=*= SPOILER WARNING! =*= SPOILER WARNING! =*= SPOILER WARNING! =*=
=*= This story contains major SPOILERS for the end of the game! =*=
This is a heavily revised version of my first FF9 fic, which explores some interesting plot holes in the game's ending. It's also the first fic that I've written that extensively uses a first person POV. Comments & criticism always appreciated! ^_^
This fic and its companion works "Freedom" and "Wings" can be found at my website at: www.madamhydra.net
Short Disclaimer: (Full Disclaimers at end) All rights and privileges to Final Fantasy IX and its characters belong to Square Co., Ltd.
A terrible hollowness grows inside me as death and dissolution approach. I am beyond the reach of mere physical pain, but I can now think with startling clarity, my thoughts at last unclouded by the suppressed fears and insatiable needs which have haunted and driven me so relentlessly for most of my life.
A typical mortal on Gaia can easily live fifty, sixty, even seventy years. I still find it difficult to accept that I, Kuja, who had treated those same mortals with such contempt and who had so casually forwarded their souls to the Iifa Tree, will only have a lifespan which is not even half as long.
I am only twenty four years old and I am dying.
As long as I could remember, I possessed an unquenchable desire to be my own person. Unlike Garland's other creations, I could never find any sense of contentment or fulfillment from being one of his puppets. The Genomes were quite satisfied to plod around in their preprogrammed routines, dutifully preparing both mind and body for the day that some stranger's soul would take up occupancy.
They made me sick. I hated them. I despised them for not caring about their eventual fate. They didn't care them that Garland treated them like mere objects, devoid of self-awareness or feelings. They didn't worry about what would happen to them when the new soul took over.
But I was different. I cared. I worried. I didn't want anyone else's soul inhabiting my body. I didn't want someone else's thoughts and feelings in my head. I just wanted to be myself. Was that so much to ask?
Evidently so. I could remember so clearly the very first time Garland stood before me and explained his plans for the rebirth of Terra. With his usual cold, clinical detachment, he informed me that I and the Genomes were designed to be nothing more than hollow receptacles for Terran souls. That same day I swore to myself that I would do anything necessary to keep Garland from carrying out his plans.
I knew that I didn't have the power to destroy him, so I waited, I served, and I schemed. As I carried out Garland's orders to spread chaos and death on Gaia, I collected information on anything that could give me the power I needed to destroy my maker and take control of my own destiny.
Yes, I was cruel. I was fighting for survival and I wasn't about to let anything or anyone get in my way.
Yes, I was selfish. I won't deny it at all. To be honest, I gloried in it. After all, selfishness was the ultimate sign of rebellion and defiance for a tool. Acting solely in my own interests was simply a way of asserting my own individuality. Sometimes, it was the only thing that kept me sane.
Was I narcissistic? I suppose, but if I didn't love myself, who would? Why shouldn't I value myself highly? No one else seemed to do so. Garland certainly didn't.
A defect. My creator considered me a *defect* and he had intended to replace me almost from the moment I was born.
Do you know what infuriated me the most about your scheme, Garland? It wasn't the idea of being treated like a barely functional prototype, although that was maddening enough. No, what I really hated was the fact that you didn't even bother to keep your plans a secret. Didn't you realize that I would care?
Apparently not. I suppose you had gotten too used to having your own way. You forgot that you weren't dealing with one of your complaisant Genome drones. You were dealing with ME, Kuja. Did you really think I would sit by and do nothing?
You considered my independence and willfulness to be major design flaws, so when you set out to create my successor, you decided to eliminate those little problems. Not only would your new creation be more powerful than me, you intended to ensure that it would also be much more controllable.
Designing the physical shell capable of handling that much power turned out to be the easy part. No, the difficulty was in finding the proper soul for your new creation. I watched as you spent years searching for the perfect one. You were looking for something special -- a soul with the necessary spark, a special sort of inner fire that distinguishes greatness from the merely adequate. In spirit, it had to be bold and fearless, fierce in determination and unyielding in the face of adversity, because only then would your creation be able to realize his full power and potential.
