Authors Note: For a long time I dreaded writing a fic with Setzer as the main character because of a spectacular fic out there by the name of Cats Paw. He had adventure. He had a prospective romance. Unfortunately, once a story grabs me, I must follow through. Hence, the story Ace of Diamonds was birthed.
I must warn you, also, that because of my dedication to remaining true to the character, Ive written situations that I normally would not care to write. I have attempted to do them as tactfully and tastefully as possible, but they still make me uncomfortable. (As they did in Rydia: Daughter of Mist as well.) I apologize if you are offended. That wasnt my intent. My intention was to write an intense story that would stay true to the representation of the characters that Square had originally created.
So, without further ado, I present to you The Ace of Diamonds. Enjoy.
The chair creaked as Setzer Gabbiani, captain of the Falcon, adjusted his position. He was bored. Never a very desirable position for an adventure-loving gambler such as Setzer, but it happened. And all too often now that the world was back to a somewhat regular state of normal. Setzer smirked as he looked around the pub in Albrook at the girls hawking their wares right alongside the overrated and overpriced drinks that tasted like century-old piss from a black dragon. Yes. A somewhat regular state of normal wasn't very exciting.
Setzer gave a half-shrug and shuffled his deck of cards with one hand as his eyes focused on a love-struck couple in the back part of the pub. The young man had just 'popped the question', to her wild delight, and she'd given him the appropriate response. Setzer chuckled and drew out the Queen of Hearts. He stared down at it with an odd expression, stroking the edge before hiding it back within the deck. He raised his eyes as he absently shuffled it. He observed the hesitantly happy faces that talked amongst themselves. Setzer only knew a couple faces in the crowd, vaguely, but he had a notion none of them recognized him. Setzer's face twisted in a wry smile as he lowered his eyes to his cards. The savior of their planet and I'm forgotten like a spent gambler. And he found himself yearning for the cocky and assured presence of Darryl. Being with her ghost would have been better than being alone.
"Can you believe that?"
Setzer raised his eyes with an accompanying raised eyebrow at the woman that had just sat down across from him. She leaned back in her chair and brought both long legs up onto the table with a clunk, clunk. She wore dark brown leather boots that crested the top of her knees, enhancing the symmetry and grace of those curvaceous limbs. As his eyes made the slow and deliberate journey from legs to torso, he discovered she was every inch a full-grown woman. Her dark blue trousers fit perfectly against her flat abdomen and the curves of her hips and buttocks. Crossed arms over a somewhat thin blouse revealed a generous rounding of breast, and her well-kempt uniform coat of dark blue and crimson with tassels and braid-work of silver actually intensified the rebellious and intriguing air of her beauty. Slightly darkened skin from years in the sun; flashing eyes from years of adventure; long blue-black hair that fell in tumbled waves about glowing cheeks that raved of impetuousness and untamed passion. And not only was she dressed the part of a captain, she exuded the mystery and power of the life she'd led. The life of command.
Setzer smiled pure velvet and kept his eyes ready to meet hers. "Excuse me?"
The mystery woman lifted a hand long enough to send a mocking yet graceful wave toward the love struck duo in the corner. "Love. What could those kids know of love when they haven't lived life on the edge. They haven't stared death in the face and laughed. They haven't lost it all and had to find it again." She wrinkled her nose and finally brought her flashing eyes to meet Setzer's silver ones. Hers were an intriguing shade of aquamarine with black flecks. "All these little nothings gathering to tell stories of how they've had such a hard life and made it through. 'Boo hoo hoo' they'll all cry as they pat each other on the back and say King Edgar'll take away their problems now that Kefka's dead." Much to his surprise and secret delight, she spat a good 6 feet to her right. "Makes me sick to the stomach."
A loud laugh sounded from the other side of the room and drew her eyes yet again. "Then why have you come here?" he asked between card shuffles.
She turned her head to again catch Setzer's eyes. Several locks of bluish-black escaped to the partially unbuttoned neckline of her silken blouse and caressed the valley that raised ever so rhythmically. "Bored as hell," she said.
Setzer's eyes twinkled. "It seems we suffer the same fate." He reluctantly guided his eyes from her face and gestured to the crowds engrossed in their own views of 'adventure'. "Perhaps we've both come in order to assure ourselves that our lives of adventure and risk are worth the effort, rather than becoming attached to a life of rigor and normalcy."
"Dragon piss," she exclaimed, and Setzer noted the different harmonies of personality and adventure tickling within her voice. "Normalcy," she continued in a sneer. "It's a lie. Something for people like them."
"I agree," Setzer said simply.
Her eyes zeroed in on his face and then his shoulders and chest beneath his shirt with the top lacing undone (his captain's jacket was carefully hanging on the back of the chair) before drifting ever so slowly down the length of his legs as they rested on the table and back up his frame. Setzer continued to absently shuffle his cards.
"Now why is it I haven't seen you around here sooner?" she asked in a tone of mild interest.
"I've been around," Setzer said while holding her gaze.
"Then why haven't I ever seen you? I'd like to think I'm a popular girl." Her eyes made another adventurous trip of his physique. "And I'd definitely notice you."
"I could say much the same for you," he told her with another inviting smile in her direction.
Perfect white teeth flashed as her smile brightened the aquamarine to the color of the deepest ocean on a summer day. "Tongue as forked as a demon," she said in a tone filled with laughter. She uncrossed her arms and brought her feet down from the table in a fluidity of movement and grace that added to her alluring persona. She struck out a hand. "Marée."
Setzer brought his feet down from the table as well and reached out to press his palm against hers. "Setzer."
Marée sent him a flash of a mischievous smile and slightly changed how she held his hand. Setzer couldn't quite tell what she'd done, but he enjoyed the feel of the intriguing caress.
"I don't see why I told you my name. I probably won't ever see you again, and it's such a drag when you click with a gent that's just going to disappear the next morning."
He nodded with the faint smile still in his eyes as he held her warm grasp. "Too true. I suppose that's what comes from having so many intriguing adventures."
Marée retrieved her hand, deliberately allowing a slight linger. "An adventure's only what we make of it." She crossed her arms with yet another deliberate action and leaned back in her chair to again bring her legs up onto the table. Each movement was sultry and feminine. "This little discussion we're having could be quite the adventure I'm thinking."
Setzer leaned back in his chair, nonchalant, and also lifted his legs to the table. His tough hide boots occasionally caressed against the soles of hers. "I'm beginning to see the same," he told her with a direct look. Setzer's lips were tickled with his continual smile as he shuffled the cards between two hands. He held her unique eyes and attempted to read the unspoken permissions. "How long are you in port?"
She rocked ever so slightly on the back two legs of the chair. "'Til I'm loaded again. Usually takes half a day. If I'm in a good mood, I let the boys have a half day to themselves." Her eyes twinkled as she jerked her head enough to toss a rebellious portion of hair behind her shoulder. The action reminded Setzer of a wild animal on the Veldt. "I can sometimes use one myself," she told him.
Setzer released a soft chuckle and moved his eyes to his cards. He palmed the Ace of Diamonds. "Ah, distractions. Makes life a bit more interesting, doesn't it?"
"Interesting? Hell no. Makes it more damn fun."
Setzer felt the intensity of her gauging look, but didn't raise his eyes.
"So where are you staying?" Marée asked. "Anyplace different you'd recommend to a fellow, finicky sea captain?"
This time Setzer lifted his eyes to meet hers. Interest and invitation fairly glowed. "I generally stay on my ship," he responded easily. "More privacy and less likelihood of being a victim of thievery."
One side of her full, rosy lips tilted in a slight smirk that laughed in her eyes. "I'd love to take a gander at this ship of yours." Another chorus of laughter erupted from the far side of the room, this one poisoned with an empty flutter of brainless twittering, and Marée's eyes darkened with irritation as she changed her gaze toward them. "Blasted Landers. They laugh at anything that tickles their flat existence with a single spark."
"At least now they've cause to laugh," Setzer responded.
Marée scoffed and adjusted her crossed arms. She brought her gaze back to Setzer's face. "Philosophical nonsense."
"No," he countered, "it's a statement of fact." Setzer palmed the Joker and tossed it onto the table. He gestured to it. "Take the wild card from the deck and the odds are more even."
Marée stared at the card in thoughtful silence as she tapped her upper arm with graceful movements. Finally, she reached out and took up the card, staring down at it for another moment before raising her eyes to meet his and caressing her jawline with the edge of the card. "Gods. Can't argue with that, can I?"
"The cards never lie," Setzer responded with a smirk.
She pointed at him with the Joker card. "But they can be persuaded pretty damn easily."
Setzer chuckled. "Upon occasion, but only when what I want is on the other side of the hand I hold."
Marée arched an eyebrow. Then she pulled her legs down from the table and stood with languid grace. "Walk me to my ship, captain?" She tucked the Joker into a section of her blouse beyond his view.
"Bored?" Setzer asked as he held her gaze. He continued to shuffle the cards.
Marée crossed her arms yet again and struck a seductive pose of command and assurance. "No. Just curious," she told him with twinkling eyes.
"Ah." Setzer lowered his gaze to the cards as his hands paused shuffling. He took the top card and flipped it over so that only he could see it. Ace of Diamonds. He slipped it back into the deck and set it on the table as he stood and slipped into his jacket. When he looked up, Marée was busy in yet another perusal of his form. Her head was slightly tilted as she gauged the firmness of his butt with a quirky smile.
"Nice," she told him when her eyes met his.
Setzer slipped the cards into an inner pocket of the jacket with a smirk; his eyes drifted from hers and did his own adventurous examination of her lithe form and its curves and roundness in the appropriate places. When his eyes again met hers, her expression was laughter and self-assurance. Setzer gestured to the door. When she moved toward, it he noticed that each portion of her body moved with as much sensual fluidity as he'd ever imagined in the workings of a woman. It was a wonder to behold and actually made a quiver of eagerness tickle his sense of adventure as he followed.
Setzer closed the door of the pub behind them and followed her down the stairs to the brick walk below. Then he motioned to the left. "If you'd care for a tour of my ship, I have it anchored just outside of town."
Intrigue brightened her expression. "You have an airship?"
"Then I definitely want to get on board."
Setzer guided her the first step with a gentle touch on her elbow. Then he lowered his arm to his side and silently walked beside her. The night breeze was pleasantly cool and continued to tickle his senses with an intriguingly unique aroma. It was a combination of musk and flowers and was such a pleasantly inviting scent that he enjoyed its continual presence. Adventure and femininity combined.
"What do you call her?"
"Glorious." Her gaze examined his profile. "How fast she go?"
Setzer smirked. "Fast enough."
"Gods! I'd love a turn at the wheel."
"Something might be arranged." Her persona fairly exuded expectancy and excitement. Setzer found it both exhilarating and entrancing. "Steering an air vessel is much different than a sea vessel, of course."
"Of course. If it'd been just the same I'd have been as mad as hell. I want to wrestle with the beauty before having my way with her."
Setzer chuckled. "At times the winds are still the mistress that controls the man," he warned.
Marée sent him an intense look. "Ooo. Now there's a tantalizing prospect, captain."
And Setzer chuckled again.
They exited the town with long strides, quickly erasing the distance between South Figaro and the Falcon. And then the moonlight struck her metal silhouette like a spotlight, halting Marée's steps forward. She whistled long and low before looking over at Setzer. Setzer kept his appreciative gaze on his ship. Darryl's ship.
"She's a beaut, captain. A damned awesome wonder to see."
"Yes. She is."
Marée's gaze moved again to the ship and she crossed her arms. "Damn, damn, damn, I wish I had a ship like her."
Setzer moved his smiling eyes to her profile and motioned forward. "Shall I give you the tour?"
Marée met his gaze. "Hell yeah."
And the two moved forward. Setzer opened the door for her and ushered her aboard, nodding a greeting to the two men who had that evening's watch. Setzer guided Marée through the room, secured it behind them, and gestured to the large room with the couches and billiard tables. "This is where I generally entertain guests and friends. The entry to the engine room is over there and my private office is over there. The entry to the flight deck is ahead."
"Well I'll be a virgin mermaid." Marée moved her wide-eyed gaze from corner to corner. "It's like I stepped into the center of a damned castle."
Setzer's smirk remained as he ushered her forward to the stairs leading to the flight deck. Marée ascended them with quickness and ease, immediately making her way to the side. She looked down to the grass and town lights below. "Gods!" was all she could voice.
Setzer moved toward her. "The controls are this way," he offered.
Marée straightened from the railing and moved the direction he'd gestured. Her agile movements were overflowing with eagerness. "Please tell me you're going to start her up."
"I believe I can be persuaded."
Marée sent a bright smile over her shoulder before she hurried her step to the wheel and stood to one side, waiting for Setzer to arrive. He stepped up to the wheel and pressed the appropriate controls. The engine roared to life and Marée's eyes nearly rolled into the back of her head.
"Gods, that sounds good." She changed her gaze to her feet. "I can feel the engine clear through my bones." Marée lifted her head then and tilted it back, raising her arms out to each side as she closed her eyes and relished the feel of the wind around her and the vibration of the engine through her body.
Setzer leaned against the wheel as he watched the full and complete experience of his ship. He smirked and felt the attraction within grow. Only Darryl and Terra had fully appreciated the wind and the seduction it brought to the soul of those who loved to fly. In fact, Setzer had become closer to Terra only since that one moment after the defeat of Kefka when she'd let her hair down to allow the complete and utter feel of the wind take her away. He had felt, then, that she'd understood him.
Marée voiced a slight growl in the deepest part of her chest and gave a body-wide shiver. She lowered her arms and slowly brought her head back up. She opened her eyes then and met Setzer's. Marée' lips were tickled with a slight smile as she moved to stand in front of him, moving to also lean against the wheel. She reached out a finger and coiled one of the laces of his shirtfront around her finger.
He stepped back from the wheel without a word and motioned to it. Her eyes flashed with eagerness and she took his place, resting her hands on the wheel as Setzer reached for the throttle. He eased it forward. "Keep your hold steady and firm," he said as he came to stand close behind her. "She'll fight you, believe me. Don't be afraid to fight back."
Marée's lips parted with delight as the Falcon moved forward into the wind. Her breath came in deep puffs, raising her chest in an erotic pace of passion and adventure as the breeze caressed and teased her tresses of blue-black around her flushed cheeks and into the valley and around her delicate throat.
"Oh Gods," she whispered, "this is better than the first time I had sex."
Setzer chuckled and pushed the throttle forward slightly more. The Falcon dove forward and Marée laughed, tossing her hair out of her face. The wind made her thick locks tickle his exposed chest and face. Setzer stepped slightly closer as he took in a slow breath of the wind and the aroma of her perfume. It had been a long time since he'd seen a woman at the wheel of the Falcon. Too long Then he rested his hands on hers and helped her guide the Falcon over the mountains surrounding Zozo, pushing the throttle the rest of the way forward as he lowered the Falcon over the still water of the ocean, creating a spray of white wetness along behind them. Then Marée was pulling back on the wheel, causing the Falcon to soar upwards toward the stars. He eased the ascent only slightly, weaving the ship from side to side through the low hanging clouds.
Setzer and Marée's commands on the helm of the Falcon moved as one, racing through the sky like a great bird playing with the air angels. But then Marée's control drifted to nothing and she leaned back against Setzer, her head tilted backward and her eyes closed as she reveled in the freedom and power around her. Setzer's chest tightened with her warmth and nearness and he continued to take deeper and deeper breaths of her tantalizing aroma.
Marée turned in the circle of his arms then, lifting her arms and encircling his neck to pull his mouth to hers. Their lips danced and worked together; exploring the other's spirit and passion and intensity. Setzer moved closer, pressing Marée against the wheel. She moaned against his lips and submerged her hands deeper into the thickness of his white hair, caressing and fondling his neck as her mouth begged for more of his touch. The night breeze swirled around them, lifting hair into a tempestuous dance of passion and intermingling scents and sounds as the kiss deepened.
Marée's hands lowered from his neck to pull his shirt from its bindings within his trousers, going beneath and tickling the chest and abdominal muscles into twitches and spasms. Setzer released a collection of quick breaths against her lips and pressed himself closer against her, relishing the feel of her against him as her breath came in quick puffs against his face. He absently reached out with his right hand and pulled back the throttle as he caressed his lips along her jawline to a portion of skin beneath her earlobe. Then his hands were holding her face and neck, submersed deep into her thick tresses as his thumbs caressed her cheeks and his lips again found hers.
The taste of them was exotic and adventurous entwined.
But when Marée's hands began to work at the bindings of his trousers, Setzer pulled slightly back.
"What," she absently queried in a husky whisper. "Don't stop. I want you. Gods this ship, the wind, this power " She covered his mouth with hers and loosed one trouser button.
Setzer gathered his mind back from the four corners of passion and smirked. "I'm a distraction that will have to wait, captain," he said against her persuasive mouth.
Marée's lips imperceptibly pulled back from his, still caressing against them as she rubbed her hands along his chest and back. "Come on now, captain. Don't leave a girl hungry," she purred. She kissed his mouth again, stroking his back and chest with gentle fingers that were more than familiar with their form of magic. "Aren't you a little curious?"
A spark flared and Setzer allowed himself a little respite as her lips met his. Her scent wreaked havoc on his senses, making the control a little harder to hold on to than normal, so he indulged in the exploration of her soft skin beneath her silken blouse. She took in a quick breath and nipped at his lower lip. He smiled against them and opened a little wider, inviting her within as his hands caressed the small of her back and cautiously moved lower. She groaned "gods" against his lips and released yet another button of his trousers as she stepped closer.
Setzer lifted his head; his breath feathered the wisps of hair around her face. "That will have to do for now, Marée," he told her. He retrieved his hands slowly, caressing and fondling back, sides, abdomen and the very base of her warm breasts as he went. He placed another kiss on her lips as he retracted his hand fully, and then he stroked her jawline with a single finger and held her bright gaze. "If I'm to be a distraction, I'd prefer not to become a bore the first evening."
Marée caressed his chest with both hands, tickling them with her nails as she smiled up at him. She kissed his lips once, twice, three times before meeting his eyes again. Her hands gripped the front of his trousers, ready to release the next obstacle. "I won't be back for at least 3 months, Setzer," she whispered against his lips. "The wind can be cold and memories are better than wishes."
He smirked and rested his hands on the sensual curves of her hips. He hooked his thumbs on the outside of her trousers as his fingers caressed the skin of her hips beneath before gently moving to the warm skin of her buttocks. "Yes, but as there are but few ports for a sea captain, I believe I have a good chance of another meeting."
Marée tickled his lips with hers as her fingers caressed his lower abdomen. His muscles tensed and he released several quick breaths against her lips; her aquamarine eyes never left his silver ones. "Odds are good, are they?"
Marée's eyes heightened their twinkle of permission and desire. "I'm a sore loser, you know. I don't like the word 'no'."
Setzer covered her warm lips with his for another long taste. Her mouth was eager and willing as her fingers tightened their hold on the next button of his trousers. "Consider it a not yet," he said roughly.
Marée's pressed her lips against his again for another exploration, doing her best to coax out what she wanted as her quivering fingers fumbled with his trousers. He took hold of her hands and pulled them away.
She pulled her mouth from his, and her eyes sparked. "I might not be so open to adventure next time we meet, captain." Marée yanked her hands from his grip and straightened her coat and blouse. "Like I said, I don't like the word 'no'."
Setzer continued to smirk as he refastened his trouser buttons. "As I said before, Marée. Consider it a not yet."
"Same damn thing."
"'No' isn't nearly as much fun as 'not yet'," Setzer countered as he turned for the controls and pushed the throttle forward.
He turned the Falcon toward South Figaro. He felt her intense eyes on him and, moments later, she had positioned herself between him and the wheel of the ship, again resting her hands on top of his. Marée leaned against him as she had before, this time entwining her fingers with his as they guided the Falcon.
He caressed the nape of her neck with his lips and breath, and her fingers tightened their hold on his. "Marée, expectation is the greater adventure."
Marée turned her head just enough to meet his lips in a lingering promise of something more before pulling back and holding his gaze with burning aquamarine eyes. "Alright, captain," she said in a sultry whisper, "we'll play it your way."
Setzer anchored the airship outside Mobliz and descended to the sounds of squeals and laughter. Ten children appeared from the collection of broken houses at a dead run as Setzer exited the airship. Setzer smirked but didn't change his pace. The children - Cera, Robbie, Peter, Tyrian, Nate, Eddie, Samuel, Tanner, Will, and Alyxis - filed around him in a giggling mass of smiling faces as they grabbed at his hands, legs, and attention. Begging him to play; to carry them on his shoulders; to take them for a ride; to tell them a story, and a myriad of other adventures that could only be imagined in the minds of young children raised by a pure heart. Setzer surrendered to a chuckle as he picked up Cera and Tyrian, blonde and brunette respectively, and proceeded forward to the house where he knew Terra would be dutifully doing the older children's studies. Robbie and Nate fought for the honor of opening the door, leaving the honor up for grabs for Peter as Eddie, Samuel, Tanner, Will, and Alyxis danced around in the space directly behind him.
"Terra," Setzer called between squeals and imploring entreaties to his 'fatherhood'. "Terra, would you be good enough to rescue me?"
The group of giggling children and chuckling adult made their way down the stairs of the main building, reaching the foot of those stairs just as Terra appeared through the doorway in the left section of the building. She smiled and moved forward, gesturing to the children to come away and "leave the poor man some room to breathe". The girls and boys squealed with laughter, giving him hugs and promises before scampering away to games of the imagination. Setzer gave Cera and Tyrian each a kiss on the cheek and then set them on the floor, tousling their hair before sending them on their way with a pat on the behind.
Terra watched the girls disappear up the stairs with a smile. Then she focused those violet eyes on Setzer. "Hello, Setzer. I'm glad you came again."
"Don't tell me you're lonely amidst these children."
Terra's violet eyes lowered to the floor. She picked at a fingernail. "No. I I just miss the faces of my friends."
And Setzer had begun to notice the loneliness had begun to darken her normally bright eyes on a more continual basis. "I'll do my best to visit more often," he promised.
Her timid smile softened the dark light in her eyes as she raised her gaze to meet his. "Thank you, Setzer. I love it when you and the others stop by."
Setzer gauged her expression for a moment before gesturing for the stairs. "Would you care for a walk?"
"Let me tell the children." She made her way back to the door, opened it enough to tell the studious pupils inside that she'd be back in a little bit and they had permission to play, and then made her way back to Setzer's side. "Alright."
Setzer examined her profile as they began to ascend the stairs. "You seem troubled, Terra. Are you sure everything is alright?"
"I " She bit her lower lip and sent him a sidelong glance. "I've been having these bad dreams the past couple nights. M-Maybe that's all ?"
"Bad dreams? Such as?"
Terra tucked a stray lock of pale green hair behind a delicate ear and worked on another fingernail. "Sometimes I have dreams that I can fly again. Like I could before Kefka and the Statues were defeated. Sometimes I I see the faces and bodies of all the people I k-killed when controlled by the Empire." She sniffed and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "Sometimes I see the children being t-taken away by a man in black. I I don't understand what it c-could mean."
Setzer opened the door to the main part of the house and ushered her past, then tightly closed the door behind them. He placed an arm protectively around her shoulders. "Dreams can't hurt you, Terra, and they rarely come true. Perhaps you've lived the reclusive life here too long? Perhaps you need to consider rejoining the rest of us?"
Terra lifted her eyes to meet his. "But this is my home. And the children's. We've lived here for nearly 3 years. I can't ask them to leave."
Setzer smiled. "They'd live anywhere you do, Terra. You're their new mother. Their new feeling of security and safety." He gave her shoulders another squeeze. "At least give it some thought. I know the others wouldn't hesitate to welcome you."
"Alright. I'll talk to Duane and Katarin and the others." She sent him a sidelong glance as they made their way out into the early afternoon sun. "You seem different somehow, Setzer."
Setzer chuckled and lowered his arm from her shoulders. "In what way?"
"I'm not sure. A little happier? Less gloomy?"
"Gloomy?" He met her eyes with a raised eyebrow and an astonished expression. "I'd like to think I'm seldom gloomy. I leave that particular expression for Shadow."
Terra's slight smile actually twinkled in her eyes. "Alright, so gloomy isn't the right word. But you still seem different."
Setzer gave her a twinkle and a smirk. "I'll tell you when you're older."
Terra's eyes darkened. "I'm not a child," she told him in a troubled voice. She looked away. "Really. I'm not."
Setzer noticed that her entire persona changed to an almost inward examination. It was intriguing to see because she didn't even seem to understand why an understanding of that fact was so important. "No, I suppose you aren't. But to me you will always be the naïve Terra of our adventures." He touched her cheek and drew her attention. "There is nothing wrong with being seen as naïve or innocent, Terra. It is an entrancing aspect of your person that we wouldn't want taken away."
She looked away again, not saying the statement or confusing paradox that was still mirrored in her eyes. Instead, she sighed and directed her gaze to the children ahead of the duo. The children were playing a game of tag and were eagerly beckoning for them to join them. Terra glanced back toward Setzer. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to play with them? They love it when you do."
"Only if you promise to bring them aboard the Falcon this evening for dinner."
"You know they'll want to put on a performance."
"You know I love it when they do."
Terra allowed a slight smile and then pulled at the sleeve of his coat to draw him toward the children and their game, volunteering Setzer to be 'It'. The children squealed with glee and then scattered.
Setzer swirled the wine in his glass as the children participated in a loud and all-consuming production of the final battle with Kefka. Terra was curled up on the couch to the left of his chair watching the rambunctious collection of 6, 8, and 9 year olds with a smile. Setzer tapped the arm of his chair in a continuous rhythm as he absently watched the production; his mind was elsewhere. Understandably. Surprisingly. With a certain amount of uncontrollable predictability. He had hoped the time with Terra and the children would have filled his apparent craving for continual company. But Setzer knew he had a weak spot for adventure and fun. Marée was both. Intoxicating and consuming in a way he'd missed since Darryl's death.
"Setzer? What's the matter?"
Setzer's frown disappeared as he changed his minutely surprised expression to Terra's face. "Pardon?"
Terra spared a quick glance to the children to make sure they wouldn't hear the 'adult' conversation, noticed they were enthralled with the killing of the Atma Weapon (which, of course, had been defeated before the entry into Kefka's Tower, but what did children care of details?), and then changed her eyes back to Setzer. "I've never seen that look on your face before, Setzer. What's wrong?"
Setzer's smile was reassuring. "Nothing, Terra. I've just embroiled myself in a wee bit of lively adventure that I hadn't expected. Lady Luck took me by surprise."
Terra's eyes showed a surprising glint of reluctance. "Are you sure I can't help? Talking helps, doesn't it?"
Setzer changed his eyes to his glass of wine as it lapped the sides of the blue-tinted glass. Aquamarine blue He cleared his throat and lifted his eyes to the children's newly begun battle with the first tier of the Statues. "I'm fine, Terra. Adventure is old hat to me, and the unexpected is welcome. You know that."
She sighed with a slight nod, returning her attention to the children, but only partly. Every so often she would send Setzer a stealthy glance and make sure the frown hadn't returned. Setzer set aside the possibilities and decided to let the cards fall the way they would. He had planned a stop at Thamasa by weeks end to pick up some supplies for Locke and Celes' wedding and he'd keep the schedule. If she was there, she was there. If she wasn't, she wasn't. It was all a matter of luck.
"Have you any message for Strago or Relm," he said suddenly. "I'm off to Thamasa in a few days time to gather supplies for Locke and Celes." He met her eyes. "Anything to be transported?"
"Just some drawings and stories the older ones have done for Relm. If you don't mind?"
"Of course not. I'll be sure to get them from you tomorrow before I set off for Figaro."
He took a sip of wine as he watched her expression slightly flush. "Yes. Did you have a message for Edgar?"
