Entire Fiction (2006)
They were all together now. There was nothing left to do but confront Kefka. Which, as Setzer pointed out, would probably end with their battered corpses being erased from existence. For some reason this was not very encouraging.
Which is why, as the planet teetered on the edge of apocalypse and despair, the greatest heroes of the world were playing cards.
"Four and five."
"Seven, eight, nine..."
"Wild, so I'm playing twelve."
"Malice!" Strago exclaimed, slamming down a thirteen on the top of the pile. "Hohoho. Give a card to little Relm, I will. Your turn."
Relm glared at her growing stack. "Goddamn it! You stupid old man, Relm's gonna MURDER you this time around, just you watch!"
Setzer held up a single silver gil. "Take a look. Real gil, right? Not like that tricky golden number of your brother's. Fifty gil per flip. I'll toss it and call it. Only two outcomes. Guaranteed to be fair and square."
He spoke so quickly Sabin had a hard time following. "Okay," he said at last, furrowing his brow.
"Good. Heads I win, tails you lose." He flipped the coin, which fell face-down on the table. "Ooh, bad luck. Let's try again."
Sabin sighed and took fifty gil out of his pocket. "I've always been bad at gambling..."
"Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars," Locke sang lazily, strumming his guitar from his spot on the couch. He had a voice like a cat being stuffed down a garbage disposal. "Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars..." His gaze wandered very deliberately across the room before it stopped on a wave of blonde hair. "In other words, hold my hand. In other words, darling, kiss me."
Celes kept her eyes down on her cards. Do not look up. Do not look up. Do not make eye contact.
"Hey, Generalissimo. Blush any harder and you'll set your face on fire," Relm muttered.
Luckily for the general, Cyan had the good sense to interrupt. "Ah. My. Wouldn't you know it, I seem to have a Malice. That would conclude this stack, then. I humbly offer you my card, Lady Terra, and withdraw from the game."
"I'll play the winner," Edgar offered. "Who's left?"
"It's down to Lady Celes, Lady Terra, and Lady Relm, sir."
"In that case, I'll kiss the winner," he said. The tone of his voice indicated that he thought he was offering quite a prize.
The girls put down their cards.
"All right; heads I win, tails you lose. Too bad. Better luck next time, huh? Heads I win, tails you lose."
Sabin grumbled. "I'd better start getting lucky soon. I'm nearly broke."
Edgar had been waiting to see the exact moment when his little brother would catch on. But fifteen minutes and seventeen thousand gil later, it was beginning to look like that moment wasn't coming. "Sabin, listen," he said, and slowly explained the mechanics of the game.
It was a while before they finally managed to subdue Sabin's fury, but it was longer still before Setzer could finally be coaxed out of the fetal position.
"It's gonna be all right. He's calm now."
"Claws, so many claws," he whimpered.
"Maybe we should try something else," Locke suggested. "Something a little less dangerous, something we can all play. Why not Lame-Brain Pete? It's easy and we've got enough people to play."
"Sure, provided Setzer stops crying."
"What a wimp."
"I dunno, I'd cry if I got Bum Rushed ten times in a row...in the face..."
"The claws! The claws! THE CLAWS!"
"Only five people? What's wrong with you losers?! Let's all play!" Relm insisted. "Come on, come onnnnn! We have to do this together! It can be like a bonding thing!"
Strago rubbed the side of his head, which had recently been smacked hard with a paintbrush. "Imagine someone who wants to bond with you, I can't."
She ignored him and went to harass the others. She skipped up to Shadow and tugged on the leg of his pants. "Hey, Mr. I'm-Too-Cool-To-Smile! You'll play with Relm, won't you?"
"I don't play games," he said coldly.
"But you have a puppy! You like puppies but not games?"
"He's a German Shepherd and he'll kill you." He turned away, only to feel her stomp hard on his right foot. "Uh!"
"I'll kill you first if you don't play with me!" she declared.
