Through the Chrysoberyl

The dead silence hung heavy, foreign, and black in his bedchamber and it prevented him from sleeping. Setzer did not like perfectly pitched silence such as this; from the very beginning of his recollection, he had never experienced it before in such completeness. There had always been the whistle of the wind over the plains of Jidoor or through his hair as he soared above the teeming world; the comforting whirring of the engine gears which he could always hear anywhere on the airship and which could lull him to sleep like ocean waves; or else there had been the chattering of company, voices low and full of life and conversation.

None of these things were present at the moment. At first the unexpected and unfortunate emergency landing of the Blackjack had been an annoyance, but in the nighttime it was almost maddening. He'd worked like a dog all day and still the engine was down. Edgar had tried to lend a hand earlier. It had been an appreciated gesture but Edgar simply did not know airships as well as other machines; after one too many mistakes and taking the time to preen in the reflection of the main cog that drove the pistons, Setzer had kicked the mighty King of Figaro out, cursing a blue streak. From then on it had been a solo job. By the time Setzer had emerged from the engine room to rest, all the others had retired to their beds. There was no one to talk to. What else was there to do? They were all stranded in the Maranda Forest, waiting for gods knew what. Always waiting. Celes--if she had been there--would have known the lay of the land best, but she was gone. Now they did not even know where in said forest they were-it all looked the same to him, at least.. For his own part, Setzer felt almost as trapped in the dense thickets as on his own beached airship; he hated the smell of decaying leaves, the splattered sunlight, the obscured sky. He craved the sky as a drunken man his bottle. He would have given his right arm to have at least crash landed nearer to civilization, or at least on the open plains near his native Jidoor--there a man could breathe freely and soak up a sky that expanded unbroken from horizon to horizon!

Anxiety and a sense of entrapment made the bed sheets unbearably hot. Not even having the porthole opened would help. Setzer sat up, resigned to the hot fever running through his veins, and began to pace about his chambers. Even Gau, who had seemed to suffer the most from cabin fever of all, had managed to get to sleep.

"Nothing for it," Setzer spat, mind made up. He didn't much like the prospect of anything, even his normally beloved gambling, but even a listless turn of the roulette wheel or a bland game of solitaire would be superior to his current state. He'd turn these currents awry and make them into action somehow, to hell if the others were wakened by. . .whatever it was he would do.

Then, with a thunderclap of clarity, Setzer knew what he would do. Nor did it involve gambling of any conventional kind.

Slipping on his coat--he wouldn't be caught dead in shirtsleeves with company in the Blackjack, somnolent or not--Setzer silently opened his door and padded down the galley toward the only sanctuary of conversation he knew of. When they weren't being used, the Returners did not simply cram the Magicite pieces in their pockets and forget about them. There was no respect in that. And if anything, the poor sotted souls trapped within the molten shards deserved respect. They had been the talk of legend once and still contained the stuff dreams and magic were made of. He had seen Terra in particular often rapt in apparently silent conversation with a Magicite shard she seemed to never be apart from--Maudin's, Setzer believed. She said it was her father. Setzer thought that almost ludicrous, but having seen what he had seen the past few days added to the fact that the young lady exuded guilelessness…he hardly knew what to think. Setzer liked chance and adventure but did not care so much for true mystery, the kind that defied all intuition and made normally brave men cowards; he was no coward. Time to try things out for himself.

Opening the cabinet in silence, the hinges not even creaking, the Magicite cast a luminescence on Setzer's face, outlining his scars gently. The smooth glassy surface of each life essence shed its own individual hue: Ifrit's shard glared a blaze-red crimson like the heart of a forge; Golem was an earthy brown striated with darker hues; and Shiva, the only shard cool to the touch, had the barest silvery sheen of frost coating a midnight blue surface.

Setzer had a good enough eye for beautiful things and gemstones and their ilk were no exception. He normally would have liked to gaze upon these treasures for the remainder of the night, marveling at each facet and quirk and eddy of color, but on the way to the cabinet the vague sense of purpose that had formed in his brain crystallized further. He darted his gaze to a Magicite piece that could have been mistaken for a bright chrysoberyl, a cat's-eye green.

