The unnaturally fancy music of string quartets and the chatter of a million guests - a chatter much like that of a flock of hungry mockingbirds - filled the air above the rich town of Jidoor. It was finally spring, and anyone who was anyone there knew what that meant. No, not just flowers and new growth; that was a nice touch, but in the grand scheme of things, it was insignificant.
No, it was time for garden parties. Time to pull the musicians out of the opera orchestra pits and plop them in their Sunday best on lawns where they could scare the life out of the birds that were returning from across the ocean.
Most of the people at those parties didn't enjoy them very much. Setzer Gabbiani - the dark-clad gambler who leaned against the yellow-green birch and regarded the other "guests" with cool brown eyes - was no exception.
Idiots. He shook his head, trying to shake some of the wind out of his hair. Self-inflating, posing social leeches, the lot of them. Why am I here, anyway?
Good question. He'd never cared for these parties at all, really. He'd already had to face his hostess - Goddesses, he could barely even remember her name. He could've winged it if he'd gotten a good look at her ring, but he hadn't - all he'd caught was that it was platinum, that she was a first-born daughter and probably a matron of whatever family she was in, which he could've guessed anyway from the white hair and the overly-pretentious manner. The family name, at least, would surely come to him if he tried long enough. But he didn't really care to try.
"Oh, we're all going to have such a wonderful time!" she'd said in that too-loud and too-sweet voice of her. Listening to it too much would make any man go deaf. And she'd been especially pleased to see him there, had practically jumped all over herself to welcome him, even if she didn't have a clue who he really was. She knew his persona, and that was enough - she probably wasn't even too insincere about it.
At any rate, when he was far enough away from her to think without that saccharine voice ringing in his ears, she didn't seem like such a bad woman. Sure, she was a bit ignorant, and probably believed that all of Jidoor would stop completely if it wasn't for her and her parties in the springtime. Why, if it wasn't for those parties, she'd have no idea what to do with herself, or any of her wealth, for that matter. Which was what bothered him the most.
She always begged her guests to mingle, and would sometimes go out to make sure that they were, unless she happened to be busy with one of her games. Setzer wasn't interested anyway; it wasn't as if he'd miss anything new by not mingling. The parties were always the same; it was as if some unbreakable code bound the people who threw these parties, forbidding them to do anything that might make them the slightest bit interesting or original. He'd tasted the same canapés a million times before, although sometimes the ingredients had been a bit fresher. They were all standard fare - Chocobo eggs mixed with the most unpalatable spices that they'd been able to imagine, tiny cubes of cheese served with those fancy crackers that tasted like slices of wood, and various vegetables decorated with some kind of creamy cheese that hardly anyone ever actually liked. The wine was the same dry white wine that they always served; only the eccentric iconoclasts ever served, or even requested, any other kind of wine at a springtime garden party. And only those same iconoclasts ever wore black, or anything but the most delicate pastels.
Setzer smiled a bit sardonically as he brushed a crumb off of his black leather trenchcoat. His clothes were well-tailored, and just fancy enough to be fashionable... for a winter banquet, or perhaps an opening at the Opera House. But the gilded leather trenchcoat, black-and-white silk shirt, black leather pants, and elaborately gilded white boots were enough to draw stares, far too bold to coexist with the delicate flowers.
Well, too bad for the flowers, he thought, letting himself smile for a bit longer.
For women, a garden party always meant that it was time to trot out the new spring outfits, airy things that were too delicate to do anything but flutter in the breeze. They'd sit around, flirt with the rich passers-by and chat for hours on end. Or, if they felt like doing something a tiny bit more interesting, they would play their little games with mallets and wooden balls, or a game of cards with all of the drama taken out of it by their mindless gossip. For men, it was yet another excuse to go riding on their precious purebred - or rather, inbred - "prize" chocobos, wearing their fine spring suits or new athletic gear and half-ignoring the flirtation and gossip unless it happened to involve them. Hell, the only difference between this party and most of the others that he'd ever attended was that this one had begun in the afternoon, not in the early morning. Most Jidoorians didn't like sunsets spoiling their view of the carefully manicured lawns and clusters of trees and rare flowers that they considered "nature." And even that was just a minor cosmetic preference.
Definitely not his idea of fun... but then, he doubted that most of the people who came to parties like this came because they actually enjoyed them. They came because it was a good chance to introduce their young sons and daughters to some rich and influential acquaintance in the hopes of getting a betrothal out of it. They came because impressing the right person with their charm, manner and immaculate bearing would lead to something they wanted - the perfect business deal, inside information about the Council's actions, or maybe just the right kind of publicity. And that went double when the right person had just happened to drink a few more glasses of wine than he should have.