She flushed a deeper shade of rose and lowered her eyes to her fingers. She picked at them, as usual. "No Yes. Tell him Tell him 'thank you' for the flower, but I can't come to the party. I wouldn't want to leave the children alone."
Setzer raised an eyebrow. "Alone? Terra, Duane and Katarin would be happy to watch them while you go and spend some time with your friends."
"I I know, but Just tell him 'thank you'."
"Very well, Terra. I'll relay the message, but he'll be disappointed. He hasn't seen you for ages." Setzer watched her reaction to the news with interest. "Shall I tell him you miss him and you wish you could be there?"
"N-No. J-Just tell him--"
"'Thank you'. Yes. I know." Setzer hid a smile behind another sip of wine. And then the final battle with Kefka was on and his attention was distracted between sword fights and aquamarine eyes.
"Edgar, old boy," Setzer greeted with a smirk and a firm shake, "it seems wealth and power suit you well. Of course you realize you'll need to share?"
Edgar's smile seemed the same on the outside, but there was something strained about it.
"Setzer, you haven't come to steal away the women have you? The men here will need some distraction from their duty."
Setzer chuckled. "I leave the women to you and your subjects, Edgar. I prefer a more solitary figure of woman."
Edgar motioned to chairs off to one side of the throne room. "Have a seat."
"Don't mind if I do." He sat and absently retrieved his cards from his pocket. He shuffled them while gauging Edgar's somewhat haggard expression. "Edgar, I'm on my way to Thamasa to pick up some wedding supplies for Locke and Celes. Do you have anything that needs to be added to the manifest?"
"Yes, thank you. The Chancellor will have a list for your approval before the evening is done. I can have it loaded for you if you're persuaded to stay for dinner."
"Thank you, old boy. I'd be delighted." He palmed the Jack of Hearts. The next card was the Ace of the same suit. Setzer raised an eyebrow. "Oh, by the way, Terra sends a 'thank you' for the flower, but she can't leave the children to come to the party. She seemed disappointed."
Edgar leaned back in his chair and kicked his legs out in front of him. "Ah well. I suppose I shouldn't have asked."
"No, it's good that you keep asking." Setzer palmed the deuce of hearts. Hmm "Each time I visit she seems a little more withdrawn and lonely. She misses us and the time we spent together." Setzer changed his eyes to Edgar's hard profile. "Instead of sending flowers and invitations, I believe you should spare her a visit. I know she'd love to see you. She loves to see any and all of us."
Edgar gave a slight nod as he lowered his gaze to his boots. "I'll see about making the time. I've a schedule to keep, but Yes, I'll make the time."
"Just beware the girl may volunteer you for a bout of 'It' with the children, if they're so inclined."
"Thank you for the warning." Edgar stared at his boots a moment longer before changing his eyes to Setzer. "Is she Are Terra and the children well? Do they need anything?"
Setzer shuffled the cards and again palmed the Ace of Hearts. "She seems well enough, but as I've said: she's changed."
"The change is understandable," Edgar said. "She's lost her powers. Abilities innate to her spirit." He looked away again. "Of course she would feel disconnected and distant. Withdrawn."
And he seemed to be attempting to persuade himself of that fact. "Yes, you're right, but being removed from the people she'd come to see as her surrogate family could do the same. I believe a visit would make all the difference. It certainly wouldn't do any harm. She seems to enjoy mine, as I've said before."
Edgar gave a couple brief nods before releasing a deep breath and rising to his feet. Setzer did the same. "Come. Let's see about those supplies and our dinner."
"Excellent idea." Setzer fell into step beside him as Edgar left the throne room and made his way down the main hall. He drew the Ace of Diamonds. "I don't suppose you know of any women sea captains?"
Edgar's eyes rose from the floor and studied Setzer's unrevealing profile. "Hmm. Women sea captains?"
Setzer met Edgar's gaze. "You would be hard pressed not to remember her, Edgar. Every inch a woman. Every inch a captain. Blue-black hair. Tall, shapely body. Enchanting aquamarine eyes."
"You're correct. I would remember. Does this mystery woman have a name?"
"Intriguing. That means 'tide'."
"I know." Setzer looked away and slipped the Ace of Diamonds back into the deck. "If you could see what is known of her and let me know before I leave Kohlingen tomorrow evening, I would appreciate it. Oh, and check for a ship by the name of 'Ace of Diamonds'."
"Certainly. Why the interest?"
Setzer raised his eyes from his cards. "A feeling."
Edgar chuckled. "I understand feelings of those sort all too well."
But it was different. Yes, Marée brought about the feeling of intoxicating adventure as Darryl had so long ago, but there was something beyond that. Something that wasn't quite right. Something that tickled his instinct and wouldn't let the intrigue dissipate. Something that needed to be found, discovered, and dealt with. A secret.
Edgar raised an eyebrow when Setzer didn't comment. But before he could question the silence, the Chancellor had accosted his attention and was demanding the signing of reports, the allocation of funds and supplies, and handing over the list of those supplies that needed to go with Setzer to Thamasa. Setzer placed a hand on Edgar's shoulder, made his apologies and regrets, and then left the castle with a pushing at his heels to get to Kohlingen to check in with Locke and Celes. He boarded his ship and eased her toward Kohlingen, anchoring her within view of the small port that rarely received any visitors save those with private boats (a growing hobby for those who could afford it, which wasn't many).
Setzer tried to shake off the press of the importance to something as he strode toward Kohlingen and its pub and crazy alchemist with a growing frown. After he'd made his way through the first portion of the town, he halted at the foot of the bridge that led to the pub. Marée exited. She was the picture of ease and content. She persuaded some locks of hair behind her shoulders with a few shakes of her head moments before her eyes focused on Setzer's face.
Her eyes sparked and her lips were tickled with a smile. She stepped to the left of the entrance to the pub and leaned against the wall as she crossed her arms and brought one foot up to press back against the wall. She adjusted her crossed arms. "Well, well, well. If it isn't the captain."
The shock vanished as the addicting emotion of eagerness brought to mind the memories of their last meeting only a very few weeks before. He stepped toward her position with a smirk and came to stand a few feet in front of her. She didn't adjust her position; she only watched him with those aquamarine eyes that could see past his uniform to his soul. Her scent seemed stronger than he remembered, but was likely due to the fact he'd missed it. Setzer's chest tightened and he crossed his arms as he struck a pose of assurance and content that easily rivaled hers.
He gave a slight nod of greeting. "Marée."
Marée adjusted her fingers on her upper arms as her eyes ever so slightly changed expression. "Setzer."
The wind gently lifted some bluish-black hair, making it dance around her face. The tightening began to expand from his chest to his lungs. "I hope the seas have treated you and your crew well."
"Hell no," she disagreed in that harmony of life he'd come to expect. "Wouldn't have wanted the trip to be boring. Lost one sailor to a storm just yesterday. Damn shame, too. Rorik was a good man."
One lock of hair settled in the corner of her mouth and Setzer surrendered to the urge to brush it away. Her eyes flashed with a slip of desire at the gentle touch and she gripped her upper arms. He placed his arms safely back in a crossed position before speaking. "While I'm glad you've had a bit of the adventure you wanted, I'm sorry you lost a man to have it." Setzer's eyes took in the sparkle of hers; the glow of her face; the steady rise and fall of her chest; the perfect intertwining of strength and femininity before again capturing her intense expression. "As I'm glad you're safe."
"It'll take more than a fight with the sea to get me off the water," she said in a sultry voice of passion and intensity. "Damn fights are what I live for. They make my blood roar."
The tightness crept to his throat and Setzer stepped one motion closer. Marée tilted her head slightly back to keep the hold on his eyes. "It's good to see you again," he said in a carefully controlled voice. "I had no idea the odds would be this good."
Her smirk twitched with a laugh that finally erupted from her silky throat. Setzer soaked up the force of her persona and took yet another step forward. Her scent made his nostril flare just as she took in a deep breath of him. Her eyelids fluttered slightly before widening and holding his gaze.
"How long?" he asked, and his voice wasn't as controlled this time.
"I was just leaving," she said in a strained voice.
Setzer stepped so close to her that he felt her breath against his face and rested a hand against the building above her right shoulder as his other arm went stealthily around her waist. Marée lowered the leg that had been against the building and pressed herself against him as her arms submerged beneath his jacket to caress his back. She continued to gaze up into his face, but this time with half-closed eyes that begged him to ask.
Setzer lowered his head until his lips teased hers with a promise of a kiss. "Ah. The odds weren't without a little spite, it seems."
Marée's hands pulled the back of his shirt free and submerged themselves beneath his trousers to lightly stroke the warm skin. His arm around her tensed as she touched his lips with a little more insistence, but for only a fraction of a moment. "Seems so," she whispered.
And her breath smelled of passion and desire.
Setzer tightened his arm's hold around her, drawing her warmth closer as he moved his lips across her cheek to her jawline just in front of her ear. "The expectation grows, doesn't it?"
"Like the fires of hell," she whispered huskily. Her hands moved up to his back and stroked his skin with her nails as she pulled her head back from his lips to cover his mouth with hers, pulling as much of the passion and essence of him that she could in a simple kiss.
Setzer pressed her against the building, urging himself closer to her intoxicating persona as his arm left her waist and pressed its palm also against the building for some semblance of control. Her mouth working with his; her warmth fitting so true against him; the rise and fall of her; her hands so right; her scent of the sea Setzer raised his lips ever so slowly, their touch lingering an eternity before coming apart, and his eyes met hers. Those aquamarine blue rages of promise that had filled his mind with invitations and permissions.
"Not yet," he said in a rough voice.
Marée's hands gripped the back waist of his trousers as she again covered his mouth with hers - coaxing, pleading, demanding-
Setzer pulled away, pushing from the wall of the building and trying to jerk himself free from the warmth that set his skin on fire with the promise of moving bodies and- Marée followed; her hands tightening their hold.
"Marée," he said against her mouth; another kiss, another taste, another demand- He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her away. "Marée, not yet."
Marée gripped the lapels of his coat and pulled his mouth on hers again for a crazed kiss of need. Setzer nearly lost himself in the natural magic of her soul
Then she pulled roughly away, holding his gaze with her flashing eyes of anger and desire. "When, captain? I'm not very patient."
Setzer's smile was understanding as his breathing rasped, melding with the music of her own. He smoothed some of her tresses from her face and then held that intensity of adventure and spirit in his shaking hands. "Soon. We have to wait for the dice to fall."
The light blue of her eyes contained a storm. "If it wasn't for the fact you're such a damned fine figure of a man and taste better than the best meal I've had since I was born, I'd have dropped you after your first 'no'."
Setzer couldn't suppress a chuckle as his hands drifted from her face to her neck and shoulders. He massaged the tightness there with slight, firm strokes of his fingers and thumbs. Then he lowered his head to kiss her forehead and nuzzle his cheek against hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck as she pulled and pressed herself against him. Her lips kissed his neck as his arms encircled her, lifting her from the ground in an effort to draw her essence within him. It was as if she were the epitome of adventure and life.
"It's been a long time since a woman has had this effect on me, Marée," he confessed, much to his surprise. He lowered her again to the ground and pulled back with his hands resting on her hips as he searched out her gaze. "Expectation is better than disappointment and disillusionment. I want as much of you as possible without the too-soon attainment of the latter. Memories of you will be enough then."
Marée seemed to read an entire lifetime into his eyes as she gazed into them with an odd expression, her arms still around his neck as her fingers stroked the softness of the hair at the nape of his neck. Then she feathered her lips across his jaw and kissed him one last time. When she pulled away, her eyes held an intensity he could clearly translate.
"Tongue as forked as a demon," she said in a throaty tone. She withdrew her hands and arms as slowly as possible, her touch lingering across his shoulders, down his arms and back up to travel the torso of his coat and drift off the ends. As she passed him, her right hand took his and clasped it tightly, turning him as she looked and headed toward the exit of town. "'Til we meet again, captain, keep the wind in your face. I love it when your hair blows."
And then she'd released his hand and was disappearing out of town. Setzer took in a deep breath, drawing all that remained of her into the deepest part of himself before turning and entering the café.
Setzer heard the knock on his private office door and lowered his arm from where it covered his face. He stared at the door with tired eyes. The knock sounded again with an accompanying "Setzer, it's Edgar". Setzer forced himself to sit up, hanging his legs over the side of the couch as he laced the front of his shirt. He retrieved his jacket from where he'd shrugged out of it the night before (and then promptly tossed it to the floor) and stood, slipping into it with rough movements as he strode to the door. He jerked it open and turned away, not wanting Edgar to see the tell-tale signs of no sleep and torturous thoughts of what couldn't be.
But Setzer knew Edgar could feel it in the air. Who better than a man who suffered the same fate?
"I apologize for the sudden change of the evening's plans yesterday," Edgar began slowly, thoughtfully.
Setzer waved it aside, still not turning to face the man; the friend; the comrade "Don't trouble yourself. I understand how the dice can change from one roll to the next." He gestured to the couch with an absent glance toward it. "Have a seat."
"No time, I'm afraid. Busy day in preparation of my trip."
Setzer nodded and turned finally to lean against his desk with crossed arms. His hard stare dared Edgar to mention anything about his appearance. "What did you find out?"
"Nothing of great interest," Edgar said after a pause, "just enough to tweak curiosity."
"A cargo vessel, of a sort. No captain is listed, though. Tweak number one."
"And the captain? Marée?"
"Yes. The captain." Edgar rubbed the back of his neck and took a step further into the room. "At one time she was apparently contracted to work for the Empire."
"Tweak number two," Setzer said in a toneless voice. The Empire? Of course, he had to remember that a great many people had worked for the Empire. They hadn't had any other choice. In order to survive, what would her choices have been? "Anything else?"
Edgar looked up, meeting Setzer's eyes. "The manifests of the Ace of Diamonds and Captain Marée's previous contracts for the Empire aren't listed or known. Anywhere."
Setzer pressed his lips together and lowered his gaze to the floor, staring at his crossed feet as he adjusted his arms. He frowned.
"Now, Setzer," Edgar spoke up suddenly, "while it is definitely a puzzle, there isn't any proof that this newest intrigue of yours is in any way involved with negative dealings. Either now or then. Allow her the chance to disprove your suspicions before making harsh judgments."
Setzer absently shook his head. He raised his eyes to meet Edgar's and the frown disappeared. "Harsh judgments? How can I make harsh judgments when all of us have done something in connection with the Empire that we should be judged for?" Setzer straightened and lowered his arms to his sides with another shake of his head as he turned from the desk. "No. It's too convenient of a find for me to take what you've presented as fact. Yes, it's a tweak to my curiosity, but I won't judge her based on hearsay."
"Here, here," Edgar said with a smile on his face. "Good for you."
Setzer fell back into his chair and kicked his feet up onto his desk as he again met Edgar's eyes. "But the mystery won't be put away. I'll keep at it until this blasted tickle in my craw is taken care of."
"Has you by the throat, does it?"
Setzer retrieved his bladed cards from a reserved drawer of his desk and relished the feel of them in his hand. He hurled one at the bull's-eye across the room without raising his eyes from the others in his hands. It struck dead center. "With a tenacious hold." And those aquamarine eyes wouldn't let him go.
"I'd best be off," Edgar said with a regretful tone. "I should be back within a week, Setzer. If I've discovered anything more of this ship that doesn't have a captain and the captain that doesn't have a ship, I'll let you know."
Setzer absently nodded. "Thank you." He raised his eyes. "Have a safe voyage, and give Terra a 'hello' for me."
Edgar smirked and left the office, closing the door after him. Setzer stared at the bull's-eye on the back of the door with a slowly darkening gaze until his entire face was hard with a glare. He launched five cards simultaneously. They struck.
Setzer stood just outside his ship and stared at the little town of Thamasa. He crossed his arms with a slight narrowing of his eyes, and then he closed them when a gust of wind from the coast lifted his hair to dance around his face. 'I love it when your hair blows.' His eyes opened sharply and he lowered his arms to his side as he strode with purposeful steps toward the town's entry. Removing himself from hope and keeping him carefully separated from expectation and eagerness--
He halted his step and clenched his hands into fists. Am I a coward, shrinking in the face of adventure because I'm afraid of the passion? What's to fear in the attraction we have? Nothing! It's a part of life. It's a part of the adventure I live to have. So I'll take it. I'll have it! He released his controls and let the hopes and memories and possibilities overwhelm him with sights, sounds, and the burning touch of her lips and fingers against his skin. He smirked and took in a deep breath of her imagined scent before stepping again toward the town. Expectation was the greater adventure, and he'd have his adventure.
Relm had set up her easel in the cobbled square and was painting a family of squirrels that had set up shop in the tree nearest her. She looked up from her painting and sent him a smile and a wave, which resulted in a splatter of green falling from brush to forehead. She didn't seem to notice and her 12-year-old brightness glowed because of it. As he approached, she wiped off her brush and set it carefully aside, next covering her picture to protect it from the sun and the wind. Then she was hurrying up to him with paint-decorated arms extended as her lips danced with a smile and her eyes twinkled with welcome.
Setzer smirked as he enfolded her in an embrace.
"Hiya, Setzer," she told him in her clear and vivid tone of youth and excitement. When he pulled back, she held his gaze. "Please tell me you brought me something."
Setzer laughed. "Yes, I've brought you something. From Terra and the children, in fact. Some pictures and stories they've done for you. They're on the Falcon."
"Rad!" And she gave an accompanying squeal of gladness. Then her face and eyes were pure business. "You've come for the supplies to the party and the wedding, right?"
Setzer's eyes twinkled, but he feigned seriousness to suit her fancy. "Yes. Edgar also sent along some things for you and Strago, as well as some knickknacks to sell."
She gave a curt nod and headed toward the ship. Setzer dutifully followed behind. "When're you leaving again?"
"Not for a few days. There are quite a few things to unload."
"Days? Really? Rad!" And her mind and eyes filled with the possible adventures she could have onboard his ship, escaping the over-protective hand of her grandfather to do what she pleased and when she pleased to do it.
Setzer chuckled. "Before you've ensconced me and my ship in adventures that no sane person would do, we can't do anything aboard the Falcon until she's unloaded."
"Aw," Relm protested with a sullen glance toward him. "You're no fun."
"I'm all the fun you could possibly need, Relm, just not until the Falcon's unloaded." She stuck out her tongue and wrinkled her nose at him. He just laughed. "None of that."
"I'll do what I please," she retorted.
Setzer chuckled again and reached out to grab the beret from her tousle of blonde curls. "Fine. So will I."
"Hey! Give me back my beret!" She swiped at it, but he switched it to his other hand. "Setz-zer! Give it back!"
"Not until you promise to behave a little better than you did when you were ten. You're 12 now, Relm, and should act like it. Don't you think so?"
"I won't promise anything until you give me back my beret," she snapped hotly. She made another swipe behind his back for the hat, but he lifted it above his head. "Setzer, no fair! You're bigger than me," she whined.
"Now that's not very attractive," he told her with a laugh.
"I don't care. I want my beret!"
"Oh all right," he said with a mock frown as he tossed it at her.
Relm caught it and pulled it firmly onto her head with another tongue sent his direction. Setzer made a movement to grab her tongue from her mouth and she jerked back, tightly pressing her lips together with a wrinkle of her nose at the gambler. Setzer laughed.
"It's a good thing my pictures don't come to life anymore," she told him with a menacing gleam.
"I'm quaking in my very boots."
Relm slapped at his arm with a tell-tale twinkle in her eyes and put her fists on her hips. "You'll get yours, you big meanie."
"I'll be sure to tell you when I do. I wouldn't want you to miss the chance to relish your victory."
Relm tried to hold it back, but the giggle broke through and danced across her face and into the air. She wrapped her arms around his. "I missed you, Setzer."
He tugged at the top of her beret, loosening it against her hair so that it wouldn't look so ridiculous. "Thank you, Relm. I've missed you, too. We should all make a point to visit each other more often, don't you think?"
"We'll be able to see everyone at Celes and Locke's wedding. Right?"
"Yes," he said slowly. "Are you plotting something?"
She shook her head. "No. I'm just looking forward to it, is all. Geez. Don't be such a fuddy-duddy."
Setzer smirked. He'd been accused of much worse. "I'm sorry, Relm. I'll do better next time."
She sniggered. "Yeah right. Marée says that too, but she never does. She always treats me- What's your problem?"
Setzer had halted and turned toward Relm with a shocked expression. "What did you say?"
"I said that you'll just treat-"
"No. What name did you say."
"Name?" Relm screwed up her face in a frown of confusion as she shrugged. "What? You mean Marée? She's just a sea ship captain that comes by every once and awhile. What's the big deal?"
"Has she been here recently? Yesterday? Today? Last week?"
Relm crossed her arms as her frown became annoyance and aggravation. "Geez. She stopped by last week to load up some things. It's not like it's against the law, Setzer. You do it all the time."
Setzer waved her comment aside as he crossed his left arm across his chest and rested the elbow of his right into his left hand as he stroked his chin with his right. "What would she buy in Thamasa that is worth anything?" he mumbled.
"Well that isn't a very nice thing to say. We've got plenty of stuff that's worth money," she protested.
Setzer focused his eyes back on her. "What did she buy? Books?"
Relm made a face as if to say "duh" and then replaced the frown. "They were just books from the Empire. It's not like they were-"
"From the Empire?" Intrigue and curiosity soared to the clouds and didn't return.
"Stop interrupting," Relm protested. "That's not very polite."
Setzer reluctantly smiled down at her as he touched her on the nose. "I'm sorry, Relm." He set the questions and queries aside for a later time alone in his office and motioned to the ship. "Why don't we get you those pictures and stories and then say 'hello' to your grandfather?"
"Ugh," Relm said as she fell into step beside. "Alright, but I'm getting lost from here to the house. Just so you know."
The days passed with no sight, sound, or scent of Marée to tempt him. Relm showed him a portrait she'd painted of the female captain and promptly gave it to him as a going away gift when she'd seen how he reacted to the full body painting.
Stupefied wonder at Relm's ability to capture the woman's spirit and passion in eye and body.
Then, while unloading the knickknacks for the Item Shop owner, Relm regaled him with stories of Marée's kindness, her wild sense of humor (which included practical jokes of their design), and her tales of adventures on the sea surviving on nothing but her own wit and ability. The stories of pirates Setzer took to be specifically for Relm's young heart and her appreciation of adventure. But those stories of overlords that held power within their control and abused the tender-hearted, those he believed. Hadn't that been Kefka? And Gestahl before that? And perhaps, like Leo, she'd been trapped into the service of this overlord?
Again, he'd need to see her again to make sense of it all.
So once the Falcon was unloaded and Relm had been appeased with a long turn at the wheel - under Setzer's careful eye - he made an early departure and headed for Doma. While it wasn't a favorite stop for traders, merchants, and vessels of sea and air, it was a necessary one. Due, of course, to the fact Cyan was doggedly determined to build it to its former glory. Because of that, the castle attracted a reasonable amount of attention.
While the trip itself was uneventful, Setzer was under the impression he caught sight of a cargo vessel bound for Nikeah. He had filed the information with the others gathered from Relm and pressed on toward Doma instead of diving to take a closer look. Upon arriving, he'd found the castle to be a mass of activity.
Setzer anchored his ship and disembarked, mulling through the crowds with one purpose: to find Cyan. The Doma swordsman wasn't so easily found. While he was in the direct center of the bustle, that fact alone forced Setzer to be patient and wait his turn. After an hour of waiting, Setzer gave up. Instead, he contented himself with catching Cyan's eye and gesturing to his airship beyond. Cyan briefly nodded before having his attention again distracted by the roofer.
Setzer strode away; impatience and something dark bit at his heels.
A ship without a captain. A captain without a ship. A ship without manifests. A captain with a past involving the Empire. Her frequent stops to Thamasa, one being to buy books originally from the Empire libraries. A surprising stop at Kohlingen's small port, which was the only port near where Edgar most frequently kept Figaro Castle moored; making it extremely useful to procure machinery and whatnot. But it was all so weak. All the information, when kept separate, didn't amount to even a blink of notice. As Edgar had said. Even viewed as a whole Setzer was hard-pressed to make anything out of it. As Relm had said, buying and shipping books wasn't against the law. Neither was procuring machinery from Figaro. But something just wouldn't let him leave it alone. Something kept pushing at him, dogging him forward, irritating his sense of curiosity with questions that wouldn't stay silent.
He had to talk to Marée.
Setzer strode aboard the Falcon with a dark look, slamming doors and pushing chairs out of the way as he went. He slammed into his office and threw himself onto the couch, kicking his boots up onto the arm as he put one arm behind his head and one over his eyes. Marée. What adventure have you wrapped around that quick mind? What poor fool are you using for your own private amusement? Dullness and Boredom were frightening things for a person familiar with adventure and action. The fear of that dullness could often make a thrill-seeker do unwise things. Hadn't he joined up with Edgar and his troupe because of his own boredom? It made him afraid for Marée. Afraid that she'd embroiled herself in an adventure that she wouldn't want to leave because the thrill was constant and addicting.
Setzer lowered his arm from his eyes and looked to his right where Marée's portrait was leaning against the wall. Her aquamarine eyes sparked with laughter and a dare. Her lips were caressed with a rebellious smirk that seemed to declare life held nothing but amusement for her. Her left hand was placed on a rounded hip as her left was straight at her side holding her uniform coat. Hair swirled about shoulders and face and tickled the skin between her breasts as her very stance defied anyone to withstand her sensual charm.
Setzer stood and slowly made his way to the portrait. He stared down at it for a long silent moment before taking it up, holding it tightly between his two hands. The ship Relm had painted in the background was named the Ace of Diamonds.
There was a knock. Setzer raised his eyes to the door as he lowered the portrait back to its original position. "Enter."
Cyan opened the door and closed it behind him. He greeted Setzer with a slight smile and a firm clasp to the hand. "Thy presence warms this heart, Setzer."
"Good to see you, too, old friend." Setzer gestured to the chair opposite his desk as he made his way around to sit at his office chair. He kicked his feet up onto his desk as Cyan lowered himself into the offered chair. "Edgar wanted me to get a list of supplies from you that will help you with your current project."
Cyan nodded. "Yes. I had known to expect such a request."
Setzer smirked at the stoic, stalwart warrior. "I've some things for you from Terra and Relm as well."
Cyan's face softened. "Be so kind as to inform Terra and Relm I am pleased they continue to think of me. I shall do my best to invite them to see the progress I have made thus far."
"Do you think it will be done before Locke and Celes' wedding? I don't think they'll mind relocating the event here."
"While the thought had also occurred to me, I do not believe such is a possibility. There is too much yet needing to be done."
"Too bad." Setzer lowered his eyes to the cards on his desk and he cut them before taking the top card. Jack of Hearts. "Have you noticed anything odd about Edgar lately, Cyan?" Setzer raised his eyes to meet those of Cyan.
"And to what might thee refer?"
Setzer again lowered his eyes to the deck. He tapped on the top of the deck before taking the next card. It was the deuce of Hearts. "About bachelorhood not agreeing with him as well as it did at one time."
Cyan shook his head and crossed his muscular arms. "No. Pressing this matter would be unwise."
"Why?" He drew the next card. To his surprise, it was the ten of Hearts. Ten Ten Of course. The children. He smirked and replaced the card.
"They are not yet ready. Hearts must be whole before joining."
Setzer raised his eyes to meet Cyan's. "When did you know?"
Cyan shook his head again. "While I know nothing for certain. I have observed many things, as have thee. The knowing must be their decision."
"Bah," Setzer grumbled as he tossed the cards to the desk. He crossed his arms with a scowl at the toes of his boots. "Arrogance and Naivety seldom find a home together."
"Yet the choice must be theirs."