But you also had a second, equally important requirement. You had to find a soul that you could mold and shape, manipulate and control. You wanted a soul that was willing to place others' needs and desires above its own -- something that I would not and could not do. With the use of proper training, you could then bend and warp that soul so that it would serve YOU without question.
It seemed impossible, but you eventually found a soul with the precise combination of strength and vulnerability that you sought. But where, Garland? We both know you didn't get find it on Terra or Gaia. Did you ever wonder about that, or were you simply too relieved or too arrogant to question your good fortune?
Did you really find that special soul... or did it find you?
You had such great plans for Zidane. You wanted the ultimate angel of death, powerful and merciless. But most importantly, you wanted a killing machine that was obedient to your will. If Zidane had remained in your clutches, perhaps that's exactly what he would have become. But I refused to let that happen. I refused to allow you the satisfaction of successfully creating such a perfect weapon.
Why did I let Zidane live? Why didn't I just kill him while he was still young and helpless?
I didn't spare his life because I loved him. How could I possibly love someone whose only purpose and function was to outshine me? All my energy was focused on my own survival. There was no room in my heart for another. And I could never tolerate rivals.
No, I didn't spare his life for love. I let him live from pure spite. I never really hated Zidane, but oh, how I hated YOU, Garland. It wasn't enough to simply get rid of your new pet project. That would have been too quick, too easy. I wanted more. I wanted to utterly ruin your precious Zidane. The idea of your prized creation growing, living, and most of all *dying* as a humble mortal on a doomed planet gave me immense satisfaction.
I never really thought that I would ever see him again. Encountering him in Burmecia was... unexpected, but my surprise was quickly swept away by the pleasure I felt at the sight of Zidane lying helplessly and barely conscious in the pouring rain. Just as I had intended, he had become... nothing. Your magnificent angel of death was just another brash, stupid teenager, stumbling stupidly from crisis to crisis, oblivious of the truth. And in our subsequent encounters, he continued to provide me with endless amusement. I taunted and toyed with him, never realizing that he could be a serious threat to me or my plans... not until it was much too late.
You see, I made a critical mistake when I judged him solely on surface appearances. I allowed myself to forget the true purpose for Zidane's existence. I forgot that you had designed him as the perfect engine of destruction.
I foolishly assumed that his upbringing on Gaia would cripple him, destroying any potential abilities that he might have possessed. Wrong. Garland, you created him for conflict, bred him for battle.... Zidane didn't NEED your training to become a formidable threat. All he needed was the right stimulus and motivation to awaken his fighting instincts and dormant powers. Unknowingly, that's exactly what I provided. My constant goading only made Zidane stronger, more fiercely determined to stop me. Who would have thought that he could be so bloody dangerous from desire and sheer willpower alone?
I never could have imagined that my game would backfire so badly. I never dreamed that in stealing Zidane away from you and Terra, I had inadvertently given Gaia -- and more importantly, its people -- their most formidable protector.
Zidane and I. Two souls, similar and yet so different....
We both had the fire, the same intense spirit and desire to live. In that way, we are true brothers. But the great difference came in our definition of 'live'.
For myself, it was all very simple. Death, whether of the body or the soul, was the end of life as I knew it. Personal survival became paramount, because if I died, I would be nothing. That was why I was willing to destroy the Crystal. If I could not live, then why should I care if anything else lived? Why should I care about a world if I was not going to be around to enjoy it?
But for Zidane, personal death was not the end of life. It didn't bother him to contemplate a world that existed without him. He was willing to fight and even die to save that world, because he valued the lives of others more than his own. For if others survived, he believed that he would continue to live on in the memories of his friends and all who knew him.
Two people with very different definitions of 'live' and it was quite clear who won. Here I lay, burnt, broken, and alone, while Zidane and his friends... live. His feeling for others and their feelings for him gave him the strength to do things that I would not... could not... *dare* not do, because I had no one to rely upon, no one to trust.
If only I could have....
No. Regrets were useless. Now, when it was too late, I finally understood what it really meant to live. As the Iifa Tree rumbled and convulsed around me, I cast my thoughts outwards.