He smiled sourly. The days that he would've blown off any such invitations in favor of his own dreams weren't far in the past. His presence was so welcomed because of his "status," fleeting though it was. He was a bit of a celebrity, if only because of their inability to understand him; that was as good an explanation for fame as any. So to any fashion-conscious host, having Setzer Gabbiani - or more precisely, the Wandering Gambler - attend their party was as good as a trophy. He abhorred the idea of being someone else's glory.
So why am I here now, anyway?
He tossed his head back to sip a bit more of the dry wine, more than a bit annoyed at something he couldn't quite define. He was there because... well, he wasn't sure, really. True, the rare appearance in "high society" helped to keep his mystique alive, and that had been useful in the past; it had let him get away with a multitude of sins. But he was growing increasingly jaded about such things; he was tired of putting up his "polished-gentleman" facade just to impress the lords and charm the ladies. What kind of a life was that?
Before, he'd treated it as just another survival tactic. It's just like bluffing, he'd told himself. Let them think you're feeling something you're not, and they'll open up to you. It's the same thing. Yet, now he was beginning to wonder if there was something flawed about that reasoning. When he bluffed in a game of cards, he was hiding his emotions and replacing them with a blank face, denying that he felt. But this kind of mask forced him to create something out of nothing - courtesy out of indifference.
With bluffing, he didn't feel hollow inside - shadowed and hidden, but never hollow. And he hated feeling hollow.
Especially here. His lips curled in disdain as he unobtrusively glanced at another common scene - a pretty young lady who smiled with disgust behind her eyes, her arm wrapped around the nonexistent waist one of the older, fatter Council members. He barely recognized the man - one of the top-ranking men of House Di'Milio, some VIP or another; he'd lost count of all of the VIPs he'd seen. Besides, with that kind of drunken, leering lust contorting his face, it was all too easy to lose track of the face itself. He was pulling his companion - or perhaps his own little trophy - away from the party itself, to join the others who had fled for some kind of dubious privacy. She was demurring, but only for show.
It took a very special kind of emptiness to pull that off. How much of that disgust in her eyes was meant for him, and how much for herself? Setzer supposed that he was being deliberately ignorant, that perhaps the girl had little choice in what she did. For all he knew, her mother was standing somewhere off to the side, trying to smile as she watched her daughter do what she had to do for her family's honor. He'd seen it before.
Of course, he'd seen it many times without the disgust - just an infatuated girl and a manipulative man, or a shy boy and an equally manipulative woman. That sort of thing happened frequently, and he couldn't say too much against it; he'd been in the man's shoes, much to his shame. He would have probably been searching for someone that very moment if he'd been in a different mood. It was hard to control those desires sometimes - especially now that he was alone, with no responsibilities and no one to talk him down.
Shuddering lightly in what he felt as a cold breeze, he stared down at his left hand. His signet was barely able to stay on his finger; the slightest flick of his hand would send it flying. He'd almost decided not to wear the bloody thing, even if that would be a slap in the face of the more traditional guests. His hand was unnaturally thin - he could practically see the ground through his skin - and his fingernails were starting to turn an unhealthy purple. He was in the middle of a downswing, coming out of one of his more frantic periods of indulgence and excess; oddly enough, that indulgence rarely extended to food. He often forgot to eat as he dashed frantically around the globe, finding more extravagant luxuries to splurge on, more gambles to scrape through, and yes, more women to seduce. During those upswings he felt like he was on top of the world -
- and then he would wake up one morning with the world's biggest headache and a sleeping girl on each shoulder, slowly realizing that he was coming entirely too close to burning out again. He'd open his eyes, barely even stirring his exhausted bedmates as he stirred, and stare at himself in the mirror he'd installed above his bed some time ago. A face with hollow, bright eyes, pale, thin skin and ill-kept white hair would stare back at him, and he'd wonder yet again how he'd managed to live through the weeks.
He'd been lucky so far - he'd been able to eventually pay off his monetary debts, although it usually took some time to scrape up that much money without bankrupting himself. If he had any other kinds of debts to repay, well, he didn't know about it... and didn't want to. He didn't want to think of himself as a cad, but what else could he do? He wanted to think of himself as a father even less.
Still, he had little doubt that if any new, angry grandfathers wanted to find him, they'd find him, even if they could do nothing else to him. Maybe he'd just been incredibly lucky....
His hands were trembling badly; the one holding the wineglass was in danger of collapsing completely. He hastily took it in his other hand and took a long sip, enough to keep the wine from sloshing about. Alcohol always went to his head entirely too quickly; he never allowed himself to have more than a glass, although he couldn't always hold himself to that allowance. It was amazing he hadn't wrecked the BlackJack already. Of course, there were always Antidotes, and he'd taken them to keep himself sober once or twice when he'd known that he would eventually have to beat a hasty retreat. But if it was difficult to fly an airship while drunk, it was impossible after tossing headaches, unpredictable convulsions and doubled vision into the mix. True, they didn't last nearly as long as being drunk, but it wasn't something that he cared to do often.
