A Cup of Kindness Yet
Even before the end of the world, Narshe hadn't been much to look at. Now, with the oceans making islands of mountains and every cartographer in every kingdom wringing his hands trying to make sense of it all, Narshe was even less to behold. The miners went on about their work; the night came early; the snow continued to fall.
But Narshe, perhaps in spite of itself, was where everything started. They swore they would not forget.
"There's fewer of us every year, it seems."
Edgar gave Terra his most dashing smile, but she wasn't looking; her gaze was lost out the window, high over the snow-covered rooftops. Undismayed, he poured her half-empty cup full again-- a good year, snicked from the ancestral Figaro winecellars for the occasion. "There's no need to be maudlin," he said, proffering her cup and deliberately warming her fingers with his own. "Everyone has been in touch."
"That's right!" Ever practical, Sabin was stacking cord wood by the fire he'd built, crackling happily away. "Setzer, Locke, and Celes should already be on their way, in the Falcon."
"And Cyan's note is on the mantel; it got here just as we did." Edgar nodded towards it, the old-fashioned paper neatly printed in Cyan's unmistakable hand. "The apology alone is two pages. But it sounds like he's doing well, even if he's got his hands full."
Sabin chuckled, dusting woodchips off his hands and standing back to look at his fire, satisfied. "You mean with Doma, or you mean teaching that kid table manners?"
That surprised Terra into a small laugh. "Is he still attempting to civilize Gau?"
"You can read the note for yourself." Edgar's eyes twinkled. "'I beseech you to know that I shall never forget this date, but I am sorry to relate that duty importunes me to--'"
"All right, enough," Terra said, but her smile did not dissipate. "And Relm?"
"Relm sent word to Figaro last month, along with a few new sketches--"
"Don't worry," Sabin interjected, at Terra's look of alarm. "They're not quite finished."
"Sketches," Edgar went on, over his brother's interruption, "that are unfinished, and ought not, ah, backfire like last time. But it seems she and that grandfather of hers have some traveling to do." He looked thoughtfully at his cup. "They found Interceptor, you see."
Terra's eyes went wide, her own cup forgotten in her hands. "Shadow!"
"I always said he'd turn up eventually." Sabin was helping himself to the wine, though he made a face when he lifted the bottle. "Did you save me any, bro?"
"I should say, Interceptor found them. So they're following the scent-- so to speak. She promised to write with any news. So it's very likely that next year we'll have an extra cup to fill, rather than fewer." He winked at her. "Suppose we'll need to bring more bottles."
The little house was warm now, the snow slowly melting from their cloaks hung by the fireplace, and she pulled the thick curtains back across the window, blocking out the draft. "I'm glad to hear it," she said earnestly, unphased by his teasing. "It's important to me-- everyone is. I couldn't have made it without their help."
Edgar's smile softened, and his eyes were serious. "I know."
A calamity outside, beyond the shuttered windows, signaled the arrival of more friends. Sabin added another log to the fire. "Like watching water boil. The minute you turn your back, there it goes."
In from the snow came the familiar shapes of Setzer and Celes, one white-haired, one fair, both red-faced from the cold. Both were bearing heavy bags-- obvious from the clink of them that they carried more festivity than anything else.
Edgar bowed gallantly over Celes' hands, just as Setzer did to Terra; when the girls caught each other's eyes, they couldn't help but laugh. The gambler and the King of Figaro exchanged mutual glances of exaggerated dismay-- as if they weren't accustomed to having their chivalry thus rebuffed. Sabin was much more straightforward in his greeting: catching Setzer and Celes alike in a strong-armed hug.
"Aren't you a sight for sore eyes!" Sabin grinned from one to the other of them, taking their heavy cloaks one-handed and shaking off the snow over the threshhold. "But--"
"--Where's our treasure hunter?" Edgar finished the thought, peering around the two newcomers and seeing only the snowy evening. "Isn't he with you?"
