped his eyes with the corner of his napkin shamefacedly, and then his voice caught and broke again: "I... I wish I could've... met them, congratulated them... it would be so wonderful, to have each other for all those years..."
It hurt, almost physically hurt, that she couldn't simply promise him that he'd have his own precious someone for the next half a lifetime. She couldn't give him that; Raine prevented her from being able to abandon her career as a musician in order to take a career as the president's wife, and Raine had already made his choice.
Instead, she took his hands between hers, and told him, "In order to have your anniversary dance years from now, you need to make sure to have plenty of dances between now and then, don't you?"
He gulped hard and nodded, managing a sheepish, wavery smile for her even as he patted distractedly at his uniform's pockets. At first she thought he was simply looking for a handkerchief, but when she offered him a tissue, he shook his head.
"Needs to be red," he mumbled, still searching, "could've sworn one of those things would have-- ah!"
Apparently the inner pocket held the medal they'd given him for his injuries in the line of duty; but he wriggled the ribbon free of the link that held the engraved bronze disc, and began fiddling with it almost furtively. A moment later he pulled off his gloves and tried again, hunching his shoulder and arm over what he was doing; amused, Julia politely turned away until he made a sound of triumph.
He'd folded a slightly wobbly red silk rose out of the ribbon of his war-medal, and stood in order to offer it to her with a bow that was heartfelt, even if no longer quite graceful.
"It's how these things go," he said, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly before he remembered that he was trying to be gallant and sophisticated. "There ought to be roses."
"And then you sweep me off my feet?" Julia asked playfully.
Entirely too serious, Laguna said, "I'll do my best--"
"Don't you dare!" Julia told him, half laughing and half scandalized. "You're far too late in your term to go around 'carrying off' anybody but your son!"
"But -- it's how these things go. All the books said so."
"Oh, no," Julia said, laughing even as she covered her face with a hand in dread of what was coming. "What books did you read, Laguna?"
"Raine likes romance novels," he said, defensive. "And there wasn't much else I could do for six months but read. And all the books agreed -- there ought to be roses, and dancing, and then I ought to sweep you off your feet..."
So that's where he got all his impossible expectations of a 'proper' romantic evening, Julia thought, biting her lip to keep from laughing. And of course he read them like -- like guidebooks, like military instruction manuals, not like women's most unrealistic fantasies.
"And you're such a delicate little person," he was saying. "I'm sure I could manage, really--"
"I swear I wouldn't drop you," he said anxiously, fumbling with the rose.
"I know you wouldn't," Julia said, and caught his hands and held them still. "You've already swept me off my feet, you know. You swept me off my feet the very first time you smiled at me."
"I... er.. really...?"
"Once and forever," she assured him, with a soft, wistful smile.
"Oh. Um." A little thrown, he asked, "Then what should we do next?"
"This is the point where you give me that beautiful rose," she murmured, gently guiding his hands through tucking the rose into her hair. "And you say, 'May I have this dance?'"
"May I have this dance?" he repeated, shyly dutiful, and offered his hand.
Julia took it, and said, "I've been hoping you'd ask that, for a long, long time."
* * * * *
It wasn't surprising that he'd convinced himself he was a terrible dancer, when you added a leg that spasmed enough to cripple him whenever he got nervous to his near paralytic nervousness around women he found attractive. But he wasn't as inherently bad at it as he thought; he understood rhythm, as a soldier trained to battle. His problem was that a soldier didn't have to care which foot he stepped forward with if he wasn't marching; the question of 'which foot' in battle was summed up with instinct and balance, not a rote pattern.
Rote patterns could be taught; rhythm couldn't. But she did take off her shoes for safety's sake; he was dancing in his stocking feet, after all, and if he put his foot under where her stiletto heel was going to come down, it wouldn't be pleasant.
She'd forgotten how very tall he was; he was so self-effacing that he always seemed smaller, and anyone who spent time around Ward looked little by comparison. But without the extra three inches of her high heels, she suddenly felt tiny next to him, standing so close when she barely came up to his shoulder and had to look so far up to look into his eyes.
He wasn't imposing, precisely -- she would have laid good money that he couldn't be imposing if his life depended on it, and she hoped it never did. He was just... so tall, and so handsome in his uniform, even with the roundly pouting belly snuggled in silly flannel pajamas beneath. And he was anxiously careful with his hands; apparently he'd never forgotten how much smaller she was, and he handled her with breathtaking gentleness, white dress-gloves and all. He barely let his fingers close over hers, as though she might break if he held on too tight, and she suspected that if it hadn't been for the gloves he might not have let himself put a hand at the hollow of her back, because he would have been touching her bare skin. He held her as gently as a little bird, afraid to restrain her, terrified of the thought that he might hurt her with his clumsiness somehow.