To my surprise, I clearly heard his voice.
"Kuja! Can you hear me? I'm coming for you!"
No. Ridiculous. No one could possibly be so crazy or stupid to risk certain death to help his worst enemy. I was certain that I was imagining things, but nevertheless, I replied.
(You still have time... Forget about me and go.)
"Just shut up and stay where you are!"
What the hell did Zidane think he was doing?
(.... I don't understand you.)
For a while, I heard nothing. But just as I managed to convince myself that the whole exchange had simply been a bizarre hallucination, I saw him plummeting down through the Iifa Tree's trunk toward me. For a seemingly endless moment, our gazes locked. We stared at each other, then he plunged past my resting place into the shadowy depths.
Why was he here? I seriously doubted that he was here to gloat over a fallen enemy. I suppose he could have decided to finish me off personally. But as soon as I looked in his eyes, I knew that those weren't the reasons for Zidane's return. As I spent the next few minutes thinking about his possible motives, Zidane reappeared.
"Hey. Are you alright?"
What a stupid question for him to ask. All he had to do was look at me. Still, I found myself seeking some confirmation of his presence.
The platform barely quivered as he hopped lightly onto the platform that I was resting on.
"What are you doing here? I thought I told you to go..."
He looked down at me and said quietly, "Wouldn't you do the same for me if you knew I was dying?"
My first impulse was to laugh in his face, but then I hesitated. After all, I *had* used most of my remaining energy to teleport him and his friends away to safety.
He sat down beside me. As he stared off into the distance, he muttered, ".... Never mind."
"Your comrades were able to escape?"
"Yeah... I knew you had something to do with it." His tail swayed restlessly from side to side, betraying his tense, agitated emotions. That was one of the reasons I took such pains to hide my own tail. The other main reason was my desire to distance myself from the Genomes I so loathed. Naturally, someone like Zidane would never think of denying a part of himself....
".... I'm glad they made it." I was telling the truth, strangely enough.
"Yeah, well, it's our turn to get movin'."
I struggled to find the words, then finally I said, "I don't deserve to live after all that I've done. I'm useless to this world."
"No one's useless.... You helped us escape, remember."
".... After you guys beat me, I had nothing left... nothing left to lose. Then, I finally realized what it means to live...."
Why did breathing suddenly become so hard? And my head felt so heavy....
"I guess I was too late...."
Just as awareness began to fade, I heard Zidane shouting over a loud, crunching roar.
"Hey! Don't go dying on me, alright!?"
I managed to pry my eyes open one final time and saw writhing tentacles of green plunging down toward me. But he didn't run away....
The last thing I felt was not the pain of being torn apart or crushed by Iifa's hungry tendrils, but rather the warmth of Zidane's body as he threw himself over me. I appreciated the gesture, truly I did, but I couldn't understand why he would bother trying to protect me. And to think that this was the first and the only time Zidane and I had ever physically touched each other. How ironic....
Darkness enfolded both of us.
To my great surprise, I awoke... and I had company. HE was here, too.
We were nothing more than two sparks of light -- one dim and flickering, the other bright and steady -- hovering in an endless sea of velvety black. Two souls communing, our physical bodies left far behind....
But *why* was he still here? Why didn't he run while he had the chance? And what could have motivated Zidane to come looking for me in the first place?
(Why did you come back?) There was no sound in this place, but he heard my question clearly.
(Because....) Zidane paused, as if trying to work it out for himself. (I think it was because I wanted... no, that I *needed* to let you know that you're not alone, Kuja.)
(No one should die thinking that the whole world didn't give a damn if he lived. Or even worse, believing that everyone wanted you dead....)
Bitterness laced my every word as I retorted, (Are you trying to tell me that you and your friends weren't dancing with glee at the prospect of my death?)
(I don't know about my friends, but I certainly wasn't.)
(Why!? After everything I've done to you and to the Gaia you so cherish?)
(A lot of what you did was wrong and I had to stop you. But I understand *why* you did it.)
(How could you possibly know?) I shot back at him.