Setzer looked away as he adjusted his crossed arms and his gaze was drawn by Marée's portrait. His frown lightened. "Cyan, what have you heard of a sea captain by the name of Marée?"
"Marée." Cyan lowered his head in concentration before giving a slow shake. "I have heard naught of this name." He raised his eyes to meet Setzer's. "Why?"
"Curiosity," Setzer said in a dismissive tone. "Curiosity. Don't worry about it."
"I shall inform thee if I do indeed hear the name mentioned."
Setzer gave a nod. "Thank you, Cyan."
Cyan stood. "Dinner shall be served within the hour. I would be honored if thee joined me."
Setzer nodded again. "I'll be there."
And Cyan left the room, again closing the door behind him. Setzer lowered his head for another intense examination of the portrait as his brows drew together in a frown. The scar over his left eye twitched.
Setzer held his position over Nikeah, carefully searching the port for the ship he'd seen on his way to Doma. It wasn't in port. Damn. He pushed the throttle forward and the Falcon surged forward, responding to his rough commands without complaint as he guided her toward Jidoor. What other port would offer her the temptation? While the port at Jidoor wasn't busy, it was within a short distance of Zozo; the overlord capital of the world. And who didn't go to Zozo to make a quick gil or two? Setzer pressed his lips together. I should look into buying into a poker game while I'm there.
But poker and gil were the last things on his mind as he guided the Falcon closer to Jidoor. He was still trying to figure out what was pushing him so hard forward. Short of pulling Celes aside to ask her about certain people of the Empire, he was delving into the private and personal history of a woman he was courting for his bed. If she discovered his overzealous interest, he could literally kiss her mouth good bye. So why am I risking our future adventures together? What is so damned important? But he couldn't answer that. He could only plod doggedly on trying to find the answers to questions that didn't make sense.
Setzer dove the Falcon toward the city of Jidoor, pulling up just before the bow would have crashed into the soil. He anchored the ship with dark mutters and strode below deck to retrieve his coat, cards, and dice (out of habit more than anything) before exiting. He narrowed his eyes and did his best to look for a cargo ship by the name of Ace of Diamonds, but the only ships he saw were massive vessels of wind that didn't look much like cargo ships. He scoffed, cursing Luck's hand of spite that day as he strode into town. The first building he entered was the Inn.
"Have any ships docked that have the name Ace of Diamonds?"
The innkeeper looked up at the brusque tone Setzer used and shook his head. "Nope."
"Any captain by the name of Marée?"
Again, he shook his head. "Nope."
Setzer tossed a 100-gil coin at him and left the building, leaving town with a dark expression on his face. Once he was at the wheel, he pushed the throttle to maximum and soared away. Impatience wasn't the only thing biting at his heels. Eagerness was dealing with him so harshly that he could barely see straight. Yes. Expectation was definitely the greater adventure, but he had a feeling - a very strong feeling - that this adventure was about to end. Setzer doubted he could control himself let alone her own need for a completion of the adventure they'd started. If he wanted to talk to her first, he had better make sure they were in a very public place before speaking a word.
Those eyes would be the death of him.
Albrook came into sight and he slowed the Falcon to a reasonably safe speed, his breath catching in his throat and his chest tightening when he saw a cargo vessel in the dock. He couldn't read the name, but at that point in time it didn't really matter to him. It was a cargo vessel. That made the chances of Marée being in Albrook go through the clouds. He anchored the ship and absently tugged on the lapels of his coat as he made his way below decks and through the rooms to the outside. There he paused, debating whether to go straight to the dock or go into town and look for her at the pub. He absently shuffled his cards and then headed toward the dock.
Crates and the scent of rotting fish surrounded him as his boots made a rhythmic clop, clop, clop, clop along the stones. A slight breeze ruffled the hair around his face and he gave an absent toss of his head to clear his vision of the white strands. Then something pulled him to a stop. A scent. A sound. An aggravated voice. Setzer raised an eyebrow and decided to hold his position within the shadows of the stacked crates that towered to his right and left.
"That wasn't in the contract, Lahey," Marée's recognizable spitfire of a voice said. Her tone was dangerously calm. "I pick up your blazing cargo, I ship it where you want it, then I pick up your other trash and ship it back where you want it. There was nothing about
"Listen here, Raven," a rough voice clipped in. "If you don't want no trouble with the boss, then you'd best be getting your sweet ass to be doing what we want. You'll take the cargo where we want, when we want it taken, and not be asking no questions about it. See?"
Setzer's jaw went rock hard as he surreptitiously pulled his bladed cards from his inner jacket pocket.
"Lahey, I'll warn you one last time," Marée responded in a tone as cold as ice, "if you don't stand by your contract, this will be the last time you see me or your cargo. I don't have to take the likes of you pushing me around. I've a ship and a damned good reputation. What has your boss got? Hmm? A bunch of wacks who can't see straight because they're so doped up on
There was a high-pitched thwack and Setzer stepped forward, three cards in his hand. "Is that anyway to treat a lady?" Setzer asked.
Both the gargantuan Lahey and the tall and shapely Marée turned with a look of surprise as Setzer emerged from the darkness. Setzer's cool silver eyes focused on Lahey as he adjusted the cards in his fingers. Lahey was a monster of a man, easily the size of Umaro but not nearly as 'cute'. Broad shoulders and wide girth of muscle and trouble, Lahey stood a neat head above Marée and Setzer both. His arms were corded muscle and his face was hatred and rage just begging to be released.
"Move along, Frill," Lahey warned as he turned his body fully toward Setzer. He clenched his fists and his knuckles popped. "I've got business with this one that doesn't mean anything to you."
"That's where you're wrong," Setzer said in a calm voice that spoke volumes of impending doom and death if the man hesitated to move away.
Marée put her hands on her hips and laughed. "Well I'll be a virgin mermaid. I've got a couple gents fighting over me. I think I'm going to blush for the first time in my life."
Lahey turned a dangerous face toward her and raised an arm to backhand her. She caught it and punched him full in the face with her other hand. Of course, with his mass and height the punch only loosed a tooth - which he promptly spit out - and drew a little blood from the corner of his mouth. Lahey didn't even take the time to wipe the blood from his lip. He just struck out with a hand and grabbed Marée by the throat. She glared down at him with a look as black as death itself as her hands clutched at his wrist.
"You little sea witch. I oughta kill you for that."
"No, you'd be well advised to let her go," Setzer warned through clenched teeth.
Lahey sent a dark glare over his shoulder. "I'll deal with you in a bit, Frill. Just sit tight." Lahey's eyes focused back on Marée. "You'll get your tight little ass to Zozo, Raven, or you'll find out just how- argh!" Lahey's right hand released its grip on Marée's throat. She stumbled away as Lahey reached his left arm behind his back to pull at the razor edged card that was now protruding from his right shoulder blade. It was just beyond his reach. He growled and turned, pointing at Setzer. "No, you did not just pick a fight with me, Frill."
Setzer's one-sided smirk didn't lighten the dangerous gleam in his eyes. "Should I quake in my boots now, or after you're dead?"
Lahey spat and took two sprawling steps forward. "See how easy you say that once this knife's sticking out of your gut!" Lahey roared as he slipped a blade from a strap on his side.
Two cards flew. One in the knee and one into the hand that had at one time held a knife. The knife clattered to the floor and Lahey halted his progress forward with a growl of pain and a free hand trying to staunch the flow of blood from his hand. Setzer drew three more cards. Their silver blades glinted in the pale moonlight.
Setzer drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. "I will only tell you one more time. Either you leave this dock and never set foot near this lady again, or I'll see how many cards it takes to kill a mountain."
Lahey gauged Setzer in a new light as his eyes went from bladed cards to silver eyes and back again. "I've had five blades stuck in me at one time and lived to tell about it, Frill. What about you? Ever fought a man with your fists and won?"
"Upon occasion. Show me a man and I'll give you an exhibition."
Lahey's eyes flashed hatred. "What was that?"
Setzer stepped up to Lahey until they were nearly toe to toe. "You, sir, lost the classification of man the moment you struck this lady."
Lahey's face went rock hard and he struck out. Setzer evaded the punch and countered with a right hook to the nose. The bone gave way and blood flowed. Lahey fell to his knees with a groan of pain.
Setzer grabbed a fistful of hair and jerked Lahey's head roughly back, bringing one of his razor edged cards to the man's throat. "Well, well, well. It appears only one card is needed to fell a mountain."
"Setzer. Let 'im go."
Setzer sliced a slight trail of blood across the man's throat and then pushed him roughly away. "Get out of here."
Lahey struggled to his feet, sent the pair a dangerous gleam of murder and rage, and then lumbered from the dock. Setzer watched him with narrowed eyes. And then he felt Marée's warmth beside him and her scent tickled his senses. He faced her and noticed the bruised cheek that had begun to swell.
He cupped it with his hand and she winced. "Are you all right?"
Marée took hold of his fingers and brought the palm of his hand to her lips as her aquamarine eyes held his silver ones. "I'm fine," she said once she'd lowered his hand. She gestured toward Lahey's retreating figure with a slight twitch of her head. "Nice moves. You that graceful all the time?"
Setzer smiled and drew her into a tight embrace as he took in a deep collection of her scent, her warmth, her curves, and her very essence of life. She encircled her arms around him under his jacket and pulled herself closer. "I don't know. I haven't had a complaint yet."
"I bet you say that to all the girls Gods you smell good."
"And you seem to be the very scent of the sea and the adventures that wait there," he whispered as he pressed his lips against her hair.
Marée chuckled a harmony of life itself and pushed back. Her eyes twinkled into his. "Aren't we a pretty pair? Crooning and fondling instead of stripping and finding out just what the other is made of."
Setzer smirked. "That doesn't sound very adventurous at all, does it?" He motioned the way he'd come and drew her into a walk, his arm still around her shoulders and one of hers still around his waist. "Marée "
She sent him a sidelong glance. "Well now there's a surprising sound. The wind take your tongue, captain?"
Setzer chuckled, but the hesitation at his intended confession wouldn't retreat. "Marée, I'm afraid I have a confession. Questions have been asked and answered that will most likely make you very angry."
Marée tucked her hand into the side of his trousers and lightly stroked the skin of his hip as they walked. "It's alright, Setzer. Don't really care about answers or questions or any damn thing like that. I just want " She spat and gave a shake of her head. "Hell. Never thought I'd say this, but I just want to be here like this. You're a damn good sight for these eyes, Setzer."
And that statement made Setzer see gold. He placed his hand over hers that continued to tickle the skin of his hip and drew it out. The burning in the back of his brain was bad enough without the tantalizing promise of something more. "Marée, what's going on? What adventure have you involved yourself in that's putting your life in danger?"
Marée entwined her fingers with his and hooked her thumb on his trousers. "It's just a little bit of a cargo run."
"And what cargo would that be? There doesn't seem to be a record of your manifests."
"Damned if I know."
Setzer halted and turned to face her. He released her hand and rested both of his on her shoulders as he held her gaze. "You don't know, Marée? You're the captain of a vessel and you don't know its manifest? What have you willingly closed your eyes to?"
Marée lowered her eyes with a shrug and then turned again toward the Falcon. Setzer followed beside her. "Doesn't mean a zombone's ass now, does it? I doubt I'll be doing much of anything with them or their cargo once I take the current trash I've got in my hold to Zozo."
Setzer watched her profile. A frown hardened the lines of her face and she'd gripped her hands behind her back. "Such an end will take your life from your very bones, Marée. I can't bear to see that happen. I know of several people that will have need of a talented captain and a worthy crew and ship." Marée halted, but didn't raise her eyes from the ground. "Say the word and I'll speak with them immediately. I'll prepare introductions and have a contract readied that meets your needs."
Marée slowly raised her eyes to his. The expression there drifted from suspicion to disbelief and something that made Setzer's chest tighten. Suspicion won out in the end. "Why? What'd you get out of the deal? A fatter purse? A guaranteed run in my trousers for as long as the position's mine? Power over my life?"
Warnings and whistles blasted in Setzer's mind. "Your life is your own, Marée. So are your choices. I would never take that away from you. It's that aura of command and power that intoxicates me whenever I think of you." He fought the urge to smooth some of her hair from her face. "I'm freely offering my help, Marée. No demands. No expectations. Anything you give will be your choice."
She slowly crossed her arms as she gauged his expression, tapping her slightly protruding right foot in a steady thump, thump, thump on the paved streets of Albrook. "I don't know quite what to make of you, captain."
Setzer smiled. "What you see is what you get, Marée. Nothing less and nothing more. A gambler. A pilot. A captain."
"A man that looks damn good in the moonlight," she added with a teasing smile and a meaningful twinkle.
"Yes, well, nature has a tendency of doing what she pleases," he said in a laughing tone.
"Gods that's a gorgeous sound," she said as her mouth broke out into a full smile.
Setzer surrendered to this urge and cupped her jaw, lightly stroking her cheek with his thumb. "And you are a gorgeous woman, Marée. Completely intoxicating."
Marée smirked and pulled his hand from her face. "Let's get out of this cursed moonlight before it bewitches us both into Arias and sonnets."
Setzer laughed and guided her to the Falcon, her hand enfolded in his.
"Relm painted this?" Marée stared down at the portrait she held in her hands in shock and wonder. "Well I'll be a virgin mermaid," she muttered.
Setzer's smirk danced in his eyes as he reclined in the couch, one arm draped over the back of it. Her tall and commanding presence fit the ship. She breathed an aroma of freshness and life into the Falcon that had been sorely missed.
"I voiced nearly the same sentiment when I discovered Relm knew you, and for a longer time than I have."
Marée chuckled. "Like I've said before, being a captain takes me to all four corners of this damned, twisted planet. Thamasa's got a treasure trove of knickknacks that wealthy knotheads pay through the nose for." She sent an intoxicating twinkle of teasing laughter over her shoulder. "You expect me to give that up, captain?"
Setzer laughed. "Of course not, Marée. Of course not."
Setzer watched as Marée returned the portrait to its temporary place against the wall before slowly sauntering toward the couch as her gaze took in the furnishings and spirit of the room. A smile whispered across her lips and then she sat on the couch close beside Setzer, snuggling into the warmth of him.
He brought his arm down from the back of the couch and drew her closer. "No negative things to say of a man's personal office? Hmm."
Marée tucked her legs up beneath her and then turned even more into him, bringing her arms as much around him as possible. "Mm. Warm. Soft." She yawned. "It's been a damn long day. I think I'll take a nap."
Setzer chuckled and caressed her long tresses of blue-black hair. "I haven't had a chance to ask my questions."
"So ask 'em already. I'll answer as many as I can before falling asleep," she said with another yawn for effect.
"Fair enough." Are you ready for the fist in the face? Setzer cleared his throat and focused his attention on the deck of cards in his right hand that he was absently shuffling. "Your ship. Is it the Ace of Diamonds?"
"Yep." She snuggled closer.
"Has it always been your ship?"
"Damn thing's paid for," she mumbled after another yawn. "Bought it before Kefka and the Empire went boot-tips up."
Setzer's ears perked. "Fulfilled your contract?"
"A year early. Had to work my ass off, too."
Her breathing began to deepen and he lowered his voice to a whisper a he brought his lips closer to her ear. "Do you always take your final shipments to Zozo?"
Her head minutely shifted in a nod as her arms around him began to loosen.
Setzer lightly stroked her forehead with a finger, occasionally twirling a lock of hair around it as well. Finally, he decided to attempt one last question. "Did they not give you a choice, Marée? Did they force you to work with them?"
But she was already asleep, her deep breaths tickling the skin on his chest near the unlaced front of his shirt. Setzer swore under his breath and set the cards aside to rub at his forehead. Then he cocked his head and watched her face as she slept.
'Setzer, I wish I could tell you what the hell is going on, but I can't.' There was a gentle pressure on his lips. 'If I don't come back, come and find me.' A caress touched his cheek and brushed some hair from his face as he struggled free of the dream. 'Damned if you aren't the best looking man on the planet.' The lips were there and then they were gone.
'Marée?' He fought against the blackness of sleep, pushing against the fog and furor at the silhouette that drifted from sight. 'Marée, do not go alone!' But it was too late, she was gone.
Setzer sat up sharply, his gaze taking in the emptiness of the room in barely a moment. "Damn!" he barked as he jumped to his feet.
He strode from his office and hurried on deck, leaning over the side and sending his gaze toward the dock. Her ship was gone. Setzer slammed his fists against the rail and strode to the wheel, raising the anchor and pushing the throttle forward as he urged the Falcon into the sky. Zozo. That's what Lahey had said. Zozo.
Setzer stared at his cards as his hand and fingers worked them until they were bent and the edges were tattered and worn. He didn't even notice the loud sailors and rough-mouthed workers inhabiting the pub in Nikeah. All he could see were the cards and the memory of Marée's bruised face lingering directly beyond. Setzer slammed the cards down on the table and leaned back in his chair, leaning his left elbow on the arm as his hand rubbed at his forehead.
Zozo had been as sinister a place as it had ever been. Reeking of plots and thievery, it had made his lip curl in a sneer of disdain and memories. He'd entered the town cautious and alert, knowing that anything else would have seen him face down in a pool of his own blood. Seeing a quick flash of Marée's face in that same position had turned his stomach, but he'd pushed the fear aside and pressed onward in his search. She was a wonder of a woman. And the reminder of the way she'd clobbered Lahey hard enough to loose a tooth had been enough to ease his heart at the time.
Now the nightmares had begun to come, fed by his fear that her rebellion against the person or person's in control of her contract hadn't taken too kindly to her independence. He'd spent the entire day and evening searching Zozo for her, even going so far as to buy into several poker games in order to try and procure some information. For the right price of course. Nothing. He'd come away a richer man, but what did he care about the gil that lined his pockets when Marée might be dead or dying?
One of the sailors laughed raucous and loud. Setzer hurled a bladed card one inch above his head. The man fell silent and left the pub moments later; his buddies trailed behind several minutes after him when other cards had been thrown in their general direction. One of the blades had actually grazed a man's cheek.
Setzer grabbed at the deck splayed across the table and gave it a shuffle. When he retrieved the top card- Ace of Diamonds. Damn, woman! Tell me where you are! How could he rescue her if he didn't know where to look? And yet the cards seemed to plead with him to find her. Setzer swore and stood so sharply that the chair fell back. The pub went deathly still and silent as the men and women watched the gambler stride to the exit. A breath of relief sounded once the door had slammed behind him.
Setzer strode from the pub and made his way toward the Falcon anchored just outside. I must try harder. Think it through, man, and find her! Setzer tossed the cards away and they fluttered on the breeze for several moments before falling to the ground. He had to have missed something in Zozo. Some person must have been hiding. Some question must have been waiting to be asked. He just had to find out which and ask them. Marée's life depended on it.
As Setzer approached the Falcon he noticed a solitary figure running toward him. Her gait was lethargic and forced, as if she'd been running for a very long distance. Hair was bedraggled and clothes were tattered. A strong emotion of fear tightened his chest as he strode toward-- Terra?
Setzer's frown instantly disappeared and he caught her in his arms just as her strength gave way and she collapsed into them. "Terra? What's happened?"
"The ch-children They're gone!"
Setzer paled. "What?"
But anything more was impossible to hear. Exhaustion had settled in and she was quickly losing consciousness. Setzer lifted her into his arms and carried her aboard ship.
"E-Edgar We m-must tell Edgar," she stammered.
"Keep still, Terra. Everything will be alright. You sleep. The Falcon will get us to Figaro."
Her form relaxed against him and he strode to his private office, carefully placing her on the couch and covering her with a blanket. Terra didn't even stir. Her yellowish face twisted in a cacophony of misery and worry and dread, her pale green hair wet; matted with sweat and rain and tears. She mumbled something unintelligible in her fitful sleep and he brushed a new tear from the corner of her eye before he stood.
"Don't you worry," he whispered. Setzer turned for the door and strode out and toward the deck. "We'll find your children and the people responsible for their abduction."
He pushed the throttle forward and turned the Falcon toward Figaro, setting the terror for Marée carefully aside. He clenched his jaw and tightened his hold on the wheel as he imagined her hands on his, as they had been that first night.
Terra slowly opened her eyes, and then she sat up with a scream.
Setzer reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. She changed wide, frightened eyes to his. "It's all right, Terra. We're nearly to Figaro. Lay back." She resisted with a gnawing of her lip. He smiled in reassurance. "Come on now, Terra. Don't be difficult. Lay back and tell me what happened."
She released a deep breath and did as she was told, accepting the tissue and drying her eyes that had begun to glimmer with tears again. "I-I don't know what h-happened." She pulled and twisted the tissue between her quivering fingers. "I-I was working in the g-garden like I a-always do in the m-morning when I h-heard " Terra's voice was choked by a sob as she covered her mouth with the hand that held the tissue. Her terror-stricken eyes sought out Setzer's.
His face was as calmly controlled as possible. "What, Terra? What did you hear? Men's voices? Monsters? Machines?"
She shook her head. "A s-scream. A g-girl's scream. A-And then I heard sh-shouts and yells for h-help " She sat up and her hands reached out to grip Setzer's arms in a frantic showing of desperation. "You're not playing 'kidnap' with them, Setzer, are you? Please say they're here and it's all just a game!"
Setzer carefully removed her hands from his arms and clasped them tightly in his. "No. They aren't here."
Sobs racked Terra's shoulders as she lowered her head; tears dripped to the blanket covering her. "Oh gods. M-My children are g-gone."
Setzer coaxed her back down as his mind desperately tried to process the information and make sense of the action. Who would want to steal children? What good would it do- Setzer's thought broke off in a flash of painful realization.
Terra noticed the change in his expression and tightened her hold on his hand. "What? Tell me, Setzer. I want to know. I need to know."
Setzer took in her harried expression, her exhausted eyes, her yellow complexion Damn. "Have you noticed any men around your home, Terra? Has anyone new been seen coming and going? Anyone? At all?"
She shook her head. "No one but Marée. But she's been--What is it? What did I say?"
Setzer slightly shook his head. "Nothing. Go on."
"I was just going to say that Marée stops in every once and a while to drop some things off for the children. Dolls. Books. Clothes. Toys for the boys. Sometimes we'd talk about the Empire and things that 'were' - she used to work for them like me - but she didn't ever bring anyone with her. Just her."
"How did you meet her?" Setzer's mind and voice were deadly calm.
"There was a storm and her ship was stranded on the beach near us. She and the crew had to stay with us until they'd fixed her up."
"Six months or so after Kefka moved the statues," Terra said while watching his face. "Why? Do you know her?"
Setzer stood as he said, "I've met her once or twice. Intriguing woman." He touched her cheek. "You rest now, Terra. I'll wake you when we arrive."
Setzer made his way toward the door.
"Setzer. Tell me who you think took them."
Setzer halted by the open door, his hand gripping the handle. "Slavers of the old Empire."
Setzer heard her choked sob and stepped through the door, closing it firmly behind him. Any thoughts of possible connections and conspiracies wouldn't come. All that repeated itself in his mind was the fact both Terra and Relm had met her. That they had both formed a type of bond with her. As to what it meant He didn't know.
Setzer pressed his lips together and went on deck.
Setzer looked up from the examination of the deck of cards in his hand as he waited in the open hallway of Figaro castle. "Locke."
Locke Cole's steel-gray eyes were angry and determined as he strode out of the double doors that led to the throne room. He held a folded paper in his hands and a note carrier for a pigeon in the other.
"What's the plan?" Setzer asked.
"Don't know yet. I'm just letting Celes know what's going on and having her go to Mobliz to take a look-see." Locke jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Edgar's with her. She's really shook up."
Setzer pushed off from the wall and moved to the exit of the castle and the message depot. Locke followed. "Understandably so, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I guess I'm stating the obvious."
Setzer held open the door into the covered hallway that led to the exit and the engine room. "It's all right. It's better than saying nothing."
Locke gave a shrug and continued to make his way to the exit. "I guess. I just wish I knew what the hell was going on. Kidnapping? That hasn't happened in years!"
Setzer followed Locke out into the sunshine and to the left of the castle. "I've a hard time believing it myself. Especially when I didn't think anyone knew Mobliz was still in existence."
Locke gave Setzer a nod and a look that seemed to shout "I know" as he rolled up the note, placed it within the tube, and then laced the tube to the pigeon and sent it on its way. That done, they hurried back to the castle. Edgar was just entering the open hallway.
"Setzer, can you give us a few more details?" Edgar requested as the trio met in the center of the open hall. "We've little to go on and can't act unless some positive fact is known."
"The only 'positive fact' I know," Setzer began in an agitated voice, "is that Terra's kids are gone. How in the hell are we supposed to find out who's responsible?" And what if Marée is somehow involved?
Edgar rubbed his chin in thought. Locke tapped the toe of his boot into the ground.
"What has Terra told you of what happened?" Edgar asked.
"Only that she was alone in her garden when she heard a scream and then yelling. She didn't see anyone or anything."
Edgar absently nodded.
"What about you?" Locke asked suddenly. Setzer focused his gaze on the treasure hunter. "I've been so busy with plans for the wedding and the party I haven't really been anywhere. You have, though. Notice anything odd?"
Setzer thought back, pressing his lips together in exasperation. Odd? Meeting a woman that fascinates me at all is odd enough! Finding out she knows Terra and Relm shouldn't even be possible! But something in his trip to Zozo poked at his attention. "Zozo."
Locke and Edgar's expressions were incredulous. Setzer focused his attention on them. "I was in Zozo on a personal matter when I happened upon a poker game with some particularly high stakes. Never one to pass up a challenge, I bought myself in and proceeded to notice a very odd man indeed."
"An odd man, eh?" Locke asked slowly. "What kind of odd man?"
"What was his name?" Edgar interrupted.
"Ledo." To hell with the man's name! Terra's kids are gone and Marée has disappeared! Let's get the hell out of here and do something!
"What was he doing there?" Locke asked. "Just playing poker?"
Setzer's gaze sparked as he gestured to the two of them. "It doesn't matter. Go get Terra. I'll be on the Falcon."
Locke and Edgar gave a nod and moved away. Setzer turned for the exit and strode outside and onto the Falcon. He slammed aboard and stalked through the main room to his private office. Once in the safe silence and surrounded by a memory of her presence, he relaxed. Setzer took in a deep breath and changed his eyes to her portrait. He stepped toward it and took the portrait up, holding it gently between his hands. There was no reason for him to think she was in danger. No reason for him to believe she'd been in Zozo. Dreams rarely came true, and what other than a dream had convinced him she was off into a dangerous adventure to find out an answer to a mystery.
Setzer released another breath as he carefully hung the portrait on the section of wall he'd prepared the previous night. He crossed his arms as he examined the intoxicating intensity of her. I will leave you to your own protection, Marée. Lady Luck will have our paths cross when the time is right. He reached out and caressed her cheek and lips. Our paths will cross again. And then Setzer heard Terra, Edgar, and Locke board the Falcon. He turned to enter the main room and left his concern and terror behind him.
"That's the third hand I've won," Locke stated as he threw down his cards. He crossed his arms and leaned back in the chair. "Cut the crap, Setzer. What's the matter with you?"
Setzer took up the cards and stared down at them. "I'm sorry, Locke. I suppose I'm a bit distracted."
"There's an obvious understatement. You haven't made mistakes like these since Hell. You've never made mistakes like these."
"As I said before: I'm distracted."
Setzer shuffled the cards, but his mind wasn't on them. He was still thinking on what Edgar had said. Of revenge and its control. Of rage and its ability to change a person's heart. Of keeping Terra from retaliating against the man who'd taken her children. Would I have been able to remain as firm if it were Marée? Will I remain as honorable if she is in danger? Setzer didn't believe he would. Marée's intoxication of his soul was a part of his existence, odd as that seemed. If she was harmed in any way, he wouldn't hesitate to kill those responsible.