Gambling was one thing; throwing his life away was something else entirely.
"But you can't live without a little bit of adventure -"
No! The voice was not unwelcome, but the words were close, too damned close. He shook his head firmly, trying to ignore the headache that surfaced with the motion. That was different. That was... she knew what she was doing. She was good, remember?
It was getting tiresome. Every time - every single time he tried to think too much about his situation, he ended up thinking about her. Daryl. And he always ended up thinking too much when he was in this mood. It hadn't been that long... a year, maybe a bit more, he wasn't sure, since he'd lost her... but it seemed a lot longer.
Hell, was I talking to myself again? He wasn't sure if anyone was staring yet or not, but he ignored them all the same. She wouldn't be obsessing over him if he'd been the one to die; it hurt to think that, even though he knew it was true. She would've mourned, sure, but...
"Danger is part of life. You've just gotta accept it and move on," she'd told him one night, the night she'd given his heart to the view from the hill. "If you didn't believe that too, you wouldn't have built that airship of yours, right?"
He'd agreed with her. He probably would have agreed to anything.... Yet, all it took was a low mood and he'd end up dwelling on it for days on end.
He had to stop before he went insane.
"Setzer? Well, this is a surprise."
The gambler blinked. He hadn't expected to hear another voice speak to him, let alone one that knew his name. There were only two people in Jidoor that he was on any kind of good terms with. He turned around, and was pleasantly surprised to realize that this was one of them - and somewhat relieved as well. It gave his mind something to wrestle with besides his own private Hell. "Not as much as seeing you is to me, Dorian," he said, smiling the merest bit.
The other smiled. "I'm not so sure about that. Do you care to make a bet?"
"No, I don't think I will. I'm a gambler, not a thief."
The taller man scratched at his beard - still mostly red, but shot through with the gray that had invaded his hair. He was changing, Setzer noted with a slight sinking feeling. Not that he disliked change, particularly - it could be entertaining and even profitable at times - but it seemed out of place in his personal life, and especially in places like this. "I'm sure that my ancestors would thank you for that, if they weren't too busy scolding me from beyond the grave.
It was an old joke, and a rather somber one, if that was possible. Dorian's family was "old money," one of the aristocratic houses that through obsessive scrimping and saving had managed to hang on to its wealth over the years. The typical member of such a family would've sneered at Setzer and refused to have anything to do with him. Of course, the typical member of that kind of family didn't usually leave Jidoor for longer than a day, and never without a houseful of attendants to insure survival outside of "civilization." Such a person would prefer to spend as much time as they could muster in the political games, trying to garner as much influence as possible.
Setzer liked Dorian because he was atypical. He was a collector of fine antiques, or anything else that caught his eye; of course he traveled as much as he could stand, and preferred to do so alone. Oh, he'd played the political games before - it was expected of the older members of the truly aristocratic families. He'd even held high seats there... but unlike most of the people that had reached that level, he knew that it was only a game, and not a way of life. That was what made him wiser than most Jidoorians, at least in Setzer's opinion. The two men respected each other, even if they had disagreed in the past about certain things.
He looked every bit as out of place as Setzer himself, dressed in a dark-blue velvet suit with golden trim. The two were a pair of peacocks in the midst of a flock of flamingos. "It's been a year, hasn't it?" Setzer mused.
The older man thought for a moment. "Close enough. A few months longer than that, perhaps."
"Have you heard from Daniel lately?"
"Not at all," Dorian replied, shaking his head with a rueful chuckle. "But you know him. Always out wandering around... just like you, the lucky bastard. No responsibilities whatsoever."
That was true enough, anyway. It wasn't that Dan didn't have any responsibilities - he was an adoptee, but that still left some of the family honor on his shoulders. He just didn't care enough to play the game, even to the extent that Dorian did - and Dorian only bothered with it so that he wouldn't have to totally bankrupt himself with his rather expensive hobby. Dan had no such expensive tastes, preferring the life of a woodsman to that of an aristocrat; he only rarely did anything that was typically Jidoorian.
Most of the other, more traditional families hated him, or at least claimed to. Setzer had a distinct feeling that they really envied him, maybe even more than they envied Setzer himself.
The two stood and sipped from their glasses in silence for a long moment, the pleasantries done with. Small talk didn't quite seem appropriate; it was just another bow to the more fashionable people's way of doing things.