Stray, the master of Chance and its tricks, had always been a special favorite of the Gabbiani family; Setzer had drunk up the stories his mother used to tell about the Esper's pranks and deeds, always getting into trouble that seemed impossible to escape but then using trickery and luck to triumph in the end. Setzer, gambler's heart with him from the beginning, quickly opted to continue the tradition of keeping Stray as his patron. No doubt the decision influenced his later choice of occupation. The cat exemplified all the things that the young man found enviable. Stray was the small and solitary who triumphed over the large and powerful; who wielded his tricks with delicious irony; who valued the self; and Stray was an Esper who made no bones about playing favorites. The relative neutrality of the other gods did not suit him. Stray favored those who put him first before all others with what turned out to be great rewards. Setzer had always been studious in performing the necessary honors (often bowls of milk poured to the earth) and the dedication of some funds and casinos. In a word, if one was accepted as a friend, Stray did not reject a fair contract.

It was still very odd to house a host of legends in his very own airship, almost comical. Only Terra could stand be around them for stretches at a time; the others were still a bit wary (Setzer included himself) and Gau freely whined at the very sight of them. The gambler did not care for magic; it infused what he considered inanimate--a sword, a gem, even these very stones--and gave it the semblance of the living.

The faint humming that emanated from the stones almost sounded like voices faint behind a door. And really--sweet and lovely Terra came to his mind's eye; the times he had seen her put her mouth close to Maudin's stone to whisper to it did not exactly paint a picture of normality. Yet here he was.

Traveling with these damned freedom fighters must have thrown him off. They were infecting him with their own special breed of madness. For a brief moment he yearned keenly for a time not a month ago when he had been soaring free, no cares, to any place in the world and watching the operas. All of them were such idealists. He had been cooped up with them too long, between Gau's restless whines and Sabin's damned chanting every morning and Lock's own quiet torments about Celes and that Doman's constant spouting of revenge against the Empire. . . He should have never taken them on board, called Celes's trick for what it had really been and booted them all off. . .A strange surge of emotion choked away the other thoughts. He missed her especially. He had to remind himself that she'd gone, probably for good, and not to take any bets out on her loyalty. He could understand why Locke, despite everything, was acting so damn miserable.

Setzer smacked the flat of his palm against his temple. "Enough!" Uncharacteristically somber thoughts conked out for the moment, he turned back to the Magicite stones. If he was going crazy too, he might as well do it in style. Then he and Terra could share a cell in the Imperial Insane Asylum or in prison and exchange gossip from pretend conversations with dead Espers. If that was the price for becoming a lamp unto himself, as the saying went, he could gamble for it. He was tired of confusion.

Without another thought, not caring what would happen, he reached out and closed his fingers around the chrysoberyl stone. Teeth gritted, he let the burning desires and questions he had closed within him burst forth. He needed stimulation, to know. After some moments' exertion the hot flow crept down his arms into his fingers. The Magicite had become so very hot to touch; it was singeing his fingertips. But he could not, would not let go. He'd not give up.

Some moments passed, the exact space of time indefinite, before Setzer realized that his fingers longer burned and neither did he hold any stone in his hand. He looked about, face calm and his heart just beginning to speed up. This was not the Blackjack. His attention had been so distracted that the change hadn't registered with him initially.

In lieu of the tasteful paintings, the gambling tables, and the whir of engines, Setzer saw he now stood in a horizonless place dotted about with pillows and smoke; there was a cloying trace of catnip in the air. Small, ghostly butterfly-like things curled by on the air that had no draft. Lounging with a grace that had both artful calculation and ease, upon a large velvet cushion, was a creature bigger than any feline, feral or domesticated, Setzer had ever seen. If it stood up on those boot-clad hindquarters, he wondered, would it stand taller than he did?

The creature currently licked at its white front paws, absorbed in its grooming chore. Setzer did not know exactly what kind of etiquette this situation called for. This was Stray itself, the Cat of Luck, King of all Felines, and certainly one didn't treat it like any normal cat--which required a high enough degree of respect and obeisance already--or like most other Espers, either. Keeping his best poker face on, Setzer desperately wracked his memory, recalling all the times he had used to secretly pray to this particular spirit in high stakes games at casinos and in the quiet times in his chambers, trying to remember the formulae. He had to use this opportunity.

Stray finally quit licking its paws and regarded Setzer with a typically bored cat's expression, the end of its tail snapping the air. Then it winked one eye, the right. Half a second later, the right one blinked. A rather unsettling development, really; Setzer never knew of a cat that ever just batted its eyes in such a manner in lieu of staring down each intruder or suppliant with a cool, unblinking force of will. Cats did not let others see them blink. At least, not on purpose.

