By Kim McFarland
It was a warm and sunny day. Streaks of light, tinted green by the foliage overhead, filtered down to the forest floor in streaks and patches.
A lone man riding a chocobo looked around himself as he passed through the forest. It was lush and green now. The last time he had passed this way the trees had been dry and brittle, as if dying from drought. These woods had been full of large, dangerous beasts. But the only creatures he had seen today besides owls were the small animals that, disturbed by the rhythmic rasping of the bird's feet through the underbrush, skittered away from the barely-discernable path.
The path, though disguised, was still in use. He could see where grasses and other plants had been crushed here and there by recent travelers. However, the signs at the fork had been removed. And the right fork seemed to have all but closed, choked by younger growth.
He tilted the reins, and the chocobo turned to the right.
Nearby, an alarm went off. There was no sound; it was not a physical device, but a psychic one. It was felt rather than heard. Those who sensed it rushed to action.
The chocobo followed its master as he sliced a path through the growth with a knife. He had expected to have to fight, but he hadn't anticipated that the enemy would be inanimate plant life rather than wandering monsters. There had to be an easier way. Too bad he didn't know what it was.
Then he cut through the last of the undergrowth and stepped into an open space, the chocobo following close behind. There, surrounded by the lush forest, was a stand of dead trees.
The man grinned and led the chocobo forward, toward the copse. The air rippled when he neared it. When the rippling stilled, both man and chocobo had vanished.
He was disoriented when he came to, inside a wooden building... a circular hut with a conical, thatched roof, he saw when he looked up. He'd gotten to the Black Mage village, then. He sat up and scratched the back of his head. He didn't remember what had happened after he walked through the illusionary dead trees. Had he been captured? He guessed so, but then he wasn't bound, and this hut wouldn't be hard to escape from.
A door opened, and someone walked into the room. She was a young woman, a very attractive young woman... with blonde hair, bound on either site of her face, and a long tail the same color as her hair. "I remember you," she said.
"Mikoto?" he guessed.
She nodded with a small smile. "Prince Consort Zidane."
He grinned. "I never saw you smile before. You know, it changes your whole look."
Her eyebrows lifted. "Your reputation as a flirt precedes you."
He shrugged his shoulders, unembarrassed. "What can I say. Uh, where am I? Well, I know where I am, but how'd I get here?"
"You gave us a scare," she told him. "We thought someone had traced us back to our village. We don't get many visitors."
Zidane said, "There's nobody else with me. Just Choco. Say, where's Choco?"
"He's with the other chocobos. We have a flock here."
He might've guessed they would. She continued, "We brought you in here to wake up because people are curious. I don't think you'd want to come to in the middle of a crowd."
"Yeah, I guess not. A crowd, huh?"
She nodded again. "A small one, perhaps, by Alexandria's standards."
"Well, I'm awake now. Can I look around?" Zidane asked.
"The door isn't locked. But as soon as we recognized you, we called Vivi back from Conde Petie. He ought to be back soon. I think he'll want to show you around himself."
"Okay, I'll wait," Zidane said with a grin. "So, what've you been up to, Mikoto?"
Before long they heard the scratchy sounds of a chocobo running on hard-packed ground. A few moments later the door opened and Vivi burst in. Zidane grinned; his old friend looked positively flustered when he caught sight of him. "Hi there!"
"Uh - hi!" Vivi said, staring as he brushed dust off of himself. Zidane looked at Vivi's clothing with some surprise. Every time a Black Mage was seen in any of the cities, he was dressed in an outfit similar to Vivi's usual clothes, the clothes he had worn way back when. Coat too tight, baggy pants - it seemed that they could never find anything that fit them. But now... well, the clothes still reminded him of Vivi's old outfit, with the blue coat and striped pants, but it fit. He was even wearing a bent-back hat like before, but this one was well-made, unlike the raggedly stitched one he had worn before. It changed his whole look, yet Zidane still recognized him at a glance.
"You caught me by surprise," Vivi told. "I was at Conde Petie when I got word that someone'd gotten through the illusion, so I came right back. But they didn't tell me who came here."