(Because... in similar circumstances, I think that I might have done the same thing, Kuja. If my creator had told that from the very beginning, I was made to be expendable... that he intended to throw me away the moment something 'better' came along... if I'd learned that my own maker never intended me to *live*... I think I would have lost it, too.)
(You... heard... everything Garland said to me?)
My anger and rage finally boiled over.
(Then how can you possibly know how I feel!? YOU were the one designed to replace me! YOU were the 'something better' that Garland had been waiting for all along!)
There was a strange gentleness in Zidane's tone as he answered me.
(No. I'm not saying that I know *exactly* how you felt. But I do know how it feels to realize that almost everything you believed about yourself is a lie. To lose everything you thought you had... to have all your dreams and hopes shattered.... I know how much that hurts.)
(After Garland told me the truth about my past, something in me sort of snapped. Instead of being a protector, I realized that I was designed to be nothing more than Garland's pet killing machine. The sole reason for my creation and existence was the destruction of everyone and everything I'd come to care for. And because of that knowledge, I felt completely isolated and alone. There was no way that I'd join in with Terra and Garland's schemes. But on the other hand, I really couldn't be a part of Gaia, either. It didn't matter how much I wanted to protect everyone. How could I possibly expect people to care about me when I was created for the sole purpose of being their destroyer?)
He fell silent. I felt the sudden urge to explain myself and my actions. After all, what did I have to lose? It would be a relief to finally tell *someone*, even my mortal enemy.
(.... All I ever wanted was to live as myself, Zidane. My own life was the only thing that was important to me. I HAD to protect myself because no one else would. Everything I did was directed to that goal.)
(Do you know what it's like to live in constant fear of losing the thing you value the most?)
(.... Constant fear? I guess not. But in Pandemonium, I experienced that sort of fear, if only for a little while. I would've done almost anything to make it go away.)
(Exactly. I was willing to do anything to make that terrible fear stop. My sense of identity and individuality was the most precious thing I had, and Garland could taken it all away from me at any time, Zidane. He had the power to rip out my mind and soul, reducing me to nothing more than a hollow husk if I dared to openly defy him.)
I sensed a faint shudder go through Zidane.
(.... Yeah, I know what you mean.)
(How could you...?) I wondered, intrigued by the tightness in his tone.
(.... Garland did it to me... or tried to, at least. That's part of the reason I freaked out so badly.) Zidane paused a moment, before continuing. (After he got through messing with my head, well.... I was hurting. I was lonely. I was scared. I had no idea who I was, what I was, or where I belonged anymore. I was trapped in so much pain and fear, I simply couldn't think about anyone else's feelings. And because of that, I ended up lashing out at people who were only trying to help me.)
Maybe he really did have some idea of I felt. How strange to think that someone might actually understand the reasons for my actions....
(.... And then to find out that all my efforts were absolutely pointless.... No matter what I did, no matter how much power I gained, I was still going to die, Zidane. To have Garland gloating about how I was nothing more than a makeshift tool whose usefulness had come to an end.... I was going to shut down, just like those damn black mages I created!)
('Life fears death, but lives only to die. It starts with anxiety. Anxiety becomes fear. Fear leads to anger... anger leads to hate... hate leads to suffering...')
(What did you say, Zidane?)
(.... Someone tried to use that reasoning as an excuse to wipe everything out of existence.)
(I take it that you didn't agree with that opinion,) I commented dryly.
(I thought it was a load of crap and basically told Necron to stuff it.)
(.... How typical of you.)
(Gee, thanks, Kuja.) In a more serious tone, he continued, (No, I didn't agree with Necron, but like I said, if I had gone through everything you had, I might have done the same thing. Luckily for me, my friends are way too stubborn for their own good. They finally managed to pound some sense back into my head. But if they hadn't been there and if they hadn't been willing to put so much effort into making me understand that they cared about me just as I cared about them....)
(Yes, you are very fortunate, Zidane. But having such loyal companions isn't really a matter of mere luck, is it? They were willing to stand by you because you had done the same for them.)