"Setzer Gabbiani, I presume, and pleased to make my acquaintance."

Still a bit disoriented, Setzer could not forget the manners acquired through 27 years of breeding and necessity; he bowed and cast his eyes down. The last time he been required to act humbly escaped him, but he knew this Esper, its love for ritual and respect, proud as any cat ever was.

"With your permission--"

"Yes, you may sit down. Pull up a pillow. I must welcome you to my abode--or," the raspy, purring voice suddenly dripped, "rather, my prison. But never mind that. Make yourself comfortable. It's a bit of a surprise to see you, but when opportunity knocks, we have to take it."

Stray's eye winked again as Setzer lowered himself down onto one of the light cushions, folding his legs crossed underneath him while keeping his posture alert. Setzer didn't know why the Esper kept on doing that.

"You want to ask a question," Stray continued, finishing the last licks along the back of his tail. "Go ahead."

Setzer brushed his coat neatly over his knees. "Are you all right? Do you have something in your eyes? I can't help but note you're blinking them constantly."

" Curiosity is so cute. I'll tell you," Stray said. "I blink because this is one of the ways I like to exert my will. Through my eyes, you see. My right eye is the eye that, when I blink it (like so), I send out a misfortune or unlucky accident. With my left I make things go favorably. Here. I'll wink my left right now so that one of your friends gets a good dream tonight."

"Well, that is very novel, I must agree," Setzer answered, hands clasped on his lap. "But I was always under the impression that the left was the side of misfortune?"

A toothy grin split Stray's face and its tail thumped the cloth like the satisfied slapping of the hand against the knee. "I know what you humans consider lucky and unlucky. I like to change things up a bit sometimes. Maybe tomorrow I'll go back to the regular order. Or maybe not. Who's to say? I can hardly predict myself sometimes. It's great fun."

Despite his efforts to remain completely solemn, Setzer returned the grin. He'd expected nothing less from this trickster.

Changing position upon the velvet, Stray uncurled his paws and curled them at the air in lazy patterns. "Your visit comes at an odd time for me. I'd almost given up on having company ever again. It's well that you're here. When you people aren't out and about fighting it can get terribly boring. And the rest of your friends. . . they are not my people, to be frank. I've tried talking to Maudin's daughter. Nice girl, but rather reserved for me. I wish old Maudin had time to raise her properly. Those Imperial bastards gave her personality a good scrubbing, didn't they?"

"She's a bit quiet, yes, but demure types have their charm," Setzer smiled. Perhaps quiet people did not usually grab his attention as often as others, but he knew better than to judge them at face value. They often had hidden tricks that required some time to discover. When he was around Terra, Setzer experienced the nagging tingle he got when an opponent had formulated a killing strategy for their game. He liked to observe her, observe all of them; he could appreciate hidden things. Maybe that was one of the reasons he let them stay on.

In response, Setzer received a slight nod and a lift of the whiskers. Setzer took that as a cue to move on to something that had more pique to it; he had to keep the Esper entertained if he wanted to stay in this place.

"Why did you bring me here?"

A loud purring noise rumbled from Stray's white-aproned chest and mingled with the heady smoke. "Why do you think? I could feel your restlessness and confusion from miles away. I was bored. You wanted to talk, didn't you? I merely obliged." An ear swiveled downwards like a conceded card hand. "I must also admit, I was curious about you as well. I feel like I know you almost as well as any of my brethren. I watched grow up. You always said the prayers so well and looked so adorable when you made the offerings as a kit. Much more devout than your sot father, that's for certain."

That blow came hard to ignore. If his father hadn't carried out the proper criteria as well as his son, the elder Gabbiani had also not been as devoted to certain goals more to Stray's liking. Luck was nothing without ambition, and his father had lacked that--but it was no cause to bring insults right into the fore. Without his father, perhaps he would not have ever been fated to take the family deity as own personal guardian. The purring grew softer.

Stray's head swayed. "Oh dear, I must have offended you. I must admit, if anything, the father must take credit in rearing an interesting son. But now tell me what you want to talk about. You seem disjointed, hardly the lively person I know you to be. Why is this?"