She gave up on reaching all the way up to hold his shoulders, because she'd have been dancing on tiptoe all night and she couldn't risk unbalancing him. Instead, she took the excuse to put her arms about his waist despite his protests about his newly-increased girth, and she held him close, and laughed when the baby gave a disgruntled kick at her ribcage.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I'm sure he doesn't mean it--"
"Oh, I'm sure he does," Julia replied cheerfully. "He's had your attention all to himself for all these months; anyone would be jealous of a new intruder!" She kissed her fingertips and touched where the baby had kicked her, playfully indulgent as she said to his middle, "I'm just borrowing your papa's attention for a few minutes, sweetheart. But he's still yours." Taking his hand again, she said, "So where were we?"
Trying to teach him to swing was a disaster, though a hilarious one. Even learning the pattern at half-tempo (on a song that couldn't have been less appropriate if she'd tried -- it was one of her mournfully lovelorn jazz-blues songs, but it was about half the tempo that she'd ordinarily have danced swing to), they were stepping on each other's toes and then Laguna stopped to apologize and Julia couldn't convince him not to stop even though stopping threw them both out of the rhythm.
Tango flustered him so much he never even caught the rhythm to begin with, fiercely embarrassed by the way she pressed herself against him -- and therefore against his roundness. And she wasn't about to try to teach him a foxtrot, not when he was uncertain of his balance and slowed by his girth and the baby's weight.
"A waltz it is, then," she decided wryly, and began to teach him the simplest pattern: three steps around a corner, three steps back.
Despite his hesitation, he caught the rhythm easily enough; she had to lead a little to convince him that he could do more than carefully step the same box-shape in the carpet, but he picked up the idea. And the fact that a box-step waltz had no careful pointing of ankles he could no longer see, no sudden changes of direction, and most of all no snugly intimate, body-to-burgeoning-body maneuvers helped his self-confidence immensely.
He simply couldn't move as lightly as she did, not anymore; he felt the difference in their dancing, and she could tell it embarrassed him. But he was so convinced that a proper romantic evening should have dancing that he set himself to waltzing with her in the same shamefacedly stubborn determination that had gotten him through the Galbadian army training. Julia thought he should never have been a warrior, should never have needed to fight and to kill; but when he had to do it, he was determined that he wouldn't be too much of a disgrace at it, and so he tucked his chin a little and forged ahead.
By the third song, he'd become confident enough to let himself relax into their dancing; his socks brushed against the carpet from beat to beat, rather than taking each step as sharply separate as a drill formation. Julia smiled, and would have laid her cheek against his if she were tall enough; instead, without her heels, she had to settle for her cheek to his collarbone. But he brightened as though she'd paid him a vast compliment. Perhaps, to someone so convinced of his own clumsiness, she might have.
"You're good at this," she told him, in case it needed reinforcing.
"That's a relief, since I was so terrible at the others," Laguna admitted with a chuckle. "Even I can remember three steps, though! Thank you for being patient with me."
"I've waited enough years for my chance to dance with you," Julia said, wry. "A few minutes of teaching was scarcely a hardship."
"Like I said," Laguna replied, lower, "thank you for your patience."
"You're well worth the anticipation," Julia said, fluttering her eyelashes up at him; he didn't quite miss the next step, but it was a near thing. Giggling, Julia let her cheek rest against his heart again, and patted his waist with the hand that was supposed to be at his shoulder.
"I'm not the only one who thinks so," she told him playfully. "Your son likes your dancing too! Rocking him back and forth so gently inside you -- either we've settled him to sleep or he's just too contented to kick."
"You're right," he said, going from surprised to delighted in the blink of an eye. "I'm going to have to remember this -- lately it seems he's most eager to wriggle and thump at me in the very middle of the night." Wryly affectionate, he added, "I'm going to look just ridiculous in a month or two, aren't I? Waltzing all by myself in pajamas in the middle of the night, big and round as a melon, and twice as clumsy..."
"You'd hardly be dancing alone; you'll be dancing with your unborn child," she reminded him. "And you have nothing to be ashamed of. You carry him so tenderly, and with such breathless, reverent love; you'll look perfectly charming."
"That's completely unfair of you," Laguna protested, "preying on my vulnerabilities and my biases like that, you devious woman."
"It wouldn't have worked if it wasn't true." Smiling, she stretched up on tiptoe, angling for a kiss.