Mikoto asked, "Can I see the note?"
Vivi took a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Mikoto. "He did that on purpose," he said.
Mikoto glanced at the handwriting, then handed it back and said, "Yes. It figures."
Zidane said, "It's been a while, Vivi. I thought I'd check up on you, make sure you're all doing okay."
"Oh? Uh..." Vivi pulled on the brim of his hat, as if to twist it more securely onto his head. "Yeah, we're okay..."
Mikoto touched Vivi's back. "He hasn't seen any of the village. Why don't you show him around?"
"You haven't? Oh, you must have gotten caught by the boobytrap," Vivi said, now understanding what had happened. He opened the door, and all three stepped out into the sunlight. Zidane looked around. There were a number of people, both Black Mages and Genomes, hanging about. They didn't seem worried, just curious. Zidane guessed with amusement that they must have been hanging around for a while, looking busy while waiting for him to come out.
The first thing he noticed was that some of the Black Mages were dressed radically different from anything he'd seen before. One was wearing a coat and breeches much like those worn by the Mages that had build this village. Others were wearing work clothes, as if they'd been building something or gardening, or outfits that had obviously been copied from the fashions in Treno. The second thing he noticed was that some of the Black Mages were women. Nobody had ever seen a female Black Mage before!
There was an angry squawk. Zidane looked over in time to see Vivi stumble forward, away from a red chocobo which had headbutted him in the back and was now advancing on him, feathers puffed up and wings half-open, making threatening growling sounds. Zidane drew his knife out of its sheath. The chocobo nipped Vivi's sleeve and shook it briefly, then released it and glared at him again. Vivi said, "Sorry, girl," and raised a hand toward the sharp beak.
The bird turned its head downward. Vivi reached into the feathers and scratched the back of its head. The bird continued making little growling sounds, but its stance relaxed. Vivi said over his shoulder to Zidane, "I ran her all the way from Conde Petie back here and then didn't even say thank you. She was just mad at me for that. I don't blame her. I'd be mad too." Mikoto stroked the bird's back as one would pet a cat.
"I thought it was going to take your hand off," Zidane said, returning the knife to its sheath.
"Nah, she wouldn't do that." Vivi switched hands. The chocobo's eyes were half shut and the feathers of its head were comically puffed out now, and it was making soft purring chirps as he scratched it. Zidane grinned; Choco did that too. There wasn't a creature alive that didn't like having its head scratched.
Zidane saw among the population no Black Mages like the original ones. Well, the ones that built this village, Zidane reminded himself; Vivi was the original one. He didn't think there would be - they didn't have long lifespans - but he would have liked to be wrong.
Turning back to his old friend, Zidane said, "I gotta ask, Vivi. I've always wondered where your 'sons' came from. The people in Dali said that nobody used the machine."
Vivi answered, "The Black Mages made them. They copied me. We never seriously considered using the machine to make more Black Mages."
"You're not a girl. Or is there something you're not telling me?"
"Oh..." He adjusted his hat again. "At first they just copied me. After they made six the Genomes told them that they had to make some girl Mages, otherwise we were still extinct. So, they did. They made a copy of me with some changes, based on the Genomes' information."
"Male and female they created us," a voice intoned solemnly.
Vivi turned quickly. Another Black Mage was standing on the chocobo's other side. Vivi stopped scratching the bird's head and pulled the note out of his pocket. "Why didn't you tell me it was Zidane? I thought we were being invaded!"
The other mage took the paper and examined it. Then he handed it back with a shrug. "I could have sworn I did. I must have forgotten." He grinned at Vivi's scowl. "What, don't you believe me, Papa?"
Vivi shook his head, exasperated. The other Mage said, "Hi, I'm Puck, Vivi's number one son. He left something out of his story. At first the Black Mages didn't understand what men and women were, because they weren't either themselves. They were built without that, if you catch my drift. And the Genomes knew all about the differences and why they're there, but they knew nothing about magic. Can you imagine what it had to have been like, trying to sort that out?-"
Vivi cut in, "But eventually they did. It was so hard to do, though, that they just copied the first girl to make the others afterward."
