Disclaimer: Setzer, Daryl, and other related characters are property of Square. The other peeps ( i.e. Benny, J.J.) are mine, but there's no legal backing behind this claim. :)

--Themis

Wine, Women, and Song

A fic by

Themis56

Themis56@aol.com

Gambling is not a sin

Provided, of course, that you always win.

CHAPTER ONE: A FINE LITTLE DANDY

The Gabbianis had always been a well-respected family in Jidoor. The very first Gabbiani who had come to the cosmopolitan city had been a humble merchant with an eye for color and a nose for money. He had pooled his money with a few other small traders to invest in the silk business, a wise choice because all Jidoorians doted on the material: they even dressed their pets up in little silk vests and shirts. A poodle shivering in the winter cold, garbed in the finest and flimsiest of brightly colored hues, was a common sight. Such frivolities were foolish; the first Gabbiani knew this, but he didn't mind in the least. If these people were so mad for the stuff, then he didn't care how it was used. Through the years, he broke free from his fellow merchants and finally got a monopoly on the silk market through sometimes unscrupulous but always clever methods.

The Gabbianis have always loved to make money off of people's excesses--except one, and he started out about the same as the worst of them.

Now, about one hundred years after the first Gabbiani had arrived, the family, though always respected, was not as well-off as it once was. The first Gabbiani had liked to gamble away some of his hard-earned money, but he was shrewd enough never to go overboard, which could not be said of his descendants. Gambling ran through the family, men and women alike, and they had slowly brought down the family business bit by bit, year after year, as the money was taken away by the dealing of cards and rather wild lifestyles. One Gabbiani once boasted that he and his family could take baths not of water, but of the most exotic perfumes, and they did. They were the nicest-smelling people in town, even if they were the stickiest.

But the opulence took its toll, and when the family business was handed over to one Ponzo Gabbiani, it was not nearly as grand as it once was. The monopoly had been broken, and other silk merchants had grown more successful and richer. The family home was no longer located in the rich northern district, but--insult of insults!--in the very middle of town, right next to the auction house. But the Gabbiani name was still well-thought of and somewhat feared, and Ponzo, kindly and intelligent, was not as much of a pleasure monger as the others before him, though he still enjoyed fine wine, admiring beautiful women, and playing cards.

Ponzo married one of those beautiful ladies, a vivacious red-haired girl named Dulcina. Unlike most aristocratic girls, she had a great deal of common sense and financial acumen combined with a lack of arrogance, and would not sit idly by and watch her husband's business go down the tubes. From the very start, she helped Ponzo with his book-keeping and maintenance of the store, even going so far as to haggling with customers herself. Ponzo didn't much care for the help of a woman, but he didn't complain--he was actually getting a little more money than before, which he promptly gambled away.

Dulcina took her husband's little vices in stride, because she loved him and didn't care what people said or how much they earned. But when she became pregnant, that all changed.

When the doctor had confirmed her suspicions, Dulcina marched right into the store just as Ponzo was closing up and she hauled him into a half-empty storage room.

"Ponzo, brace yourself," the lady announced. "I went to the doctor today, and there is a reason why I've been throwing up every morning the past month other than indigestion. We've got a baby on the way."

Ponzo tried to read her face, but it was perfectly blank and blunt, and it gave him no clue as how to react. He had always thought that when a woman found out she was pregnant, she'd be ecstatic; Dulcina proved him wrong. Still, he took a blind shot.

"Sweetheart!" he cried, joy bursting over his face as he advanced to embrace her. "What good news! It's wonderful!"

Dulcina dodged his arms and gave him a small shove. He gawked at her as she crossed her arms, planted her feet wide apart, and looked stolidly at him.

"Listen, Ponzo. I've never minded you burning a little midnight oil--the gods know you can't help it, being a Gabbiani. But now it's going to be different. We're going to have a beautiful bouncy baby in a few months, a sweet little boy--"

"How do you know it's going to be a boy?" Ponzo asked a bit archly; he didn't like where this conversation was going.