...And then the CD switched to the next song. Which, while it was technically written for dancing, had far more to do with bump-and-grind-and-sweat-and-thrust and nothing at all to do with the formality or restraint of a slow dance. The lyrics on the backup line made him snap his head around to stare at the stereo as though it had sprouted tentacles and begun making lewd gestures in their direction.
The sheer bemused horror on his face made her burst out laughing despite herself; clutching at his shoulders to keep from doubling up, she wheezed, "You were a soldier, Laguna! You can't tell me you haven't heard worse!"
"Yes, but not being sung by a respectable lady!" he objected, pink with embarrassment.
Still laughing, she stumbled over to poke at buttons until it skipped forward to a better waltz tune. "Next you'll be saying 'Kids these days,' and tut-tutting over your tea as you hobble around with your cane, old man." She scrubbed the laugh-tears from her cheeks, and held her hands out to him again: "Where were we?"
But he said in a small, shamed voice, "Would you indulge a fussy old man, then? --May I sit down for a moment?"
"Did the lyrics startle you that much?" Julia asked, surprised.
"Oh, no, that's not it at all," he assured her. "It's just -- it's been a long day, and rather more eventful than I'd ever anticipated, and-- if you wouldn't mind terribly, I could use a moment's pause."
"Sweet Hyne, I'm an idiot," Julia said, hating herself. "I forgot the fetal monitor in the closet! I'm so sorry -- let's get you to bed and I'll go get the monitor and--"
"I don't want to cut your evening short!" he protested, distressed. "You love to dance, and the baby enjoys it too -- I just need a few minutes to catch my breath, that's all, and then we can--"
"Sit," Julia said firmly, and took him by the elbow to drag him over to the sofa to make sure of it. Then she ran over to the closet and dragged the fetal monitor back out; it had produced a long twist of impenetrable readouts on its paper feed, and it was chirping in a tone that somehow made her feel irrationally guilty.
"What's it saying?" she asked him helplessly. "Have you been hurting and you haven't dared interrupt me because of your 'romantic ideals' of how a date should go? Laguna--"
"I'm not that foolish," he said, stung. "No contractions; no dizzy spells. It's just... there's so much pressure when I stand so long, and a bit of cramping. That's all."
"Cramping? How is that not contractions?" Julia asked, all but frantic. "Cell phone -- where the hell did Ward put that number--"
"It's not contractions when it's my back and leg that are cramping, dear heart," Laguna said, rueful and indulgent. "This is the point when the father-to-be panics and runs off to the hospital with the golf bag instead of the hospital bag, isn't it? How sweet of you -- a bit strange, I have to admit, but still terribly sweet. I hadn't expected an anxious father-to-be event, because Ward is so very solid and reliable -- but if you want a not-the-correct-bag to panic over, I'm sure someone will have something misappropriatable. Maybe you could take one of the violin cases?"
Julia had given up her frenzied search for the doctor's phone number, and stared at him. "Why would I take one of the violin cases?"
"Because it won't be of any use at all when you run off to the hospital?" Laguna offered, far too helpful and encouraging about it. "I'm afraid I haven't got a golf bag to offer you, though."
"I'm not running off to the hospital with a useless violin case," Julia said, frustrated. "I'm trying to help. Where did Ward put the doctor's number?"
"I know you're trying to help," Laguna said, taking her hands with a fond, affectionate smile. "Fathers always try to help like that, in Raine's books, even when there's nothing at all wrong. That's why it's so very sweet of you. There's nothing seriously wrong, my dear, I promise. I just need a little rest. But if it would make you happy to take a silly bag and panic at the doctor for a while--"
"No, Laguna," she said, trying to be stern, but she just couldn't manage it when faced with that smile. "The doctor doesn't need me panicking at him with a violin case."
"Then everything's fine," Laguna replied. "Kiros will be on soon, I suspect; shall we give him a cheering section from the far ends of the peanut gallery?" He fumbled a bit with the remote, then made a pleased sound when some poking resulted in a channel carrying footage of the Freedom Celebration in the city square.
"Oh, look, there he is! --And Ward's wearing a tuxedo! With a vest, even! Is the world ending soon? I must have missed that memo..."
Julia knelt on the floor and lifted one of his feet into her lap; as she'd suspected, his ankles were noticeably swollen, and she began to massage his foot for him.
"Oh, good heavens, don't," Laguna said uncomfortably. "Come up here and sit with me. --We can throw popcorn or something at the screen whenever they trot out that old footage of Adel!" He sounded immensely cheered by the prospect.
"You need to put your feet up," Julia insisted. "Here. Turn this way. Feet up-- yes, I'm quite serious--" She chivvied him into lifting his feet onto the sofa with a blend of coaxing and gentle nagging, then sat and settled his feet onto a sofa pillow in her lap despite his squirming protests.