It was who he was.
"Setzer, why did you got to Zozo?" Locke asked suddenly. "You've no love lost on that place, and I can't believe you need money bad enough to show up just to play cards." Locke began to toy with a boomerang type weapon called Hawk Eye. "Come on, gambler. What's up?"
"I told you. Personal business."
Locke scoffed. "And what color eyes were they?"
Setzer raised his calm expression from the cards. "My personal business is none of your concern, Cole. I suggest you keep your mind on your cards."
"Me? I've already won 1,100 gil from you. I'd say you're the one needing to pay attention." Locke grumbled as he put his toy away and grabbed the freshly dealt hand. "Geez. I ask a simple question and get my head nearly handed to me." Locke discarded two cards and tossed some gil onto the table. "You and Edgar both need women," he mumbled.
I know, Setzer nearly moaned aloud as he spared a glance to Marée's portrait. His chest tightened with a collision of memories and expectations with worry fanning the flames of their passion. When he saw her face again Setzer drew his eyes back to his cards, but his mind wouldn't go to the game. He was reliving her touch; her scent; her voice; her walk; her very presence. When he saw her again there would be no whisper of 'not yet'. There would only be her and the wind and the warmth of her skin against his.
Locke tossed down his cards again. "If you're not going to play like a man, than I'm not going to take your money. I've got some pride, you know."
Setzer blinked and lowered his cards, pushing back from the table to silently walk to the window behind his desk. He stared out at the passing scenery with his hands clenched behind his back. How many days since I saw your face, Marée? Three? And yet it seemed longer. So much longer. He clenched his jaw and briefly itched at his scar.
"Now that is a woman of the sea."
Setzer turned to see Locke examining the picture of Marée. He flinched and smiled at the same moment.
Locke met Setzer's eyes. "Darryl?"
Setzer shook his head and couldn't force himself to speak her name. At least he doesn't also know her.
Locke changed his eyes back to the portrait. "That daring look in her eye reminds me of you," he observed with a smirk. "No wonder you've got her portrait." Locke took a step closer and leaned in. "Hmm."
A prickle chased dread down Setzer's spine and back up again. "What is it?"
"What about it?"
"Seems like I've seen it before."
Setzer adjusted his crossed arms and turned his attention back to the scenery outside. "It's a cargo vessel, Locke. Of course you've seen it."
"Yeah, but the name sounds familiar." Locke gave a shrug and turned away from it. "Guess it doesn't matter. So." Locke leaned against Setzer's desk and began fiddling with different items on his desk; a dagger letter opener, a broken magicite shard paper weight, and a collection of dice that Setzer had gathered on their varying adventures. "What's her name?"
Setzer clenched his jaw. "Marée."
"Where'd you meet her?"
"Over a deck of cards." Which wasn't exactly a lie.
Locke chuckled. "Figures."
Setzer could feel Locke's stare on the back of his neck. But Locke kept his other questions to himself, much to Setzer's surprise. Since acquiring his own personal completion, Locke had made it a goal to try and do the same for his friends. Setzer, who'd never cared for attempting to control his fate, would rather Luck take a hand in his 'love life'.
"Locke, no conniving or plots, if you please," Setzer said in an odd voice. "I prefer Fate to have her own way."
"Suit yourself. Although how she's going to do that when we're busy tracking a snake, I've no idea."
Setzer surrendered to a smirk as he turned from the window and sat in his office chair. "The same way I was able to meet her in the first place. The same way you met Celes. The same way she deals the cards to all."
"The same way she dealt with Darryl?"
Setzer's smirk faded to a scowl.
Locke straightened, setting the magicite shard carefully back on the stack of papers. "Sorry, gambler. That was out of line. I'll go sit in the corner."
Setzer grabbed up the dice and clicked them within his hands. Like Darryl. His glare deepened and his suspicion toward the Fates grew, especially with how they seemingly liked to tease him.
Setzer's glance to Terra saw more than what she wanted seen as she and Edgar exited the Falcon. Helplessness was giving rise to a hysteria in her eyes and in her very persona. That hysteria fed a desperation that began to tear at his own carefully held peace of mind. He moved his gaze away and clenched his jaw as he performed an absent one-handed shuffle of his cards. It was the third deck he'd gone through since leaving Figaro, wearing the corners and edges down to nothing but tatters and pulp.
"We should start at the auction house," Locke said. "Anyone who wants anything that's worth a gil or two always goes there."
Setzer sent him a glare. "Locke, selling children isn't exactly smiled upon since the disappearance of the Empire. They wouldn't do anything quite so obvious."
"Yeah? Well I don't hear you giving any bright ideas. What do you want to do: hold up a sign that says 'will pay for children'?"
Setzer clenched his jaw. "What I want to do is search somewhere that makes more sense than an obvious wild choco-chase. We should ask the man at the inn if any-"
"The inn?" Locke scoffed. "Yeah. There's a bright idea. When was the last time you heard an innkeeper tell the truth about anything without the promise of a few dozen gil rubbing holes in his pocket? Might as well go to the innkeeper in Zozo butt-naked with a tattoo that says 'sucker'."
Setzer balled his fists and took a threatening step forward.
"Gentlemen, calm yourselves," Edgar commanded in a firm, no-nonsense tone.
Setzer and Locke both glared at Edgar, but when Setzer noticed Terra's expression of barely restrained panic, he yanked in his temper and his own need to find what he believed he'd lost.
"This constant contention is not helping anyone, and it will only serve to make it more difficult for us to work together when the time comes to face this-" Edgar glanced toward Terra's face and pressed his lips together. "This gentleman," he continued finally, "and believe me when I say I use the term loosely."
"They're not here," Terra said suddenly.
The certainty of Terra's statement made Setzer change his gaze to her. He raised an eyebrow and ceased the shuffling of his cards.
"He hasn't been here," Terra continued, and this time her eyes narrowed.
As Terra continued with her reasoning, Setzer noticed the desperation and hysteria had vanished. Instead, they'd been replaced by self-assurance that didn't seem natural. Not for Terra. She'd been certain and assured during their exploits so many months before, yes, but there had always been a constant presence of Terra's underlying timidity. As she countered Locke's assertion that the attitude of Jidoor didn't mean the slaver wasn't there, the pure 'Terra' aura seemed changed. Harder. Darker.
Setzer lowered his gaze to his cards and thoughtfully turned over the top card. Ace of Spades. Terra passed Setzer and strode to the Falcon. Setzer lifted his gaze from the deck in time to catch Edgar's 'you leave her, you die' look. Then the young king of Figaro was following after Locke toward the auction house. Setzer looked again to the deep black card of relentless power and carefully placed it back into the bulk of the deck. Then he purposefully tucked the cards into the inner pocket of his jacket and turned to make his way back to the Falcon. When he entered, Terra wasn't in the main room, nor in his private office. Setzer heard her movements down in the engine room.
Setzer leaned against the railing and stood watch.
Setzer stood from the couch and went to meet Locke and Edgar as they entered the main room. "What's been decided?"
Locke didn't look too happy and Edgar seemed less than his assured self. "We're going to Zozo," Locke said. "You probably don't want Edgar driving, not since what happened before, so why don't we go up."
Setzer raised an eyebrow, but Edgar asked "Where's Terra?" before Setzer could ask why he was being prodded on deck.
"In my office," Setzer told him, slightly suspicious.
Edgar moved to the office and disappeared inside, closing the door firmly behind him as Locke headed to the stairs that led on deck. Setzer reluctantly followed. Once he'd set himself to one side of Locke as he steered the airship toward Zozo, he began a more in-depth examination of Locke's attitudes. Hmm. Edgar comforting Terra. Locke organizing their seclusion. But the fact that Locke didn't look thrilled with the arrangement made Setzer more than a little curious. Setzer tapped his lips and pulled his deck from his jacket. He shuffled it thoroughly and then drew the top card. Jack of Hearts. Jack of Hearts? And the next card he drew, instead of the expected deuce or ten of Hearts, was the Ace of Spades. Setzer raised an eyebrow.
"I don't like it," Locke grumbled with a shake of his head. "I don't like it at all."
And the fact Locke was playing the role of a clucking mother hen amused Setzer to no end. He smirked and resumed the soothing shuffle of his deck. "Leave them alone, Cole. Life is a lonely mistress. Those two deserve what they're getting." Terra and Edgar have suffered enough of Fate's amusement. They should be exploring the other's touch and what it reveals. As he wanted to do for himself.
"She doesn't know Edgar like I do," Locke said in an annoyed voice. "The last thing she needs is Edgar putting the moves on her and kissing her so she can barely think straight. She's just a kid." And his hands gripped the wheel as a kind of reiteration of his vow to protect her.
Kissing a woman in such a way is what our soul longs for. To experience the intensity of a woman of depth. "Terra is a woman and Edgar is a man," Setzer said simply, and the flash of the promises of that statement made his chest tighten with his own desire to experience a woman.
"Don't remind me."
Setzer reluctantly laughed. "I thought you wanted them to be married, Cole."
Locke scoffed. "He hasn't exactly put a ring on her finger, has he? I don't like putting the cart before the chocobo, okay?"
"Do you truly doubt he will? Edgar is a man of honor, Cole." Setzer lowered his eyes to his cards as an odd tension squeezed his soul. "Don't trifle with that or you're liable to get your head cleaved in two. Besides," and Setzer palmed the Queen of Hearts with a slight smirk, "I don't believe anything but a few passionate embraces are being shared. He respects her too much to rush her into more than that."
Edgar seemed the king of 'not yet' and 'soon'.
"You don't know Edgar."
Setzer frowned. Who truly knows their heart? "Only Edgar knows Edgar," he said as he stood. "Trust your friends and leave it at that. I'm going below."
"If you come back a little pink around the ears, I'll know you were wrong," Locke grumbled.
Setzer's frown lightened and he released a chuckle as pleasant memories of Marée soothed his soul. "It's nothing I haven't experienced myself," he said as he moved away. "A little amusement would be just what I need right now."
He could only take so many memories of the promises of future pleasures her lips and touch had spoken. Setzer released a deep breath. He may have been wholly dedicated to the Falcon and the adventure Fate gave him, but Marée was the only woman who could warm his skin and hold the secrets of his soul. She would be the haven that would constantly draw him back, full circle.
Setzer finished slipping into his uniform jacket as he turned toward the voice. Sabin approached, apparently on his way to the café there in Kohlingen. Setzer adjusted the jacket and the sleeves of his shirt within. "What is it, Sabin?" he asked with a smirk. "If you want help with your plot to get the opposites to attract, count me out. He's your brother."
Sabin laughed and came to stand by Setzer on the little bridge near the café. "The day I can't handle Edgar is the day I beat you at cards."
Setzer's smirk evolved to a grimace. With as distracted as I am here? "Then what is it?"
"Saw you leaving. Where you headed?"
Setzer made sure his things were in the proper places. "Unfinished business," he said absently.
"You too? Well, take it easy." Sabin sent the gambler a farewell salute and then resumed his trek to the café.
Setzer continued out of town and made way to the Falcon. He'd hoped to find trace or hint of Marée in Zozo when they'd arrived there with Terra in search of her children, but Lady Luck had been in a foul mood and hadn't given him the time he'd needed before whisking him off to Jidoor. It had been there that the itch to find something had settled deep. There that Lady Luck had made him notice the machinery from Figaro, the books from Thamasa, and the general stench of those people that called Zozo home. All of which, to him, totaled one thing: Marée.
Now that Terra was on the road to recovery from the surgery that removed the mind-control equipment the now-dead Ledo Grikea had placed there during her time with the Empire - the man Setzer suspected of manipulating Marée as well - Setzer again felt the push to move on. So that's what he planned on doing. Lady Luck, I've been patient with you and your sisters the Fates. Now I want something in return. And he'd get it, too. Even if he had to make his own Luck.
Setzer pushed forward on the throttle and steered the Falcon toward Jidoor. Marée would be mad enough to spit fire when she found out that her unknown cargo had been used to manipulate Terra. Setzer had a feeling that Marée had felt the same desire to protect Terra from the evils of the world. Terra wasn't a Lander in the normal sense of the word. The young woman had lived a rough life while making the best of it. Marée would respect that, as he did. She would also have come to love Terra's devotion to friends. Loyalty was a sought after commodity in the seaman's life. A trait of gold.
Setzer smiled, but it was more smirk than anything. I wonder if this loyalty follows her to her bed? Her thirst and hunger for adventure had likely led her to many a man and many a 'distraction'. When she got her fill of him, he'd probably find himself cast to the wayside the same as the others. The expectation satiated, she'd move along. Setzer released a deep breath. Memories would be enough. Hadn't he said as much at their meeting in Kohlingen? She was married: to the sea. He was simply an amusement, and he knew that to be true. Wasn't she the same for him? A key to a rush of blood and emotion that he hadn't had since the adrenaline of Kefka's Tower. They were using each other. They knew it. They expected it. They were waiting for the end of the allure.
Setzer guided the Falcon a safe distance past Jidoor and anchored it. Expectation had been replaced by dread and the resignation of a too-soon ending. Ah well. Each hand must end. Whether I'm the loser or the winner is all in the way the game is played. Setzer followed the statement with a smirk and a nod to the rear guards before leaving the Falcon.
Jidoor was a bustle of activity, dismantling the rooms of technology that had been used as a tool to destroy innocence simply for the dedication to the accumulation of power. Instead, the machinery was being put to a different use. To the use of life and living. Setzer smirked and nodded several greetings to the people hurrying past. Their excitement would likely irritate Marée, due to the fact that her life was so much different from theirs. Setzer saw beyond that.
Marée understood the life of a Lander, even though she'd deny it. She understood it because he knew that at one time everyone's life had been as simple. Fate and Luck had just molded Marée and Setzer according to a different set of rules and expectations.
Setzer retrieved his newest deck of cards from his jacket pocket and absently shuffled them. He hadn't yet flipped the top card. He hadn't yet asked Lady Luck for a hint. He almost placed too much control in their 'hands' and had decided to keep a little back from them. One side of his lips twitched and he raised his eyes from the deck.
The auctioneer was approaching him with a purposeful stride.
Setzer tucked the deck back away and retrieved his not-so-charmed dice. He clicked them together in a circle at a steady pace. "What can I do for you?"
"You're the one with the airship, right?"
The dice paused. "Yes."
"Would you be willing to take a shipment to the Opera House Impresario? I'll pay you 500 gil now and he'll pay another 1,500 when you arrive and drop off the shipment."
"And what is this shipment?"
"Some of the machinery from that madman's contraption. We've no use for it, but the Impresario seems to think he can make something of it. Probably hired that crazy inventor again."
"Cid?" And Setzer's eyes twinkled with memories of the Vector engineer.
"That's the one." The auctioneer scoffed moments before presenting Setzer with a bag of gil that sounded a little more than 500 gil. "Here. Tell me where the ship is and I'll get the loading started."
Setzer took the offered bag and motioned out of town and to the west. "Not much more than 100 yards from town. Give or take 10 or 20."
The auctioneer gave a curt nod and then made his way back from where he'd come. Setzer changed his silver eyes back to the bag of gil and raised an eyebrow. The Opera House had once been a frequent jaunt for him and his original airship. He smiled and tucked the gil safely away as he absently clicked the dice in his other hand. It was an interesting turn, but not an unpleasant one. Maria had been a consuming distraction at one time. Seeing her again and hearing her lovely voice would be a welcome visit to the past.
And a needed distraction from aquamarine eyes.
Setzer stepped within the well-lit entry hall of the Opera House and smiled. The orchestra was practicing for that evening's performance. And according to the sign on the front desk, the performance was sold out. Setzer chuckled and stepped further in, wishing Marée was with him so that he could tell her the humorous tales of adventure in the arms of the lovely and cultured Maria.
"Mr. Gabbiani," the Impresario greeted with a wide smile. "How are you?"
Ridding the man of an earth dragon and a crazy octopus had put him in surprisingly good spirits toward Setzer, the infamous 'Wandering Gambler' who'd tried to abscond with his star performer. "Quite well, Impresario. Thank you. And you?"
"Glorious. Glorious. You're too kind."
Setzer motioned over his shoulder. "I believe I have some items in the hold of my ship that you were wanting."
The Impresario clapped his hands together once in delight. "Ah! Glorious."
"You have men available to unload?"
"Of course. Of course."
Setzer gave a nod. "Good. I believe I'm overdue for a visit." He turned to his right and ascended the stairs that would lead to Maria's dressing room.
"M-Mr. Gabbiani!" The Impresario rushed after him. "Y-You mustn't disturb her so few hours before a performance. It's opening night of the new show!"
Setzer chuckled. "Don't you worry, Impresario. I'll do my best to keep from tiring her out."
"Oh d-dear. Oh d-dear " he complained as Setzer knocked and entered.
Maria's tall and slender frame stood in front of the mirror as she minutely examined her appearance. Long, shining blonde tresses pulled back from her delicate face. Full lips colored to perfection. Silky skin of chest and arms perfected by the rich blue of the robe she wore before changing into her costume.
Setzer's eyes twinkled with his smile and the vision of memories he saw as he crossed his arms. "Maria, you steal my breath."
Her hands paused their work of brushing her hair as her pale eyes focused on his in the mirror. Her cheeks flushed and she turned. "Setzer?"
He bowed. "The very same." He straightened to again absorb her cultured and elegant loveliness. "Success agrees with you heartily, my dear."
Maria smoothed her robe with trembling fingers and a hesitant smile. "Thank you." She slowly lifted her eyes to his face. "You're looking well. The wandering of your heart has kept you as fascinating as ever."
He chuckled and stepped further into the room. "While I thank you for the compliment, I feel I must confess my wandering has more of a purpose now than it did before. I'm afraid I've become a hero of one of your operas."
The music of her laughter danced in the air and tickled his ears. "You make that end sound as the doom to your existence." She stepped closer as she held his gaze, the seductively soft 'swish' of her satin bloomers hinting at the woman beneath the robe. "The end to purposeless wandering hasn't been a curse, has it?"
Setzer delved into the memories of the adventure of the extrication of gown, petticoat, and corset and released a chuckle. "A curse? No. An unexpected end to the hand I held? Yes."
Maria took hold of his hands and held him out at arms length as her pale eyes compared his current physique to that of her memory. Finally, her eyes again met his and her lips were caressed with a delicate smile. "And what has brought the Wandering Gambler to my room on opening night?"
"A shipment of goods from Jidoor, I'm sorry to say." He tightened his hold on her soft hands and leaned forward to bestow a tender kiss on each cheek. When he pulled back, there was an odd expression on his face.
"Why, Setzer," she said in her gentle voice, "what's wrong?"
Setzer forced it away and released her hands. "Nothing, my dear. Nothing." He cleared his throat and directed her to sit. She did so with a graceful motion of body and arm that had him momentarily hypnotized. He'd forgotten the allurement of her grace and culture. Of her delicacy and dependence. Such an extreme difference from Marée.
Setzer leaned on the desk/vanity across from her and tightly crossed his arms. "I've but only a few moments before I must be off again, Maria."
"And you came to spend them with me?" Her pale eyes twinkled with her smile. "I'm honored."
Setzer laughed. "Our history together deserved the visit, my dear. I am only sorry I haven't visited more often. We had such fun together."
Maria lowered her eyes to her clasped hands. "My life within the Opera House hasn't the alluring color of unexpected adventure, Setzer. I knew you would leave. I'm thankful of the memories I have."
Setzer's smile vanished at her statement. It reminded him clearly of his comment to Marée in Kohlingen. "Maria." She raised her eyes very slowly. Sadness shined there. Setzer released a slow and deep breath as guilt dealt none-too-gently with him. "Maria, I am so sorry. It wasn't my intention to hurt you."
Maria lowered her eyes again and began to twist the belt of her robe between her fingers.
Setzer straightened and made his way to sit beside her. He took her hands. "Maria, we were not meant to be together. If we had been, it would have been you and not General Celes taken aboard my ship that day." A tear collected itself in her eye and broke free to glisten on her cheek. He fondly touched it away and then brought each hand to his lips. "You, dear lady, will forever be on the pedestal of my memories."
Her pale blue eyes rose from their scrutiny of their clasped hands and met his eyes of silver. "I never wanted to be on a pedestal, Setzer," she confessed in a musical tone of tears and dramatic misery. "I wanted to be with you. I wanted to be your song. And I wanted you to be mine." Maria's hands tightened on his as her eyes searched his. "Remember? Remember how we were together? It was a complete symphony. An opera of passion and love."
And Setzer did remember. He remembered waking from a night of passion to the sound and song of her. He remembered the fire that would burn when she came to him at the end of a perfect performance. And still she would sing, beckoning his soul from him with her power of tone and word as easily as Marée had done with the intensity of her free spirit. Yes, Setzer did remember.
"What do you want me to be?" Maria asked, almost desperate. "I've played so many roles, Setzer." Her soft and warm hands released his and rose to cup his face, teasing his cheeks and jaw with their gentle caress. "Tell me which you would want me to be. The commoner that gives her life for the safety of her true hero? The mermaid, so innocent yet determined to give all for love? The woman pirate so assured and--"
Setzer stood sharply with the memory of virgin mermaid exclamations and captain uniforms as he stepped away from her. An end table blocked his path with a clink and a clunk. He steadied the table and himself with a hand behind him. Marée. He closed his eyes and lowered his head. "No, Maria. You should never change who you are. The true you is what attracted my attention that first fateful day."
There was a rustle and then the slight scent of flowers. Her warmth approached and surrounded him, bringing again the memories of life with her. It had been good. Her songs. Her warmth. Her body against his- Setzer tensed when her hand took his, her other caressing his cheek.
"I still love you, Setzer. I am too much a heroine to not. And as a heroine does, I will wait for you. The memories will be enough." She pressed her rose petal lips against his cheek for a long moment, and then she gently squeezed his hand before releasing it and moving away, disappearing into a back room to change for her performance.
Setzer slowly opened his eyes, fighting back the urge to follow and renew the memories. That part of his life was gone Wasn't it?
Setzer absently tapped the top card of his yet unused deck of cards as he clicked the dice together in his other hand. Glancing up from his desk, his eyes met those of Marée's within her portrait. The dare was still as bright as the flame her touch brought to his skin. Yet it was different. It was a dare for him to choose any other woman but her. A dare to try and find her spark of life in a cultured beauty who sang dramas of life that she hadn't experienced.
And the presence of a continued passion for Maria surprised him.
His mind sputtered and stopped. Setzer lowered his eyes back to the cards as he halted their tapping. He picked up the topmost card and stared at the back, intensely scrutinizing the Esper design on the back - Bahamut, he believed - as he tried to decide a path. Both held the promise of passion and intensity. Both held the promise of newness and adventure. Both women moved him.
Setzer tossed the card away and leaned roughly back in his chair, kicking his feet up on the desk. He rubbed at his forehead and released a deep and quick breath. Maria had said she would wait. So why couldn't he have his adventure with Marée? Then, when his quality of distraction and amusement faded Setzer scoffed and chucked his dice across the room. Am I a letch? An abuser of women? I am a gambler, yes, but not with the hearts of women!
There was a knock.
The Impresario entered surrounded by an air of uncertainty. "Mr. Gabbiani. Thank you again for the shipment." He set a large bag of gil on the table. "And thank you, also, for your visit. Maria has never before sang with such passion."
Setzer nearly groaned. Instead, he stood and motioned back the way the Impresario had come. "I'm glad I could have such a positive influence, Impresario." He closed the door to his office and led the man through the main room and to the exit.
"As long as you promise not to steal her away, you must visit again. I could reserve a box for you and a guest."
Setzer fought back the urge to accept. "If my schedule brings me this way, I thank you for the invitation. Good night, Impresario."
"Good night, Mr. Gabbiani."
Setzer shut he door with a frown and strode back through the main room to the flight deck. Once at the wheel, he clutched it and pushed the throttle forward. The engine whined, driving the Falcon forward into the wind in an attempt to appease her pilot. The wind was a double curse, though. It reminded him of both women. The wind in his hair evoking visions of Marée as the sound of the musical hum in his ears tortured him with thoughts of Maria. Two women. Two different lives. One passion. It was enough to drive him mad.
Setzer dove the Falcon down, down, down until she was skimming the water of the sea and wetting his face, hair, and uniform with the spray. Then he was pulling up hard and soaring with a wyvern, chasing and torturing it as the memories and ecstasies tortured him. Captain. Songstress. Command. Delicacy. Intensity in each. Setzer clenched his jaw and abandoned the wyvern to a need for speed as he coaxed every morsel of energy from the Falcon's engines. And she gave it, doing her best to soothe his heart and quiet his soul.
As usual, the Falcon succeeded.
Setzer eased back on the throttle and caressed a spoke of the wheel. "I'm sorry, love. I'm in a bit of a mood tonight."
He sighed and gave a shake of his head as he leaned into the wind. I'm sorry, Maria But she was in his past. Yes, it had been a pleasant one, but it was still the past. He had long ago promised himself to not look back, but always look to the future. To the next adventure. To the next turn of the card
Setzer anchored the Falcon and went below, entering his office with a purposeful step as he made way to his desk. He took up the cards and stared down at them, gauging his intent and what it could mean. Finally, he shuffled them and took the top card. But Setzer couldn't turn it. He couldn't let the card decide his future. Not this one. He lowered the card to the deck and purposefully placed the deck on his desk.
"No. Not this time."
Setzer turned away and left the room.
Setzer parked the Falcon with an absent smile as he checked his pockets for surprises and treats. Then he made his way to the exit, passing through to the sunshine beyond and to the expected shrieks and cries of "Sezzer! Sezzer!"
Children arrived, treats were discovered, and then the joyous chorus of child speech was laughed and squealed as Setzer made his way to the main building of Mobliz.
"Hiya, Setzer," Relm greeted with a bright smile. "Get bored?"
Setzer tousled her blonde curls. "No. Not with watching Sabin and Edgar make fools of themselves."
"What? What'd they do? Tell me." And the promise of a good story twinkled in her eyes.
Setzer chuckled. "Later, Relm. Later."
Relm was temporarily accosted by questions and quandaries of some of the younger children and Setzer watched her with a smirk. Then the children were urged to play and scampered off after procuring a firm promise that Setzer would stay for dinner and a story.
"How are you doing with the children, Relm? Terra's been gone for a long time."
Relm waved it away with a wrinkle of her nose. "Pshaw," she said. "Piece of cake."
"Piece of cake my ass."
Setzer halted as his eyes met the twinkling ones of Marée.
"Okay, so we've had a problem or two," Relm admitted as Marée approached from the main house. She seemed totally oblivious to the looks on both adult faces. "But they weren't anything major."
Marée came to a stop a couple paces in front of Setzer and focused her eyes on Relm. "You're right. They weren't. Now why don't you go inside and help Katarin with dinner."
"Oh! That's right. She doesn't know Setzer's staying." And Relm hurried away.
Marée lifted her eyes to meet Setzer's. She crossed her arms and her eyes crackled. "Captain. You've had yourself quite the adventure. Rescuing damsels and destroying villains. I'm jealous."
A breeze teased her hair and brought her aroma of sea and command into his lungs. But Setzer couldn't move forward. "If I had known where you were, I would have brought you with us. We could have used you."
She arched an eyebrow as a smile danced on her lips. "That's right nice to hear, although Relm tells me you handled the bastard just fine on your own. Damned shame I wasn't there to see it."
Setzer's brain was numb. No words. No thoughts. No feelings-
Marée stepped forward and pressed her hands against his chest as her breath teased his face. "Let's take a walk in the garden; away from kiddy eyes."
She moved away and Setzer found himself following.
"You're quiet," she commented with a sidelong glance toward him. "It's putting a burr in my britches."
Setzer scrambled for his thoughts that seemed scattered to the corners of reality, and he sent her an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, Marée. I I didn't expect to find you here."