No doubt the cat already knew the trouble in his heart, but Setzer decided to take it as a flattering gesture that Stay humored him. The young man's face slackened into a blank plane of neutrality, eyes focused ahead over the Esper's ears.

"I've been restless as of late, topped with melancholy. Who can blame me? I'm shackled down for the moment and I don't care for it. We worked so many years together to build this ship and I can't stand not having it in action. It's wrong this way, not how it's been to be."

He made no attempt to put any sort of typical poker façade on his voice, stripping it down to an almost vulgar roughness typically seen in barge captains. Grounded as he was as the moment with the main engine silent, memories had come out of the wood to take the action's place. Daryl had died almost two years before; her voice had grown jangled and fuzzed in his memory. He could not remember the details of her favorite outfit because she liked custom-made clothes and she had been buried in them, red coat and all, and he would never find their exact make again. Working at the busted gears reminded him of her greasy hands when they worked on all-night shifts together. The first working airships had been theirs alone; to have the Blackjack clipped from the sky was as if something was trying to insult her. Daryl had hated maudlin thoughts; whenever he fell into a sulk or grouse she always had either cajoled or teased or even yelled at him to snap him out of it. If she could see his recent thoughts while on repair duty, she would have toasted his ass with fiery words. The thought made him smile in a painful smirk. All the thoughts in his head had been so foolish; still, he couldn't help himself. Maybe some part inside him liked it on a perverse level. Pretending that the noises his guests made were actually her moving about didn't come with difficulty.

Two white-tipped forepaws tapped themselves together. " 'We'? Ah, you're thinking about that girl you fancied. I remember when you lost her. That was a very pious time of your life, I recall. You prayed to me every day for her safety."

"A good lot you did." That simply blurted out of his mouth almost by reflex. Setzer could hardly believe the risk he had taken, but it almost felt good to let out. The cat ears flattened against the ashy-grey skull in annoyance.

"Watch your tongue. I never made you any promises about her. Did I ever send any signs? I never knew you two were bound to tightly together your individual welfares came in a package. As long as you were safe and happy in general--"

"I was miserable when she was gone. Afterwards I tried my best but I've hardly ever been happy."

"But you have been content, yes? You want for nothing and have enjoyed greater freedoms than ninety nine percent of the people on this ridiculous planet ever will."

"It's not the same," he protested.

The obstreperous sound the cat made reminded Setzer of a ram. "You hate things staying the same. Find some other woman to make you happy. There's only one--" The two bright green-gold eyes widened, caught in the middle of a slip. Setzer did not trust his own voice to ask further so he settled on an expression of deepest curiosity. Stray shrugged his shoulders, whiskers twitching.

"Silly me."

"There's only one what, if you please?" Setzer managed to keep his tone perfectly neutral.

"There's only one way to ever cheat death. I remember Phoenix could do it--go between worlds, that is. She fetched back several people in her time, before she did it once too often and had to pay the price. I heard she could still work her power through the Magicite, though. I saw countless people try to find her stone. I really don't know why I'm telling you this."

Electric fingers tapped the core of Setzer's chest and his heart beat erratically. He did not miss the meaning behind the words nor could he remember any instance wherein Stray had outright lied to anyone. Shameless fibs were beneath him. His first inclination was to try and make some sort of deal, any deal at all to make the cat disclose the stone's location. Setzer had often prided himself on his circumspection; still, he could not deny the flaring of hope sparking in the pit of his stomach.

"I have heard the stories as well. I never believe them, myself. All it's been is wild goose chases and treasure hunters who wasted years of their lives."

Booted legs crossed languidly. "Oh, she exists somewhere. But you'll never succeed. Too many obstacles in the way for you. Phoenix was turned to stone when she died, you see, and I hardly feel her power, though we're on the same plane. Even if you could find the stone, the years haven't been kind. The body might not be resurrected."

"Couldn't you do anything?"

A desperate tone made Setzer curdle at the sound of his own voice. The hope was leeching out of him, snatched away and battered into submission. The most shameful thing about it was that no matter how disgusted he became with himself, he was preparing to jump through any hoop to rekindle the cruel hope within.

"I suppose there's a chance she might come back," Stray purred. "But, man of risks you are, you deal in calculated risks. The odds are stacked against you here from the get go. One: Not even I know were Phoenix is now. Not even old Ramuh does. Two: Your thieving friend has his eye on the prize already and he's much better at the treasure hunting business than you are. And three: Honestly, man, when has a little venture like resurrection ever come off well?" One eye winked again. "I'd say your friend is going to be in for a nasty shock."

