By Kim McFarland
It was a warm and sunny morning in the Black Mage Village. Though there were clocks in a few of the huts, people paid little attention to them. Most were awakened by the sun shining in the windows or the sounds outside.
Vivi's eyes opened when he heard footsteps. Black Mage 288, whose hut Vivi shared, was up. Both of them usually got up at about the same time; whichever was first would awaken the other. Vivi yawned and stretched, then sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bed.
The larger Mage was standing by his own bed, leaning heavily with one hand on the headboard. He still looked tired. When he walked a few paces forward, his footsteps dragged. Vivi watched, concerned. Was he sick?
Mr 288 stopped again. His head was tilted down, so the brim of his straw hat hid his eyes. He pressed one hand to his upper chest and breathed deeply for a few moments. Then he turned and went back to his bed.
Now Vivi was worried. He hopped out of bed and walked over. "Are you all right?"
Mr. 288's regarded him for a few moments, as if considering what to tell him. Then he said, "I don't feel very good, Vivi. You go on ahead."
"Do you want me to bring you something to eat?"
Mr 288 shook his head slightly. "No, thanks. I'm not hungry."
Suddenly Vivi felt cold. "Mr. 288...? Are you...?"
Mr. 288 closed his eyes. It was bad enough dealing with his own fears; adding Vivi's distress to it was just too much. But he couldn't lie to him. It wouldn't help anything. "I think so, Vivi."
"No..." the little Mage whispered in disbelief.
"We knew this would happen sooner or later. Nobody lives forever." He waved toward the door. "Go on, get some breakfast with the others. Do your work. You'll be all right."
Numbed, Vivi stared at the Black Mage who had taken him in. Of course he'd known that Mr. 288 would "stop" one day, the way the others all had... but he hadn't actually believed that that day would actually come! And now... he didn't know what to do. Mr. 288 said gently, "Go on."
Vivi turned and walked slowly toward the door, After opening it, he looked back. Mr 288 repeated the shooing gesture.
Vivi obeyed. The door closed behind him, and without the morning light streaming in through the doorway, the room was suddenly dim. Mr. 288, weak and tired, closed his eyes and tried not to think about what was to come.
Vivi walked slowly toward the large, wall-less hut - more a roof on poles, with a cooking area on one side - that served as the village's communal dining area. Breakfasts were usually simple, mostly things that didn't need to be cooked right then. Bread, fruit, and the like. Quina would despair if s/he saw this, Vivi thought without humor. He wasn't hungry at all. But, he told himself, he had to pretend for a little while that nothing was wrong. Mr. 288 clearly had wanted to be alone when he stopped... when he died. If Vivi said anything, if he let anyone guess, others might bother Mr. 288.
Various Black Mages and Genomes were bringing things to the table. One was humming a familiar tune to himself. Vivi paid little attention. Leave me alone, he willed them. Don't ask me anything. Don't notice.
For a while it seemed to work. People looked at him oddly, but said nothing to him. Those people were "awake." They had acquired souls and thus had become aware. All but the last two of his copies had already awakened. The Genomes were taking longer. Only a few had awakened so far, but at least those few who had proved that it could happen. All told, the village now had over thirty people. In a few hours there would be one less, leaving only the Genomes and Vivi's "children."
Vivi wondered how they would get along without the adult Mages. He knew that, technically speaking, he was the oldest of the Mages, even if you only counted the time he had been "awake." But he still thought of himself as a kid, and he still felt like one. All of the others were just learning how to live or still waiting to awaken. Would they look to him for leadership? Could he come through if they did? If he couldn't think of anything better, he'd have to. He was the only one who knew the outside world.
He left the breakfast table, not caring that he had left his food at the table. He wasn't hungry. He couldn't even think about eating. His stomach felt like it was tied in a knot. Ignoring the questioning looks of the others, he walked out to the garden.
He had always liked it here. The garden was only a few months old, and none of the plants were ready to bear yet. However, the flowers that had been planted haphazardly among the vegetable and fruit plants had begun to bloom. The various shades of green were punctuated by splashes of brighter colors, here a bush covered with fluffy orange balls, there a clump of purple and violet trumpets. He smiled sadly. The original Black Mages had all liked flowers, so they had put them wherever they felt like, without worrying about whether they "should" be there. They were pretty, and that was justification enough.
Vivi often worked in the garden, weeding and tending the growing plants. It was a quiet, peaceful task, one which kept his hands occupied while leaving his mind free. He liked it. Especially now, when things were growing fast and he could see the difference from day to day. He could take a kind of pride in the garden; It was something that he had helped create, and he had cared for it. Now it was healthy and growing...
His eyes blurred suddenly, and he put his hands up to cover his face. It wasn't fair! It just wasn't fair! He shivered, trying to keep control, covering his eyes so he wouldn't have to look at the bright flowers that the Black Mages had left behind. He held on for a little while, but when others approached he suddenly broke into a desperate run.
