"This doesn't seem fair."
"You only say that because you're losing," said Ema. She took a sip of her beer and grinned cheekily. "Come on, take it off."
"If you had said that in any other context, fraulein," said Klavier, obediently reaching down to the hem of his shirt and pulling the whole thing over his head, "I would be happy to oblige." He shook his head to free his hair and sat back down. "But as I am losing only because of cheating, I am slightly put out."
"You're the one who's cheating," Athena said, giggling. "Who told you to wear an undershirt?"
Klavier glanced down at his white tank top. "It wasn't as though I was planning to play strip poker tonight, fraulein Cykes."
"What kind of rockstar wears an undershirt?" Athena went on, muttering as she reached in to shuffle the deck. "We already had to go through the shoes and the socks and the jacket…."
Klavier raised an eyebrow and helped himself to another drink.
Ema waved her own glass. "What're you complaining for anyway, fop? You're not the only one who's lost a few rounds, y'know." She chugged the rest of her glass and held it out, expectantly waiting for a refill.
Klavier glanced at her as he poured in more beer from the pitcher. In her losing hands she had, oddly enough, elected to remove her blouse before her lab coat, slipping the white garment back on over her bra after paying her dues. She left it unbuttoned, and he did his best not to seem like he was gawking. Ema didn't appear to notice, perhaps too inebriated to really care.
The sound of a door closing down the hall made him look up again. Apollo was wiping his hands on his pants as he returned from the restroom, still completely clothed, with not even his jacket or shoes removed.
"Ah," said Klavier. "Herr Cheater himself is back."
Apollo looked at him, confused. "Huh? What'd I miss?"
"Klavier's annoyed you keep winning," said Athena.
"He's being a sore loser," Ema corrected. She chugged about half of her beer and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. "He deserves it."
Klavier put a hand over his chest in mock heartbreak. "I don't see what I could have possibly done to deserve all of you ganging up on me like this, fraulein."
"It was your idea to make this strip poker in the first place, that's what," said Ema. She poked him hard in the center of the chest. "We just wanted a friendly game of cards, but noooooo. As soon as Trucy goes to bed, you're all 'let's make this more interesting,' and now it looks like you can dish it out, but you can't take it."
"I can 'take it' fine, Detective. I am perfectly at ease with paying my dues, if only everyone at the table were earning them legally."
Apollo rolled his eyes. "I'm not cheating," he said.
"And somehow you haven't lost a single hand," said Klavier. He gestured accusatorily with his glass. "You spend all that time with the little fraulein Wright as well– I wouldn't be surprised if she showed you how to hide a few cards up your sleeve and slip them into your hand when nobody's looking."
"I also work with Mr. Wright, Gavin, who spent seven years as a professional poker player, as you may recall." He shrugged and accepted the refilled glass Athena was offering him. "I guess I'm just good at poker, okay? I'm not cheating."
"You are," Klavier said, his eye glinting with a dark and mischievous air. "And once I figure out how…"
"Would you just deal, Athena?" Apollo pointedly ignored him.
Athena obediently shuffled with a flourish and began tossing the cards expertly into piles.
"It does seem kind of weird," Ema said after the hand was over. "Do you just never bluff? Sort of a boring way to play."
"He bluffs," said Athena. "He had nothing that first hand, remember? And he won that."
"That was just luck," Apollo muttered. He was gathering the cards back into the pile, fumbling to get them all oriented correctly.
"You've been awfully lucky this whole evening, Herr Forehead."
"Or you're just unlucky."
"Nein, I don't think so." Klavier tapped his chin thoughtfully. "I'm losing faster than you all because you ganged up on me, as it was my idea."
"Damn straight," Ema said, though some of the bitterness had left her voice.
"The lovely detective is proving about equal to both myself and Herr Justice in regards to winning the actual hands, where Miss Cykes has a slight advantage over us three with her natural edge on psychology and math."
"And it's getting duller with every drink," said Athena, raising her glass.
"But her competitive side means if she has a moderately good hand, she will not fold," Klavier went on. "A trait shared with Detective Skye, which explains both of their states of partial undress. But you, Herr Justice, despite having won a statistically appropriate number of hands, have not actually lost a single one."