(.... I guess you're right. That's basically what Dagger and the others told me. I'm certainly not happy to know the truth about my past, but I can deal with it now. Just knowing that they cared made all the difference. That's why I had to come back to find you. I couldn't walk away and leave you to die thinking that you were all alone, hated and unwanted by the whole world.)
(So you risked your life just to tell me this? It was THAT important to you?)
I found myself wanting to believe him so badly, but I couldn't bring myself to do so. In my experience, people risked their lives to gain money or power. But to endanger one's life to console an enemy...? That was ridiculous. Wasn't it? He HAD to have an ulterior motive. Zidane couldn't possibly be that generous and selfless....
Or could he?
Without warning, I pounced and reached deep into his mind, desperate to know the truth. What I found -- or rather, what I *didn't* find -- left me stunned.
Flinching at the unexpected invasion, Zidane yelped, (What the hell did you do that for!?)
I had convinced myself that he actually was after the special knowledge that only I, after Garland's demise, possessed. And once again, I completely underestimated Zidane and his inner strength.
(It never crossed your mind...,) I muttered, torn between wonderment and exasperation -- wonderment at his generosity of spirit and exasperation at his... well, the best description I could think of was 'artlessness'.
(What never crossed my mind?) he demanded, now sounding a bit irritated.
(You really didn't have an ulterior motive for coming back....)
(That doesn't explain why you were poking around in my head uninvited!)
(I needed to know your real reason for coming back... but you were telling me the truth all along. You returned simply to tell me that I was not... alone.)
In a much calmer tone, Zidane replied, (I didn't lie to you. Something like that is too important to lie about.)
(But to risk your life for such an inconsequential thing....) I *still* found it hard to believe.
(It isn't a trivial matter for me. And I don't think it's a trivial matter for you, either. Or am I wrong?)
(.... No, you're not wrong.)
(.... You've given me something that I.... I would like to return the favor.)
(Hey, you don't need to do that. What I told you... it just felt like the right thing to do.)
(That's exactly why I want you to accept this.)
(What are you talking about?)
(I want to give you my memories. It's the only thing of value that I have left. Consider it a parting gift, Zidane. My... legacy, if you will.)
(Those memories contain the knowledge that could save Gaia.)
(See for yourself....)
I spread my memories before him... everything I had done, experienced, thought, and felt. It was a singularly unimpressive sight. My memories looked like nothing more than a dingy spiderweb -- the sum total of a brief, misdirected life. I ignored the odd flush of shame and pointed out a certain spot that held all I knew of the Iifa Tree and how it functioned.
(Like you and I, the Iifa Tree is one of Garland's special creations. Now that he's gone, we're the only two people who have any hope of controlling the Tree. And you're the only one who has enough power to succeed.)
(Succeed in doing what?)
(The Iifa Tree regulates the assimilation process. If you take control the Iifa Tree, you can prevent the destruction of Gaia.)
(But... but... you've GOT to be kidding!) Zidane's thoughts ended with a deep gulp as he finally realized what I was proposing.
(How strong is your desire to save this planet and its people? Because if you want it badly enough, you can do it. You can stop the Iifa Tree's rampage and Gaia's assimilation by Terra... or what's left of Terra.)
I showed him our birth planet as it now existed. The image hung between us, a red, seething mass of flame that sought to devour Gaia whole.
(Zidane, you haven't even begun to scratch the surface of your true potential yet. Not only can you save Gaia from destruction, but you can also do so much more. For thousands of years, the light of Gaia has been strangled and choked by the Iifa Tree. You can free your adopted planet from the last remnant of Garland's schemes. You can make Gaia flourish like it never has before.)
There was a brief, but intense pause before Zidane responded.
(.... Oh, what the hell. Might as well go for it....)
I could see Zidane's soul slowly unfolding as he opened his mind up to me. It was truly beautiful, a construct that first appeared deceptive simple, but upon closer examination became wondrously complex. I couldn't help noticing how shallow and puny my own soul looked in comparison. How I hated Garland for saddling me with such a cheap, shoddy thing.... Even with the power stolen from the Gaian souls imprisoned within the Invincible, my soul would still pale in comparison with Zidane's. What might I have achieved with a soul like his?
