A letter changes everything.
"I'll see your almond and raise you three peanuts."
Relm frowned at her pile of winnings. "I'm out of peanuts. How about some raisins?"
Setzer examined the offerings solemnly and pronounced judgment. "Sure. Three raisins to one peanut."
"Snufaaw!" Gau made a muffled protest through the remains of a particularly large cookie.
Setzer waved his hands. "All right, all right. Two per peanut."
Relm scowled at him. "You gave Gau a one-for-one with his candies."
Gau nodded, glowering, crumbs pattering down on his shirt, now mostly unbuttoned, and the cravat gone gods only knew where.
Setzer attempted to look hurt. "Would I cheat you, Relm?"
"Yes," Relm said immediately, fishing a chocolate out of her winnings and popping it in her mouth.
"Mmph!" Gau agreed, taking another bite.
"I'm shocked that you two don't trust me. Just shocked, after all we've gone through--" Actually, he thought, the kid's got damn good instincts....
Relm eyed him critically. "Like the two thousand gold you still owe me from Jidoor? And the six thousand you swindled from me that rainy day in...where was it?" She tugged on a passing server's sleeve, and the woman handed her a cup of iced juice. Relm frowned down at it. The last waiter had given her a cup of wassail, and it'd been tasty.
"Miffees," Gau supplied helpfully.
"Swindled! My dear, it is not my fault that Lady Luck smiled upon me. One raisin per peanut."
Gau brushed at the crumbs falling down on his cards, swallowing. "Fair."
"Good," Relm said, tossing three raisins into the middle of the table. "Call. Three jacks."
Gau laid down his cards, smiling delightedly.
Relm swirled her finger in her juice despondently. The wassail had been much tastier. "That's a pair, Gau. Three jacks beats it."
Gau's face fell. He scowled at the offending cards, reaching for another cookie.
Relm grinned at Setzer. "So? C'mon, Mr. Gambler, whatcha got?"
Setzer laid down his cards, trying not to smirk too badly. "I fear, little lady, that your raisins are mine. Four kings."
"Oh, man.... Waittaminute! Didn't I have a king?" Relm reached for the pack where he'd put her discards.
Yep, very good instincts. Setzer started quickly shuffling the deck. "My dear, I'm WOUNDED--"
"You will be if you don't put the cards away before Strago gets over here."
Setzer jumped at the voice in his ear, his heart nearly in his throat, nearly overturning the wassail cup next to his elbow when he instinctively reached for darts or dice or steel-edged cards that weren't there. He looked up at a brown-haired man in beige velvet and for a moment had no idea who he was. Then the raised eyebrow and the voice clicked, and Setzer chuckled, feeling a bit like a fool. Then he saw the old man over Shadow's shoulder, heading their direction and the cards disappeared into a pocket in Setzer's coat. "You scared the hell out of me. You shouldn't sneak up on people like that." He grinned. "Folks might think you're up to no good."
Shadow's voice was flat, just loud enough to be heard over the music, but it might have been the tiniest bit amused. "And I wouldn't want that."
Relm giggled. "To scare people, or them to think you're up to no good?"
Relm giggled harder, laying her cheek down on her folded hands, yawning.
Strago finally arrived, his staff thumping on the marble floor. "Well, now, what have you been up to tonight?"
Setzer spread his hands. "Just talking. Thought I'd keep them out of trouble." He shot a look at Relm as she giggled again, even more sleepily this time.
"Hrrumph." Strago looked slightly suspicious, but finally said, "Well, then. It's getting late. More that late enough that all little girls should be in bed."
"Gaah, I don' wanna go to bed, Gramps."
"You're falling asleep as it is. Come on. Where's Gau, then?"
Setzer's lips twitched as he said, "No clue. Musta disappeared off to steal the rest of the cookie tray." He muffled his surprised "ow!" as Gau, who'd been hiding under the table ever since Strago came over with that "I'm going to make people go to bed" look in his eyes, gave him a hard kick.
Strago herded Relm up from her seat. She yawned hugely and stopped to give Setzer a hug. "Cheater," she mumbled.
"Brat," he murmured back, fondly. The kid really did make him think, somewhere in a deep, dusty corner of his soul, that he might like to have kids. Someday. Maybe.
Strago nodded to Setzer and gave Shadow, who'd stepped back from the table when he'd arrived, a long, inscrutable frown before leading Relm away. Setzer looked back at Shadow, but the man's face was as blankly impassive as ever.
Once Strago was gone, Setzer reached down to rub his shin. "Nice way to thank me, ingrate."