A mirthless smile played on Setzer's lip and various scenarios played through his head, most of them unfolding like the scenes of the operas he loved to frequent, all ending in pain. He and Cole had their occasional clashes from time to time, but gamblers and thieves weren't so very different; he and the thief were on their way to a friendship and Setzer did not take any pleasure in the man's pain, even if Cole already had lovely young lady, alive and warm, willing to make his heart bloom. How many chances would the man snuff out before it was too late anyway? A true lack of gambling spirit.

"So the Phoenix is a lie? Or won't work even if found?"

Stray mewled as if annoyed and went on in an overly patient voice as if explaining something simple to an idiot. "No. I could help make it work, if I wanted. All a matter of chance, is it not? Just as much a matter of chance as, say, when that poor poppet fell to her misfortune in the first place. Or when your precious Daryl found her wings clipped one sunny, clear day…"

"Then you are the one who--"

The tail cracked through the air like a whip as the great cat actually scowled in annoyance, a genuine scowl. "Come off it, idiot. Do you think that every time something wretched happens, I'm personally to blame? I turn the currents of luck as I will on certain occasions that I have vested interest in, but normally I just let Luck play its course. I like prayers addressed to me as much as anything, but I can't be always interested in your petty monkey lives! You always treated me with respect until now; why would I have harmed her?"

Setzer pursed his lips tightly, forcing his poker face into combat action. Stray's greenish yellow eyes were boring into him, but he was a Gabbiani, a man who had faced down the most difficult and dangerous clients behind his desk or the gambling table. He would not back away. Seeing this, the Esper calmed down some and regarded its paws lazily.

"But even so--Death, no matter how accidental, happens for a reason, fool. I don't work without boundaries. There's a sort of conservation of energy that applies to spirits as well as flesh. Without a body to house it, the spirit must go where it's called to maintain that order. When one sheds their body, trying to go back or have someone else bring it back breaks too many rules; it's nothing less than a disaster when everything tries to correct itself. There's only one case I know of a resurrection succeeding. And still the world had to find balance."

Setzer rubbed the corner of his coat trimming between thumb and forefinger. At this moment he did not know whether he wanted to flee or stay. He had much to do to complete the repairs; did he have the time? The smoky catnip smell all of a sudden hit his nostrils very powerfully. A buzz filled his head , driving out concern for any schedule. This had been what he had wanted, after all, a diversion from reality. His chin nodded and he relaxed.

"There once was a young man, a little greener than yourself, and a young lady. You should know what happened from there. They formed an attachment and seemed to be very happy. Deliriously happy. And then, alas--you should know what comes here as well. The girl died. And the man couldn't bear it. He next did a very foolish thing. You want to know what he did?

"This human male, dotty and near crazed with grief, made a bargain to retrieve her soul back. Made an unsavory deal with a spirit I used to know, a tricky one. Went on a total killing spree, destroying all those things that would stand in his way, forgetting all about reverence for things greater than himself. When I saw what he was doing, I could not abide such a thing. So I turned my will upon the priests who might have stopped this foolish young man and delayed them so that they were too late to stop him. When the lad had killed until he could kill no more, his girl awoke--and the spirit he had made a deal with entered his own body and he was destroyed. So the balance was maintained. But what a glorious twist! What poetic justice!" A pleased little canary-eating grin made its way on the feline face. "I was proud to have been a part of it. I hardly ever had so much fun."

Setzer loved a good prank as anyone, having pulled his share of tricks, yet this one left him cold. He could not see the joke. The soft catty snickers that followed caused him to pull a long face. Had Stray sniggered like this on that day, in that moment when he had learned that Daryl's ship had crashed? No monster could act so. . .Before he knew it, Setzer opened his mouth and for once said the first thing on his mind. He said that he felt that it had been monstrously petty.

"Petty? Why do you say this?" came the mild voice.

"Because I don't see why trifling with love should just come off as one big joke."

"I've seen you dally with ladies, my boy."

"I never once harmed anything when love was involved."

One of the cat Esper's ears swiveled toward him, focusing on the source of his voice like a radar, its head cocked to the side at an angle that made Setzer wonder about its sincerity, yet its face deigned to portray a regally mild curiosity that not even he, the master of reading poker faces, could not decipher.