"I just know. Women's intuition. But his sex doesn't matter, Ponzo. He's going to be our child, our lovely child. And, to cut straight to the chase: I want him to have a roof over his head, enough to eat, an honest family--a future, Ponzo."

"Won't he get it? We're not poor, Dulcy." The merchant was exasperated with his wife's outlandish behavior--were all pregnant women this touchy?--and he scratched at his thick, long hair, which was, strangely enough, gray. It had been like that ever since he had been in his early twenties. But, thankfully, it was not showing any signs of thinning or falling out, for he was only thirty-two, after all, and it actually made him look quite dashing.

"Oh, I know that!" Dulcina retorted promptly. "But who knows what the future holds? A merchant takes lots of risks in his business, and he can go bust at any time. A merchant who gambles is ten thousand times worse. I don't mind the risk. But now we've got this," --she jiggled her belly-- "we've got to be more careful. I want this child to have a safe, sweet childhood, the one that every child deserves. And you're not going to louse it up, my dear Ponzo. One bad card hand, one missed roulette call, and we can lose the farm. So, hear this: Give up gambling."

"Wha-at?" Ponzo looked like he had been slapped across the face with a dead fish; he staggered back a few paces. "You surely must be joking."

"I mean it," she growled through clenched teeth. "I love you, Ponzo, but I love this baby, too. If you're any kind of a father, you'll do what's going to be best for your child. Give him a future."

"But, Sweetheart! No playing cards, no roulette, not even bingo! I'll die!"

"Nonsense! You can still do all of those things, just don't bet on them."

"But that's what makes it fun!"

"Ponzo, shut up and take it like a man. Fine. Gamble away all your money, see what I care. But I swear, the moment your back is turned, I'm going to smack you in the back of the head with a piece of stove-wood and then I'll leave you and go back to Papa. He'll take care of the baby, at least."

The wretched man smoothed back his hair, which he had torn in his grief, and lowered his hands, which were clenching and relaxing in agitation. He saw the determined look on his wife's face, and then he knew he was beaten. A good gambler always folds before he loses even more than he already has; a slow smile spread across his face, and then he nodded.

"All right, Dulcy. Have it your way; you know what's best," he conceded miserably, thinking as he said these words: I am so utterly whipped. My Gabbiani ancestors are laughing at me. I think I'll go insane.

"That's my Ponzo," Dulcina laughed, her expression softening as she wrapped her arms around her husband's neck and gave him the nicest kiss he'd ever had.

Ponzo's chances at retaining his sanity improved greatly.

*************

And so the Gabbianis ran their shop as before. But Ponzo didn't gamble any more, just as he'd promised, with a little help from his wife: whenever he felt most tempted, she locked all the doors to the house and collected all the keys, which she hung at a belt around her waist. She watched her husband like a hawk and never showed any pity towards his struggles.

The money started to slowly accumulate, despite the natural downturns of the trade cycle, but the family was still nothing compared with the other silk bigwigs. It didn't matter to either of them. Their child would do all right, and that was what counted.

Dulcina grew as round as a hippo with a glandular problem, but she was still as vivacious and lovely as ever; Ponzo seemed truly excited about the upcoming birth as well. Everything was going fine.

Then, it happened: one fine day, the husband and wife were sitting under a tree and having a picnic, soaking up rays of sunshine while basking under a blue February sky. The two were playing a silly game, trying to tickle each other, when Dulcina snapped:

"Ouch! Ponzo! You kneed me in the stomach! That's too rough."

"I did not," came the indignant reply as he sat up and crossed his arms.

Indeed, Dulcina realized her error, because that same pain came again, and his knees were good inches away from her.

"Oh, gods," she swore, her eyes big. "He's coming!"

"He's...coming? The baby?"