Shadow glanced down and found himself staring at her soft ash-colored hair. He didn't need to see it all to know it was thick and bouncy and stuck to her neck when it was humid. More terrifying still were those huge eyes, bigger and rounder than his but the exact same shade of cornflower blue, and it sent chills down his spine to think of what would happen if she really looked back...
"Yeah, I'm terrified," he said. He pushed her aside and made his way to the card table.
Relm didn't know whether or not to be pleased. He'd been insulting, but at least he was willing to play. "That goes for the rest of you too!" she announced, shaking her fist. "If you don't play Relm's gonna stomp on you...or draw your portrait!"
The latter threat was enough to get everyone's attention. Within seconds, twelve people, a Yeti and a Mog were crowded elbow-to-elbow around the green gaming table. Setzer had adequately recovered ("with the help of my old buddy J. Daniel"), split the group up into pairs and had almost finished dealing when Celes stopped him.
"I don't know how fair these teams are," she murmured. "Let's try something different."
"Eh? What's wrong with this?"
Damn! She'd been hoping he wouldn't question her. It wasn't that the teams were unfair so much as she really, really, really didn't want to spend a half-hour fending off Edgar's clumsy advances. "Well, for starters," she said, looking around wildly for some other injustice to correct, "Sabin and Gau are on the same team. That's not fair, is it?"
"Why do you say that?"
"Are the red ones the same as the black ones?" Sabin asked. Gau took a bite out of the six of clubs.
"...okay, maybe you have a point," Setzer agreed, scratching his head. "Okay. Uh, let's switch things up. Gau, why don't you...eh, play with Relm. You know, kid unity and all that. Sabin, er...um..."
Sabin hung his head. He just couldn't get this right. If only they were out fighting! At least then he knew what he was doing. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"I'll be your partner, Sabin," Terra said, leaving her place to sit down beside him.
Locke had been right. Lame-Brain Pete was easy, fast-paced, and fun to play. The pairs were about even, except for Edgar and Gogo, who lagged far behind.
"You'd better catch up," Mog warned teasingly. He was perched atop Umaro's head, holding the cards down so that the kindly Yeti could see. "Last place cleans the ship latrines next week, remember?"
Edgar frowned sourly. "I'd be doing just fine if somebody stopped miming all the moves before it."
"I play by my own rules," Gogo intoned.
"That's why we're losing, pal."
Cyan won the next two rounds of bets, causing his partner to raise an eyebrow in surprise. "Say, you aren't half bad. Are you a gambling man, or do you just spend a lot of time in bars?"
"Sir Setzer!" Cyan was mortified. "I do no such thing, sir! I succeed due to chance, not the sort of vulgar skill honed in such unsavory places!"
Setzer considered giving the swordsman a good right hook for calling his life's profession a "vulgar skill". "Yeah, I guess you're right. I should've been like you and learned how to do important things, like making bouquets of silk flowers."
There were a few guffaws around the table, but Cyan just turned slightly purple.
"Which reminds me," Locke said, affecting a falsetto, "I seem to have a tear in my petticoat. Could you sew it up for me, Cyan darling?"
"Sir Locke! How dare you!" But by this point even Shadow was chuckling. "You're very mean to me, sirs," he said.
Much to Relm's annoyance, the animal team kept getting the best cards and laying out flush after flush. Umaro's victory howl got pretty irritating after the first three times, and Mog had an infuriatingly coy way of fluttering his wings when he was about to lay down a winning hand.
"We've got to make a comeback, Gau!" she urged.
"Bad cards, I think. Gau gau."
She looked skeptically at her partner. Who was he, anyway? Skinny, weird, maybe a couple years older than her, couldn't speak much of the language but could tear a man to shreds like an animal...hm. It might be fun to draw him sometime. Well, only a sketch. Anything more and the poor boy would probably end up with serious brain damage.
"You're right. These are pretty bad cards. What should we do?"
Relm looked at Gau. Gau looked back.