"Hush, you," she said, gently rubbing his feet. "Look; there's Adel. Throw something before she gets away."
Fortunately, he was still as easily distracted as ever. The lack of popcorn to throw distressed him, but, ever the creative problem-solver, Laguna took the notepad from the sofa table and began wadding up paper balls to fling (with rude noises followed by furtive bursts of almost-giggles, like a boy elated by pranks) whenever his old nemesis appeared. His aim improved over the course of the telecast; the news team seemed particularly fond of the footage of the space launch, and the floor in front of the screen was peppered with at least half the notepad by the time Kiros officially took the podium.
Kiros did quite a creditable job of making the speech he'd written for Laguna; he even remembered to pause when the crowd cheered, and Laguna cheered for him vigorously as well, despite the fact that there was no way Kiros could hear him.
Laguna had originally been scheduled for three hours of interviews before and after the live filming of the speech itself; instead of cutting to footage of an interview with Kiros, though, the channel they were watching cut to an interview with an entertainment gossip columnist, and the backdrop was a montage of splashy photos: the two of them dancing, Julia wearing dark glasses through the window of a limo, the sheer terror on Laguna's face as he fell...
"Oh, Hyne." Julia snatched the remote from the back of the sofa and turned the screen off; she held on to Laguna's feet firmly, despite his wriggling attempts to pull free. "No, Laguna. No, you are not going down there to scold them. Kiros can do that for you. And if Kiros doesn't scold enough, I'm sure Ward will be more than happy to knock heads together--"
"But they've got no right to impugn your honor like that!"
"My honor?" Julia asked, and laughed softly. "I'm not the one who wanted a balcony to woo from, sweetheart. Just ignore them. You can't win when you play on their battlefield. The best way to win is to ignore them completely, and to have ourselves a perfectly carefree, private evening without a flashbulb in sight. All right?"
He heaved a sigh, and said, "If you hadn't hidden my girdle so thoroughly, I could put up more of a fight here."
"Deviousness goes hand in hand with foresight," Julia reminded him, quite pleased with herself, and returned to rubbing his ankles.
"Please, could you stop?" he murmured, less able to pretend when there were no other distractions around. "This is a date, and there's nothing even remotely romantic about wooly gray knee socks and puffy ankles."
"On the contrary," she said, and put a good dose of insinuation into the rhythm of her hands: deep strong strokes, then a slow languorous withdrawal. "Massage can always be romantic. And massaging your feet means that I've caught you lying down, so half my conquest is already made! Now I simply have to infiltrate my way up to more intimate territory..."
"Julia!" he yelped, laughing despite his blushes.
"What?" she asked. "You already know how devious I am."
"It's just that... this isn't how the books say it goes," Laguna said, embarrassed. "A gentleman has to work hard to earn the right to woo a lady toward a happily-ever-after, and if he isn't good enough for her -- if he's scatterbrained and clumsy and fat, not to mention married -- then he has to work twice as hard, and most of the time someone better comes along to rescue her from his attentions anyway, and--"
"I hate those damn books of yours," Julia said, fiercely. "I hate that they make you look at yourself that way. Life isn't like a romance novel, Laguna. You don't have to be some muscle-bound moron with a six-pack and a mouthful of stock seduction lines, and I have no intention of getting myself kidnapped by villains and fainting at inopportune times and sitting around waiting for someone else to rescue me when I could kick the bastard in the balls and rescue myself. And nobody knows whether or not you'll have a happily ever after. What you have to pay attention to is whether you have a happily right now." She took a deep breath to continue, and then noticed how stricken he looked, and blew it all out in a sigh. "...Have I totally scandalized you now?"
"You scandalize me?" Laguna asked, incredulous. "What I can't understand is how I haven't scandalized you -- and if you don't want me to be romantic for you, how am I supposed to be able to make it up to you?"
"Make what up to me?"
"I don't understand you," he said, looking down, and then away. "Ward puts up with me because it's me. Kiros tries, but he's horrified at what I've become -- not a man, not a woman, not properly a mother, not a father, not natural in any way, just -- a soldier's body, riddled with scars, and a belly swollen with someone else's child, and... how can you look at me and not be disgusted?"
"Oh, sweet Hyne." Julia reached over and caught Laguna's hand and held on tightly, and said, "Are you disgusted by yourself?"
"No," he said, and he sounded embarrassed to admit that. "But I know why I've accepted this. And I can see how easy it would be to be disgusted; Kiros is, and he loves me, and he's had months to adjust, and I've sprung all of this on you tonight..."