Gau popped up from under the table, looked about for more responsible adults, and finally sighed and sat down again, sticking out his tongue at Setzer and finishing off the rest of Relm's juice before heading towards the refreshment table again.
Then again, maybe I'd better leave the kids to those who don't have occasional urges to strangle them.
"So," Setzer said, leaning back in his chair. He pulled out the cards again and shuffled them aimlessly. "What's the deal with you and Strago?"
Shadow murmured, "I have no idea what you mean."
"Oh, come on. He acts like you're not there, and that's only when he's not giving you that Look of Death he has going." Setzer watched Shadow's face out of the corner of his eye. He'd never been particularly close to the ninja and wasn't really sure if this was treading on shaky ground, but hey, Shadow had seemed to settle down a bit since the end of the world thing, and well...no guts, no glory.
Shadow's face, however, stayed as deadpan as ever. "Perhaps he doesn't approve of mercenary assassins around his granddaughter."
Setzer looked back at the cards as he dealt out an aimless hand of solitaire. "Maybe, but I don't know...I get the feeling it's something person--huh?" He looked up to find that he was talking to empty air. He looked around, but the ninja was gone, disappeared into the crowd. Setzer sighed. "I hate it when he does that."
"Who does what?" Locke asked as he flopped down in an empty chair, dropping his jacket over the chair next to him. His color was up--quite becomingly, Setzer thought in that dark, dusty corner of his mind--probably due to the flask that dangled from one hand as he propped his feet up on yet another chair.
"Hey there. Shadow. Disappearing."
"He's here? Haven't seen him."
"He's here. In beige."
Locke frowned as he took another swig from his flask and offered some to Setzer. "Beige? Why?"
"I didn't have a chance to ask." Setzer cast about and came up with one of his empty wassail cups, holding it out. Locke poured him two fingers worth, and the sharp, green-sweet smell of cactus wine floated on the air. "Gods, you actually drink this stuff?" Setzer sniffed at the glass suspiciously.
"Yeh. It's good. Bit of an acquired taste, but got a hell of a kick."
Setzer took a swallow and felt his eyes burn with the effort not to cough like a rookie. "No kidding," he wheezed. "Tastes like cactaur piss." The second swallow went down much easier.
Locke made a face. "If you say so. And that's some of Figaro's best you're making fun of, there. Here I am, playing nice messenger, and all you can do is make fun of my booze."
"Eh. The guys're done opening all their official gift things, and the gang's going to move to somewhere a little more private. Ya know, get away from all the stiffs."
Actually, now that Locke mentioned it, Setzer realized that most of the others seemed to be making their way to various exits. Edgar made his way over to them, looking quite cheerful himself. "C'mon, you two, let's make a break for it before the horde closes in, or someone else demands to dance with me or something...."
"Too late," Edgar muttered as he turned around, and Setzer snickered at the crestfallen look on his face. But it was only a page, who held out an envelope on a silver tray. "Oh. Who's it from?"
"General Celes, Your Majesty."
"Ah, thank you." Edgar opened the letter, reading it as the page turned his eyes to Locke.
Locke shook himself, as if waking from a dream. "Huh? Yeah?"
"There's a letter for you, also, sir." The page handed him another envelope and bowed before departing.
Setzer sipped at his cactus wine. "What, only royalty get their letters on the tray? Did he think your letter was going to contaminate Edgar's or something?"
After a moment, Edgar waved a hand. "It's just a protocol thing." He folded the letter, stuffing it in his pocket. "Unfortunately, Celes won't be coming. She's got her hands full in Tzen and can't make it. She sends her apologies." Edgar turned to Locke. "Did she say--Locke? Locke, are you all right?"
Setzer turned just in time to see Locke's very, very pale face, and the slight tremor in the hand that held his letter before Locke blinked, a very obviously forced smile curving his lips. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm ok." He stuffed the letter, envelope and all, into his pocket. "Just...just not feeling so good all of a sudden. Too much...too much wine, I guess. I think I'll have to...bow out on the party, Edgar. Sorry."
Edgar said quietly, "It's all right. Take care of yourself."
"I...I will. Thanks. G'night. 'Night, Setzer."
"Good...night, Locke." Setzer said lamely, as Locke turned to walk away, head down. "What was that about?"
"I don't know," Edgar said, shaking his head, brow furrowed.
Setzer looked over at him, sharply. "You know something."
Edgar shook his head again. "Nothing worth mentioning. It's none of my business, really." He sighed, slinging an arm around Setzer's shoulder, "Come on. He'll be all right."
Setzer followed, but, remembering the shocked, lost look in Locke's eyes, he wondered...and worried. I've seen that look in someone's eyes before. And it never meant anything that was going to be "all right".