Zidane said, "Okay, that makes sense. I thought that you were made with the machine."
Vivi shook his head. "No. We didn't have the machine then. We couldn't have used it anyway - it can only make warrior Mages."
Mikoto added, "We got the machine years later."
Zidane said, "Yeah I heard about that. The folks at Treno said they sold part of it to a bunch of Black Mages. We thought we'd see a lot more if you after that."
Vivi explained, "We didn't buy it because we wanted to make more Black Mages. We got it because we didn't want anyone else to... manufacture us. We got the assembler and all the production notes, instructions, everything, so they couldn't make another mage-maker. Dali kept the conveyor and packaging part, though. They use that to ship the crops they grow."
"That makes sense," Zidane said.
A low, musical note sounded. The chocobo turned and sprinted toward the source of the sound. Vivi said to Zidane, "That's lunch. C'mon."
Vivi and Mikoto led Zidane to a structure on one side of the village. It would have been a large building - well, large in comparison to the huts in this village - if it had walls. It had one wall on the far end, with a doorway into a one-room hut. Several Genomes and mages were taking dishes out of the room and putting them on two long, parallel tables. A kitchen? It didn't look big enough, and it had no chimneys. Looking up, Zidane saw that the ceiling on stilts had rolls of canvas at each edge. He guessed that in bad weather they let those down to make the building into a large tent.
The rest of the villagers - about three dozen Genomes and Black Mages - were arriving and, freed from the need to act casual, were openly watching Zidane. In fact, the only ones who did not seem interested in him were the chocobos, who had gathered around a spot off to the side and were waiting and chirping expectantly. Soon a Black Mage brought over a box of something and set it down among the birds, then jumped back before the birds could jostle him - or her, Zidane couldn't be sure - to death.
Seeing what Zidane was looking at, Vivi told him, "The chocobos used to beg for food every time we ate, even though there's a plenty of food where they roost. Guess they thought that if it's time for us to eat, it's time for them too. We finally decided, okay, if we feed them at the same time they won't nag us."
"They're like pets, aren't they?"
People were filling their plates from the dishes on the table. Zidane took a little of each. After a few bites, Zidane told Vivi, "Whoever made this must've taken lessons from Quina. It tastes like the kind of thing s/he makes."
"You think so?" Vivi said.
"Yeah. S/he likes certain spices." Quina was the head chef in Alexandria's castle, and had a distinct style. When he bit into the bread, he realized that it was exactly the same. "Someone must have a copy of hir recipe book."
"'The Joye of Snacks'? Well... not really." Puck said with an air of innocence so exaggerated it had to be fake.
Zidane looked at Puck and Vivi. They could be twins, he thought. Well, they were, kind of, but they just seemed like brothers. "All right, what's up?" Zidane said.
Puck, who had been waiting for Zidane to ask, said "Quina cooked this. Anyone could tell."
"Couldn't be. Quina's back in Alexandria now," Zidane replied.
"That's right." Puck agreed.
Vivi spoke. "Quina comes over every so often. When s/he does, she cooks up a lot of stuff. We store it in there." Vivi pointed to the hut on one side. "When the door is closed, time stops inside. Food stays fresh."
Puck complained, "I could've drawn that out longer."
"I know," Vivi answered calmly.
"A box that stops time? I've never heard of anything like that before."
"It's new. We kind of thought it up," Vivi said. "One of us said there ought to be something like that, and eventually we all figured out how to make it. Based on a Stop spell, triggered by the door."
"Huh, I didn't know you could invent with magic. I thought it was just there."
"Spells have to be made up by someone, don't they?"
"I guess so." Zidane spent a few moments appreciating a piece of roast zemzelett, then said, "Gaia's at peace now. Burmecia, Clerya, Lindblum, Alexandria - all the major kingdoms are allied now, and a lot of the minor ones too. Do you really need to hide the village now?"
This time nobody spoke up. The Black Mages and Genomes who were listening looked at Vivi. He answered after a moment, "Yes."
"Why? What from?"
"We're not ready to be a part of the world yet," he said quietly.