Julia bit down hard on her first three reactions to that, and finally said, "I'm not Kiros."
"Believe me," Laguna murmured, husky-voiced, "I've noticed. --But Kiros is much more sensible than I am, and so are you, and--"
"I'm not Kiros," Julia insisted, "and I'm not disgusted." She slipped out from under his ankles, and stood, and tugged on his hand. "Let me prove both. ...Please."
He would have struggled; she could feel the tension in him, but that last request had taken all the fight out of him. He was more unsteady than she'd have liked, but with her arm about his waist and his arm about her shoulders, they managed to find a balance between them; Julia blew out the candles before she led him into the corner room.
* * * * *
She'd thought it was just a romance-novel cliche, but Laguna truly was trembling beneath her hands as she slipped his uniform jacket off his shoulders and began to unbutton his shirt. He closed his eyes tightly as she continued, and caught his breath as she curved her hands against the bare skin of his rounded belly. She almost worried that it was fear, until she noticed how he was blushing.
"You like being touched like this, don't you?" she murmured, caressing the warm, solid curve of him, and taking care to avoid disturbing the sensor patches the doctor had applied.
"Um. More than I ought to--"
"There's no such thing," Julia said, and took his gloves from him next, and placed a kiss in the hollow of his palm. He actually squeaked, startled by the unanticipated touch, and opened his eyes -- half through alarm at what she might do next if he wasn't watching. Satisfied, she smiled at him and guided his hand to the zipper at the back of her dress: "Please...?"
His hands were shaking so badly he had to make four tries at the zipper, and even then it snagged in the fabric halfway down.
"...I'm sorry. I'm s-sorry--"
"Shhhh." She quieted him first with fingertips, then with a soft kiss. "I'll sort it out later." She wriggled out of the dress and tossed it toward a chair, then poked through her overnight bag until she came up with the container of cold cream. "Lie on your side for me, love?"
"Er. What are you going to do to with that?"
"Not what Raine did, obviously!" she teased, to see him blush again.
"Julia!" he yelped. "How did-- who told you about-- about--!" Clearly, he couldn't find a suitably 'romantic' way to refer to the accommodations needed for comfortable penetration during gay sex, and buried his face in a shaking hand. "Oh sweet Hyne."
Laughing, she swept her hand behind his neck to pour that long dark hair forward over his shoulder, then scooped out a dollop of cold cream and rubbed it between her hands to warm it before she set to kneading at his back.
The first sound he made was a startled yelp, but it quickly faded into sounds of relief. She coaxed out a particularly deep groan when she leaned the heels of her hands into the hollow of his back, just above his hips.
"Good?" she guessed.
"Lie down for me, and I'll make it better," she promised.
"...how?" The hazed incredulity in his voice made her giggle; he was limp enough that all it took was a coaxing push at his shoulder, though, and he dutifully stretched out on his side and let her manhandle him to her heart's content.
Around her obsession with crystals and aromatherapy, Annie had taught all the crew members quite a bit about massage; when you spent sixteen hours a day on a tour bus, followed by hours hauling around light and sound equipment and orchestral instruments the size of harps, followed by a concert, followed by more hours un-hauling all the equipment, and then you were back on the bus... well. They could put up with the crystals if it meant access to Annie's hands and her talent with the light and sound boards.
Between the unaccustomed girth weighing heavily forward and the way a fall made panic-knotted muscles ache afterwards, it would have been far more surprising if Laguna's back hadn't hurt him. She'd have preferred to have him lie on the floor and walk on his back. But she wasn't about to have him lie on his stomach and then add all her weight to it right now; and without that kind of leverage, her hands weren't strong enough to really take care of the tension he'd been under for months. The doctor's insistence that he needed to lie on his side had given her an idea, though. Once she'd finished rubbing the cold cream along his back, she curled up behind him and dug her heels into his hipbones, then began 'walking' up and down his back for him, kneading at the tightest knots and digging her toes under his shoulderblades and smiling at the incoherently pleading noises he made. One deep massage couldn't undo most of a year's worth of tension at once, but she gave it her best effort, until he was utterly limp and each breath came with a faint, almost helpless croon of relief.
"Told you it'd be better," Julia said lightly, and brushed a kiss against the nape of his neck. Then she reached over his waist to massage the cream into his abdomen with firm, arching strokes, rubbing a big deep circle all the way around his curve.
"...Hyne." He drew a shuddering breath, and asked, "Where'd you learn this...?"
"Spend three quarters of your life on a tour bus and you're positively delighted when Annie comes after you with massage books," she told him wryly. "There were chapters on prenatal massage, too, though I never thought I'd be taking the father's position."