"Yes, you moron!!" Dulcina roared as she threw a grapefruit at his head. "Don't just sit there gawking! Go get the doctor!"

"You mean...you can't walk...?" Fear made the normally intelligent Ponzo a dimwit.

"Ponzo!! Does it look like I can walk?! Just get your deadweight carcass off the ground and get me help!"

Ponzo didn't need another word to be said; he jumped up and ran faster than he ever had in his life towards the doctor's, which, fortunately, was very close by.

Soon, Ponzo and the local doctor came rushing up to a screaming, thrashing woman who was kicking bread and tarts all over the place.

The medic was an old hand at this kind of thing, and the delivery was as safe and swift as could be possible. After about six hours, he had pulled out a healthy, live, screaming baby boy. He wiped the blood and gunk from the newborn's eyes.

"See? I told you, Ponzo! A boy! Give him to me," panted the disheveled Mrs. Gabbiani, her eyes a bit drowsy from some painkilling herbs she had been given, lifting her head from her husband's lap and stretching out her arms.

As the baby changed hands, its eyes opened just a mere crack, a slit so tiny that it could barely be discerned. As it was being transferred and in mid-air, it did not gaze upon any human face.

The first thing it saw was the sky.

************

The little baby was named Setzer, and his first few years were spent like any child's: his parents played with him, he was happy, and he didn't have a care in the world. He had no distinction of the finer things in life: chewing on a wooden block was just as exciting as playing with a silk--naturally--scarf.

Things started to change, though, when Setzer first started to attend school--not some ordinary public place, but one of Jidoor's finest private institutions. Naturally, the school was made up almost entirely of the upper class children, kids with fine leather coats, glittering jewelry, and the fanciest bagged lunches cooked by gormet chefs.

When he saw his classmates, Setzer lost all contentment with his lifestyle. He was still very young, only about six, but he was a precocious child and knew of the fine name he was born into: why should the nouveau riche have such fine things while he, a Gabbiani, had to settle for middle-class? That old family love of the finer things sprang out with a vengeance. Little Setzer wanted everything his classmates had, the fine perfumes, the chic clothes, the fluffy little lap-dogs, everything.

And it didn't help much that the other children were, as can be expected, quite cold towards Setzer, whom they saw as an intruder and a slob. Although the young Gabbiani was immaculate in his dress and hygiene, the children avoided him as if he had lice. He didn't dress as finely, he didn't eat as richly, he didn't speak with refinement as they did, and for that, he didn't even deserve the time of day. Setzer underwent that vicious, bratty kind of torture that only little children can mete out, and it made him angry and confused.

One day after school, little Setzer, tired of being ignored or insulted, marched in through the door, slammed his books on the floor and stomped into the living room, where his parents were reclining.

"Mama, how come we don't have an imp robot?"

The question was met with astounded glances between husband and wife, but it didn't totally surprise them. Little kids often spout out nonsense, mostly just to hear themselves talk. Setzer didn't seem to be kidding, though.

"Hmm? What's that, Angel-Face?" Dulcina said slowly, breaking the awkward silence, deliberately using their pet name for their son; it always embarrassed him, and children usually aren't contrary when they're absolutely mortified.

Setzer's face--indeed angelic, with its smooth, strangely creamy skin, the slender cheekbones, deep hazel eyes, and beautiful platinum hair--wrinkled up in disgust, but he pressed on: "Almost all of the kids at my school have these imp robots. They get them from the auction house. They're ugly, but they're robots, and they can talk! They make them fight in a ring during recess until the teacher makes 'em stop. Why don't we have one, Mama?"

"Angel-Face," Dulcina said soothingly, "we don't need an imp robot. They can't do anything except talk and bug you and mess up the house. They bump into things all the time."

"But all of the kids have them, Mama! Why not us? Caiyrn Kathay's got five of them," Setzer cried, rolling his eyes.

"The Kathays have got more money than we do, sweetie. They've got too much money, if you ask me."