"Said he had something to fetch," Setzer said, shrugging lightly. "Couldn't talk him out of it; not even General Practicality, here."
Celes rolled her eyes at him. "Yes, I tried to change his mind; no, there's no arguing with him when his mind is made up." (Edgar chuckled at that.) "Truthfully I-- thought he might already be here." And though she didn't say "hoped," everyone heard the unspoken thought.
"Well," said Edgar, to draw their attentions inward towards the fire and the wine, away from the wintry winds outside. "We're mostly here-- and I hope you've brought your cards, my good man; I'm in no mood for losing tonight!"
"Full house, queens over sixes," said Celes, and a collective groan sounded around the table.
Terra laughed, a little breathlessly, watching everyone else's poker faces dissolving into disappointment. "It seems the only thing I know about poker is when to fold. Less to lose, that way."
"Ah, but! There is less to win, as well." Setzer lifted one cautionary finger as Celes reached towards the pot; his poker face was slipping as well, but in the opposite direction. "Queens over sixes, you say?"
"You heard me the first time, I think." The erstwhile General lifted an elegant eyebrow, but her eyes were smiling. She sat back, relinquishing the kitty. "You only ask me to repeat myself when you want to gloat."
Edgar shook his head ruefully, eyeing the remains of his own meager winnings. "Two full houses at one go? Sweet sandlion, between the two of you, you're going to bleed me dry."
"At least you still have something left," said Sabin, lifting his cup only to find he'd already finished his drink. He pushed back from the table, stretching broadly. "That last round cleared me out entirely. Anyone else need a refill?"
Setzer looked slightly put out; no one was watching as he laid out his victorious hand and collected the spoils (full house: three Kings and the other two sixes). "I suppose it is getting rather late," he mused. "Is there any mead left?"
Sabin hefted the bottle experimentally, shook his head. "Pretty sure you finished it off about two hands ago."
"You won that round, too, I recall," Celes said, stacking what remained of her winnings into tidy piles. "Two pair, aces high, and a toast your good fortune with the last cup."
Everyone chuckled at that, even Setzer. "I suppose that explains the muzziness in my head, then. We've been playing for hours."
"And drinking, too." Edgar's easy smile faltered for a moment. "Isn't Locke here yet? He really is overdue, even for 'fashionably late.'"
Their fire had burned low; Sabin helped to get it dancing again. Terra pulled back the heavy curtains, and whistled lowly, trying to let the pleasant buzz of wine stave off any worry. "Could be the weather," she said. "When did this blizzard start?"
Celes' lips twitched, but she only said, "You mean it ever stops?"
The grandfather clock was just chiming eleven when a sudden, tremendous thump on the front door had them all jumping to their feet. Setzer's hands went right for his fighting deck; Edgar and Celes, unarmed, brandished empty wine bottles like swords. Sabin, who needed no weapons, was the one who opened the door.
At first, all they could see was a flurry of snow-- but it wasn't snow at all, but a great, hairy, familiar beast. Terra realized it first, and she had just opened her mouth to greet it (should you welcome a Yeti indoors?), when it retreated, shadow a different shade of white against the blizzard.
And there in its wake stood Locke, his hair full of snow, the ends of his bandanna dripping, and his smile bright like a sky full of stars on a moonless night. "You waited up for me!"
"Locke!" Five voices cried at once.
"I brought--" he stumbled a little across the threshhold, and Edgar and Celes caught at his elbows to keep him steady. "Ha, sorry, it's been kind of a rough night. I brought presents! For everyone."
"First, will you sit down?" This from Celes, though her show of exasperation was fooling no one, the relief written on her face. "Boots off, before you track any more snow into the house."
"Fair enough!" Locke laughed, but leaned back happily as Terra and Sabin got his shoes and cloak off him, and Edgar brought him a cup brim-full of wine. He took a deep pull, and sighed through his nose. "Mm, Edgar, do your chancellors know that you raided the stores for this?"