She felt him tense up at the reminder, and poked him: "Cut that out. The idea is to get rid of all those knots, not make more of them."
"What did I just say?" she asked mock-sternly, still rubbing.
"But it's not fair," he said, "if you won't let me touch you as well."
...oh. Well, then. "What are you waiting for?" she asked.
"Julia, my dear," he said, indulgent and exasperated both, "right now I have about the grace and flexibility of a beached whale. If I try to sit up or roll over when you're curled up against me like that, I'll -- I'll squish you; I just know it."
"I don't mind," Julia said, and snuggled closer.
He made an exasperated little huff, and tried to pull away far enough to be able to sit up; she clung to his shoulders, and kissed the little ticklish hollow between ear and jaw in order to hear him squeak, and made as much of a nuisance of herself as she could before he finally managed to squirm his way around and pin her down on the bed, panting with vexation.
And only then did he realize he'd ended up with one hand pinning her hands over her head and the other planted against her breasts in order to do it.
"Do go on," Julia invited, and fluttered her eyelashes at him.
He yelped as though he'd been scalded; she wasn't about to let him pull away in embarrassment, though. She crawled into his lap and twined her hands through his hair and crossed her ankles behind his hips, and wriggled, and his breath caught short in his throat.
Silly, over-gallant fool that he was, he kept trying to be gentle and cautious with her; he fumbled with the pins holding her hair in place, careful not to pull. She jerked pins out of her hair and flung them at random, then shook her hair loose, not caring if it looked a rumpled wreck, and was rewarded by his wondering smile.
His hands were even warmer without the gloves to blunt the heat of his touch. His pulse beat quick and hard under her fingertips, like a prisoned bird's wings. She tilted her head to kiss the fluttering pulse-point at the hollow of his throat, then bent further to kiss the strong beat of his heart, and his arms tightened about her convulsively.
He had to try three times before he could coax a sound out of his dry throat. "How...?" he asked, hoarse. "I mean... Hyne, I love my son with all my heart, but right now he's... rather inconveniently in the way..."
"We'll make do," Julia assured him, trailing both hands through his hair before she kissed him again.
* * * * *
She was vaguely aware of warmth the next morning, lying entwined in him, both of them curled around the curve of his restless unborn son; she patted back when she was kicked in the side, and mumbled something that must have been fairly incoherent, to judge by his soft chuckle.
A vague, hazy, indefinite time later, the shifting of the bed as Laguna eased himself up and half-tiptoed, half-waddled toward the bathroom was what finally woke her. She felt sticky, and drowsy, and sore in all the right ways, and well-sated.
He was comically overcareful with the bathroom door, hushing it under his breath when the latch clicked despite his care, and began to tiptoe-waddle his way back; she heard him pause at the edge of the bed, clearly stumped, and then he began to slowly, carefully maneuver his weight back onto the mattress beside her.
"Now this," she mumbled sleepily, "is what I call a good morning."
He froze, and then drooped all over. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you--"
"You didn't," she assured him around a yawn, trailing fingers over the curve of his hip. "Not disturbed at all. Delighted."
"I can't think of any more delightful way to begin a morning than waking beside you," she said, and took his hand, and kissed the palm lightly. "I'd like to make a habit of it, once I'm done with this tour." Then she stretched, wincing a little at sore muscles, and added ruefully, "But first things first. We need to get you fed, and get the readings from the monitor to the doctor, and get both of us out of here without the paparazzi jumping to all sorts of conclusions. But I think a good hot shower's the very first thing, don't you?"
"Yes, please," he said, heartfelt.
Julia was happy to discover that the bath was big enough for three, as long as the three were particularly close to each other. Laguna was almost painfully gentle with her, washing her hair and coaxing the tangles out of the length of it with anxious fingers, rubbing the washcloth carefully over her back. She smiled up at him, and ran soapy hands over his bare shoulders, down his chest, around the pout of his belly, lower -- he yelped and caught her wrists quickly, blushing pink, and she laughed and relented. A wet tub was hardly a good place to tease a pregnant person with a bad leg, after all.
By the time they were rinsed and dried and dressed again -- for a certain value of dressed, since Laguna's luggage was in his own room, and the pajamas were the only garments he had that fit him -- they could hear some of the crew members puttering about in the suite's kitchenette, words and the occasional quiet chuckle and the sizzle of something frying.
"Now what on earth do we do?" Laguna asked, with a rueful gesture towards the door.
"Trust me," she said, and kissed his cheek. "Haven't you learned yet how devious I am?"