"But Mama, we're Gabbianis, aren't we? We're supposed to be rich," Setzer said, his face growing very serious.

"That was a very long time ago," Dulcina sighed; her eyes flickered over to her husband and gave him a knowing glance, almost like giving a nudge in the elbow. Ponzo took the opportunity gladly.

"Delectable, would you mind leaving for a moment? I'll handle this," he whispered to her.

"Don't you go egging him on, Ponzo. If you don't nip him in the bud, he's going to grow up to be a grade-A pansy, just like those other kids."

"Trust me." Ponzo gave his wife his most charming grin, one that under other circumstances would have melted her into putty in his hands, but she still remained on guard. However, her resolve had been weakened somewhat, and she nodded reluctantly.

"I'm going into the kitchen and bake some cookies for you, Angel," she cooed sweetly, running her hand through her boy's thick platinum locks as she passed him by. Setzer stared after her, feeling that something was up, but he didn't know what.

"Son, come here," Ponzo beckoned, patting the place next to him on his overstuffed chair; Setzer ran over and snuggled his in father's lap.

"Now, Son, how much do these fancy little imps cost, anyways?"

"A million GP."

What?! A MILLION GP?! That's outrageous! Who could afford it? If I had a million GP, I'd put it in a bank and...ARRGH! Curse Dulcina! She has brainwashed me! "Hmmph! A silly waste of money!" Ponzo snorted, curling his lips up in a sneer.

"Why, Papa?"

"Son, let me tell you something. A Gabbiani does not waste his hard-earned money on such trifles. We're better than that."

"We...are?" Setzer's eyes shifted from surly and disappointed into shiny hazel beacons of hope.

"Yes, we are. We could buy some of these fancy little robots, but like your mother said, what's the point? They'd only break down, and you'd have lost a million GP. But we Gabbianis are smarter than that."

"But if we're so smart, how come we're not rich?"

Ponzo was nearly on his feet, he was so excited; instead, he simply pumped his knees, making Setzer vibrate up and down: "Only for a little while, my boy! We were rich once, and, by Stray, the Lucky Cat of Mark-Ups, we'll be rich again! Someday, someday, we will have a nice house in the north with a golden chocobo stable and we'll eat off jeweled plates. And then, I swear, we'll show those little idiots!"

"And their daddies?" Setzer asked mischievously, getting so excited now that he was bouncing on his own accord.

This time, Ponzo did leap to his feet, sending his little son sprawling off onto the soft plush carpet, roaring, his eyes glittering: "Especially their daddies, those sons-of-bitches! And when you're older you'll be ten times as wealthy, and then we'll rub their faces in it! Wouldn't that be great?!"

A forbidding shadow appeared in the doorway, looming ominously over the now sober Gabbiani males. Dulcina held a large spatula in one slightly trembling hand, casting down her eyes so her son could not see the anger fermenting in them. Ponzo paled.

"Setzer," her voice was sweet and coaxing, "there's some extra batter on the bowl. Wouldn't you like to lick it off?"

The boy felt something was amiss, but he didn't care; there was raw cookie dough to be eaten, salmonella be damned! He flew out and ran into the kitchen, oblivious to a loud smack that sounded in the living room as Dulcina proceeded to assault her husband with the spatula.

"What was that hogwash you were feeding the boy?!" she demanded, accenting each word with a belt on Ponzo's head. She really was furious.

Ponzo, however, couldn't help but feel a sense of triumph. He had irrevocably instilled his son with the true Gabbiani spirit, and if passing on the family heritage meant being beaten by a utensil, he was more than glad to make that sacrifice.

************

Indeed, little Setzer took his father's words to heart, and school was not so horrible; he could take the snubs and jibes philosophically, knowing that some day, he would be richer and more powerful than any of his fellow students. He would get the last laugh in the end.