"Love," came the purr. "Love, love, love. Love? I'm afraid I don't get your drift, Signor Gabbiani. It has been so long, has it not? Years. And yet when you speak of this person, your voice grows heavy, your eyes so distant and muddled…Can you honestly apply that L-word to something besides yourself or your airship or your precious freedom? What sort of gambler are you? Pathetic, really."

Something about the fit of mewling, scorn-laden laugher that followed plucked at a tender cord in the gambler's normally insouciant heart and the skin around his lips tightened, his scars growing slightly more pale. It was unfair. Had all of the people he had bested, whether in cards or a hard-eyed business deal or in love, had they felt this burning sense of helpless shame? In between flashes of Daryl's vibrant laughter, her fiery hair and smile, he remembered a young fop from Vector who had had the mischance to challenge him at blackjack--he had utterly beaten the poor sap and took everything the boy owned, all of his inheritance, and left him with nothing but tears and a worthless name. Gods help him, he had laughed then.

"If you truly knew what it was like to treasure someone," Setzer said coldly, "you wouldn't be laughing like a jackal. I'd break my body into pieces to have her back again."

The laughter stopped right then and there. The cat's eyes began to grow so flat they might have been made of inlaid stone. "I knew what it was like. Once. And it brought me nothing but trouble."

Out of the blue, an image of the overgrown feline purring and padding up to either Siren or Starlet came to mind and it was Setzer's turn to laugh. He continued to grin after the eruption had passed; his host did not stir or give any outward sign of emotion save for the occasional flick of the tail.

"Which Esper? Perhaps there's a lady Kitty that the legends missed!"

Shaking its head, the Esper stretched out and cricked its back, the long claws flashing briefly in the ritual. "Neither. I was not always like this. But that was a long time ago and I am an Esper. And I'll even tell you a secret: we Espers all have similar stories--there's not one of us who had to sacrifice to become what we are. And that's where we derive our great power. Not even the Empire, with all of their fancy machines, could destroy it."

He had to fight down his sudden giggles, knowing his situation was rather precarious now. Truthfully, he could see nothing funny about what Stray was telling him. He did not understand this creature, not even with secrets unfurling like some glorious sunrise before him. By his very trade Setzer dealt in his fair share of mysteries, of hearing delicate information, but the downside was that the thrill mattered the most. Setzer could never have enough of them. Now, seeing his patron up close, he found that already a hollow feeling had started to gnaw his middle. It was the exact sensation he got right after he won large hands or sealed deals. The satisfaction quickly became heavy with a burden and Setzer did not like burdens.

"What else? That's surely not the end of it. It doesn't explain why the most important person in my life, the one I'd staked all my fortunes on--"

"Be quiet now. You normally amuse me, but this is going beyond the line," Stray growled. The hackles on the back of his neck propped up a monument to Irascibility. "Stop complaining. You have had a few knocks in life. Haven't we all? You throw the riches and luxury and security in my face just because one woman died? Humans are cheap. Your over-breeding floods the market. The ability to invent, to be the first man to conquer the skies, to have lived life so fully as you have--that is not cheap fate. It is much better than living in this limbo, neither dead nor alive. The comforts you see…" he batted at the smoke wisps and raked his paw along his cushion, "are but figments of figments. I conjure them and fool and others that they're real, but I know they are not. I let Ramuh kill me rather than fall into one of those damned tubes the Empire has built and this is what I got. How dare you complain to me? Just like you humans. Always finding something else to blame for your troubles, but when your fortunes change you take all the credit. Have I not been good to you, little man? You think you did everything on your own? All the talent and charisma you possess, you think those alone would have gotten you anywhere? Ingrate!""

The furry chest heaved in and out, nearly bursting with regal indignation, and Setzer patiently waited it out; a sudden calmness had settled upon him with a feather touch and he did not feel in the least afraid somehow, not of those claws or the spitting or whatever powers that remained in the Esper's arsenal. The cat almost tunneled down in size right before his eyes, becoming rather toy-like. If he hadn't been a master at controlling himself when he wanted, Setzer would have giggled. He once knew a ventriloquist who, as a part of his act, sometimes brought in a stray dog or cat up onto the stage and put his own voice into its barks or mews--it was as if he were seeing the same skit all over again. When Stray's mouth stopped moving and he regained his equilibrium, Setzer met the displeased gaze.