Jim was a silent but knowing co-conspirator; he handed her a plate of food, and didn't ask any questions when she took it into her room, and went along with it cheerfully when she brought her suitcases out into the suite and suggested they should get the bus packed early to leave some time for sight-seeing. He even rounded up the stragglers and chased them out into the elevator for her, sending the first load of their luggage and equipment out to the bus.
"This time I owe you one," she called after him as the doors closed; his broad grin said volumes about how happily he'd exploit that, too. The minute the doors closed, she grabbed the maid's laundry cart and wheeled it into the suite, dumping the linens onto the floor.
"Cinderella, your pumpkin has arrived," she said to Laguna, who was boggling at the cart and the linens and the chair she'd dragged over next to the cart for him to use as a stepstool. "Has that dratted monitor got a mute setting or anything?"
In a few minutes' fiddling, they'd managed to collapse the telescoping legs on the monitor and found the off switch, though not the mute button. Much to Laguna's bemusement, she put the monitor into the bottom of the cart, padded the top of it with towels, and thumped it vigorously: "All right, you sit on this, we'll hide you under sheets and take the staff elevator down, and I'll call Ward once we're in..."
"Do you do this type of thing often?" he asked faintly.
"There's a first time for everything," she admitted. "But deviousness is a talent that improves with use."
"Sweet Hyne. Where on earth were you when we were infiltrating Adel's tower?" he sighed. "We could have used your help!"
It all went more smoothly than it might have; no one else got onto the staff elevator during the trip down, and although a couple of bellboys looked oddly at the sight of Julia Heartilly pushing a maid's laundry cart into her dressing room, well, it was her dressing room until their bus left.
Ward was already waiting inside by the time they arrived; Laguna flung the sheets off with a cheerful "Surprise!" But he couldn't quite manage a cake-inhabitant's flourish; the bottom of the laundry cart was made of cloth, and didn't give him enough balance to leap anywhere.
Shaking his head in bemusement at his friend's antics, Ward reached into the basket and lifted him out as though he were a child, then steadied him carefully on his feet.
And then he looked at her, and suddenly, she had to say goodbye.
She'd known it was going to hurt, really. She had a concert tour, he had a country to run; all her wishes aside, she knew she wasn't going to be able to be the one to wake up beside him every morning, or rub his back in the evenings when he ached. But she wanted to. In the end, she still couldn't understand how Raine could have held the laughing, radiant treasure that was Laguna, and then sent him away. It didn't even help to think ahead to the rest of the tour dates, to the times when she'd be in Esthar, to the times she might be able to sneak away and meet him...
"Don't cry, please," he begged, awkwardly bringing her close enough to hold. "I can't stand it when you cry..."
Julia gulped hard, and rubbed at her cheeks, and tried to find a smile for him, so that her tears wouldn't be what she left him with. "H-how far along are you? If I'm back in Esthar before you've delivered, I want to see you waltzing with him. Got to make sure my lessons stick..."
"Thirty-one weeks, the doctor says," Laguna said, in an oddly shy, embarrassed pride. "He's due late in August."
"You poor thing," Julia said, and managed a damp, tearful giggle. "Nine months pregnant in August? In that kind of heat and humidity? Laguna, you really need to learn to time these things better!"
"I wasn't exactly planning on this, you know," he said, scratching the back of his head sheepishly.
"Well, next time, try to time it better. Honestly."
"Next time?" he echoed, bemused, and even Ward looked a little startled at that one.
"You're a happily married man, aren't you?" she reminded him, and patted his curve. "Obviously, these things happen."
...It really was cruel of her to make him blush like that, but he blushed so charmingly that she just couldn't help herself. Ward was staring up at the ceiling, then down at his boots, clearing his throat a little to keep from laughing at Laguna's embarrassment.
She hugged him one more time, trying to memorize his warmth and his strength, those unexpectedly broad shoulders she had to reach up for, the solid round presence of his son. "I love you," she said. "I always will. And I'm horrible at goodbyes."
"Me too," he mumbled, and tightened his hold carefully for a moment, then let her go.
"I'll see you soon," she said, and turned, and didn't quite run.
* * * * *
Two months later, holding a pregnancy test kit in unsteady hands, Julia understood Raine for the first time. And Laguna, who loved his son fiercely, and loved his husband just as much, and hadn't told Raine about their child.
She was Julia Heartilly, the pop diva, the darling of Galbadia's soldiers, the media sensation who'd written her best-known love song for the President of Esthar, and who'd hidden him from reporters at the Freedom Celebration, and the rumors had hardly stopped just because two sets of media representatives kept up the constant refrain of 'no comment.'
She couldn't spend the next six months of her touring schedule unmarried and getting bigger and bigger with the President of Esthar's child. Laguna's child. The child she could never tell anyone was his, least of all him; she knew better than anyone how terrible his poker face was.