As a result, the boy became insufferable, especially to his teachers. He acted like he was just as good, if not better, than anybody at the school--there's nothing more annoying than a child who puts on airs without anything to back them up with. He talked back, he complained often. There was no doubt that Setzer, even if he wasn't a bright child, would always get passed on to the next grade; no teacher wanted him for another year.

"Thank you so very much, Ponzo," Dulcina snapped to her husband one evening after hearing of her son's behavior. "What a fine little dandy our Angel-Face's become! Do you hear that? That's the voice of the couch, inviting you to sleep on it tonight."

Dulcina then tried to erase all of the 'brainwashing' her husband had inflicted on their son, but to no avail. Tears, talks, and spankings did no good, for Setzer was a truly stubborn child with a one-track mind. Eventually, she had to give him up for lost and painfully joined in with the universal consensus: Setzer Gabbiani needed something to curb down that ego of his a couple thousand notches.

That something came along in the middle of the school year, right in winter. The silk shop suddenly went bust. To be perfectly fair, this was not Ponzo's fault, for he was a good businessman, but rather simply bad luck. There were too many silk fishes in the pond, and the demand plummeted through the floor, as did prices. Ponzo, knowing he was doomed, sold the remainder of his stock to a larger, more prosperous business at laughable prices. For one dreadful moment, it looked like the family would have to leave Jidoor, for the poor had no place in that town.

Luckily, Dulcina's father saved them. He didn't want his daughter to be miserable and leave the town she loved, and so he gave them a monthly allowance to live on. In addition, Dulcina became a working woman, a secretary for a rich glob of fat, Owzer. Her reputation never recovered after that and she lost some of her friends, but, despite the hurt and shame, Dulcina trained herself not to care.

The same could not be said for Ponzo, however. Discouraged, defeated, and convinced he was a shame to his prestigious family name, the man slunk back and became a heavy drinker. While his wife worked--another insult--he stayed at home in the gray of the unlit living room, lying on the couch, a bottle in his hand, his eyes peering at things unseen. He was not the vicious kind of drunkard, the one who is a terror to his family, but the sad, soulful, despairing type. Dulcina knew this, and, try as she might to harden her heart against him, simply couldn't bear to leave him alone in the dark--she never even once considered filing for divorce.

As for Setzer, he didn't understand what happened exactly, but he did know that yet another blow had been dealt to the family status, and that he could no longer take comfort in thinking about the future, now dull indeed. He was deathly embarrassed by his father, and could barely hold his head up at school, where the children continued to mock him: "My daddy makes more money than your daddy!" Setzer had no retort to this jibe; somehow, "Oh yeah? Well, my daddy can drink more than your daddy without passing out" didn't have quite the desired effect.

The men of the house drooped under a deep funk, with only Dulcina to give them any comfort, and then they were embarrassed when they went to her. But nothing lasts forever, and Setzer soon found a little spark of hope, quite by accident.

*************

It happened late one night, near the winter's end. For some reason or another, young Setzer simply found it impossible to go to sleep. He then decided to sneak quietly down to the kitchen, where a quick midnight snack might cure what ailed him.

He was astonished to see a faint light flickering in the kitchen. He peeked around the corner of a wall and saw his father, bathed in the feeble light of a candle, head cradled in arms. Ponzo no longer slept in bed with his wife--not from any marital spat, but because he felt that he longer had the right to even touch her hand.

"Papa?" Setzer whispered, coming slowly forward. Ponzo's head jerked up, and he squinted at his son with bloodshot eyes. A sedated little smile crept over the middle-aged man's lined face.

"Hey there," Ponzo mumbled a bit thickly. "What're you doing up so late?"

"I can't sleep."

The father nodded his muddled understanding, and pulled out a chair, taking care for it not to squeak over the floorboards. "Come and sit up with me, then, if you feel like it."

At first, Setzer felt like refusing, for he was still embarrassed of his father and didn't enjoy being associated with him. But the look of abject loneliness and depression in the man's eyes touched the boy's heart, and he felt a desire to cheer his poor father up.