Marée gauged his profile. "It's almost like you didn't think you'd ever see me anywhere."
Setzer shook his head. "No. I hadn't given up the possibility of seeing you again."
She examined him closely. "Something's changed about you. I can't quite put my finger on it."
Setzer took in a deep breath of her, absorbing the warmth of her standing so close to him that their arms touched His skin tingled, but there was something different.
Marée halted near the garden and turned toward Setzer with a probing look. "Expectation's worn off," she said simply.
And Setzer didn't understand how it could be possible. "I'm just tired, Marée," he told her as he drew her close.
She linked her hands behind his neck and eagerly opened her mouth against his. But it was different. Setzer slightly frowned as he brought her closer against him, his mouth more insistent and compelling against hers. Her hands deep in his hair; her body tight against his; her mouth inviting and sweet.
He relived her of her jacket and she of his as their lips took a brief respite. Then they met again and her hands were tugging his shirt free of his trousers as he submerged his under hers. She moaned against his lips and pushed at him until he was against the wall of an abandoned building a few paces away. His lips moved against her jaw and down her throat as she whispered "gods" into his ear; her hands pulling at his back
But it was different.
No! This is Marée! The woman I've dreamed of having! And his mouth and hands did their best to persuade that unresponsive part of him. Finally, Setzer's arms dropped to his sides as he lifted his head, tipping it back until it thumped against the building; once, twice, three times. He closed his eyes as he felt her hands retreat from his body.
"Damn," he said hoarsely. Marée's body tensed.
"Setzer, what's wrong?"
Setzer shook his head. "I can't. I can't do this."
Marée stepped back. "What? Why the hell not? You want it as much as I do!"
He shook his head again, and the action twisted his face in torment. "No. I don't." And the admission nearly ripped out his soul. Setzer lifted his head and met her furious gaze. "I'm sorry. I tried. I reminded myself of the dreams and the agony of waiting. Of the fire and wanting." He shook his head again. "It's different. It's gone. I don't know why."
Marée punched him hard in the face, glaring up at him while he wiped the blood from his split lip. "Damn you and your sweet tongue that kept me going."
"Marée, it wasn't the lie you suppose," Setzer told her, and his voice was impassioned. "The desire was real. Your effect on me was not imagined!"
"Oh? It just disappeared like that?" she asked with a snap for effect.
And Setzer was helpless to explain.
Marée stepped up, grabbing his shirt front and pushing him roughly against the wall of the building. Her glare was a dangerous shade of pale blue. "You've pushed my buttons, captain. You pulled me along with a promise of a taste of better things. You can't just say you don't feel anything anymore, especially when you were all over me like that." Her eyes narrowed as her hands tightened their hold on his shirt. "I deserve something, captain. And I'm going to get that something even if I have to take it!"
Marée accosted his mouth with hers, ripping at his shirt as she pressed him hard against the building, moving against him in what should have been an erotic dance of pleasure and the promise of fiery passion. But it was different. The flame was an ember and her touch wasn't the spark it had been. Again Setzer tried to respond. He tried to will his body to want her as much as it had in the past
But it was gone. Dulled. Her intensity and life didn't excite him as it had. He couldn't let her do it.
Setzer placed his hands firmly on her arms and pushed back. She resisted, her mouth bruising his as her hands clutched at his shirt. He pushed harder and she stumbled back. He shook his head. "Don't do this, Marée. You deserve what I thought I could give you. You deserve true passion and not dulled embers."
Marée glare was murder, and then she punched him with as much force as she could before striding away. Setzer watched her go, ignoring the throb of his face and the blood that trickled from his lip. Instead, he pressed himself against the building before sliding to the ground, elbows on bent knees as his hands buried themselves in his hair.
"Hey. Where's Marée?"
Setzer closed the door behind him with a slowness of spirit and body that made him feel more than 100.
"Gods! What happened to your face?"
Relm hurried up to him and took hold of his arm to lead him to a chair and set him down. As she gathered towels and medicine and set the water to heating, Setzer stared at the ground at his feet in a bog of confusion. How could all those weeks of expected passion have come to nothing? I wanted her. She wanted me. She was the woman of passion and depth I'd been waiting for! Setzer shook his head and rubbed at his face. He didn't understand. What had dulled the fire? What had sabotaged her effect on his soul?
"Okay. Now hold still. This'll sting."
And Relm went to work cleaning his split lip and the dried blood on and around it. The pain distracted Setzer from his confusion and settled his mind back into its numb oblivion.
"You don't look so good, Setzer. What happened?"
Setzer flinched and she apologized but continued to work. "I don't know, Relm. How I wish I did."
She spared glances to his face between gentle strokes of the soft towel. "What'd you do to her, Setzer? Marée wouldn't try and knock your block off without a reason."
Setzer guided her hand from his lip as his gaze held hers. "Don't concern yourself, Relm. It was simply a heated disagreement. Nothing more."
"Yeah, well I guess she gets into those easy enough," Relm admitted reluctantly. "Here, let me put this salve on so it won't swell."
Setzer released her hand and Relm went in search of the promised Remedy. He was suddenly so tired. The past few weeks he'd been under constant bombardment. The expectation of nights of lovemaking with Marée. The mystery that surrounded her and her ship. The search for her in Zozo. And then the mystery and adventure with Terra and Ledo and mind control. Then, again, the expectation battled by the dread that he would never again see her. And then his visit with Maria. More confusion. More mystery. More Setzer released a deep breath just as Relm entered the room again.
Her expression was brimming with concern as she tenderly dabbed the salve onto his lips. "I think you should stay here for a couple days, Setzer. So I can keep an eye on this."
Setzer smirked and immediately cringed. "I'll stay for dinner and a night, Relm, but don't expect much more than that."
"Yeah. I know. Wandering Gambler and all that."
Setzer's eyes twinkled. "I didn't think the others would have told you that story."
"Who says they did? Who says I didn't figure it out myself? Who says I didn't read it somewhere?" She sounded irritated.
Setzer restrained a chuckle as Relm finished applying the salve and wiped her hands on a nearby towel. "I meant no offense, Relm."
She scoffed and tossed aside the towel. "Fine. Whatever. Come on and help me with dinner. Now that you've chased off Marée, I need the extra hands."
And Setzer found himself hoping he would see her again. To truly see if the feelings he'd had were gone.
"Hey, Setzer. Do you think we could ride around in the airship after dinner? It seems like forever since the last time."
Setzer carefully smiled. "We'll see."
"That means 'no'," Relm said with a grimace. "Always has. Always will." She sent him a glare. "Could we at least go visit Terra tomorrow? The kids'll be wanting to see her soon. They're already driving me bonkers with questions."
Setzer smoothed a lock of her curls down and chuckled at the look on her face. "I'll return to Kohlingen tomorrow to see how she's healing and then return with news either way. Is that acceptable?"
Relm's expression was suspicious, but she nodded. "Alright, but you'd better not be doing any procrastinating between here and there."
Setzer chuckled and followed her into the dinner room, but his thoughts wandered. Expectation. Procrastination. Two sides of the same coin. Two very different sides. Setzer's insides twisted. And two very different women.
Setzer heard Sabin's loud and heart-felt laugh from the café the moment he stepped into Kohlingen. It brought a momentary smile to his face as he gave a slight shake of his head. That Sabin was still laughing he took to be a good sign of Edgar's destiny fulfilled. Of course, Setzer had often suspected that the less refined Figaro had a more peculiar sense of humor. For all Setzer knew, Sabin could have been laughing at Locke as he fell backwards out of his chair in shock that Terra had actually agreed to marry the man. Let's hope that isn't the case.
Setzer passed to the right and behind the café, directing his gaze carefully away from it as he kept his mind safely distant. He'd talk to Terra first before he thought anything about anyone.
Setzer halted and turned. Cyan approached. "Good day, Cyan. How's Terra? Better I hope."
Cyan nodded with what seemed a fatherly smile. "Yes. She recovers more quickly than what was believed possible." He came to stand by Setzer. "Has thou heard the news?"
"While I hope the news involves vows and happy endings, please don't tell me if those include Sabin."
Cyan's smile erupted to strong laughter that beat back the grief lines on the warrior's face. "I heartily agree with what thou hath said, but it is indeed Edgar's happiness we shall soon celebrate."
And that news banished a few of the shadows. Setzer smiled and his stance relaxed. "That is truly good news. I'm glad Lady Luck saw fit to give the appropriate push."
Cyan gave a nod with a still lingering smile. "Yes. It is good." Cyan motioned toward the alchemist's house and the two started forward. "Setzer, does thee remember the inquiry thee made of me regarding a Captain Marée?"
Setzer tensed and clenched his jaw. "Yes."
"I have begun inquiries, but have not as of yet received any information. Should thou wish it, I shall tell thee as soon as I am able."
But what else mattered? The flame had burnt itself to an ember and now Marée despised him. Setzer shook his head. "It isn't necessary, Cyan. Thank you."
"Should thou change thy mind," Cyan said as they came to the door of the alchemist's house, "do not hesitate to ask. I am at thy service."
Setzer faced the Doma swordsman with a forced smile as he gripped his shoulder. "Thank you, Cyan. I appreciate the thought."
Cyan gave a nod and then watched Setzer enter the alchemist's house with an odd expression.
Setzer closed the door behind him and stepped toward the stairs that led to the basement laboratory. He heard voices and an occasional feminine giggle followed by Edgar's recognizable chuckle. A reluctant smile twinkled in Setzer's eyes and on his lips as he descended.
"Warnings ahead," Setzer called. "I don't believe I could take a less-than-innocent scene of Miss Terra Branford."
He heard her gentle laughter and then footsteps moments before his eyes cleared the overhang of the floor above. Edgar met him at the foot of the stairs with an outstretched hand and a genuine smile of welcome. The haggardness and shadows were completely erased and the king seemed years younger.
"Setzer, we had begun to wonder where you had wandered."
Setzer gripped the hand and then followed Edgar's invitation to the chair beside Terra's bed. Terra's violet eyes danced as her bright smile welcomed him to her side. Setzer almost laughed.
"Yes, I suppose you would. I'm sorry I didn't tell you of my intent to leave," he said as he leaned, instead, against one side of the headboard.
Terra adjusted her position slightly and Edgar once again took his seat beside her. "It's alright, Setzer. I'm just happy you're back."
Setzer's smile was lopsided as he reached out to gently cuff her chin. "Thank you, Terra. It's good that you've taken a turn for the better. Love heals all wounds, it seems."
Terra flushed but didn't lower her eyes. "Oh. They told you," she said with a slight pout. "I wanted to do that."
Edgar hid a smile behind a hand.
Setzer chuckled. "Tell me what?"
"That we're going to be married," she told him with an 'I could have sworn you knew,' look.
Setzer, never one to pass the opportunity to tease her, straightened with feigned shock. "What? Us? But I could have sworn you loved Edgar."
Terra's mouth dropped open in a ridiculous expression of confusion. Edgar was hard-pressed to staunch his laughter.
"Us? No, Setzer. Not us," she stammered as she desperately tried to figure out what she'd said to make him think that.
"But you just told me we were to be married," he told her with his own version of confusion. "I'm certain that's what you said."
"B-But " She sent a helpless glance toward Edgar, noticed his barely repressed laughter, and put her fists on her hips with an instant scowl. "You guys," she accused. And she immediately reached out to punch each on the arm.
"Now, now," Setzer complained as he rubbed the not-so-sore spot. "None of that."
Edgar laughed outright and gathered Terra's hands to give each a kiss. "I must away, dearest. I'll return this evening to take you on a turn around town."
Terra's expression softened as her eyes focused on Edgar's face. She squeezed his hands. "Alright."
The held the other's gaze for a long moment as Setzer lowered his eyes to an examination of his fingers, and then Terra released Edgar's hands and caressed his face.
"I love you," she whispered.
"And I you." He briefly touched her lips with his before sweeping her hands from his face, giving each a kiss on the wrist, and tucking them fondly into her lap. "Until this evening."
And then he left the room with Terra's eyes following after. There was the faint sound of the door closing and Terra released a deep breath as she looked down at her hands. Setzer sat in the chair beside her.
"Teasing aside," he said in a soft tone, "congratulations. I'm glad to see you two so happy."
Terra lifted her eyes and smiled, taking his hand and giving it a squeeze. "Thank you, Setzer."
"And should you need volunteers to plot revenge against Sabin, let me be the first."
Terra giggled and gave his hand a squeeze. "Oh no you don't."
Setzer sighed, dejected. "Ah well." Terra seemed to examine him then, and Setzer met her gaze with an easy smile. "And for what, Miss Branford, are you searching?"
"I " She frowned slightly. "I don't really know." She examined him again. "Are you alright? You look tired."
His smile wavered slightly, but he kept it in place through years of practice. "Tired? Yes, I suppose I am. Our adventure against Ledo and the concern for you has taken its toll, I imagine." Terra absently nodded, but her eyes kept close watch. "Relm and the children send their love, as well as a hope to visit you. I promised I would return this evening with your answer," he continued.
At the mention of the children, Terra's eyes brightened and her hand tightened on his. "Oh, Setzer, please bring them tomorrow. I miss them so much."
Setzer chuckled. "Relm will be ecstatic at the escape. As she will also be at your news of bliss with Edgar."
Terra smiled, but then her eyes grew troubled. "Setzer, how do I tell the children?"
"Tell them what?"
"That we're going to a different home. That they'll finally have a papa."
Setzer gave her hand a squeeze. "What I suggest is allowing them the chance to meet and fall in love with Edgar themselves. They've met him once already, so it won't be a shock when he comes to visit."
"But Edgar's going to have people come; to start building it up. He was planning on having the children come and stay at Figaro." And Terra's expression was colored with worry.
Setzer smiled reassuringly. "Terra, remember what I said before? Where you are, home is. Be truthful when you tell them, listen to what they say, and go from there."
Terra giggled suddenly. "You sound like Edgar."
Setzer chuckled. "I'd rather you say he sounds like me, Terra."
And her eyes danced again. "So, where did you learn so much about things like this?"
"Common sense. Well, that and observing people over the cards, dice, and life in general. Observances can speak loudly when one listens."
Terra flushed. "Or when you understand what they're saying."
Setzer laughed. "Yes, I suppose that is an important part of it." He gave her hand a squeeze. "Don't blame yourself too harshly," he told her. "Edgar knew well enough his feelings for you and chose to remain silent. You, being the innocent woman you are, had no basis for knowing what you felt beyond a deep friendship."
"I suppose so. You've probably never had problems like ours."
Setzer smirked as he gave an uncomfortable clearing of his throat. "Each person's problems with love are uniquely different, Terra. True, I may not have been blind to the love felt, or afraid of the voicing of it, but there are other things that can cause "
Setzer's facial muscles twitched, and this time he knew she'd seen it. "An apt word," he confessed softly as he lowered his gaze.
"I knew it. I knew something was wrong." Terra clutched his hands. "Setzer, won't you tell me? I know I don't understand about love and all its problems, but I'm your friend. I want to help."
Setzer released a deep breath. "There's nothing for you to do, Terra. Nothing for either of us to do. The dice have fallen. The cards have been played. Now I must play my next hand." And all the words sounded so empty.
"Even I can tell you don't mean that," she said softly.
Setzer released another breath as he raised his eyes to meet Terra's concerned ones. "Terra, looking back to replay a hand that's over is foolish. I can't change how I played it."
"I know, but There must be something I can do!"
Setzer smiled slightly. "Perhaps. One day. Currently, though, I believe you must think of your own health and happiness."
Terra gnawed her lower lip and changed her sad eyes to his hand holding hers. "You've always been so kind and thoughtful, Setzer. So good to me and the children. I just want you to be as happy as I am. You deserve that."
"The Fates disagree, apparently." He stood and bestowed a tender kiss on her forehead. She raised her eyes as he straightened. "Be well, Terra. And be sure to send an invitation to the wedding."
"Then, until tomorrow."
Terra nodded and Setzer turned to move away.
"There's a woman out there for you, Setzer. Waiting," Terra called after him. "I know there is."
Setzer's chest tightened, but he forced a smile as he paused at the foot of the steps and faced her. "Then I'd best play this next hand well."
Setzer leaned against the airship with tightly crossed arms and a hint of a scowl. He only had a few more minutes to spare before he had to leave for Mobliz and his promised dinner with Relm and the children. But an itch in his hands on the wheel of the Falcon and a deep-seeded need for feminine companionship had pulled him here: to the Opera House. Now his very soul ached, but he couldn't tell what it meant: a mourning for Marée lost, or a push to accept a found escape from loneliness.
"Another distraction," he muttered.
Yet he new Maria wanted more than that. She wanted a future that he didn't believe he could give her. He wouldn't ground himself, not even for her. Not even for Marée. Setzer adjusted his footing as his frown hardened to a glare. One of his hands felt the bulk of his cards and his glare deepened. Ace of Diamonds! If she was truly my Ace, the fire would not have waned!
Setzer straightened and turned for the ship, pausing on the threshold with another look behind to the Opera House. The ache swelled up like a wave, tightening his chest and speeding the beat of his heart as his body temperature rose. Setzer pulled in a strangled breath and turned away to enter the Falcon and leave for Mobliz. He would play the hand he was dealt; he wouldn't deal it himself.
"You're doing well, but remember to fight her a little. She's a strong-headed ship." Setzer adjusted Relm's hold on the wheel. "You tell her where to go."
Relm giggled. "This is so rad!"
Setzer chuckled. "Just don't tell your grandfather. Strago would skin me alive if he discovered I've let you pilot the Falcon on more than one occasion."
"I'm not scared of that old fuddy-duddy," she informed Setzer. "He just wants to take away all my fun."
Setzer pulled back on the wheel, guiding the Falcon up in the clouds as Relm squealed with laughter. "Strago seeks your safety, Relm. That is all. You will most likely understand that when you're older."
Setzer released his hold on the wheel and allowed Relm to straighten the Falcon's path and level her off. She had a bit of a fight with it, but eventually got it done. Quite a task for a petite 12-year-old.
"Well done," he told her as he tousled her blonde curls.
She waved his hand away. "Stop it, Setzer. Geez. You and Marée. I swear."
Setzer's face hardened; the smile eradicated with the single word. "Here. Let me have a turn," he said with a tight smile her direction.
Relm stepped clear of the wheel, sending him an odd glance before leaning her elbows against the ship and blinking into the wind. "It's great up here. So far away from everyone and everything."
Setzer clenched his jaw and slightly altered their heading toward Kohlingen. "Being so far removed has its moments, yes, but nothing compares to family and friends, Relm."
Relm looked over at him. "But you're alone."
"Not completely," he disagreed, momentarily meeting her gaze. "Though I wander, I know that I have many places to call home. Those of my friends."
Relm changed her eyes to the distant horizon. "But that's different. You're welcome to visit, sure, but you can also leave whenever you want. You can visit whenever you want, too. Me? I have to stay in Thamasa because grandpa says so. He won't let me have adventures. He won't let me find where I belong. Not like you have."
Where I belong? In a constant state of wandering? A perpetual search for the next turn of card? The next adventure? What was a ship without a port to rest?
Setzer looked over at her again, and then he placed a hand on her shoulder. "Don't be so eager to leave your roots behind, Relm. Seek out what you can in the time you have. Your adventure of life will come soon enough. Wait for it."
Relm wrinkled her nose and looked away from his face. "I know. I just hate waiting."
Setzer chuckled and gave her small shoulder a squeeze. "I understand that, Relm. Waiting most often causes more than its share of disappointments."
But we mustn't rush the experiences we have. We must hold the cards until all others have revealed their hand. And though Marée had revealed hers more than once, he'd still resisted; a slave to adventure. Addicted to the gamble. Setzer released a deep breath. Looking back proves nothing. Play your hand, gambler.
"There's Figaro," Relm said with a smile in her voice. "Kohlingen will be right there!" She gave a couple hops as she pointed. "Rad! We're here!"
Setzer took the Falcon down as Relm hurried below to gather the children and prepare them for the visit into a new town, rules and things of that sort. Setzer doubted the little ones would remember the rules once they stepped from the ship, but it was good experience for Relm. An experience of responsibility that Strago seldom allowed her.
Setzer released a slow breath as he anchored the ship and made his way below. Relm was helping the younger ones into their sweaters as the older ones wrestled with their own. Setzer watched the adventure with a smirk before stepping forward to help.
"Cera, when'd you lose the bottom button?" Relm asked as Setzer finished buttoning Robbie's jacket.
"I don't know."
"Did you put it in your pocket?" Relm checked the girl's pockets and gave a shake of her head as Setzer moved to Peter. "Oh man. Well, I guess we'll look for it tomorrow. Do you have your sweater on, Alyxis? Good girl. Everyone ready? Alright. Take each other's hands so we don't get lost. Let's go."
And Setzer led them off the Falcon with Relm bringing up the rear. The children 'ooh'd and 'ahh'd at the different sights, pointing at this, that, and the other as the line of littles and bigs made their way through town. Tyrian made a fuss when Relm scolded her for letting go of her hand to pick a flower, but quieted when Relm followed the scold with a promise to do flower-picking after their visit with Terra. Setzer chuckled and, at a groan from the boys, made his own promise of a game of 'Kefka War' if they behaved themselves. They cheered and heartily agreed.
The group passed the café, more cheers voiced when told they were going there later for cider and chocolate milk, and dutifully made their way to the alchemist's home. Once outside the door, Setzer opened it, ushered them inside, and gave Relm the final duty of leading them to the basement. He, on the other hand, would keep Edgar company once he retreated from the reunion, as Setzer knew Edgar would. Relm gave a nod and went on in, Setzer closing the door after her.
Squeals and giggles were heard very few moments later and Setzer chuckled with a slight shake of his head as he moved to lean against the wall directly to the left of the door. He crossed his arms. While Setzer had never thought of himself as 'family' material, his few adventures with Terra's children had begun to smooth and fade that boundary. How lucky I am not to be instantly inheriting ten. And Setzer couldn't help but feel a touch of pity for the young king of Figaro who would so quickly find himself to be both husband and father. How did one adjust to such an extreme role change?
It was an intriguing quandary.
More laughter and joy-filled squeals erupted within, followed by a chorus of child voices and a battalion of questions, more than likely. Edgar would likely do his best to answer, but in the end Terra would need to calm the children down and tell them the story of her adventure as only she could. Edgar would then give her an adoring smile, likely pat one of the children on the head, and then make a timely exit to allow Terra and the children some time to themselves-
The door opened and Edgar exited with a smile and a chuckle before closing the door behind him. "At least they didn't groan and shudder," he said in a laughing tone.
Edgar gave a startled jump and looked to his right. He saw Setzer and reluctantly smiled. "You gave me a fright, Setzer."
Setzer chuckled. "Of course. That was the point."
Edgar smiled wryly. "I reasoned as much." He motioned ahead. "I don't suppose you could be persuaded to join me at the café."
Setzer straightened, pushing away from the wall with a continual smirk. "Only if you play a game of cards."
"Ah. It's been ages. Of course I will." And they made their way to the café. "Thank you for bringing the children, Setzer. I've never seen her so happy."
"It was Relm's idea. She has quite a knack for things of that sort."
Edgar nodded. "She and Gau both."
"Quite an unexpected talent, I would say."
"Agreed." Edgar motioned to the door. "After you."
Setzer entered the café to head for the table to the right. Edgar sat across from him and ordered two ciders.
"I meant to ask before what had come of your interest with Captain Marée," Edgar commented as Setzer retrieved his cards.
Setzer's hold on the cards twitched, but his face showed nothing. He shuffled. "Nothing of any great importance, unfortunately. The roll of the dice, I suppose."
"Stuff and nonsense," Edgar grumbled. He placed his ante in the center of the table with Setzer's and accepted the cards dealt. He adjusted his hand. "You need to control your own destiny, Setzer. Lady Luck and the Fates can't be trusted."
"And yet didn't they play a hand in your own happiness?" Setzer adjusted the cards of his hand with unseeing eyes.
Edgar scoffed. "Indeed. They arranged for Terra to be controlled and abused near death. It was my own choice that kept Terra and myself apart. Just as it was her choice and my own to confess our feelings of love."
Unfortunately, what Edgar said rang of many truths.
"Lady Luck is a tease, as are her sisters the Fates. They dangle what we want in front of us only to take it away when we want it most." Edgar requested two cards and adjusted his hand again.
"For a gambler," Setzer said as he discarded and took one card, "Lady Luck is-"
"Stuff and nonsense," Edgar interrupted. He tossed a few gil into the pot. "There's a time and place for everything, Setzer, and Lady Luck belongs at the table. Not at the wheel of your life."
Setzer called the bet and lowered his cards. "Full House. Kings over Aces." He raised his eyes to meet Edgar's. "While I appreciate the thought behind what you've said, I can't help but think you wrong. Luck and the Fates have made me who I am, Edgar. Denying their role would be denying myself."
Edgar regarded Setzer a moment before presenting his hand. "Royal Flush. Hearts." He gestured to the money. "Keep it as compensation for listening to the advice I'm about to give. The person you've become, Setzer, was made possible by the decisions you have made at each crossroad approached. Joining us, you decided to do so. Allowing us to use the Falcon to find our friends and thereby defeat Kefka, you decided to do. Giving Marée a chance to defend herself against the information I'd discovered, again, was your choice. If nothing came of a relationship with her, such is life, but it is your decision where you go from here. Marée's a closed door, fine. Look, then, for the open window."
Edgar stood and moved past, pausing long enough to give Setzer's shoulder a firm grip. Setzer stared at Edgar's winning hand long after he'd left, absorbing his words while desperately trying to decide which path to follow.
Setzer gauged his appearance in the mirror as he adjusted his vest and coat. He had about two hours before he had to leave for Kohlingen to return the children and Relm to Mobliz. He was going to make the most of those two hours. The very most. No games. No 'not yet's. He was going to relax into her presence and do what he wanted.
Setzer smirked but it appeared more of a grimace. You're as flighty and nervous as the first evening you were with a woman, he accused with a tug on his jacket. But to be completely truthful, it was the first time in ages that he was leaving Lady Luck, his cards, his dice, and thoughts of Marée behind.
He was visiting Maria.
Setzer gave his reflection a brusque nod and strode from his office and through the main room with a distracted mind and an unseeing gaze. He'd sent word ahead that he was coming for a visit. Now he was left to hope the Impresario had given her the note and not jumped to the conclusion that he was stealing her away again. Setzer allowed himself a chuckle as he disembarked. He had to admit that seeing the Impresario's face at a second - and this time more successful - attempt would be worth any and all problems as a direct result.
The Opera House loomed ahead of him and Setzer pressed on. There was no need to worry about impressing her. She already loved him. Then why am I quivering like a mouse as it looks into the jaws of the cat? Setzer swallowed hard and lengthened his stride. Perhaps expectation that had lain dormant for nearly two years But Setzer set it aside. He'd had a shock during his last meeting with Marée. He had to be careful not to use Maria as a balm, for he suspected she'd be all-too-willing.
Setzer cleared his throat and entered the huge building. Glancing toward the front desk, he saw that night's performance was also 'sold out'. Setzer smiled. Maria would be happy.
"Ah. Mr. Gabbiani."
Setzer turned, pausing his ascension of the stairs that led to Maria's dressing room. "Impresario," he greeted with a slight bow. "I see the new show is doing well."
"Extremely well." The Impresario came to stand at the foot of the stairs. "Dinner will be served shortly. Until then, Maria waits for you in the gardens behind the Opera House. This way, if you please."
Setzer raised an eyebrow as he descended the stairs and followed the Impresario out the front entrance and back around the left of the building. There, they entered a garden encircled by wrought iron and a green hedge. The walk was marble and lined with fragrant white blossoms that fell in clusters along it. As they made their way behind the Opera House, the walk split to encircle a large gazebo. Maria was there, sitting on one of the marble benches.