She couldn't marry him, and she couldn't stay single and pregnant because that would all but confirm the rumors for the paparazzi, and it would hurt his presidency, and she wasn't going to allow that. And she wasn't going to abort their child. It was theirs. It was something of him that she could keep with her, something she didn't have to surrender to propriety and media scrutiny -- if she could just get herself married in time.
And she couldn't tell Laguna that she was thinking about marrying that 'cad and boor' who'd always waited for her since Laguna couldn't marry her himself. He'd be furious with himself, and guilt-ridden, and she couldn't turn her choice to keep his child into something he'd hate himself for. He'd never hate the child, and never her -- just himself. It was a responsibility she couldn't allow him to take.
For the first time, she understood Laguna, and Raine. She wasn't sure if she could wish she'd never learned to understand, because she couldn't wish her child away. His child. His gift, even given unawares. Her living proof that she loved, and that she was loved in return.
Julia washed her face, and dried her hands, and pressed them together to try to stop them from shaking; then she walked back out into the bus, and tried to smile the same way as always, and nudged Jim away from the crew laptop.
It got easier to type, when she kept at it.
How are you doing? It's nearly the end of July, you know, and you haven't sent me any pictures of yourself waltzing with him. I'm going to think you've forgotten everything I ever taught you, at this rate.
We've just left Trabia, and it's an interesting little place. Full of the strangest things -- did you know there are people in the world who would make a museum for soda cans? It's the most bizarre thing I've ever seen. They say they have over seventeen thousand soda cans. I tried not to ask what on earth they wanted them for. I took pictures for you...
* * end * *
This bunny bit me on the head when I was reading Sukunami's sweet "Past Happenings" fic while listening to "Eyes on Me" -- I've never actually played FF8 (or any video games, actually) and I hadn't realized until I did a bit of research that "Eyes on Me" wasn't supposed to be Rinoa singing to Squall; it was Julia's unrequited love for Laguna. And Lady Yuskreven's picture of Laguna waiting for Squall is one of the sweetest things I've ever seen -- I love that picture to bits; I kept it open the whole time I was writing this. He looks so happy, and it seems like Laguna's life was way too short on happiness. He wanted a happily-ever-after so badly, and his duty kept dragging him away from people who loved him, and he kept being left alone, and then they died, and he lost his son for years and both of his loves for the rest of his life, but he kept on smiling... (sniffle.)
And Julia kept twisting the knife on me too -- she just about broke me with the comments she kept making about 'plan the timing better next time you let Raine get you pregnant' and 'happily ever afters' and 'years from now'. She hasn't got a clue, but then there's the rest of us, knowing he's had two people in his life who loved him that much and whom he loved that much and they both get taken away from him and so does his child and he doesn't get to hold on to anyone of his own...
So I started writing what-if fic about the Laguna we see in flashbacks in "Past Happenings" -- the Laguna who's married to a male Raine who has two secrets to keep, who sends him away to his destiny but doesn’t want to follow him to Esthar despite loving him, and who isn't the one who's pregnant and doesn't have that reason for staying behind. That Laguna might be someone Julia might have gotten a chance to sing for the way she never did in game.
And he also had nine months of pregnancy to conceal while he was also the president of an entire country, and Kiros was too busy freaking out to really support him, and Ward couldn't talk, and Laguna is such a chatterbox that he must have been awfully lonely -- but on the other hand, Raine wouldn't have left him alone like that without a good reason, right? So I tried to figure out what the good reason was, and how the two of them could marry each other and yet deliberately plan to live apart.
Then the background research I did for the details bit me with plotbunny B -- that Squall and Rinoa were born six months apart, their mothers must have been pregnant at the same time, and that Rinoa looks and acts more like cheerful, dark-haired, smiling Laguna than Squall does...
In particular, I don't know whether the 'Major' that sends Laguna off because he's jealous is actually the same person who becomes 'General' Caraway a few promotions later. But the Major was so jealous of Julia that he hardly seems the type to give up without a fight, and of course he's going to get some kind of promotion for being the man who sent Laguna out on the suicide mission er-I-mean infiltration attempt that eventually resulted in a dead Sorceress, even if not an end to the Galbadia-Esthar war.
Likewise, in the "Past Happenings" world, Squall is content in his love with Seifer, but also needs enough of a connection with Rinoa to get through the in-game events. Given the way that love tends to have an extradimensional, spiritual-connection quality in the FF-verses, it seemed reasonable to guess that Squall could have that deep an emotional connection with his half-sister, even if it wasn't romantic love that connected them.