No Matter How Far Away You Roam
Final Fantasy VI
AUTHOR NOTE: for continuity's sake, it's worth noting that this takes place the year after my previous ff6 fic, A Cup of Kindness Yet.
Another reunion day comes and goes; the snows of Narshe unchanged and impervious as ever. Most of the original group reconvene for a cup of cheer, a game of cards, and a friendly smile. The King of Figaro and his brother, the Steward of Doma and his charge, the artist and her grandfather (and her dog, and the promise, someday soon, of her reunited brother). The treasure hunter and the erstwhile general, newly wed. The half-Esper whose own unlikely existence brought them all together and intertwined their fates.
A certain gambler does not make an appearance.
This is not unusual; earlier years have seen each of them, in turn, with other obligations and commitments, unable to mark the date. The others would raise a toast to their number not present, and the snow would continue to fall.
Difficult to say, this time, who feels uneasy first: Terra, who cherishes all her friends and takes each absence to heart; Edgar, who last year promised to win the next hand of canasta or forfeit a bottle of Figaro's finest. Locke, who knows too well the cold and empty place that a lost lover leaves behind.
When the morning light crests the mountains, they agree to go looking for Setzer.
It is Celes who finds him, early evening, in that too-small tavern in Kohlingen, three proverbial sheets to the wind and decorum flung to the farthest furlong. His long white hair has escaped its immaculate ribbon, his cravat flutters loosely around his neck. More startling are the scars; usually the lace at his throat conceals the worst of the old wounds, but not so right now. Pale hands lined with paler scars hang loosely from his gabardine cuffs, fingers trailing across the cards laid out in front of him. She recognizes the game-- a two-handed pinochle, first round dealt-- but there is no one else at his table, nor indeed anyone on his side of the tavern.
The smile he launches does not survive its maiden voyage when he recognizes her face.
Celes won't have it, not any part of it. She has already done this once: this tavern, this man, this hopelessness. She sits across from him and claims the cards arranged there, elbows on the table and challenge in her eyes. "Is this seat taken?"
He waves a hand--helpless to stop her, they both know. "I did not expect--" He doesn't finish the thought, but he does not protest her company. She wonders if he might have said "anyone," or if he meant "you."
She peers at her sets. The first four: King of Hearts, Queen of Spades, Jack of Diamonds, Nine of Clubs. No trick to take. Again she tries to meet his eye. "Come on, Gabbiani." She doesn't ask questions; she doesn't pity or console. "You've dealt the hand yourself, you'd better go ahead and play it. It's your move."
This elicits a new smile, a tiny, fragile thing that ghosts across his too-pale face. "Always getting the better of me," he says. "Fair enough! I suppose my absence lifted eyebrows?"
His cup is still half-full; she makes no pretense of sliding it across the table, taking a sip. Brandy, rich and sweet. How many cups had it been? "Of course we missed you," she says simply, not giving him back his drink. Her look is as sharp as her sword. "We wanted to make sure you were all right."
Setzer's reply is equally simple, equally sharp, a razor-edged card dealt into the air between them. "I am not."
She lets the silence linger half a moment, then brandishes the King of Hearts between two fingers, as if a weapon to counter his words. "Well then, back to the house with you. I've brought you a chocobo, and I'm happy to tie you to the saddle if you don't think you can stay upright."
In his surprise, he is perhaps less eloquent than usual. "You've come to-- what house-- tie me to the chocobo?"
"You know I don't like to repeat myself," she says, but her eyes are smiling. She downs the rest of the brandy and proffers a hand to help him out of his chair. "It's not the end of the world any more, Setzer. Have you paid your tab?"
"Of course I have." He stumbles as he attempts to rise, cold fingers in her hand and snowy hair falling across his face. "And you still have a knack for upsetting my timing! However am I supposed to maintain this marvelously maudlin drunk in the face of your practicality?"
It's so much more like the Setzer she knows that she actually laughs aloud.
He does manage to keep himself on the chocobo, but it is something of a near thing. Celes counts it a victory-- not that he's stable, as he's sobering up, but that he's chuckling at himself as he tries to regain his balance.
When they arrive at the modest house on the outskirts of Kohlingen, the sun has fully set, early winter night settling into the hills and byways. Locke is already there, front door propped open and emanating warm and welcoming lamplight, the smell of pine needles and coffee.
His smile is for them both, glad relief in his eyes and the reflected glow of the hearthfire catching in his hair like starlight. "Will you look at what the torama dragged in!"
For a moment Setzer looks truly stricken, looking from one to the other of them, and Celes catches at his elbow as his dismount is not as graceful as it could have been.
"The hero of the West, and his princess," Setzer says, more than just his inebriation coloring his voice despondent. "I cannot stay--"
Celes puts her hand on his chest, forestalling any escape. Locke looks puzzled, but Celes continues, her voice bell-clear in the cold air. "Today is not a day to duel, or to despair. Good Prince Ralse--"
Setzer starts visibly, stands up straighter.
"--Join us tonight," Locke finishes, winking at Celes as he catches on, moving to stand at the gambler's other side. "For what warmth our house may offer."
Touched, Setzer doesn't quite manage a smile, eyes too bright as they stand in the doorway together. "Maria. Draco. Qui a me, t'attenderó."
It's Celes who speaks first. "And for Phoenix's sake will you get this man a cup of coffee?"
They laugh-- even Setzer-- and bundle into the little house that awaited them.