She saw Setzer and the Impresario approaching and stood, making her way to and gracefully down the steps with outstretched hands and an eager smile. Maria was dressed in the palest of yellow gowns with ivory lace at the cuffs and hem. Her bodice was modestly cut, enhancing the delicate sophistication of her shoulders and neck as well as the slim line of her waist. Her hair was up in a mass of curls that danced around her ears and neck with each motion of her head. She was a vision of ethereal loveliness that left Setzer breathless and drowning in memories.
The Impresario bowed and left them as her hands enfolded his in greeting. Their warmth and gentle pressure were inviting and erotic as he gazed down into those bright, pale-blue eyes and saw welcome and Setzer brought each palm to his lips. "You are an entrancing vision, Maria," he said as he straightened. And he was surprised that his voice sounded so calm and steady. His insides seemed caught in a whirlwind.
Maria's hands tightened on his as her cheeks slightly flushed. "Thank you, Setzer. I wanted everything to be perfect."
She spread his arms out wide as she took in his light tan trousers, burgundy-black-green striped vest, antiqued-white shirt with a modest ruffle at the collar, and rich black jacket with folded cuffs and emerald cuff-links.
She raised her eyes to his with a touch of a smile. "You are as elegant as ever."
Setzer smiled a denial - he felt less than elegant when having to beat back desires and urges to see how quickly he could unlace her corset - and followed her up the stairs to the gazebo. Maria sat in the direct center of the center bench of three and gently urged him to the space to her left. Setzer surrendered, his knee brushing against hers as he did. His stomach twisted in on itself and then surprisingly relaxed.
Maria smiled as she motioned around her. "It's my sanctuary. The Impresario had it built for me a few months ago."
Setzer's eyes didn't - or rather couldn't - leave her face. Her high cheekbones. Her pure and silky soft skin. Her delicate nose slightly tipped up at the end. Her laughing mouth. It was a hypnotic profile from his past that so desperately wanted to become a part of his future.
Maria's sparkling eyes met his again, and she smiled as she adjusted her hand in his. "I'm glad you came again. Your presence here makes me feel as if I'm reliving my past." She lowered her eyes and caressed the knuckles of his hand with a single finger. "Those were happy times. Weren't they, Setzer?"
"Yes, Maria. They were."
"Then I'm glad I have those memories," she said as she raised her eyes to meet his again. "I am."
Setzer's smile was gentle as he lifted a finger to caress her cheek. Maria took in a steady breath and her eyes seemed to glimmer. Setzer lowered his hand again. "The year has been ugly and hard, Maria. I'm glad these memories gave you strength or hope. I find myself wishing I had done the same."
"Oh, but you did," she told him with wide eyes. "All of us here know what you and your friends have done for us."
"But what of you? I abandoned you here for an adventure of my own. I put my previous promises aside with no word of farewell to you." And he hadn't realized before the depth of his guilt.
Maria cupped his jaw in her hand as her smiling face and eyes looked full into his. "I know, and I was heart-broken at first, but you had a greater purpose to fulfill, dearest. You had lives to save. It would have been selfish of me to deny everyone that end simply to have you to myself. You're a 'wandering gambler'. Could I cage that spirit I loved so much?" She slightly shook her head. "The memories had to be enough. You deserved your freedom."
And Setzer's mind and soul grew silent and still at that statement.
Maria's smile seemed to dance with a laugh as she lowered her hand from his chin to caress his cheek with the back of it. "I can hardly persuade my heart to believe you're here." Her expression faded to shadows of dread and agony as she met his gaze. "I'm not dreaming, am I? You are here with me in my sanctuary holding my hand? I haven't allowed the memories to control my thoughts, have I?"
Her tone sounded so lost and desperate that Setzer's chest and throat tightened in a vicious torture of guilt. He gently pulled her close, pressing her head to his chest as her arms enfolded him. "I am here, songbird." He pressed his lips against her hair when her shoulders began to quiver with tears.
After a moment of vulnerability and comfort, Maria pushed back. She dried her cheeks with an embarrassed glance toward him. "I'm sorry. Ruining this quiet and lovely day with weeping wasn't my intention. Perhaps I'm more tired than I first thought."
And though Maria's eyes glimmered with a memory of her tears, her face glowed with a determination to relive happier times. So very different from Marée, and yet so similar. Maria wasn't ashamed of her 'softness', and it perfectly complemented her dedication to a life as a performer of opera, as well as her determination to keep her eyes facing a better future. Yes, Maria was brave and firm on a much more complete and balanced level.
"Maria, I've missed your gentle soul," he said with a smile as he enfolded her hand in his again. "I have only just now realized how much."
Her smile was almost patient. "Yes, I believe you have, but only because I am here with you now. Your heart is too wild and free to miss those women you've left behind. Your ship fills the emptiness."
Setzer found himself trapped by the truth of her statement. He chuckled. "I never realized you knew me so well, Maria. It seems to me that you've grown since I last met you."
She flushed and lowered her gaze to their hands. "Yes, and many things I learned because of your presence in my life. You taught me how to look at life. How to live it instead of existing within it. My singing has broadened because of that. Because of you." Maria released a musical giggle as she raised her eyes to meet his. "I believe I have more of a spine than I did before," she told him with twinkling eyes.
Setzer's smile lightened his face. "This is a story I must hear."
Maria nodded delicately and stood, pulling Setzer to his feet. "But let's walk about the garden. All right?"
He tucked her hand around his arm and into the nook of his elbow. "Today is your day, Maria."
She released a deep breath as she brought her other hand to his arm. "I love the way that sounds. The timbre of your voice. The gentle way you say my name. They remind me of a song, though I don't know which. Perhaps I never learned it? Perhaps it's the song of you?" She sighed again and slightly shook her head.
"What is it?" he asked gently.
"Oh, it's silly, but I wish I were not so cultured and delicate at times such as these. Rambling on of romantic nonsense. It likely makes me sound as if I have a head full of nothing."
Setzer halted her, gently turning her to face him as he enfolded her upper arms with his hands. "Maria, you should never be ashamed of who you are or the gentleness of your soul. Don't you realize these are seen as a haven for those people who come to hear you? Your voice and your very self lifts their eyes and imbues their life with loveliness."
Maria's eyes held his gaze. "But oh how I wish I would surrender to the fire and passion raging within." She took his face in his hands. "At times I believe it will consume me, taking control and doing that which I've wanted to do for so long "
Setzer's blood roared in his ears at the light in her eyes, and his grip tightened ever-so-slightly. When she lowered her eyes and hands, his breathing came easier.
"But that is not who I am. I cannot control or force or push or take," she said, and her voice seemed sad. "My passion is my song."
Setzer's hands caressed her arms to take up her hands. "Yes, your passion is your song, but not how you believe. The song and the story you tell with it are the outlet for your zeal and fire, Maria. You share it with those around you using your gift of song."
"Yet the one I wanted to share it with could not hear it."
Setzer brought her hands to his lips. "That isn't true, Maria. I could hear it, in my memories of you and our time together. Who else could have kept me pushing onward? I remembered your fire, Maria. How could I not?"
Maria continued to stare at the ground, and her very stance was hesitant and uncertain. It creased Setzer's forehead with worry and tightened his gentle grip on her hands. Finally, she slowly raised her eyes to his. The look there made Setzer stop breathing.
"Before you leave again " Maria's voice faltered, as if she didn't want to continue. But then the look in her eyes firmed and she pressed onward. "Dearest Setzer, before you leave could you kiss me as you once did? Please. Renew that memory for me."
Setzer's smile was shaky. "Of course, Maria. Today is your day. Now, come along and tell me the stories of your life."
Dinner, spiced with the presence of Maria and his memories of her in both past and present, was divine. Their shared laughter over shared memories was intoxicating, spreading warmth through him that beat back the ache and brightened his smile. She had changed, but only as a wine that is properly aged. Maria had become more tangible. More complete. More desirable. Once dinner in a secluded wing of the Opera House had resolved to lingering sips of each other's voice as well as their champagne, they had adjourned to the gardens to spend their last minutes amidst its quiet welcome. Now, as she escorted him through the garden toward the gates, he dreaded to leave her without further exploration of what she meant to him.
"Time was always against us," Maria said in a silken tone of regret.
He smiled slightly and caressed her hand as it rested so content in the nook of his elbow. "Yes, but we did our best by it; taking what it gave us and living it to the fullest extent."
Maria sighed with a wistful smile. "We did, didnt we? Each moment has a memory."
Setzer unwrapped her hand from his arm to bring each slight finger to his lips. "I will come again soon, Maria. The reminiscing has been enjoyable, just as hearing of your new adventures has made me laugh."
"I'm glad," she said softly. "You seemed so sad when I met you that first time, after Darryl's passing. I never wanted to see that expression in your eyes again." Maria looked over at him. "Yet when you visited me after such a long time I saw it again." Her voice hesitated as her scrutiny deepened. "I'm glad you come to me when your soul aches. I'd give my life to take it away."
Setzer's steps faltered and ceased as he continued to stare ahead, the sun fading as other promises and duties pulled him away. His heart felt safe with her; his soul insulated and warm because he knew her and she knew him. A haven "I wish I did not need to go," he said quietly.
"So do I, but you must. The wind calls for you, dearest, and you must answer. It's a part of you."
Setzer faced her, still holding her hand as the other caressed her cheek and moved to hold it. "You would tempt me to ignore it, songbird. If you asked it, I would stay."
Maria's pale-blue eyes shimmered with tears as she brought her free hand up to pull his away. "I can't ask that of you," she told him in a choked voice. "Dearest Setzer, who am I to anchor what should soar? Your soul is free, and it is that which I love."
Setzer gazed down into her pale face with quiet calm as his mind ceased all workings and mysteries. Then, he brought his hands up to caress and cradle the soft skin of her face. "I could easily love you, songbird."
Maria's eyes fluttered closed. "And that would be enough," she whispered.
A smile tickled Setzer's lips moments before lowering his hands to her shoulders to place a caress of a kiss on each cheek. When his lips hovered near hers, he resisted. He didn't want their kiss to be tainted by his memories of the same with Marée. But Maria's gentle sob at their parting, the tickle of her breath against his face, the fragrance of the flowers of her skin and hair it enticed his senses with the promise of more.
And when their lips touched, his mind sparked with a joining of past and present as a flame of memory and desire burned his lips and seared his skin. A haven. Still more sobs broke through her lips as his mouth opened slightly on hers, caressing and speaking to the soul that had begun to entwine itself with his. A haven. Her arms encircled him and drew her warmth closer as he enfolded her slight form with quivering arms. Nights of song, mornings of laughter, days of passion and wholeness. A haven.
Then Maria was tearing herself away, covering her mouth with her hands to muffle the sobs as she turned and ran.
"Maria!" He took a step after her, arm and hand extended. "Maria!" But she had disappeared around the side of the Opera House, and moments later he heard the back entrance slam closed. "Maria "
Setzer stared after her for a long moment of stillness and confusion as the wind tickled his face and lifted his hair to dance in the air around him. Then he turned and walked absently through the garden gates toward the Falcon, his hands behind his back. Any thoughts couldn't break through the pleasant turmoil of raw emotion and vivid memories. All he could process were the feelings, the lingering burn, the feather-whisper of a memory of her lips. Gods! finally broke through the passion that had sealed off his mind. And what else could he say?
Setzer gave the guards an absent nod as he boarded the Falcon and made his way to his private office to change. Marée's portrait halted him in the center of the room. He turned his head slightly to view it, feeling again her overwhelming persona of freedom and control. Her force of spirit.
Setzer looked away from it, staring at the floor at his feet a moment before stepping toward his desk to retrieve his cards. He gazed down at the Esper design and then gave the deck a one-handed shuffle. Then, with only a slight hesitation, he turned the top card. Ace of Diamonds. Setzer smirked and set the deck back onto his desk before stepping toward the portrait and tucking the card into one corner of the frame. He stepped back from it and crossed his arms, examining the portrait with a slight smile. She'd had her distraction. True, the dice hadn't fallen the way they'd hoped, but she'd move on easily enough to the next adventure.
Setzer, on the other hand, had wandered enough. He was ready for a home port.
Setzer noticed Edgar's intense scrutiny as he steered the Falcon away from Kohlingen and set the heading for Mobliz. Relm and the children were below exchanging stories and making up games that only children could imagine. Edgar, not looking nearly as exhausted as Setzer had expected, had excused himself to the flight deck after promising to show the boys his battle machines a little later. Setzer smirked. The girls would be there too, but only because many of them had already fallen victim to the king's natural charm.
Setzer spared the king a quick look. "Well what?"
Edgar crossed his arms as he leaned against the bow of the ship. "Don't attempt that, gambler. Too often have I been the 'innocent' letch to believe it."
Setzer laughed. "I had a nice escape from Lady Luck and her empty promises, Edgar, if that's what you're asking."
"Good." Edgar looked out toward the horizon. "I sincerely hope the view from this open window was a pleasing one."
A refreshing vision of Maria in her pale yellow gown with her twinkling smile and caressing laughter brought a smile to his lips. "Yes. Yes, it was."
"Again, good." Edgar changed his sharp eyes to Setzer's face. "Don't close it too hastily this time."
Setzer looked over at him. "Pardon?"
Edgar smirked. "No, gambler, I don't know where you went or whose skirts you ruffled, but I know your tendency to let the Fates guide your step. That will be a hard habit to break. I'm only wanting to caution you against keeping your hands on the window sill."
Setzer chuckled and moved his eyes back to the horizon. "I believe that is a reminder that should be voiced again from time-to-time."
"I'll do my best, but the wedding will take most of my attention, understand."
Setzer nodded, his lips still lifted with his smile. "Yes. I understand."
"Good. I wouldn't want you to believe I'm purposefully snubbing you and the others."
"I'm sure Locke and yourself will find a way to keep me involved. Locke has already kept me and my ship busy with gathering supplies and things of that sort for the ceremony and reception."
"While I doubt I will have that particular need of you, I was to request a favor."
"A favor?" Setzer asked. "And what would that be?"
"Terra wanted me to ask you to lead her up the aisle."
Setzer looked quickly toward Edgar. "What?"
Edgar laughed at the expression of disbelief. "Come, come, Setzer. You've been a great friend to Terra and the children. It's only right that you be the one to give her away. General Leo should have had the honor, of course, but he's forced to watch the ceremony from elsewhere."
Setzer moved his eyes back to the horizon as he adjusted his hold on the wheel. "I don't know what to say, Edgar, besides 'yes'. Im honored."
"Wonderful." Edgar chuckled. "You realize of course that the plot behind the request was so that you would bring the lady that stands on the other side of the open window?"
Setzer laughed. "I should have expected that of you."
"Now, now. I can't help my curious nature. Oh." Edgar reached out and cuffed Setzer on the arm. "And you must come with Terra, Celes, Locke, and myself to the new show at the Opera House. Terra will be allowed out of bed for an entire evening within the next day or so. I plan on reserving a box at the Opera House to make an outing of it. Haven't been there since we battled the earth dragon. Remember? It will be a nice change."
It was then Setzer realized he hadn't asked Maria about the performances and her new role. His eyes were darkened with a momentary scowl before he looked to Edgar. "A trip to the Opera will bring back certain enjoyable memories," he said with a smile and a twinkle.
Edgar laughed outright. "Yes, but this time restrain the kidnapping of the star until the show has finished. I'm sure Terra and the rest of us would appreciate a resolve."
Setzer looked away, the smile firmly in place. "I assure you that I will be on my best behavior."
"Glad to hear it, as I'm sure the Impresario will be." Edgar paused, gauging the gambler's profile. "Have you visited Maria since the failed attempt to kidnap her?"
"Once or twice," Setzer confessed vaguely.
"No hard feelings shared?"
Quite the contrary. "No hard feelings shared." And his spirit seemed to relax a little more into the possibility.
"Well that's a pleasant end to a botched kidnap of one's true love," Edgar teased with another cuff on the arm.
Setzer only smiled.
"Impresario. Just the man I needed to see."
The Impresario closed the double doors that led to the ground-floor seating of the Opera House and approached Setzer with a smile. "Mr. Gabbiani! What can I do for you?"
Setzer came up to the man and encircled his broad shoulders with an arm as he led him toward the front entrance of the Opera House. "I wondered if you'd be so good as to make sure King Edgar of Figaro and his soon-to-be bride were given complimentary reservations of a private box for a performance within the next few days. He's told me that he'll be contacting you to do that, and I don't want him to be charged. If that puts too much of a strain on your budget, let me know and I'll cover the cost."
The Impresario smiled as he gave a slight bow. "Of course, Mr. Gabbiani. The king coming here? What an honor."
"He'll also be bringing a friend, who will be bringing his fiancée. I'm to be their guest, so I want no mention of my participation in the arrangements of the box. Understood?"
The Impresario nodded with a serious expression. "Of course not, Mr. Gabbiani. Secrecy is of the utmost importance."
"And have a bouquet of Veldt blossoms presented to Miss Terra Branford and Miss Celes Chere respectively at the end of the performance."
The Impresario's expression brightened with his returning smile. "Wonderful idea, Mr. Gabbiani. Simply wonderful.
"Again, no mention of my involvement."
The impresario shook his head. "No, Mr. Gabbiani."
Setzer smiled broadly and clapped the man on the back. "Thank you, Impresario. Now." He looked over his left shoulder toward the stairs leading to Maria's dressing room. "Is Maria available for a brief walk? Or no?"
"I'm afraid not, Mr. Gabbiani. The performance this evening was only just recently finished and Miss Maria always rests after the performance before being taken to her private residence in Jidoor."
Setzer's smile waned as he looked back to the Impresario. "Ah well, such is to be expected. Tell her that I wished her well and will try to stop by tomorrow afternoon for lunch."
"Of course, Mr. Gabbiani."
Setzer hesitated, tapping his lips with a finger before looking down at the Impresario. "How was the performance this evening? Did it go well?"
"Extremely so, Mr. Gabbiani. Miss Maria was in exceptionally rare form. Several of the regular attendees commented on the stark difference between tonight's performance and their previous attendance."
Setzer's expression showed relief. "Offer her my congratulations when you see her next, but don't tell her that I've plans to attend a performance in the next few days. I wish to surprise her with a visit after the curtain lowers."
"Of course, Mr. Gabbiani. My lips are sealed."
He clapped the Impresario on the back yet again and then strode from the Opera House with a smile and a slight spring to his step. Allowing the apparent romantic 'nonsense' of his relationship with Maria so much power was ridiculous he knew, but the adventure of it was a temptation he didn't want to resist. After all, he hadn't resisted the temptation to become embroiled in a passionate side venture with Marée. Setzer knew he had fully intended to take the intoxicating sea captain to his bed, though he knew nothing about her save she was a woman with an intense fascination for air ships and a love for power. Why shouldn't he follow the same desire for Maria? Didn't he know much more about her than anyone else?
Setzer gave a brusque nod and strode aboard his airship.
Setzer halted with his hand on the door to the main room and faced the guard that had stepped forward. "Yes? What is it?"
"Captain Marée is in your private office."
Setzer's heart dropped to the soles of his feet and disappeared through the floor to submerge into the earthen ground below. "Thank you," he said in a quiet voice as he opened the door to the main room.
Setzer took in a slow breath, then another, and a third as he crossed the main room toward the door of his office. What he was to expect from her was a mystery. What he was supposed to think and feel about her presence on his ship was another mystery. Neither one he wanted to solve, though now it seemed he had little or no choice.
Edgar was right; Lady Luck was a tease.
Setzer gave a deep sigh and reached out for the handle, twist and push, and then he was in his office. Marée was lounged back in his seat behind his desk with her long legs propped up on the desk blotter. She lifted her head at his entrance, and her aquamarine eyes zeroed in on his silver ones as she paused her play with his dagger letter-opener.
Her expression was guarded. "Captain."
Setzer's pace to the desk was steady and deliberate and his mind was distant, surprisingly insulated. "Marée. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
Marée's eyes gauged his stance and expression. "First, I wanted to say 'I'm sorry' for hitting you in the face. Twice. I've got a bit of a temper when I don't get what I want when I want it."
Setzer's eyebrow twitched. An apology was the last thing he'd expected. "While I appreciate it, I understand why you reacted the way you did. I deserved it."
She pointed the dagger at him. "Yes. You did." Then she lowered it as she continued to watch his face. "Second, I wanted " Her gaze darkened as she lowered it back to the dagger. "I wanted you to give it another go. I'd hate myself 'til the second coming of Kefka if I didn't try. We felt damn right together, Setzer. You know it, too. We clicked." She pinpointed his eyes with hers. "People like us don't click with just anyone."
Setzer lowered himself into the chair across from his desk, his eyes couldn't release hers. Oh gods "No, I suppose we don't."
Marée submerged the tip of the dagger into the desk blotter and leaned slightly forward. "You said you were tired. Maybe that's what the problem was. Relm said you and a bunch of others had just got Terra out of a fix and it was touch-and-go with her for a while. Maybe that was it. Maybe you think I'm the one who gave the guy his stuff. I don't know. Maybe I'm just after you because you're the first man to say 'not yet' and then 'no'. I don't know that either. All I know is I want you, Setzer. Like a storm on the ocean, you make my blood roar."
Setzer finally lowered his eyes from hers, those compelling and entrancing reasons to lock the door and surrender "And what then, Marée? After the roar has quieted and the fire has waned; when I've become yet another face on your wall of conquests and adventures, what then?"
Marée kicked back again. "Who gives a curdled care? We'll have had the adventure. Besides, who says it'll fade? Didn't I tell you I would have dropped any other man who pushed my buttons like you did? I haven't, have I? Here I am. My tight little ass in your chair asking you to show me what you're made of."
Setzer raised his eyes to hers, but his soul balked. "There's more to this gambler captain than the pleasure I give to a woman in bed, Marée."
One side of her lips tilted. "Let's find out just how much more. I'm up to the adventure. What about you?"
Setzer actually frowned with a flash of annoyance. "And after I satisfy that need? What next? A quick fix here; a snatch of passion there; a planned day with whispered encouragements at the height of passionate moaning? Shallow snatches of conversation as we strip off our clothes and fulfill the other's lust for meaningless intimacy? What is that but sallow and empty adventure adventure? Bah! More an addiction than an adventure, in my mind."
Marée's face hardened as her eyes sparked. "You better watch what you say and how you say it, captain."
Setzer pulled at the reins of his temper. "I don't mean it as an insult, Marée. We must each live our life as we feel we need to live it, but as for me? Distractions and futureless ecstasies are pointless. I thought perhaps you could be a haven of sorts for me when I'd had enough of the wandering, but I see now that you aren't finished with your own wanderlust. There are more adventures waiting for you." He stood. "I'm sorry, Marée, but my ship and I need a home port. A haven to rest our weary souls. It's unfair of me to expect that from you."
Marée gauged him for a long and intense moment before standing and making her way close beside him. Her eyes sparkled with a chorus of desires and promises, just as her lips did. "One last chance, captain. I heard what you said, but I think it's dragon piss. You've an adventurer's heart. Your soul longs for freedom. Why would you willingly anchor-"
"No anchor," Setzer corrected. "Only a place to call home. A dock to return to each journey's end. A welcoming port."
Marée took hold of the lapels of his coat and pulled him close; so close her chest pressed against him with each breath and her warmth tickled his skin with memories. "I can be pretty damned welcoming, captain, and I think my ship could be a hell of a good home."
Setzer covered her hands with his and pulled them free from his coat, resisting the itch of temptation. "It isn't enough, Marée. I thought it would be at one time, but " He shook his head and stepped back. "I'm a gambler, Marée. It's all or nothing. I've placed my bet. I want it all."
Her eyes sparked with temper. "You want what? Three screaming brats grabbing your legs when you try to escape to the air? A woman that doesn't trust you out of her sight and questions every little thing you do? Time schedules and rules? Demands and-"
"Yes." And the answer shocked Setzer to the core.
Marée blinked and leaned slightly backward in surprise. "What?"
"I want the woman who cares enough to question. I want the children that symbolize a family begun with love, trust, and intimacy. I want the responsibility that would come with the family I chose to have. Can't you see the constant adventure of that, Marée? The newness each day? The challenge to surprise those that know you so well?"
Marée closely scrutinized his face as her eyes narrowed. Finally, the expression on her face relaxed and she passed him to the exit. Setzer turned and watched her. "You've spoken yourself into certain doom, captain. Good luck."
"And to you, Marée. I will never regret our time together."
She scoffed and slammed the door closed behind her. Setzer, however, lowered himself carefully into his chair and clutched at his desk as the pictures of his 'doom' began to solidify. The adventure he'd chosen would be more terrifying and more challenging than any other in his life.
So again, Setzer found himself in his private office staring at his reflection in the mirror as he adjusted his vest and coat as well as the sleeves of his collarless and ruffle-less shirt. In the back part of his mind he wondered at Maria's reaction to their kiss the day before, but then the promise of the coming meeting would push it further away. He'd made a decision against what Lady Luck seemed to have planned. It was an exhilarating burst of independence and freedom. He had an untested and untraveled road of adventure ahead of him and he was taking it of his own volition. It was a new type of gamble.
Setzer adjusted the collar of his jacket and then gave his reflection a nod before leaving the office, making his way across the main room, and then heading toward the exit. "No visitors, gentlemen," he told them as he passed.
And then Setzer was heading the few yards toward the Opera House. Instead of entering, he did as her previously received note had asked and veered toward the gardens. The gate was closed and a note was attached with a bit of pale blue ribbon. He untied the ribbon with a slight smile and unfolded the note.
'Dearest Setzer, I know how you enjoy a mystery and a puzzle. So, I've placed three clues in different places throughout the Opera House for you to find and use in the solving of this mystery: Where am I? Your first, dearest, is simple: go to that place where memories of laughter and tears are protected by visions of the Espers and encircled by the arms of the earth.'
Setzer folded the note again, chuckling as he tucked it into the inside pocket of his suit-coat. While he didn't enjoy puzzles and mysteries to the extent of Locke - who seemed to thrive on them - he did enjoy the challenge, especially if there was a prize to be won. And what a prize.
"All right, Maria. I'll take your challenge." He lowered his gaze to the ground as he crossed an arm and rested the other's elbow in the palm. "'Where memories of laughter and tears...' Hmm." Setzer pushed open the gate and began to walk absently forward. "Laughter, tears, Espers, and earth " He tapped his lips with a finger. Visions Arms
When he'd gone a great distance into the garden, his finger paused their action as his eyes focused on the gazebo to his left. Laughter. Tears. But Espers and earth? Setzer stepped toward the gazebo; his feet paused on the first step. He leaned to the left, looking around and to the side of the gazebo. The walkway completely circled it and the marble of the walk could be considered 'of earth'. Setzer's lips twitched. Three of the four... Setzer raised his eyes to the roof of the gazebo - that which would protect us... A mural of Espers was painted there. And number four. So, he stepped the remaining way into the gazebo, making his way to the center bench they'd shared before. Another note was there, affixed under the bench with a long piece of gray ribbon wrapped around the seat. He untied it and unfolded the note.
One more clue, dearest, and then we'll be together to laugh and sing as we once did.'
Setzer's smile broadened as he folded up the note, tucked it safely with the other, and then stepped down from the gazebo to make his way to the back entrance of the Opera House. Memories flowed like the swift currents of the now-dry Nikeah Serpent Trench, compelling him forward to the main stage and the visions of scenes from plays and songs from choruses written specifically for her angelic voice and her unique style of performing.
A third note was center stage and propped on a piano. He took it up and opened it with an eager tightening of his throat and chest.
'You kidnapped my soul while leaving my heart. You stole away my hope while leaving my life. Where am I?'