Apollo glared back. "I didn't realize you were paying such close attention."
Ema leaned over her knees and peered hard at Apollo. She absently reached out for a handful of snacks and began popping them into her mouth, one by one, a habit they had all come to recognize to signify deep thought.
"I think," she said absently, and paused a little too long to crunch on her snacks, "I think you might be (crunch) forgiven for the time being, fop. (crunch crunch crunch)."
"I am glad to hear that."
Apollo turned pink under her scrutiny. "I thought we were punishing him for being a pervert."
"We were," said Ema, "But that was before, when I was sober and angry. Now I'm drunk and more interested in your immunity to strip poker." She shrugged. "It's nothing personal, Justice. It's just a scientific oddity, and I'd like to investigate the cause."
Apollo looked pleadingly at Athena, but she was too busy discarding her skirt to pay him much attention. "Sorry, Polly, but you're still fully dressed and I am sadistic enough to enjoy seeing you squirm."
"STRIP, APOLLO, STRIP!"
She blushed and clasped her hand over Gidget to stop it from making further commentary, then sat back down with a little shudder. "Whoo, this chair is cold! Come on, Apollo, deal the hand, we're waiting on you."
Apollo sighed, very heavily, and for a very long time. All three of his opponents were wearing nearly identical grins of pure maliciousness. Athena with her hands out in the middle of the table, Klavier lounging opulently over the back of his chair with one hand idly twirling the edge of Ema's hair, while she stared intently at Apollo to examine his every move.
Apollo poured himself another glass of beer, chugged half of it, and dealt the cards.
It took them four more hands and another pitcher of beer before Apollo lost. Ema's lab coat was discarded on the floor, as was Klavier's undershirt and belt. Athena's jacket was wadded beneath the table, and she kicked it angrily as she lay down her cards.
"Damn it, I only have a pair of jacks!" She glared daggers at Apollo, who took another sip of his mysteriously refilling glass. "If I find out you're hiding cards in a beer bottle…"
"Our beer is in a pitcher, Fraulein Cykes, we would see it." Klavier threw down his hand in disgust as well. "Herr Forehead just seems to be lucky enough to get three kings."
"I've seen the way you stare at things," Athena muttered. "I bet you've got X-ray eyes and can see through the cards or something."
Apollo put down his glass– half empty again– and glared back. "Don't be an idiot, Athena."
"He doesn't have X-ray vision," said Ema, uncharacteristically subdued. "Even if he did, it wouldn't let him see the other side of a paper card. X-rays don't work like that. It's only basic science." She smiled placidly and put her cards gently on the table. "A less scientific fact, but no less true, is that three aces beats three kings."
For a moment, the whole table was silent. Apollo had become very still and pale. Ema sat back in her chair with her arms crossed. Klavier and Athena stared blankly at the cards.
They erupted into pandemonium. Klavier hit the table hard enough to splash the drinks, and Athena leapt to her feet to dance around the table hugging the still shellshocked Apollo and then Ema in quick succession.
"Yessss!" Athena crowed, pumping her fist. "Yes! Take that, Polly! First blood! A complete turnabout!"
"Take it off, Herr Justice! You've lost, fair and square. No cheating on our team!"
Apollo hunched his shoulders and began to turn a flustered, angry red. "Poker isn't a game for teams," he said. "And I wasn't cheating!"
"It doesn't matter now, does it?" Klavier stood to meet Athena's high-five, and then pointed triumphantly at Apollo. "Time to strip, Herr Verteidiger! You can't back down now!"
"I wasn't going to," Apollo said, trying to maintain calm. It wouldn't be so bad if only they weren't making such a big deal out of it; it wasn't as if he had agreed, albeit reluctantly, to play strip poker if he wasn't willing to take the penalty. He took a breath and then turned to Ema. She was still lounging with a satisfied expression, enjoying the celebration. "All right, congratulations. I finally lost a hand. I'm still winning."
Klavier and Athena, having each chugged another victory glass on Ema's behalf, had deteriorated into shouting "Take it off! Take it off!" with their arms around each other's shoulders. Gidget unhelpfully added to the cacophony, its tinny voice slightly out of sync with the humans' as it chanted along.