Besides, Setzer wasn't entirely sure of what to talk about. He'd been... out of his head, really, for the past few weeks, after all. He was painfully aware of how he had to look to anyone at the party who cared to look past the fancy, yet inappropriate clothes - a wrecked, burnt-out shell of a man who had just barely brought himself back from some proverbial brink. If he'd been anywhere else but at a garden party in Jidoor, he would've expected a dozen solicitous remarks and expressions of empty concern by then. Fortunately, he was at a garden party in Jidoor, and it simply wasn't fashionable for guests to ask a complete stranger if he was well, unless that stranger happened to be someone that could give them something they wanted.
"Well, I should be off," the other said unexpectedly. "A... dear friend of mine is probably going to want me to join her in her next game." With one hand he regarded the swiftly gathering crowd on the lawn, chattering with more false laughter as they took up mallets and spread themselves out along the grass.
Setzer smiled dryly. "You'll at least try to enjoy yourself, won't you?"
"I suppose, but we both know it's a lost cause." He leaned a bit closer to the gambler, his face growing a bit more serious. "Perhaps you can come by my mansion sometime, if you like," he said quietly. "Catch up on old times, and all that."
"Thank you." Such hints were the closest that Dorian would ever come to offering his help. It was always refreshing to speak with an acquaintance that didn't demand to be trusted; it made them that much more trustworthy. "Perhaps I will."
Still, he couldn't quite force himself to consider Dorian a friend, not yet. But then again, he'd only been able to consider one person a true friend, someone he'd be willing to trust his life with. And he hadn't even fully realized the depth of those feelings until that night on the mountain when he'd finally realized that he was going to spend the evening alone.
And, perhaps, the rest of his life...
"Then, good day to you. Hopefully, you'll be able to escape a bit sooner than I will." With another stiff nod, the collector was on his way.
There was no need to wave goodbye; Dorian wasn't going to look back, had never felt the need to look back at anything. Setzer envied him for that.
"Yes," he murmured to himself, a sudden chill passing through his body. The memories were lingering again, threatening to overwhelm him at any moment. "I think I will."
With one swift movement - the kind of motion he'd learned in bars where he'd had to teach rowdy drunks that fancy clothes didn't mean weakness - he'd tossed the wine glass far overhead, watching it spin through the air, glimmering like a fine jewel. He regarded it carefully for a moment as it fell, reaching out at the last minute to catch it and spin it between his fingers. He laid it down on the white table with far more delicacy than it deserved.
Ignoring the stares and exclamations, he turned to walk towards the hedges that had counted as a gate, inwardly groaning at the sight of that old woman again. Goddess, couldn't she ever be anywhere else but there? He couldn't even walk to his airship without her seeing him, without her eyes filling with slightly-insincere sadness as she spoke.
"What? You're leaving already?"
"I'm afraid so, Madam. I have an engagement to keep." He spoke firmly, with an air of finality that he hoped would dissuade her from insisting on his staying for a bit longer.
She didn't seem very happy, but then again, why should she? She hardly even knew him; she'd just wanted him to make himself visible to the Important People. "Well... all right, if it's that important I won't keep you here. I suppose you'll come back next month? We'll have a lovely -"
Setzer cut her off with a wave. He didn't want to seem overtly rude, but he was at the point where any more socializing would've probably killed him. "I'll consider it, Madam."
He'd turned away before she could say anything else. No one seemed to be overly surprised at what some would call rudeness; it had become part of his persona. The Wandering Gambler was free, unfettered by social rules. No one had the right or the ability to keep him anywhere he didn't choose to be. It was definitely a convenience in a world dominated by strict, unwritten codes.
He never had figured out why he'd come to the party. Was it just the force of habit, or perhaps a morbid curiosity? Had he had nothing better to waste his time with? Or had he just needed to remind himself of the stagnant mess that he was trying to transcend? Either way, he couldn't say he was too sorry that he'd come; he'd at least met one old acquaintance.
He smiled wanly as he walked away. That's probably all it is. If she'd been alive... I would never have wanted to come back to something like this... His hands tightened, wishing that they'd salvaged any other reminders of her - her signet, her old necklace, anything - to hold and remember her by.... But she was gone, probably rotting somewhere in the ocean near the tiny island where the Falcon had rested. She would never see her beloved sunsets again.
No, he wouldn't think of that. She wouldn't want him to remember her that way, damn it all, she'd want him to think of the other times. The mad races, the view of sunsets from their hill... anything. He was going to end up tormenting himself to death if he kept thinking of it. But then, when he tried not to think of it... well, he woke up one morning with a few more weeks of debauchery lost to him, and another reason to be afraid.
The BlackJack wasn't far away. He broke into a staggering run, having no reason to want to stay at the party. He'd stayed longer than he'd expected; the sun was approaching the horison, changing from yellow to red. Soon the first star would signal the end to the day's festivities; night parties were reserved for summers.
As far as he was concerned, night couldn't fall soon enough.