Setzer's smile faded to a frown as he reread the note and again. He looked up, tapping the paper against his hand in a steady thwap, thwap, thwap. The clue could be both literal or figurative, but even so what did it mean? Setzer reluctantly smiled. You've pushed my wit to the brink with this one, Maria. Well done. He tucked the note away and turned to face upstage, rocking back on his heels as he clenched his hands behind him. He moved again to the balls of his feet and began again, scrutinizing the stage in hopes it would give him another clue. Then the memories began to grow of a performance halted and the star stolen away-
Setzer's hands dropped to his sides and he strode forward, retracing his steps back through the Opera House and the gardens as he made his way back to the Falcon. Maria had set up a blanket and a picnic basket outside the entrance. Setzer smiled. The guards had likely kept her from preparing it on board, just as ordered. I'm sorry, Maria. I didn't intend to spoil your surprise.
Maria looked up and smiled, gracefully standing to her feet before gliding toward him. She was dressed in dark green with yellow ribbons and lace decorating the bodice and skirt of the gown. Her hair was up and glistened with gems and pearls that sparkled in the sun as well as reflecting in her eyes. She was both entrancing and captivating.
Setzer took hold of her hands and brought each to his lips before leaning within the warmth of her inviting persona and kissing her cheek. "Thank you for the adventure, songbird. It was fun to delve into those memories."
Maria's eyes shone and the smile brightened her already radiant features. "I'm so glad." She held one hand and loosed the other to motion toward the Falcon. "They wouldn't allow me aboard, so I planned a picnic instead."
Setzer gave her hand a squeeze. "I apologize for that, my dear. They were following orders."
Maria laughed. "It's all right, dearest. I've made the most of the difficulty. See?"
Setzer nodded as he steadied her descent to the blanket. He sat close to her left. "I do. I haven't had a picnic since our last. Do you remember? I took you aboard my ship and whisked you away to Thamasa. We picnicked near the shore where we could see Ebot's Rock."
Maria nodded and rested a hand on Setzer's arm with a giggle. "And you told me a ghost story that gave me nightmares."
"That's right. I had forgotten." He watched her laughing eyes and lips as she served him some varying foods from her basket. "That was the first night we spent together, on my ship. You didn't want to be alone."
Her cheeks flushed ever so slightly, but she didn't raise her eyes from the duty of filling his plate. "I still don't," she said softly.
Setzer's smile was slight as he laid on his side, an elbow raising his torso as he watched her movements that seemed a dance. Her face, so perfect and calm. Her mouth, forever lilted upward in a smile. Her eyes, sparkling with intelligence and wit. "Have you always been this lovely, Maria?" he asked as he accepted his plate from her. "I'm willing to wager such isn't the case. The life you've had apart from me has added to your beauty and fascination."
The blush deepened as her eyes momentarily held his. They retreated to her plate. "My heart is already yours, Setzer," she said in a quiet tone, "there's no need to purchase it with more flatteries."
Setzer chuckled and set aside his plate. Then he took hers, set it also aside, and adjusted his position so that his head was in the soft folds of her skirt within her lap. "Do you remember, songbird, the hours we would spend such as this? Your song lulling me to adventures of the imagination?"
Maria smiled, and the look caressed his soul. She lightly touched the hair free from his forehead. "How could I forget moments such as those, dearest?"
Setzer reached up to take her hand and pressed the fingers to his lips. "Sing me a song," he whispered against them. "Sing me a song, little bird, of adventure and passion. Of love and longing. Of loss and mourning. Sing me a song from your soul."
Maria brought her other hand up to caress his face and the scar as she took in a deep breath, gathering the notes and intensity needed to fulfill the request. And then she opened her mouth and sang. Haunting melodies imbued with passion and life. Crescendos and sustains of mourning and loss. Ringing tones that pierced his soul with emotion and bombarded his mind with the pictures their words painted. Setzer closed his eyes and drank it in, absorbing it into himself to fill that place he'd forgotten was empty.
Setzer's soul overflowed, but her song continued. Bringing agony and pain; bringing discovered love and joy; bringing betrayal and rage all in the contents of her songs. It was radiant. Intoxicating. All-consuming. It could be his. Setzer opened his eyes to meet hers as her mezzo-soprano richness began the Aria di Mezzo Careterre. The love song of the opera when they had first met. The words, so tragic yet hopeful, were mirrored in her eyes as she sang; a confession to her feelings in his absence. It revived the ache.
A tear escaped her pale eyes and he caught it in his hand. She answered the action with a smile as she continued to sing; to seduce his soul with the fire from hers. To share that part of her without hesitation or remorse. Setzer smiled up at her and caressed her cheek and lips. And still she sang, promising unknown things if only he would ask. I will ask, my songbird. I will ask. But the time wasn't right. Not yet. She deserved perfection, and perfection was one thing he wouldn't gamble with.
The power of the song lingered as her voice sustained and softened to a tickle of a dramatic memory. Setzer continued to gaze up into that lovely face, held by its visions and passions and eyes of longing and quiet agony. Mesmerized by the pale blueness that wept and burned in the same moment of intensity and comfortable silence. Then, when he believed his soul couldnt withstand a moment more, she looked away to their clasped hands. The sadness in her face heightened.
What is it, songbird? Setzer asked in his velvet baritone.
Another tear escaped and Setzers eyes darkened as he frowned with concern. He sat up and turned, tipping her chin up with a tender touch under her chin. She closed her eyes as another group of tears glistened on her cheeks.
Maria? Whats troubling you? She shook her head without a word, lifting her chin from his touch and facing away from him. Setzer examined her profile, paled and distressed. He caressed her cheek free from the tears, but more took their place. What have I said or done to cause this reaction? Tell me. Please.
Its not you, dearest, she said in a choked voice. Ive done this to myself. I chose this path, though I had a fear She finished the statement with another shake of her head as she brought a trembling hand to her face.
Setzer was at a loss, and his expression showed as much. Maria-
Maria shook her head again, interrupting his push for an explanation as she turned toward him. She took his face in her hands with a choked sob and pressed her lips against his. Then she freed his mouth and buried her face in his neck and shoulder as her arms pulled him close. Dont question, she begged in a broken voice. Please, dearest, dont question. Just hold me close. Dont let me go. Dont leave, lest the happiness weve found vanish And then there was just the soul-twisting echo of her sobs as she trembled against him.
Setzer held her tight, pressing his lips against her hair as he caressed her back. I will stay, he whispered in her ear.
Marias hands clenched the lapels of his jacket. Why? she whispered brokenly. Why did I ever ? But she refused to finish the thought, another shake of her head her only response.
Maria, dont do this. I am here. You are with me. Ive no intention of leaving, save to allow you to perform those operas that are your passion and soul. My wandering is done and Ive chosen you and your soul as my haven. And he hoped those words would take away the agony that he heard in her voice and had seen in her eyes.
She pulled back, releasing his jacket to raise glimmering eyes to his and caress the hair from his face. Then she tenderly stroked the skin of his cheeks. This face. This scar. How Ive dreamed of having it as my own, as it was for those glorious weeks before She sniffed and leaned forward to touch his cheeks with her lips in a mere hint of herself. Then she again pressed her lips against his as her fingers continued to caress his face. I dont want to hurt you, dearest Setzer, she whispered against them.
Setzers arms tightened around her, increasing the pressure of his lips against hers in a promise of a future that hed do his best to give to her. Her hands left his face as her arms encircled his neck, drawing herself closer as her soul spoke to his. Occasionally he believed he felt a slight sob shake her body, but the fire of her soul and the fervor of her persona would push it away and coax him to a more passionate kiss as memory and mouth moved together. Delights. Touches. Lingering caresses. Songs of wholeness. Welcoming smiles. Encouragement. A haven.
Setzer slowly released her soul and mouth and lips and stared down into her flushed face with parted lips and haggard breath. I love you, Maria. Gods, how I love you, he confessed in a hoarse voice. He touched her cheeks and then her lips with his, closing his eyes to relish the touch and the feeling and the gamble in the confession.
Do you have the tickets?
Edgar patted the left inside pocket of his black suit in response to Setzers question as they made their way through the halls of Figaro castle to the west wing where Celes and Terra were dressing for dinner and the visit to the Opera that evening. Relm was in charge of the children, but had made a point of letting them know how upset she was not to be going with them.
Dinner is ready? Edgar asked.
Setzer nodded. In the main room. Elegantly done, even if I do say so myself.
Edgar chuckled. Im sure it is. And Locke? What is he up to?
Locke is grumbling about being put in charge of gathering the blossoms from the Kohlingen boutique for the ladies.
Well if hed done it sooner, he could have escorted Celes to the airship, Edgar said between hardy laughs.
What I told him exactly.
I suppose it doesnt matter. Celes and Terra likely feel weve traveled back to old times and are making this outing as a group of friends. Which we are, of course.
Setzer chuckled. Of course.
Edgar sent him a sidelong glance. You dont seem to be bothered much going stag.
Why should I be? Im among friends. Im off to see what should be an enjoyable performance. And
And Maria holds your favor once again.
Setzer smiled and sent Edgar a twinkling glance. Why do you say that?
The expression currently on your face brings to mind Lockes attitude when in the presence of or when thinking of Celes.
Not much of a poker face?
Edgar smiled and looked away with a shake of his head. No. Not much at all, but I dare say thats all right. We botched your experience with her once, so you might as well attempt it again.
Edgar looked again to Setzer, and his expression was clearly curious. Forgive me for prying, Setzer, but Im dying to know.
And Setzers easy smile remained as they mounted the steps to the ladies room and stood to wait outside their door. Much to my surprise - and youre sworn to secrecy, Edgar - I believe Ive found a port for this wandering gambler and his ship.
Edgar blinked and then smiled broadly as he cuffed Setzer on the arm. Im happy for you, Setzer. Truly. Does Maria know?
Yes. I told her yesterday.
Yesterday? Gods, man. How long have you been courting the woman?
Setzer chuckled. We had a previous history, Edgar. I simply decided to take it up again.
And she was more than willing, it seems.
Setzers smile faded to a whisper before vanishing altogether. He crossed his arms and lowered his gaze as Edgar knocked on the door to let the ladies know they were there. She has loved me all this time, he said, awed. While I have been engrossed in my own adventures and the thrill of the game, shes survived her misery with the remnants of a once-bright passion. Setzer shook his head. Im truly lucky that torture didnt lessen the brightness and gentleness of who she is.
Edgar regarded Setzer for a silent moment before gripping his shoulder. The women of our hearts and souls often have a greater strength than we could possibly imagine.
Setzer lifted his eyes with a reluctant smile. This Ive most definitely found true. Shes intoxicating, Edgar. Compelling and
The door opened and the men were surrounded by loveliness and laughter as well as choruses of how they were surely the most handsome men in Figaro Kingdom. Setzer and Edgar both laughed as they motioned the ladies away from the door and down the steps into the hallways of Figaro castle that would lead to the Falcon.
Terra was dressed in a floor-length gown of deep red velvet with small and white embroidered blossoms randomly stitched throughout. The same white blossoms were randomly threaded into the curls and braids of her pale green hair. The cut of the bodice was off the shoulders, but an arch of lace in the front concealed any hint of indecency. Setzer smirked and looked away.
Celes was a vision of pale yellow silk with white lace and green ribbon. Her long blonde hair was a random arrangement of curls and braids, as was Terras, but where Terras was up, Celes was down and free to tease the air. Neither was her bodice so modestly decorated with lace. Locke would be very surprised - to silence more than likely - for a full 10 seconds.
This is so exciting, Terra said, breathless with anticipation.
Youve led a sheltered life, lovelight, and this is but the first of many adventures we will have. Together, Edgar responded, taking her hand and wrapping it around his arm.
Terras smile brightened her face, but it couldnt compare to the flush of her cheeks or the love that shined in her violet eyes. Edgar, could we bring the children next time? I know they wont understand it, but theyll love the adventure and the heroic fights of sword and magic.
Celes and Setzer exchanged looks and smiles that both seemed to admit how adorable the couple was.
Of course we can bring the children. I dare say the Impresario would be willing to arrange a matinee for them.
Terra looked away with a continued bright smile. That would be so much fun, especially if we could have a tour.
Edgar looked over at Setzer. What do you think, gambler? Should we arrange it?
I believe that would be a grand idea.
You can wait until after the wedding, if you want to, Terra told him with a sudden expression of seriousness. Youre already doing so much.
And now I will do more. Your children will soon be mine as well, Terra. Ive no qualms with getting to know them better.
Terras eyes glimmered, which turned them an intriguing shade of purple. Th-Thank you, she whispered.
Edgar patted her hand after a quick glance to Celes and Setzer, who both happened to be smirking at the stone floor at their feet.
Its my pleasure, Terra, he said finally, and his tone was regretful.
Setzer laughed, attracting Edgar and Terras attention. Kiss her, man, and be done with the waiting.
Terra flushed, Edgars ears burned, and Celes desperately tried not to giggle. Edgar didnt argue Setzers demand and Terra didnt protest the fond caress of lips on cheek near her mouth.
Finally, Setzer breathed in mock relief.
Edgar laughed this time, and Terra smiled as she lowered her eyes. Oh Setzer, leave us alone, she said with her smile in her voice.
And have no fun at all this evening? Thats not a very nice thing to ask of a man.
Terra giggled softly and moved her hand to clench Edgars. Edgar caressed the back of it with his thumb.
Does anyone have any idea what the Opera is about? Celes asked as they exited Figaro castle.
Edgar shook his head with a glance toward Setzer. Didnt ask. Terribly sorry.
Oh, its all right, Celes told him. I was just curious. Ive heard its one of the Impresarios best.
Edgar nodded. Ive heard the same. In fact, I believe the performances have been sold out each night since it opened.
Wow, Terra breathed. How exciting.
Edgars face softened as he met her wide eyes. Isnt it? And the Impresario was kind enough to reserve us the private box for no charge to my person.
For all five of us?
Indeed. He said he couldnt think of accepting my money when wed done so much for him already.
Edgar, can we do something else for him?
Setzer motioned for Celes to board ahead of him, as he knew Locke would be waiting inside. Setzer wanted to remain behind and watch the fascinating relationship of Edgar and Terra.
Why of course, lovelight, Edgar answered as they paused at the foot of the ramp. What did you have in mind?
Setzer leaned against the frame of the entry to the Falcon with a slight smile and crossed arms.
Well, couldnt we donate an addition to his Opera House? For a childrens theatre?
A childrens theatre? What a splendid idea.
And we could help him supply the staff and let people know about it when its complete, so that he doesnt have to worry about it.
Edgar chuckled and drew her close for a fond embrace. I see I will have a difficult time keeping you distant from the business of Figaro, my sweet.
Dont be, he soothed as he pushed gently back. He caressed a curl from her cheek and kissed her briefly. I believe the prospect of sharing a throne with an Esper angel such as yourself will be a pleasure. Im glad of your interest.
Setzer chuckled with a slight shake of his head. Come, come, love birds. Dinner awaits.
Terra raised herself up on tiptoes and pressed her lips against Edgars. When she pulled away, she looked up into his face with a girlish smile and giggled. Then she took his hand and pulled him aboard. Setzer followed with another shake of his head and another chuckle.
Anticipation and eagerness to see Maria on stage nearly throttled Setzer as he piloted the Falcon toward the Opera House after dinner. Of course, he knew the reason he was so expectant was due to his decision that afternoon. With the money he had accumulated from cargo runs and poker games he was going to buy her a house. Or build her a house. Or buy her a ship. Whatever she wanted and wherever she wanted it. Then, that would be their home. His haven and her retreat. Their sanctuary to enjoy each other before returning to the lives they loved to lead.
Setzer could hardly wait to see the look on her face.
The Falcon arrived at the Opera House and Setzer took her down, anchoring her with a slight jostle and a grimace. Locke would make a comment. But Setzer set it aside with a shrug as he switched off the engine and headed below. What does it matter? Im about to watch my songbird perform on stage.
Giggles and laughter tickled his ears as he descended the stairs and he relaxed into a smile. Yes, life was good. Kefka was dead. Ledo was gone. And Marée? Setzer felt regret. He hoped she found a haven as he had. She was an intoxicating person and a bright spirit. She deserved happiness and wholeness the same as Maria.
Setzer gave a slight shake of his head and fully descended the stairs. Locke was helping Celes to her feet from one couch on the west side of the room. Edgar and Terra, however, were laughing and giggling respectively over the billiard table as he attempted to teach her the game. Setzer knew that Edgar was quite adept at billiards and pool, much to his surprise. In fact, the gambler had lost a fair share of pride and money to the king of Figaro.
Weve landed at the Opera House, ladies and gentlemen, and yes, Locke, I realize I gave you a bit of a bump. I apologize.
Locke shrugged it off with a smile as he clasped Celes hand and brought it to his lips. No big deal. Were here. Were together. And Ive got the best looking ex-general of the Imperial Army on my arm. Who cares about landings?
Setzer chuckled. I cant say I disagree. Shall we?
The banter was light-hearted and fun, mixed with remember when anecdotes that had the girls nearly in tears from laughter. Celes took the teasing in stride of whether or not she would perform in Marias stead, smiling and laughing and assuring them that if she did it would be more a comedy than a drama. Terra protested, saying Celes had a lovely voice, and Locke heartily agreed. Which of course earned him a short kiss then and a look that gave him a promise of a longer one later that evening.
Locke grinned a bit stupidly.
They arrived at the Opera House entrance, again commenting on the previous adventures had there and how it would be fun to be there simply for the opera. Then the Impresario arrived, bowing low and greeting them all with a wide smile and a welcoming grasp. He ushered them upstairs as he inquired after their health and offered congratulations to their future marriage, giving them heart-felt well-wishings while extricating a promise from them to return soon after the blessed event for a special performance by Maria. They agreed, of course, and then entered the box with laughing smiles among themselves as he assured them it was the best box in the House.
Then he was gone and the quint was laughing and chuckling while imitating his varying postures, voices, and gestures.
Id forgotten what a character he was, Locke said as he shook his head.
Yes, but he has done wonders for the Opera House and its performers, Edgar admitted.
And they all agreed.
They took their seats, with Setzer sitting directly between the couples. The quint had only just made themselves comfortable when the house lights flashed and then dimmed. The conductor in the orchestra pit lifted his baton, directing the attention of audience and orchestra-player alike, and then gave the tempo and the intro beat. The entire audience seemed to draw in a breath, and then the overture began, drawing the audience into the story with the fast-paced music and the intensity of their performance of it. It rose the expectation and eagerness of the viewers until they were waiting with bated breath for the performance of the opera and the telling of the story.
As the orchestra began the final measures, the curtain started to rise. Setzer found himself leaning slightly forward with an odd tightening to his chest. But when the deep mahogany velvet curtain had risen and the spotlight shined on the main characters, Setzer thought something must have gone terribly wrong. He rubbed at his eyes and blinked, not even focusing on the lovely voice that rang with life and freedom and sang of her adventures on the sea. All he could think was that he had to be sleeping, or in the wrong Opera House, or victim to some sick joke.
The scene played out, all the while with Setzer sitting in his seat in dumbfounded amazement as his mind stuttered and spluttered. The lights came up and Setzer paled, sitting back in his seat as disbelief, astonishment, and shock mutated to betrayal and a slowly building rage. A lie. It was a lie. And that was all his mind would say.
The power of the song seared his soul with a cold fire of distance as his eyes hardened and his face darkened. He slunk lower into his seat as the rage overflowed and consumed his thoughts and reason. The lights of scene two dimmed and Setzer bolted to his feet.
Setzer? Edgar looked up at the gambler as he began to make his way to the exit of the box. Intermission isnt until--
Ill wait for you aboard the Falcon, Setzer said in a flat voice.
Edgar stood with a whispered reassurance to Terra and followed after him. What is it, man? he whispered. Whats wrong?
Setzers eyes and face were harder and colder than granite or marble as he faced Edgar. Edgar took a step back. Ive played this game, Edgar. Ill wait for you aboard the Falcon, Setzer pressed through clenched teeth.
And he turned and strode away, pushing through the doors, taking the stairs two at a time, and stalking through the front foyer to slam past the front doors and into the evening chill beyond. A lie. It was a lie. And those seemed the words that sealed his own doom. How could she ? Why? But the answers to the questions wouldnt come. They wouldnt be heard or thought or attempted. All he could see was her face; her hair; the costume, and the persona that had so completely bewitched him.
The betrayal and rage clashed together and twisted his face into a melted cacophony of anguish, humiliation, and confusion as he strode aboard the Falcon. He stalked through the main room and slammed into his office, tearing off his jacket and throwing it aside as he loosed the ruffle at his throat and unfastened the button beneath it. He strode to the chair behind his desk and threw himself into it, kicking his feet up onto the desk as he grabbed a deck of cards. He tore them from the box and began to shuffle, working the cards so quickly between two hands and then one that his fingers were a blur.
Setzers silver eyes focused on nothing as he replayed their moments together, searching for hints and clues that could have revealed before what he knew now. Damn! And he slammed his fist onto the desk before kicking back and standing to make his way to the window to glare out, and still he shuffled his cards.
The voice broke through the dark wall of rage the same instant it fed it more power. Setzer didnt turn his gaze from the window as quick steps approached, pausing only moments outside his door before opening it and stepping inside with rushed steps. He clenched his hands together behind him.
Setzer, came the choked voice, I--
Setzer turned sharply then, his eyes a seething fire of rage and hurt. Marée-Maria stood before him. Still in her costume of blue trousers, thin silken blouse, and dark jacket with braidwork and silver. The rage swelled and broke the restraints, making him stalk around the desk and grab her tightly by the arm. Then he dragged her from the room, Ignoring her assurances and pleadings for forgiveness. He dragged her through the main room, his hand a vise on her arm as she fought and resisted. Still she stammered and pleaded, and still he shut it out. He dragged her through the exit and threw her out ahead of him.
Marée-Maria tumbled to the ground, looking up at him with tousled dark hair and streaked make-up moments before he slammed the door closed. The sound rang hollow and empty.
What the hell is going on? Locke demanded as he stormed into Setzers office.
Setzer sat rigid in his chair. His mind blank. His soul cold. His heart dead within. He didnt look up. He didnt blink. He only shuffled his cards.
Edgar followed a few steps after Locke, his expression more controlled and definitely more puzzled. Celes and Terra entered soon after him. Setzer? Whats wrong? Did you find the opera offensive?
Offensive? How? Locke demanded as he faced Edgar. It was funny. It was moving. It was the best damned opera Ive ever seen! He whirled on Setzer. Whats the big idea roughing up Maria when she came to visit you?
Setzer slammed his fist onto his desk as a crack formed in the careful wall around his thoughts and feelings. When he spoke, his voice was devoid of depth or feeling. Do not say that name in my presence.
Edgar and Terra exchanged a worried look. Locke raised an eyebrow. Celes regarded Setzers expression with silent intensity.
Edgar stepped forward, resting a hand on Lockes shoulder to urge him to step back. Setzer
Setzer raised glazed eyes to the young kings face. Fly the Falcon to Figaro and then get out.
Edgar gave a slow nod and turned, ushering the others out with a slight shake to his head when they looked about to ask a question. The door closed behind them and Setzer lowered his eyes back to the desk as his hand continued to shuffle the cards. He paused and took the top card with a wince. Ace of Diamonds. The name of the ship on the stage. He slid the card back into the deck and again began shuffling. Why? But the answers werent his to give. He was left to wonder and sift through the ashes to try and find a little bit of life left to live.
Setzer glowered across from him at the portrait as the night sounds of the desert of Figaro beckoned for him to release his anger and relent. He kept the portrait as a reminder. Of betrayal? Of the passion? Of the complete lie? He didn't know and he didn't ask. All he did was glower and shuffle his cards. Shuffle and glare. Adjust his position, take a drink, glare, and shuffle. Courting his fate. Seducing his doom.
There was a knock.
Setzer didn't blink, move, or stop shuffling.
Setzer's glare deepened into a complete twist and taint of his face and the love of life and adventure that had been so prevalent at one time. Why? And the question goaded him.
Setzer moved his glare to his cards - tattered, worn, and ugly - and flipped the top card. Deuce of Hearts.
The door opened.
"What do you want?" Setzer asked harshly without looking up.
Thoughtful silence and then a cautious step forward. "Setzer, you need to talk to her."
Setzer raised his eyes to meet the open and honest ones of Terra, who'd spoken, and Edgar, who was standing directly behind in a showing of support. The sight was a torture and a promise of something he would never have. He lowered his gaze back to the cards, slipping the deuce back into the deck. It split one corner and loosed another card: Ace of Diamonds. He flinched and looked away.
"Stay out of this."
"We can't," Edgar said. "You're a friend, Setzer. A close one. We would be doing you an injustice if we didn't come to you with
"And that was her responsibility," he countered with flashing eyes as they met Edgar's, "not yours. Leave it alone."
Edgar gave a firm shake of his head. "No. You're basing a judgment on incomplete information. That is unfair."
"Incomplete information?" Setzer repeated as he stood from the couch. He stepped forward and jabbed an accusing finger in Edgar's face. "You provided me that information, Edgar, as did she. Choices were made and paths were followed because of it."
"And that is why you need to speak with her. To question her choices and offer her the chance to explain. The information I received was tainted by hear-say and word-of-mouth. You must allow
Setzer made a harsh motion with his arm. "No more lies will be allowed," he said in a menacing tone. "She made her decision, as I have." He stalked to his desk and lowered himself into the chair, kicking his feet up onto it as he leaned back. He retrieved another deck of cards from a drawer to his right and tossed the others aside. "Get out."
"Get out." And Setzer's eyes sparked a warning.
Edgar took in a deep breath and released it with a shake of his head before turning away. He motioned for Terra to precede him, but she shook her head with glistening eyes. Edgar leaned forward to whisper a few phrases in her ear, held her gaze with a meaningful expression, and then again motioned for the door.
Terra again shook her head with a whispered "I can't."
Setzer's glare at his cards deepened when he felt her eyes move to an in-depth scrutiny. He wanted to warn her that he likely wouldn't handle her interference gently, but rage and agony kept him silent, content with the promise of torture to another.
Terra walked up to his desk and leaned her hands against it. "Don't you want to know why?" she questioned, incredulous and tearful.
He sneered as he raised his silver-granite eyes to her violet ones. "Why? Why? The reasons don't matter after the bet is placed, Terra. It's done and the reasons 'why' lose their importance."
Tears glistened as she firmly shook her head. "No. They don't. This isn't a game, Setzer. It's a person's life. Yours. Hers. The reasons why are all you have left," she insisted passionately as the tears ran free. "It's a question you deserve to ask. A question you deserve to have answered," she choked out.
"And an opportunity I won't give," he hissed, withdrawing his legs from the desk and leaning forward in a threatening attitude of withheld rage. Terra held her ground. "She lied. To you. To Relm. To me." He slammed the desk with his fist. "No! I won't ask."
"But you love her!" Terra cried emphatically.
Setzer's face went blank. 'I love you, Maria. Gods, how I love you.' Agony convulsed and flared, and then his soul and mind went cold and dark. "Did I?" he asked, expressionless.
Silence fell like a shroud moments before Edgar enfolded Terra's upper arm in a gentle hold, urging her away from the desk. "Terra, come. He's made his choice."
Terra changed her grief-stricken expression to Edgar's saddened face. "But it's the wrong one," she said brokenly.
"We cannot dictate his life. We've done our best. In the end, the choice is his." Edgar moved his eyes to Setzer's. "Even if it is the wrong one." He looked again to Terra and guided her from the room.
Setzer stared after them as he absently shuffled his cards. Thoughts distant. Soul hard. Spirit dust.
Knock. Silence. Knock-knock. Silence. Door open. Step, step, step, step. Silence. Sound of skin on paper; the thlip of envelope onto desk. Step, step, step, step. Door close. Setzer kept his back to his desk as his right hand continued to shuffle the mutilated cards behind his back, his empty gaze staring out the window at the desert.