Apollo glared at them from the corner of his eye. "I'm going, I'm going," he said, reaching for the knot in his tie.
"This is a hell of a thing to wake up to at two in the morning."
Klavier and Athena both froze in place. Ema jerked forward, righting herself and inelegantly scrambled to cross her arms over herself in a way that looked halfway decent.
Apollo heaved an internal sigh of relief. "Sorry, Mr. Wright. Didn't mean to wake you."
Phoenix shrugged. He walked from the stairs, stepping easily over the perpetual mess in his office-cum-house to peer at the table. "Eh, that's all right. Just try and keep it down; Trucy's still asleep you know."
"Right," said Ema hurriedly. She pulled all the cards to her and stacked them together with quick, uncoordinated movements. "Sorry, we can go."
"It's fine, Ema," Phoenix said. He ruffled her hair affectionately, sending her tinted glasses down from her head to the bridge of her nose. He sat calmly in Klavier's vacated seat. "So, what're we playing?"
"Um," Ema said. She fumbled with the cards some more before finally managing to get them in a neat pile to shuffle. "Just five card stud. Y'know, the basics."
"But if you don't fold and you have a worse hand than everyone else still in, you have to take off an article of clothing. Or everyone's in, the winner can choose someone," Athena explained. She detangled her hair from around Klavier's neck and hurried back to the couch to sit next to Apollo. She folded her hands in her lap and looked at the floor, the perfect image of a demure, embarrassed schoolgirl. She ran her fingers absently through the end of her pony tail.
"I can see that," said Phoenix, amused. "You lost your hand, Apollo?"
"Yeah," said Apollo. He gestured to the table, where his and Ema's cards had rested before her flustered cleaning binge. "Three kings to three aces. Didn't think I was risking too much when I went all in."
"If we were really betting, you might be broke right now," said Phoenix. "So, that means Ema gets to choose something to take off of you?"
The room became quiet again.
Apollo's face slowly became a bright red. "We– we were just taking off in whatever order we wante–"
"We were taking off," Klavier interrupted. "You haven't taken off a thing. I think Herr Wright is correct, Miss Skye should choose."
"That's not fair! You took off your shoes first!"
"Ema could choose shoes," Athena said with a shrug. She leaned over the table grinning. "Don't choose shoes, Ema. Choose shirt."
"With the jacket and vest, that's at least three layers, Fraulein Cykes. Remove his pants, Detective, it will even the score faster."
"But we can't see anything once he sits back down!"
"What are you trying to see?! I don't see why I have to–"
"Quiet down, Herr Forehead, lest you wake the sleeping fraulein. You won't see anything anyway if he merely removes one layer of shirt. Who knows how long it will take before he loses another hand."
"Hmm, maybe you're right. But it's up to Ema, really, what do you think, Ema?"
Ema didn't seem to be paying them any mind. Phoenix was leaning over, muttering something in her ear that was causing Ema to frown in thought. She reached for the snacks again, thoughtfully munching away as she listened.
Apollo fumbled with his jacket buttons. "Look, we're wasting a lot of time, I'll just take off my jacket and we can get back to the game–"
Apollo blinked at her. "What?"
"Your bracelet. That's what I choose. Take it off."
"But…" Apollo paused, looking around the table. He twisted his bracelet nervously on his wrist.
"That's not very exciting, Ema. And I thought jewelry didn't count; Klavier still has his necklaces on."
Apollo looked relieved and about ready to thank Athena for the help, but Ema cut him off. "It's your bracelet or your pants, Justice. You have five seconds."
Apollo hesitated a moment longer. He carefully set his bracelet down on the table and sat back down. He rubbed his bare wrist, obviously uncomfortable with the loss. Klavier and Athena just looked mildly disappointed.
Ema raised an eyebrow at them, and they sat back down. She cut the deck and shuffled it with a flourish. "You staying for the next hand, Mr. Wright?"
"Might as well. If you don't mind, of course."
"Of course not." She passed the deck to him. "You deal."
Another full rotation around the table, and Apollo dropped his head to the table with a groan.
"Nnnnooooooooo," he said, the sound muffled by the wood.