A nearby Black Mage - one clearly female, with a cloth-filled basket by her place at the table - said, "Both Genomes and Black Mages occasionally go out to the other cities to trade or do other things. Genomes can just hide their tails, though I don't think anyone would notice if they didn't. But every Black Mage that has gone out has been propositioned for mercenary work. Or assassination! They still remember the Black Mage army, and they think of us as killers, creatures of war. When we were little it wasn't so bad, but now that we're growing up-! Has anyone ever come up to you out of the blue and offered you gil to burn someone's shop down?"
Vivi said, "If people knew where we lived, they would come to us for their dirty work. We wouldn't do it, and maybe we'd have to fight them off. And if people knew we have a village they might be afraid, and attack us before we could become a threat."
Zidane said, "You could defend yourselves... but you don't want to have to."
Vivi nodded once. "Yeah."
"Well, Garnet's putting together an alliance between the kingdoms and villages for trade, disaster recovery, that kind of thing. She'd like you to be a part of it, if you want to. If you were, it could help the Black Mages' image. I mean, for you to be recognized officially. And people wouldn't be likely to threaten you if they knew that Alexandria and Lindblum would back you up."
Vivi shook his head again. "I don't think so. I'm sorry, Zidane, and I wish I could tell Dag- Queen Garnet I'm sorry, but we're not ready to be a part of the world just yet. We're still learning how to live. Some day we'll be as open as other villages. We want to be! Just...not yet."
They weren't going to change their minds, Zidane could see. "Okay, I understand. I'll explain it to her," he conceded.
Earnestly Vivi said, "Zidane, you and Dagger are always welcome here. And Quina - well, it's not like we could stop hir, is it? Any of our old friends can come here. We just don't want the world to find us."
The Black Mage woman spoke up. "We have to think of the future, now that we know we have a future to think of."
Zidane was puzzled by the pride in her voice. Some of the others were looking at her; he could see amusement on the Genomes' faces. Puck told her, "Go ahead, you know you want to show off."
That was all the encouragement she needed. She stood and picked up the large basket, then walked over to Zidane's side of the table. A plate was pushed aside to make room. It was not just a basket, Zidane saw when she set it down. Inside was a baby Black Mage. Its hands and face, though not covered, were featureless black, and as its eyes blinked sleepily he saw flickers of yellow.
"She's the first one born in the village," Vivi told him.
"But not the only one for long," said her mother. Zidane glanced over. She was wearing a dress that looked to have been copied from Treno's styles, and now that he she mentioned it he could see that she was carrying her second child. "She was born awake."
Vivi said, "With a soul. The rest of us were made, either by machinery or magic, so we didn't have souls to start with. I wish Mr. 288 or any of the others could have seen her. They'd have been so happy."
"I bet," Zidane said. He did a quick calculation in his head: how old were these Black Mages? If they were all Vivi's age, and Vivi had been nine years old when they had adventured together - but then, Vivi had been created nine years old, and who could tell if that was his real age? They were obviously old enough, he decided, and put the question aside.
With a mischivous look in her eyes, she told him, "I remember when you came back to Alexandria. I was there for the play."
Zidane blinked. "All the Black Mages I saw were boys."
She laughed. "We were all copies of Vivi and didn't know how else to dress. We were just learning how to live by ourselves without the Black Mages, we weren't concerned about fashion just yet! We're doing better now, though."
Grinning at her enthusiasm, Zidane had to agree.
The sun was low in the sky now. Vivi had spent the last few hours showing Zidane around the village and catching up with him on the recent lives of their friends. Now, followed by Choco, they walked along the overgrown path, talking quietly about old times. Zidane said, "Garnet once wanted to destroy the Iifa tree. It was the last part of the Garland's plot left."
"She decided not to?" Vivi asked.
"Yeah. It wasn't making any more Mist, and when people explored it, they found only the tree. Without Garland, it looks like it's gone back to... what it's supposed to be."
Vivi said, "He was controlling it, maybe. With that thing we fought."
"That's what we think. And if the tree is part of the circulation of souls - we need to protect it so nobody can ever abuse it again."