Knock. Door open. Step, step, step, step. Silence. Skin against paper; envelope set on desk. Step, step, step, step, step. Door close. Setzer stared down at the second letter, the handwriting and the name it spoke... 'Dearest Setzer' and looked away. His hands and fingers worked at the worn and broken cards as an ache within became a hole.
Door open. Step, step, step, step. Sound of skin on paper. Envelope set on desk. Silence. Step, step, step, step. "Albrook."
"Yes, sir. Right away."
Door close. Setzer pushed the letters away and absently pulled out another deck of cards, the others falling to the floor beside him to rest with the tattered shreds of the others and the remnants of trust and dreams.
Setzer tapped the top card of the deck as he sat in the pub of Albrook. He had two days worth of beard, his eyes were bloodshot, his breath was bad, and his clothes had seen better days. He looked like hell and he felt worse.
Setzer flipped the top card. Ace of Diamonds. He clenched his jaw and forced himself to calmly put the card back into the deck. He absently began to shuffle it, again, and again, and again... This was his 10th deck in 2 days. The bartender came up to him and asked if he wanted another drink. Setzer shook his head and stood, tossing a 10-gil piece onto the table before pushing through the crowd and exiting the pub. Why? And that was the only question allowed any time. All others were dismissed before theyd formed a complete sentence. They didnt matter. They wouldnt. Not until he understood that one question.
Revenge. Thats what it had to be.
Setzer swore under his breath and strode toward the Falcon anchored just outside, dreading a turn at the wheel with the memories of Marée. Dreading the appearance of the entrance because of memories of Maria. The Falcon was a torture, but it was also his only form of release Setzer halted and felt his stomach lurch and twist. A slender form in dark trousers, a pale silken blouse, and a heavy coat was leaning against the body of the Falcon with crossed arms; blonde hair waved in the wind.
He balled his hands into fists and clenched his jaw so tightly it hurt. Then he walked forward, keeping his eyes carefully averted as he approached and made it to the ramp that led inside. One, two, three steps--
We need to talk, Setzer.
And Setzer halted mid-step. He couldnt tell if the voice was Marée or Maria. The tone was firm, but the voice was cultured and elegant. He faced her with angry eyes. We have nothing to talk about. Get away from my ship.
She straightened, pushing away from the ship to stride up to him with such a look of determination that he knew she wouldnt take no for an answer.
We need to talk, she said again, still holding his gaze.
Setzer looked away and walked the rest of the way in. He heard her steps firm and resolute behind him and turned, hand on the door and then pushing it shut, again, in her face. Maria-Marée held it open with a surprising show of force.
I have nothing to say to you, he told her.
Her eyes sparked. Yeah? Well Ive plenty to say to you, captain.
And this time her voice was Marée. His insides lurched and he jerked open the door, reaching out to grab her arm and drag her from the ship. Again. Get--
She jerked herself free from his grasp and turned on him, pushing hard on his chest to back him away from her. No, I will not get out. She put a fist on her hip and pointed at him. You will listen to what Ive got to say, Setzer Gabbiani, or I swear Ill beat your ass until you cant move. And then youll listen to what Ive got to say anyway.
Setzer blinked in shock.
Maria-Marée lowered her hand and put it on her other hip. Good. Ive got your attention. Thats a start.
The frown returned and he turned away, again retreating up the plank and to his ship.
Oh no you dont And a firm grip was suddenly on his arm, jerking him around to face the woman whose name he didnt know.
Setzers eyes flashed a warning as he freed her hand from his arm with a violent push. Dont touch me, Marée Maria Damn! I dont even know who you are! What do I call you? Why did you do this? What did I do to you to deserve this?
You didnt do anything. I told you that before, she said, and her pale blue eyes were different than before. It was me. All of it.
He took a menacing step forward. She stayed put. Why?" He grabbed her arms and gave her a shake. Her eyes held his. "Do you hear me, Maria? Why? I deserve to know!
There. The questions were out and the rage was free to burn.
Maria nodded, and her gaze didn't waver. Yes," she said simply, matter-of-fact, "you do. And Im going to tell you. All of it.
Setzer's grasp tightened on her arms - the warmth, the presence of skin, the scent of passion, songs and laughter - he pushed her roughly away. More lies? More convincing half-truths that get me back in your bed and under your control? No. Keep your explanations.
And when he tried to turn away again the grip was on his arm once more, turning him back to face her. This time, though, before he had a chance to push it away, those hands were grabbing firm holds of his shirt and pushing him backward as those eyes flashed with determination and resolve.
You are going to hear this, captain. Get your ass on that ship! She turned him forcefully and pushed him, hard, with both hands in the center of his back.
He staggered forward, his mind spluttering with shock and disbelief that he was being man-handled by Maria. He turned with a snarl, but she kept coming. If you dont stop controlling me, Maria, I swear I will
She stopped, fists on hips. Hit me? Go ahead. Ive been hit before. I can hit pretty hard myself. I told you Id grown a spine, captain. Well, now you get to see it. Maria strode up to him and pointed another finger in his face. He leaned back away from it. I am not going to be little Miss Complacent anymore. I love you, dammit, and I am not going to let you walk away just because you think you want to. I want you in my life, Setzer, and I'm not going to accept anything less! She sent a dark glare to the guards as they stared open-mouthed at the scene playing out in front of them. Get out.
They hurriedly did as they were told.
Maria focused her glare back on Setzer and pointed to the main room. Get in there. When he straightened and resisted, she grabbed him by the arm and proceeded to drag him. All right. We do this the hard way.
If he hadnt been so pissed, he would have laughed his butt off.
In the middle of the main room, he gathered his shocked wits enough to pull himself free from her grasp. Dont ever do that again, Maria, he told her in a dangerously low voice.
She crossed her arms as she gauged his expression. Then she nodded. I wont. This is as good a place as any.
Setzer crossed his arms as well, his mind desperately trying to separate Marée from Maria. Aggression from culture. Firmness and resolve from gentleness and delicacy. But the voices and visions crashed together, making his mind burn and rage at the impossibility of the request.
I suppose I should start at the beginning.
Maria! And his brain grasped at the reality.
She uncrossed her arms and rubbed at the back of her neck.
Marée! His brain shouted.
Then she shrugged and slipped out of her jacket, tossing it aside before looking up to meet his eyes. Six months after Kefka twisted this planet, I was returning to the Opera House with the wardrobe for the new opera. I had used the trip to Nikeah to read the script and decide whether or not I would accept the role. Maria shook her head. It was beyond anything Id been asked to do in the past. A complete opposite of the type of person I was. It was a challenge I didnt believe I had the ability to do.
Maria! And his exhausted mind tenaciously held the name.
Maria took in a slow breath and gave another shake of her head as she slowly made her way to the billiard table. She leaned against it with another sigh. We were put off course by a storm, crashing the hull onto the reefs near Mobliz. Repairs were necessary, so we had to dock as soon as possible. I I dont know why I decided to do it, but I assumed the heroines role. I had to see if it was possible to convince people that Raven existed. That was the key to her success in the opera. The audience had to feel empathy for her. That would be impossible if I couldnt present her in a real enough persona. So, Raven became Marée in order to preserve the dramatic effect for the opera and I stepped off the ship, leaving Maria behind.
Maria crossed her arms and stared down at her boots, concentration and resignation battling for supremacy on her expression. Setzer lowered his eyes and pulled the deck of cards from his pocket without thinking. He began to shuffle them, slowly and deliberately. To keep his temper. To keep from dragging her to the exit and throwing her off. To keep from dragging her to his bed and filling the ache that had grown so cold and hard. To keep from doing a myriad of other things that seemed logical and illogical at the same time.
When I met with Terra that day And a reluctant smile erased a few shadows of strain and agony from her face. I could not have asked for a better person to talk to in order to learn of the darker side of the Empire. She had lived it, much to my surprise considering her timid and soft nature. So, I listened to her stories of adventure against Kefka and Gestahl and the Empire, using those anecdotes to give life and color to the ones that had already been written into the script. Then, when I presented mine, I watched her reactions and did what embellishing was required in order to receive the appropriate response. That was the key to the character.
Setzers hand paused its shuffling and he flipped the top card. Ace of Diamonds. He clenched his jaw and submersed it back into the deck. The next card was the Queen of Hearts. His soul lurched and then went still. He shuffled the deck with a slightly rougher touch as his mind kept suspiciously back from the explanation.
When I left Terra, I realized more research into the Empire was necessary. I had to learn more of what they had done. I had to learn more of the people that had been in control of it. After all, how could I present the bitterness and hardness and complexity of Raven, a sea captain controlled by the Empire and the Fate that came with that doom, unless I understood real life stories of the same? Therefore, I knew my next stop was Thamasa. Where else would I find the old knowledge of the Empire and what had happened before.
Marias face tightened with a wry smile. Meeting Relm was an unexpected pleasure. There were so many qualities in her that I knew would be perfect for Raven. Her candor. Her live-life-to-the-fullest attitude. Her recklessness. But there was more than that, Relm had an addicting quality of freshness about her. She and I became fast friends, she teaching me how to live, thereby giving Raven more life experiences.
Setzers hands stopped shuffling yet again and he reluctantly flipped the top card. Ace of Diamonds. He snarled and clenched his jaw as he tucked it back into the deck. The next card was the Queen of Hearts. His hand tightened its hold on the deck for a brief moment before he began absently shuffling them again. His glower didnt focus on the deck as his hands moved quicker, rougher, bending and mutilating the edges and sides of their own accord.
Maria released a deep breath and finally lifted her eyes from her knee-high boots. I was in Albrook to make an appearance and advertise for the Opera House while the men picked up the sets, including those pieces of a wrecked Empire cargo ship called Ace of Diamonds. They were to convert it and use it as the main part of the set. When I saw the pub I knew that I hadnt tested Ravens persona in a real-life setting to that extent. So, I settled back into Marée and plowed ahead. I was terrified to death, but I knew I couldnt settle for less than the best for the show. But then Then I saw you She lowered her eyes with a shake of her head. Oh my gods. I thought Id died. I thought I was dreaming. There you were. Sitting alone - alone - in the one pub I happened into. I I thought perhaps Id finally been given the chance to attract you. I thought that perhaps Marée was who you wanted. I couldnt give that up. I I couldnt.
Maria raised her eyes and her face softened somewhat. It had been more than a year since Id seen your face. More than a year since I had heard your laughter and felt your touch. When I saw you I-I wanted that more than anything. I wanted to feel you. I wanted to hear you. She shook her head as her eyes glimmered. I wasnt going to give that up. I had to try. I loved you too much not to.
Setzer resisted the urge to meet her eyes. He could tell enough in her voice that she was weeping. Crying while hoping that would change his mind against the willing betrayal. The planned lies. The plotted efforts. He flipped over the tattered top card. Ace of Diamonds. The second card was, again, Queen of Hearts. His brain pounded against his skull as his skin flashed with a wave of rage and rebellion. He jammed the cards back into the deck and shuffled, bits and pieces of card falling unnoticed to the ground at his feet. Maria noticed his darkening expression and hurried on, offering more as her voice and gaze begged him to do so many different things. Things that he didn't think he could do.
"You took me aboard your ship as an equal. Something you'd never done before. You let me guide her and experience the thrill of flight that had so long been a private and separate part of yourself. A part that I'd wanted to share. That I'd wanted to experience with you." Her voice tightened and choked, so she cleared her throat and blinked away the mist.
Setzer clenched his jaw and his fingers trembled slightly as he shuffled the cards. Remembering that evening. Remembering the emotions and the needs. Remembering the uncanny 'click'...
"I... It was beautiful, thrilling, surreal... it was so many different things in one. Your hands on mine. Your body so near... Your warmth..." Again, her voice broke and died and, again, she cleared it of the more powerful emotions and pressed on. "The memories of you and I together sharing so many things wouldn't leave me in peace as we soared the clouds, together and alone. Experiencing something... sharing something that Maria hadn't been allowed to see. I-I couldn't resist you. I had to bring the memories back from the past. I had to have you for myself again, even if it wasn't really Maria you were... you were experiencing."
Maria lowered her eyes and Setzer raised his to an examination of her face. There was a twinge and he lowered his gaze with another clench of his jaw as his hands began to absently work the deck.
Kohlingen. Maria cleared her throat and sighed, again rubbing the back of her neck. Kohlingen. I was there only to thank King Edgar for his generous donation to the Opera House that had made it possible to purchase the more extravagant sets than usual. But when after leaving Figaro Castle I saw the Falcon oh gods. I remembered your words before and couldnt help myself. I had to see you again. I knew I only had a few minutes before my ship left for the Opera House, but I didnt care. I didnt care that it was Marée you were making love to. I didnt care that it was Marée you were dreaming of. I didnt care that it was Marée you were hoping to see again. I was Marée, so what did it matter? I thought you had no memory of Maria. Why would you remember someone from a past that was so old? If Marée made you happy, I was happy.
Setzers insides seethed. A second chance to confess and again shed purposefully kept him in the dark. Shed played him And yet, something behind her words began to chip at the wall of rage and betrayal. His soul began to ache with a hint of the pain and desperation He pushed it away and flipped the top card of the deck. Ace of Diamonds. He nearly threw it to the ground. Instead, he left the second card unrevealed and began to shuffle it, not noticing the difficulty due to tattered edges and wrinkled bodies.
Suddenly, Maria gave a slight, agonized laugh. It drew Setzers darkened eyes and hardened face.
She shook her head but didnt raise her eyes from her boots. Poor Cor. We were in Nikeah purchasing more costumes. We had to add more roles to the opera because of my research and, of course, they needed costumes. I was in need of different ones, as well. So, as the men were loading our order, Cor and I decided to rehearse a scene. We put on our costumes, applied our make-up, and began there on the dock. It was the perfect setting. She lifted her eyes to meet his. I had no idea you were looking for me, if thats why you were there. I didnt realize you needed me that much. If I had But thats a different story, she said in a strained voice. You did very well in that scene. There was a little adlibbing needed, but the scene in the opera was basically what you saw and did. Cor, of course, wasnt expecting to have cards used against him, but hes a professional and enjoys a certain amount of newness in a scene. I hadnt the heart to tell him you werent truly the hero of the opera. You do look like Edward.
Setzer scoffed and looked down. He stared at the top card, but didnt turn it. He began shuffling, but cards began to tumble from the ragged deck to fall at his feet. He kept shuffling, trying to keep his soul from listening. Fighting against the understanding of the He pushed it away.
And then it was opening night and I knew I could no longer venture out as Marée. I had to be content with my memories, past and present. It was all I would ever have. Maria took in a slow breath. A-And then you were there. You were there with your smiling face and eager words of flattery, seeing me as youd seen me so many times before. A-And you were sorry that youd hurt me. And you were telling me not to be someone I wasnt But you still
She shook her head and Setzer heard a slight sob. His stomach lurched and twisted as he flinched.
I only went to Mobliz to visit Terra. To bring her some gifts for the children and some things I thought she needed. When I saw Relm playing with the children, I was worried. Relm didnt know Maria, so I went out as Marée to try and find out what had happened and if I could help. When you came I I remembered our meeting at the Opera House and how youd reacted to my comment about the woman pirate and and I thought you might say you loved me. Marée, I mean. Why else would you have reacted in such a way? And then when And then when you kissed me and denied you felt anything, I
Maria shook her head again. I was so angry. Marée had a firmer hold on my soul than I realized. She had taught me those lessons I needed in order to start my search for happiness. To not sit idly by as our heart is drained of life and our soul grows hard and cold She sniffed and wiped the tears from her face. So when I had this last hope ripped from me Who wouldnt be angry?
Yes. Who wouldnt be angry at a hope stolen Setzer felt the rage begin to lose its hold and his hands paused on the cards in his hand. Two cards left.
I Maria covered her face with her hands. I couldnt believe it when I received your note telling me you were coming for dinner. I must have cried for an hour after receiving it. My dreams were coming true and Id tainted any possible happiness with my lies and betrayal. Id wanted your love and presence in my life so badly that Id been willing to make myself into someone else just to be with you and then you were coming to visit the person Id always been. She shook her head and lowered her hands. Her eyes glistened with tears. I didnt understand, but I couldnt let it pass. I had to be there. I had to see you. I had to relive the past and see if there was a possible future. My soul wouldnt let me do anything less. I missed you. I couldnt be content without you.
But then I remembered what you had said to Marée in Mobliz. That you were tired. That you had felt something for her. I I didnt trust what I felt or what I thought I saw in your face or felt in that kiss after our dinner together. I had to know for certain that Marée wasnt competition for your heart. I had to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you wanted me. That last meeting on the ship was my last chance No. It was your last chance It was a last chance to choose. For me? For you? I dont know. It doesnt matter. You chose Maria. You chose the woman who loved you. Who had loved and always would love you
Setzers grip tightened on the cards as she spoke, and then he slowly turned them. Ace of Diamonds. Queen of Hearts. He threw them to the floor with a glare and growl of Stop! Stop, do you hear? Enough! His flashing eyes raised to Marias yellow face. A stricken expression glazed her eyes. Why didnt you tell me, Maria? You had more than enough opportunity. Why?
Maria brushed more tears from her face. I knew I had to tell you, she said in a cracked voice, but I couldnt bear the pain Id see on your face. How could I have betrayed you that way? How could I have willingly lied? How could I have manipulated you just to experience something we hadnt shared in over a year. And all the things you said. The memories we relived. The strokes and caresses. The kisses . She moved one small step toward him. When he tensed, she halted. Those made me know Id betrayed you in such a dark and twisted way. I hadnt trusted you as I said I did. And now? She swallowed hard and her face went green. Now I believe Ive lost you forever.
Setzer stared hard at her face. The tears. The agony of what shed done. The words and phrases said both now and in their meetings before. His throat tightened and his chest heaved as he turned away with a shake of his head. He didnt know. It seemed easy enough to believe that it had begun so innocent, but He rested his hands on the desk with another shake of his head. All this time the cards had told him who she was. Marée and his instant connection. The surprising presence of continued passion at his meeting with Maria
Setzer shook his head a third time as he pressed his hands tighter against the desk. I dont know. I dont know. And his voice was lost and confused.
There were soft steps and then her warmth beside him. The scent of flowers and the sea. A tingle and an erotic sense of He gripped the edges of the desk.
Setzer I was going to tell you. I swear it Oh my gods, what have I done?" There was the quiver of tears before she spoke again. "When the Impresario came to me after the show that night and asked how my meeting with you had gone " And her voice cracked and broke with pain and desperation. "I nearly died, knowing how you must have felt. Knowing I was responsible. Knowing my cowardice had done that to you. She placed a hand on his shoulder but he moved away from it, straightening to step back from her presence. That twisted her face with pain. Oh gods. Setzer, please. Please, dont and her voice broke off as she brought her hand up to muffle the sobs.
Setzer continued to retreat until his back impacted one of the supporting pillars on the far wall. Maria Maria, I dont know what to do.
She gave a slight nod, her expression sick with grief and anguish as she stepped hesitantly toward him. Please, Setzer, tell me what to do. What to say. How can I show you Im sorry? That I need you to forgive me?"
He pressed his back tighter against the pillar as he warily watched her. Marée and Maria entwined in one soul. A fluke happenstance that she'd taken as a healing and a chance to be complete. A teasing of Luck. A concoction of the Fates.
Her eyes misted with tears that escaped and caressed her pale cheeks. "Let me prove that I can be trusted, dearest. Let me prove that I do love you. Please, dearest. Please. I dont want to hurt you. I never did. Oh gods, she choked out.
And a card fluttered from a picture on the wall, gliding graceful and serene to lay face-up on the ground at his feet. Ace of Diamonds. Setzer stared down at the card with a blank look as Maria continued to cautiously move toward him. Then she stood in front of him, but he continued to stare at the card. Then her gentle hands wiped wetness from his cheeks as she whispered choked words that he couldnt hear but that his soul absorbed into itself. Still, he stared at the card.
Ace of Diamonds.
Setzer blinked and changed his gaze to her pale and tear-streaked face. What?
Maria took in a deep and broken breath. Ravens home and protection was her ship. The Ace of Diamonds. She held his gaze as she continued to caress his face with her thumbs . Please, Setzer. I need a haven. I need a place to call home. A place of adventure and safety. Please, dearest Setzer. Please be my Ace of Diamonds.
Setzer held those pale blue eyes that mirrored his own agony. The face yellowed with torturous memories of scents and sounds and touches and songs thought forever lost. The tears and the choked sobs of misery and then he pulled her tight against him, burying his face into her pale hair and soft, warm neck. Maria kissed his neck, whispering against it with a broken and tear-filled song of I love you. I love you. I love you and pressed herself closer as she cried.
It was like coming home.
I told you it would work. Sabin elbowed Setzer and laughed. Too bad Umaro couldn't come to the wedding, though. I really wanted to catch Locke's explanation to both him and Celes as to why he was going to have to slow dance with the brute. It wouldve been a riot.
Setzer shook his head and took another glass of the best wine Figaro had to offer. You have a sick sense of humor, my friend. You should be glad Edgar found it in his heart to forgive you for toying with his mind.
Sabin made a face. Edgar's on cloud nine, Setzer. He doesn't care what I did just as long as he's finally got a ring on her finger.
And Celes is happy because she has her double wedding.
And Locke is happy because she's happy. Sabin grimaced. All this happiness is making me sick. I need to get back out in the real world and hit something.
Setzer shook his head again with a chuckle. I believe Ill talk Locke into marrying you off as well. A steady woman would do wonders for your soul.
What? Sabin looked positively spooked. You keep Locke away from me. I don't need any of his matchmaking to mess up my life. I like it how it is.
Very well, but the Fates often have-
Spare me, Sabin cut in.
Isn't this great? Relm made her way up to the two men and gave them each a wide smile. I love weddings. So many pictures to draw.
Where's your grandpa? Sabin looked around the crowd and raised an eyebrow when Shadow was seen coming toward them. Hello, Shadow. Didn't expect to see you here.
Im here with Relm.
His voice was unemotional, as usual, but there was something different about his eyes. Sabin and Setzer both decided against a comment.
Yeah, he's more fun than old fuddy-duddy. Besides, Shadow doesn't talk all the time. Relm made a face, and then she smiled wide again. You should hear all the stories he tells at night, though. Much scarier than Grandpa's. Of course, I've heard his about a jillion times already, she said with another grimace.
Setzer and Sabin shared a laugh, and Sabin could have sworn he heard a sound from Shadow's direction.
Come on, Shadow, Relm said suddenly with a tug on the ninja's arm. We've gotta find your doggie and give him some cake. I promised I would.
With that, Setzer and Sabin watched in amazement as Relm grabbed Shadows hand and led him away, cheerfully chatting up at him about the different things only a fellow pre-teen would have found interesting. Shadow took it in stride and continued to hold her hand.
So, where are the honeymooners bound? Setzer asked nonchalant as his eyes surveyed the room. Where are you?
Don't know. Edgar refused to say and Locke told me to get lost. I kind of got the impression they wanted it to be a secret; so we couldn't pester them if the world went to pot.
Setzer heard a familiar laugh and searched the area. How long are they going to 'disappear'?
Don't know that either. Edgar just smiled, and I couldn't even find Locke to ask. If I didn't know my brother, I'd think they were going to camp as far away from civilization as possible.
Setzer spared a glance from his scrutiny of the room. With Edgar being as dependent on the luxuries as he is? I highly doubt it.
Sabin nodded his agreement. That's exactly what I thought, but he didn't admit to anything.
Did you ask Terra? She's always been hard-pressed to keep a secret, Setzer reminded. I think it's something about her face that a person can read like a book.
Sabin smiled. Yep. That would be Terra- Say, she looked hot in that wedding dress, didn't she?
Setzer chuckled. Be careful of those thoughts, my friend. Edgar is liable to be a jealous husband with a gem such as she.
Don't be silly. I love Terra like a sister. He knows that.
Perhaps your comment about wanting to marry her changed that. Setzer caught sight of a bluish-black-haired beauty and raised his hand to attract her attention. She brought a finger to her forehead in a slight salute and a 'come hither' smile.
Sabin made a face. Stop it, Setzer. Edgar knows it was just a way for me to get him to wise-up.
Setzer changed his attention back to Sabin. Then why didn't he tell you where they were honeymooning? Sabin remained silent as he took a drink of his spiced cider. Setzer chuckled. Ill leave you to your bachelorhood, my friend. Perhaps some unknowing dolt will start a fight with you?
And with that, Setzer purposefully made his way toward the tall woman in the corner with the bluish-black hair and sparkling eyes. She wrapped up her conversation with the group of men surrounding her, all the while watching Setzer approach with that same intense gaze he remembered from that day on his ship, after the performance, after the betrayal, before the explanation
He weaved his way through the crowd, finally arriving at a free space behind her. He placed a kiss on her throat near her ear as he whispered "hello, songbird" against the skin.
Maria's lips lifted with a smile as she reached behind her for his hand, clasping it tightly. "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but I believe I've reserved this dance."
She pressed directly through the men, leading Setzer by the hand to the dance floor. Setzer obediently followed with a slight smirk and a shrug to the men. They glowered, but didn't protest. Setzer chuckled and then changed his focus to the backside of Maria. And what a nice backside it is. Then they were in the center of the dance floor and she was turning toward him and stepping close within the circle of his waiting arms, her arms around him and under his jacket as her thumbs hooked themselves into the waist of his trousers.
Maria looked up into his eyes with a pale blue gaze full of laughter and promise. "I saw you looking, dearest. Did you think I would miss the wedding of the century?"
"No," he said with a smile and a brief press of lips against cheek. His hands disappeared beneath the heavy fabric of her uniform coat and caressed her back through the silken blouse . "I knew, though, that the extra performances and the organization of the children's theatre would make it difficult to get away."
"Difficult, yes, but not impossible. The Impresario can handle these things as easily as I. And my performances? I have an understudy. She's performing the last act," she purred.
Setzer's smile was lopsided as his arms encircled her and pulled her closer. "Then we have the entire evening in which to play?"
Maria nodded and then rested her cheek against his chest as her hands moved up to a gentle caress of his back. "I told the Impresario that I wouldn't do another performance until I could spend some time with you. Lunch and dinner isn't enough. I've missed you."
And the ache in his own heart rang with the truth of what she said. "I know," he whispered against her hair, "but my presence off-stage at each performance has helped, hasn't it, songbird?"
She nodded again with a deep sigh. "Yes. It has."
Setzer took in a deep breath of her hair and essence, and his arms tightened slightly around her. "Shall I plan an excursion to the air, then? A picnic to Ebot's Rock? A quiet getaway where"
"It doesn't matter," she said as she raised her eyes. "It's enough that I'll be there. That you love me and not a role I played."
He lifted a hand to her face and caressed her cheek and lips. To trace the pattern of her into him. The fit of her against him. The feel of her with him, near him, beside him. Her warmth. Her passion. Her gentleness. Her firmness. Her complete soul that drew out his own.
"I do love you, Maria. Completely. No matter the role, I sense you beneath and know that it's yet another aspect of the depth of your persona. My songbird. My lady of the evening. The haven for my ship." Tears glistened and escaped and he kissed them away. "We share this card, songbird. This Ace of Diamonds," he whispered against her cheeks.
Setzer lifted his head and raised a hand, making the motion of a snap . The card appeared and Maria looked over at it with twinkling eyes. He kissed the card and then tucked it inside the silken softness of her blouse, his touch lingering on its journey away. Then he lowered his head and his lips met hers, their mouths speaking together the existence of the future that had always wanted to be. She wrapped her arms around his neck and he his around her waist, lifting her up off the ground as he drew her soul into him and she drew his into her.