Athena whooped and danced out of her seat. "Yeah, take that! Come on Polly, lose the shirt!"
Apollo glared at her, not bothering to raise his head from the table. "I swear you guys are cheating."
"Your luck has just changed a little, Herr Justice," Klavier said cheerfully. "I take back whatever I said about your cheating, it's obviously just coincidence."
Apollo moved his glare to him. "You might not be cheating, but he is." He pointed at Phoenix, then let his head drop back to the table. "And you're still picking on me, anyway."
"Just trying to even the score, Herr Forehead."
"What do you expect when a professional poker player joins the game, Justice?"
"I wouldn't exactly say 'professional,' Ema," said Phoenix. He idly shuffled the deck as he spoke, still fully clothed and obviously enjoying himself. "And you should know better than anyone that I don't cheat, Apollo."
"Maybe you didn't used to," Apollo muttered. "I'm not so sure now."
"Stop being a sore loser and strip, Polly!"
Apollo gave Athena one last glare before pushing himself away from the table. True to their threat, they had made him take off his pants first, and had been steadily working on his layers of shirt. He very quickly unbuttoned the front of his white blouse, slung his arms out of the sleeves, and dumped the whole thing on the chair beside him. He sat down, crossed his arms on the table, and firmly returned his head to the surface as well.
Athena cheered, and Ema cat called into her drink.
"Yee-ha!" Athena crowed. "No undershirts here! Oww!"
Apollo groaned. Klavier reached out to clap him on the shoulder. "You alright there, Herr Justice?"
"'Fine' is right," Athena said. "I didn't know you worked out, Polly!"
Her only answer was another mortified groan. She laughed and chugged the rest of her beer.
Phoenix, still smirking, pushed himself away from the table and stretched. "Well, that was fun. But I think I'll head back to bed."
Apollo raised his head just enough to glare over the tops of his arms. "This is all your fault."
Phoenix shrugged. "You're going to have to learn how to read people without your bracelet sometime, Apollo. You never know when you might end up at a trial without it."
Klavier blinked and looked up at him, eyes slightly unfocused from the alcohol and frowning. "Wait. Then Herr Justice really was cheating?" Apollo growled something into the table. Klavier rubbed the back of his head, ruffling his hair. "Sorry, kumpel. I was just being facetious."
"Not cheating," Phoenix corrected. "It's just reading people's tells. Except he can catch the more subtle signs." He grinned and scratched the back of his neck. "I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to finally point out that weakness. And I was sick of him always knowing when I'm bluffing."
Apollo looked up sharply. "But you always win. It doesn't matter who we're playing with, I've never won a whole game."
"That's just because you need to take more risks," Phoenix said through a yawn. "Well, that and you aren't very good at covering your tell either."
Apollo's eyes widened like the thought had never occurred to him.
"Whaaaaat?" Athena gasped. "I can't tell when Polly's bluffing! He stays totally calm no matter what his hand is! I couldn't even tell how good his hands were when he was freaking out about losing just now!"
Phoenix put his finger to his lips. "Come on, wrap it up," he said. "Trucy's still sleeping upstairs. She doesn't need to come down and see this."
Ema and Klavier both stood up with disgruntled mutters, searching around their chairs for their discarded clothes. Athena likewise sighed when she realized her boss wasn't going to give up Apollo's weak point and set herself to clearing the table of beer glasses and cards.
Apollo caught Phoenix halfway up the stairs, his trousers unbuttoned and his shirt thrown haphazardly over his shoulders.
"What 'tell'?" he asked, frowning.
Phoenix grinned and looked down at the other three. Athena was busying herself clearing the couch so she could sleep on it, and Klavier was phoning for a taxi while Ema stood by him tapping her foot impatiently.
"I guess I can't pick up any habits or twitches I have myself," Apollo said thoughtfully.
"You don't have a tell for when you're lying," Phoenix said quietly.
Apollo blinked a few times, trying to puzzle that out.
"Whenever someone else is bluffing," Phoenix went on, "You touch your wrist." He grinned. "That's why I always win. You give me the same hints Trucy does at the club." He knocked Apollo's bangs into his face before turning to go upstairs. "G'night!"