At the door of the hut, Vivi stopped and, looking upward, breathed deeply. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. He was not going to go in and cry. That was the last thing that Mr. 288 needed. When he had control of himself again, he opened the door a crack and looked in. "Mr. 288?" he said, fearful that he was too late.
Mr 288 looked at him. His eyes were dimmer now, but they were still alert. "Come in."
Vivi entered and went over to Mr. 288's bed. "You said you weren't hungry, but I thought maybe you'd like this?"
Surprised, Mr. 288 looked at the cup of fruit juice Vivi was offering him. He didn't feel that he could take much of it... but, he thought as he sipped it, it did taste good. "Thanks. Vivi, I'm glad you came back. I tried to just go back to sleep, but I couldn't."
"I couldn't just leave you now," Vivi said softly.
Mr. 288 set the cup on the nightstand carefully, as his hands were none too steady. He asked, "What was everyone else doing this morning?"
Vivi shrugged. "I wasn't watching. Usual stuff, I guess." Then something struck him. "Thrush - he was humming the song that Mr. 123 used to play all the time on the music box. I think he's awakened!"
"It sounds like it," Mr. 288 agreed, pleased. Sometimes it was hard to tell with Genomes, but an "empty vessel" would never show interest in music for its own sake. You have to have a personality to get a tune stuck in your head.
Wistfully Vivi began, "If Mr. 123 knew..."
"He'd be happy," Mr. 288 finished for him. After a pause he said in a more serious tone, "What was it you said your grandfather told you? 'No need to be sad'?" Vivi nodded. "Don't be sad about me. I was thinking, I've really been lucky."
"How?" Vivi asked, unable to keep the disbelief out of his voice.
"I might never have awakened at all. I might not have found this village, or met any of the others, or you. I might not have had enough time left to make copies of you." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then released it. "I might never have existed. Maybe it wasn't a very long life... but it was a good one."
Vivi breathed deeply, trying to control the stinging in his eyes. Mr. 288 began pulling at the fingers of one of his gloves as he spoke. "Besides... our souls came from somewhere before they took these bodies. After I die, it'll go somewhere else. And since that's the part that's really me, I won't be completely gone."
Vivi saw that he was trying to take off one glove, but his hands didn't seem able to cooperate on the task. He helped him remove the white glove, leaving his hand bare. He held it out to Vivi. Vivi pulled off one of his own gloves and took Mr. 288's hand. Both hands were covered by the same featureless shadow black that hid their faces, so one could not see where one hand ended and the other began. But their hands were warm, and very human-feeling.
"Vivi, when you need help, go to Conde Petie."
"I will." Mr. 288 had told him this before. He was the one who would have to go to them; none of the others had ever been there - or anywhere on this world outside of this village.
Mr. 288 added, "David Heavenguard - Father David - their holy one, knows what's happening to us."
"He does?" Vivi asked, surprised. He didn't think that they were supposed to talk about that outside the village.
Mr. 288 nodded. "I told him. I had to, I knew that soon you'd need their help. He told me that people come back again after they die and live different lives. If he's right, you know what I'd like to come back as?"
Vivi asked, "What?"
Mr. 288 smiled. "A Black Mage."
Vivi had to smile too. "I hope so."
Mr 288 closed his eyes and drew in a sudden, sharp breath. Vivi's eyes widened in alarm. After a few seconds Mr. 288 opened his eyes again. They were noticeably dimmer.
"Mr. 288..." Vivi paused, then, knowing that he could not waste any time, said "my grandfather found me and took care of me even though he wasn't really my grandfather. I knew that, but it didn't matter because I loved him. Everyone has two grandfathers - Mr. 288, you're my grandfather too!"
Mr. 288 smiled and squeezed Vivi's hand. "I love you too, Vivi."
Vivi didn't know what to say. Mr 288 breathed deeply, then, sounding very tired, said, "For my memorial, I'd like someone to put a bench by the graveyard. It'd be nice to be able to sit down..."
"I will. I promise," Vivi said.
Mr. 288 looked as if he were about to fall asleep. Vivi wanted to talk to him, to keep him awake - but he knew that wouldn't keep someone from "stopping." And sometimes it was better just to be quiet together, not fill the air with words.
After some time Mr. 288 opened his eyes. They were barely visible in the darkness of his face. He said in what sounded like a sigh, "Don't be sad. It's okay."
Vivi watched helplessly as the eyes faded. Mr 288's hand slackened. in Vivi's grasp. Vivi stared at him, hoping that he would move or speak again, but he was utterly still. Even the faint movement of his breathing had ceased.
Vivi folded his free arm on the bed, lowered his head onto it, and let himself cry.
All characters and 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.