Setzer did not sit at the proffered chair, but snuggled up in Ponzo's lap, wrapping his arms around his father's neck. Ponzo put a heavy hot hand on the platinum locks which shimmered in the candlelight.

The boy felt something hard underneath his father's waistcoat. "Papa, what's that?"

Ponzo started, and he reached in and brought out a battered pack of playing cards. The man regarded them curiously, not recognizing them at first, but then a small laugh escaped his lips: "Ha! These...these...My lucky deck! Well, how about that."

"Are they old?" Setzer inquired, awed by the dog-eared, yellowing things; he had never seen anything so worn.

"I've had them since I was twenty. They brought me luck. I swear, my boy, I never lost any money when they let me play from this deck. Made me quit, though. Thought they were fixed."

An awkward silence followed, with Ponzo lost in memory and his son not knowing how to respond. Eventually, Setzer broke the silence.

"Will you teach me to play?"

Ponzo glanced down at the boy in surprise, but a sly smile crossed his face. He knew Dulcina would definitely not approve of this at all, but she couldn't have her way all the time. It was time to give his son the only gift he could offer: the family heritage and vice.

Still, Ponzo tread cautiously at first: he only taught the boy the innocuous, childish games like Rummy, War, and Crazy Eights. But once he got started, he found it impossible to stop. Sitting there, his son in his lap, his big hands grasping Setzer's small ones, he showed how to play such games as Five Card Stud and Blackjack, along with helpful tips on how to improve the odds of winning. The man's eyes grew sharp and clear; he looked more alive than he had in years.

Setzer's eyes sparkled in the light with this new understanding and pride for his father, who now seemed like the wisest man on the planet, whispering arcane secrets that were only to be known between them. His father was no longer foolish, for he now had planted the seeds of a plan in his son's childish mind. Setzer realized that this knowledge had the potential to rid him from the dullness and dissatisfaction that plagued him.

*************

Armed with his lessons of card-playing, Setzer went straight to work. He challenged his rich schoolmates to card games, demanding bets.

The other kids, gleeful because they knew that the teachers disapproved of gambling (though many played a round of Poker or two in the faculty lounge on the sly), accepted the games with gusto. Setzer proceeded to win game after game.

Setzer won because of two factors: one, Setzer, even at such a tender age, was wonderfully terrific with numbers and could count cards and money with ease; second, he challenged only classmates of his own grade level, and some of the other six-year-olds could barely count to ten. The children didn't have a prayer.

Even though they were rich, the kids at the school didn't carry much money with them, so the stakes were usually not monetary. Setzer didn't mind this at all. Fancy lunches, toys, and even clothes were put up as bets. The lad soon accumulated a great hoard of expensive, shiny things, but he had the good sense to not show off too much, lest an adult get wind of what was going on.

Once, Setzer managed to win nearly a whole suit of brand-new clothes of the classiest, most recent fashion from a classmate in an after-school game; he even won the boy's pants. However, when the loser came home almost starkers, his parents raised a terrible row: Gambling in the schools! Ponzo thought this was hilarious and nearly fell out of his chair laughing, but Dulcina, who wanted to cling to some modicum of dignity, pulled Setzer from the private school and enrolled him with the middle-class children in a public facility (after giving her husband the tongue lashing of his life, of course). The jig was up, and Setzer had to abandon his schemes; his new peers had nothing he wanted.

So the little plan in Setzer's mind had to be put away for the time being, but he was not discouraged. Soon, the little boy thought, he'd be an adult, and then he could start from where he left off. His father had told him that a good gambler had to be patient, and he was determined to prove himself a good gambler.

In the meantime, he practiced his game with his father--when Dulcina was away, of course--and with himself when he played Solitaire. And on the weekends, Setzer went up into the shopping district and watched the fine people being fitted for beautiful clothes, his thin-bridged nose pressed up against the glass.