"What do you mean, you lost your cards?" Setzer asked disbelievingly. "Did you drop them or something?"
"Nope. They're gone," Relm asserted. "They just vanished. Out of thin air. We should deal again with a new deck, right?"
"If you say so, kid."
Strago watched his granddaughter with a critical eye. It might've been cheating, but he had to give her points for originality. "Clever girl, she is. Impertinent, but proud of her, I am. Would make her mother proud."
"I don't care," Shadow said flatly.
The old man gave him a curious half-smile. "Know that, I did. What would a...random stranger...care about little Relm's mother, hmm?"
There was no going back now, was there? "So how much do you know?" Shadow asked. Her drummed his fingers idly on the table, paying next to no attention to the game.
"More than I should and less than Relm ought."
It occurred to Shadow that he needed to keep his guard up around this senile old bag of bones.
"Okay, I'm going to pass this turn," Celes whispered. It was nice to have Locke back again. It had been agonizing to stand there as he finally buried his first love, but now... He was here, at her side, being the ol' cocky "treasure hunter" she'd first met in South Figaro so long ago.
"Go for it." He winked. "Say, ah, Celes."
His voice was pensive, almost shy. "I was, um, wondering. I was thinking back to old times and I, uh, if I could...there's something I'd like to hear you say."
Full alert! Red flags! All shields up! "Er, what is it?"
He cleared his throat. "I want to hear you say... 'I'm an Imperial General, not an opera singer!' "
Celes didn't know if she was relieved or not.
"Now we were two down that last round, so we've got to really pay attention. What do you think?"
Sabin watched as closely as he could over Terra's shoulder. He hadn't realized she was so tiny. She was so delicate, a little slip of a woman, one of those types that Edgar was always trying to talk into his bedroom. And yet she didn't seem bothered by having such a big, clumsy, stupid partner for cards. Speaking of which...is she really?
"Um, Terra?" he said.
She turned to him with a wide smile. "What is it?"
"The cards." He was sure to keep his voice down; he didn't want to embarrass her. "I think you're holding them upside down."
Terra blinked. Sabin twiddled his thumbs.
"Oh," she said, and flipped her hand.
Setzer and Cyan came out in first place, with Mog and Umaro as close seconds. Edgar and Gogo were dead last, with a mere four gil between them.
"You'd better hit the johns, boys!" Locke cackled. "Er, or, boy and girl. Boy and thing? Gogo, what are you, anyway?"
"Good work, Gau!" Relm congratulated, shaking his hand. "We made, um, six thousand and four hundred and eighteen gil. So split between us that's three thousand two hundred and nine! That's enough for a new set of camel hair paintbrushes. What are you gonna get?"
"Meat. Maybe Earth Gear. Or new shiny hat."
She giggled and held up her left arm. A glimmering silvery bracelet hung on her arm "Oh, yeah. Say, look at this. Pretty shiny, huh?"
Gau was transfixed.
"Good game, everybody," Setzer said, if only because he was several hundred thousand gil richer. "Looks like we've got some pretty serious players here, Mr. Mime and Loverboy excepted."
Mog held up two toothbrushes. "Better get scrubbing, eh?"
"Anyways, provided we get back from the Tower with most of our body parts intact, we ought to play again. Whaddya say?"
"Only if I get a new partner," Edgar scowled.
"Yeah, okay, we can mix it up again. Why not? It wouldn't be fair if Cyan and I mopped the floor with your sorry selves again."
Umaro's roar indicated he didn't think Setzer had exactly "mopped the floor". "And besides," Mog said, "that's not fair, is it? How many of you guys can speak Yeti, huh?"
Sabin stared determinedly at the edge of the table. "Uh, Terra, if you don't mind," he said, his voice low, "maybe you'd be my partner next time?"
She cocked her head at him. He was making a serious effort to not face her. "Um...all right." No, no, that wasn't good. She sounded too hesitant. "I'd like that."
"Onwards to Kefka!" Locke said, standing. "Well, right after this nap."