Zidane looked at his old friend. "Vivi, I always wondered why you never visited us. I thought at first that it meant that you had... 'stopped.'"
Vivi looked away. Softly he said, "I used to think about it, but... well, at first we were so busy in the village, with the Black Mages dying and the ones left making new ones with what little time they had left. And then we were afraid to go to Alexandria after all that happened." He remembered the old man kicking the body of the Black Mage that had killed his son. "Quina comes here often and tells us how you and Dagger and Eiko are doing... I guess that was enough."
"For you, I guess it was. I still can't believe Quina's been coming here. She's the head cook, and we've never noticed hir missing."
"You don't mind, do you?" Vivi asked.
"'Course not! Let me guess, there's a stop-time storeroom somewhere in the castle, right?" When Vivi didn't answer immediately Zidane nudged him with an elbow. "Besides, far be it from me to break up a happy couple."
Vivi pulled his hat down. He knew exactly what Zidane was referring to: his and Quina's marriage in the Dwarf village. "It's not what you think."
"Relax, I was just kidding."
Still, Vivi felt the need to explain. "Qu don't think the way about marriage that most people do. Quina said that it meant that we're family and s/he would cook for me. She's kind of been watching out for all of us here. When the old Black Mages were dying out and we were too young to get along by ourselves, s/he took care of us, which was mostly making sure we were safe and well fed."
Zidane thought, Quina, taking care of a village of children? That sounded like a recipe for chaos... and yet, maybe not. It made a kind of sense, actually, if you looked at it from a Qu's point of view. "I'm glad s/he did."
"Yeah. The dwarves in Conde Petie helped too, but they live in their own village. Some of us still call her Mama Quina."
Zidane nudged him again. "Puck called you Papa. That's gotta be weird, coming from someone your own age."
Vivi rolled his eyes. "Yeah. Really, it's more like we're brothers and sisters. But since I was the first one... and, yeah, I was a little more experienced, so they all looked up to me to show 'em the way, even if it was only one step at a time. I remembered what being lost and alone was like, and then having someone to look up to and who was watching out for me. It was my turn to help someone else, and they were created from me... so if they wanted to call me Papa, I'd be their papa."
Zidane had no answer for that. He put his arm around his friend's shoulders, and together they walked without speaking until they reached the edge of the illusionary forest. Vivi raised his hands, and a ripple shimmered through the air, suspending the spells that trapped anyone passing through them.
Zidane put a hand on the chocobo's back, preparing to mount, then said, "One thing I was kind of wondering about, Vivi. That baby - her face was shadowed, and so were her hands."
Vivi answered, "She was born that way."
Vivi nodded. "I suppose it was to make the Black Mage Army faceless and frightening. The shadow is a part of us." He reached up and lifted off his hat. Zidane couldn't help staring - he could see the silhouette of Vivi's head, even the blur of hair and the outline of his ears, but the details were hidden.
Vivi held out a hand. "Can I see your knife?"
Zidane drew it out of its sheath and held it out, handle first. Vivi took it and reached back, as if to slice the back of his neck. He made a small cut, then held a closed fist out to Zidane. What dropped into Zidane's hand was several strands of ash blond hair, the same color as Zidane's own. Zidane's eyes widened. Vivi said, "Kuja made the Black Mages based on Garland's Genomes. We have shadows instead of tails, but maybe we're the same otherwise."
Zidane close his hand on the strands of hair. "I guess Quina was right."
"About what?" Vivi asked as he handed back the knife.
As he sheathed the knife Zidane imitated Quina's drawl. "You definitely human."
Vivi laughed. He remembered that. "I hope so."
Zidane mounted the chocobo. He grinned at his friend and said, "Trust me, Vivi. You are."
Beneath his shadow Vivi smiled as Zidane trotted away on his chocobo. He felt human. Maybe, one day, he and the rest of his kind would be human in the eyes of the world.
Vivi, Zidane, Mikoto, Choco, and all settings are copyright © Square Enix. Copyrighted materials are used without permission but with a lot of affection and respect. The overall story is copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.