"The ministers of Figaro may wring their hands all they like," Edgar said, cheerily. "Today is for celebration. Though you did rather keep us waiting, old man."
Locke's grin turned sheepish. "Sorry, everyone. I guess I am a little late. Ran into some bad weather just outside of town... but Umaro found me. He and Mog said they'd drop me off-- I didn't know they meant it literally!" He laughed. "But I promise it'll be worth the wait, if you'll let me at my bag."
And sure enough, his bag produced gifts for everyone present. First there were walnuts and pistachios for Sabin, heaps of them; his favorite, only found in Kohlingen these days.
Next, for Setzer, a pair of dice cut from luminous rock crystal. The gambler rolled them in his hand; they chimed against one another like small bells. "Surely fine enough for a prince's treasury," he said, giving them an experimental cast: three and three, one pip for each of them.
For Terra he produced a pair of earrings, green emeralds as bright as her hair. He protested he had no skill for such things, and so it was Edgar who helped her into them. "They belonged to a friend," he said, evasive. "And now I want you to have them."
When Edgar leaned close expectantly, Locke made a rueful face. "I'm sure you have no idea how hard it is finding something that's actually 'fit for a king.' Here, you." He needn't have worried, though; when the pocket watch appeared in his hand-- already ticking, elegant "F" engraved into its back-- Edgar made a noise that only a happy machinist could make, presented with a new toy.
Finally Locke drew out a small box, tied in a ribbon as silver as holy, as ice. "And last, but certainly not least," Locke said, and Edgar and Terra, closest to him, saw him blush.
"Saving the best for last," Setzer stage-whispered, to no one in particular.
"But... I have nothing for you," Celes protested.
"I disagree," Locke said. And he bent to one knee, and the little box in his hand opened to reveal a tiny point of light, like fallen starshine, like an unmelted snowflake. "Celes. Will you be my wife?"
It was Locke who had tears standing in his eyes, but Celes' face was full of surprise and unselfconscious joy. The little house in Narshe held its breath, as she tried for a moment to memorize his face, to hold the whole world in a single, bursting heartbeat. "Yes," she said, and took his hand.
There may have been only six of them, but few that they were, the rising cheer filled the place up to the rafters, overflowing.
"Good show!" Edgar beamed, offering Terra his handkerchief and clapping Locke on the back. "Here's to the happy couple."
Sabin, uncharacteristically debonair, kissed Celes' hand, though with less affectation than his brother might have. "Congratulations to the both of you," he said. To Locke he added, "And thanks-- now Edgar owes me two hundred gil."
The King of Figaro spluttered in his cup, but the chainsaw was out of the bag (so to speak), and so he handed over his poker winnings graciously.
Locke tried his best to look wounded, the effect hampered by his laughter. "Two hundred? Edgar, I thought you were my friend!"
"No, no, you misunderstand." Edgar protested. "The bet wasn't whether or not she'd accept."
"The bet was if you'd ask before the end of another year," Sabin said with a grin, though he whispered to Celes, "Truthfully I thought I'd have to pay up again this year."
Terra hugged them then, a hundred things she wanted to say, none of which resolved themselves into words. "Thank you," she managed at last, and for all that it was an awkward thing to say, both of them understood. Until that moment, Celes had kept her composure, but at the sweet unguarded affection in Terra's voice, she felt her eyes ache with tears unshed. No small thing, to love and be loved, to clasp hands with dear friends on the longest night of the year.
Only Setzer hadn't yet spoken, so he stood before them, arms wide in a gesture of generosity. "My dearest friends! I believe custom dictates that I am to kiss the one of you, and shake the other's hand?" So saying, he gave Celes's hand a firm, manly shake, and lay a tender kiss on Locke's cheek.
Everyone laughed-- even Locke-- and the last bottle of wine was passed around, six cups raised in a unanimous toast to one another.