"I am grateful for your blessings. At times I think I really do have all I want. But without her, I can't see what the fuss is all about. You broke the contract we had. Maybe this is what you get in return for it."

A loud roar shook the space almost like a rattle, the mists swirling violently. Setzer took a step back, a wave of fear pulling at his guts to see and hear what looked like an overgrown housecat to bellow with a lion's voice.

"Setzer Gabbiani," Stray growled, hackles rising farther and fangs bared, "you try my patience too long. I have told you all that I will. If you continue to defy me, I will do more than revoke my favor so that you lose every card game you play for eternity. I will bite your damned head right off your shoulders!"

There was no doubting that he was angry enough to do it and Setzer did not wish to die. He never knew whether his body was actually materialized in this plane or not, but either way he did not want to risk anything. He would not allow the Blackjack to sit stranded in a wretched forest or let Edgar of all people touch the sacrosanct engine works ever again. He raised his hands to his forehead, murmuring an apology that had all the heartfelt conviction of love for life behind it. And yet at the end he couldn't resist.

"If you only knew what she was like, you would understand," Setzer said, memories shaping his voice into something firm yet light. "She was worth everything to me. I can understand why that young man or yours did what he did--even if I wouldn't chance it."

He half expected the end to come right then and there, to be knocked flat on his back while claws made their way straight for his throat, but no movement came from his host. Stray's eyes had narrowed into slits, but no fire burned in them. He was almost, if Setzer could believe it, humble. No longer some weird sideshow act, the light in those eyes reminded the gambler why this Esper had always been his favorite. Star would roll with whatever new lesson dealt out and add it into the odds.

"I know more than you think I do," the great cat spoke at length. "I do. But sometimes our wishes go awry. I control fortune, not fate. That's the difference you're not getting. If it's fate you want to see, go ask Zoneseek. But even he's not reliable."

With a whisk of its tail all of the tea set, smoke, and furniture vanished. Setzer had to keep himself from toppling over, no seat underneath him. Stray yawned and stretched out his body again.

"You are a rude guest," said the cat. "But gutsy. I'm afraid I have nothing more to say to you. I'm annoyed with you, Mr. Gabbiani, but you can make amends. Perhaps I won't stay mad for long, anyway. Depends on how I feel. Still, time for you to go. Don't talk to me ever again until you learn how to address me properly and politely."

For the final time the black tail sliced through the air and the slitted eyes winked, albeit in an exasperated fashion. Everything grew intangible, falling away as what shreds of reality remained crumbled. In that instant Setzer wondered if this was what it was like to die.

Blinking his eyes against the lack of glare, a pounding coursed through his head and he felt as if suffering through a gargantuan hangover iced over with a sinus cold. Setzer lifted his slim hands and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. The cabinet stood there, doors swung open, Magicite gleaming and in proper order. Stepping away, there was a stiffness in his legs he seldom ever experienced unless he had spent a whole evening standing up while tinkering with cogs and wiring.

There was the sound of stirring from the other parts of the Blackjack. Whether it was Gau bouncing about his room or Sabin performing his pre-dawn rituals, Setzer did not know. He didn't even know the exact time. All that could be determined with any certainty was that his legs ached, his eyes were bleary, and he was damned exhausted.

With a groan and not a care about how his apparently eternal houseguests would think it befitted him, the gambler flopped bonelessly down into the nearest plush velvet chair. Nothing seemed amiss otherwise. Had it all been some cabin fever-borne dream? Some finishing trick of the cat's? No use in trying to get a definite answer, he supposed; he could think of no empirical way to determine one way or the other.

Setzer rose wearily; time to give the crew orders to prepare breakfast. Maybe today they would have better luck finding a way through the forest. Damned Returners were eating him out of house and home.

Later that day, in boredom Setzer challenged a few of his comrades to a friendly series of dice and card games. No matter what, he never got a good throw or winning hand, not even when he broke down and with sleight of hand produced the weighted dice or an extra ace. It was terribly embarrassing for him, even if his face did not show it--Sabin, who had no poker face, and even Cyan, who had never gambled in his life and had only been pressured in the games by duress, won against him. Setzer, throwing down his last losing hand, gave an accusing look at the Magicite cabinet, hazel eyes hard and not at all amused.

It was just damned rotten luck.


All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition

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