If only... if only....
I knew Zidane was watching me. He wasn't stupid. He knew the risks he was taking in making himself so vulnerable. He also knew how treacherous I could be. He was presenting me with the perfect opportunity to attack. I might have been able to hurt or kill him. I even might have been able to take possession of his mind, body, or soul.
Just like before, I had made him an offer he simply could not refuse. It was the perfect trap and he knew it. However, just as I expected, the possibility of danger didn't stop him. He merely waited for me to make my move, whatever it might be.
I gathered up my memories and carefully deposited them within the glittering strands of Zidane's mind, then backed away and watched as he gently pulled those memories into himself.
Yes, I could have hurt or done much worse to him, but I hadn't felt the slightest temptation or desire to do so. It wasn't because I feared his possible retaliation. I was already dying. I had nothing to lose. However, for once in my life, I wanted to play fair. I wanted to be kind to the only person who had ever been kind to me.
With this last task completed, I felt strangely light and free, as if the act of sharing my memories removed a massive weight from my mind and spirit.
(All my schemes, all my efforts, and I still end up being cast aside and forgotten just like the black mages I created...,) I thought wistfully.
(They haven't been forgotten, and neither will you,) Zidane murmured as he examined my memories with the respectful care that one bestows on priceless old books. (Despite what Garland said, you're much more than just a defect. You're a person with feelings, hopes, and dreams. We will remember you. I promise you that.)
(.... Then in a way, I will continue to live on, won't I?)
(Goodbye, Zidane. And... thank you.)
Even as my awareness slowly begins to fade and dissipate like drifting smoke, I can still sense Zidane's presence nearby. I feel him gathering his power, tentatively at first, then with increasing confidence and determination as he prepares to save Gaia from impeding doom.
Soon the light surrounds me, brilliant and clear, as his soul begins to truly awaken into its full glory. I recognize that particular radiance instantly. After all, I had touched by that very same light a short eternity ago as I prepared to destroy its source and all existence along with it.
My last question has finally been answered. Now I know the true origin of Zidane's soul.
Surely you had some idea, Garland. There's really only one source for a soul that powerful.
The Crystal, of course.
When did you realize the truth, Garland? When did you figure out that Zidane had been created for a far greater purpose than the mere resurrection of Terra... that he was destined to lead the battle against the deadliest enemy of all -- oblivion itself?
I'm sure you knew, at least in the end. I've touched Zidane's memories. I know all about your last conversation with him. Why else would you try so hard to make him understand the significance of the Crystal?
I guess that the Crystal is not nearly as defenseless as it appears. How many protectors has it created and scattered throughout existence, their souls quietly slumbering until a worthy champion is needed? An interesting philosophical question, but the answer is quite irrelevant to me now.
The knowledge that someone cared enough to risk his own life simply to tell me 'I understand how you feel'... the comfort of knowing that at least one person in the world will remember me in a kindly way.... Zidane's parting gift is much more valuable to me than any riches, power, or cosmic truths could ever be.
Thank you, Zidane.
May your friends always treasure you as you deserve.
I wish you well, my brother.
Drained and exhausted by their battle with the dark entity Necron, Dagger and her companions were soon joined onboard the Hilda Garde 3 by Beatrix and Mikoto. All of them could only watch from the deck of the great airship as the Iifa Tree lashed out, sending its ferocious root tentacles everywhere, ripping up soil and rock, tearing the very bones of Gaia apart. From the safety of the air, they saw both villages and forests enveloped in a matter of seconds.
On the airship, anger and frustration were evident on everyone's faces. It seemed that Kuja would have his revenge on Gaia, one way or another.
"Damnation. This doesn't look good," Regent Cid muttered as he watched a writhing mass of Iifa vines tear a small mountain apart.
"Gaia is starting to be assimilated by Terra," Vivi said softly. The Mist was gone, but now the sky now glowed an ominous red, as if the entire world was bleeding.
"That's SO unfair!" Eiko yelled, hopping up and down angrily. "The bad guys lost, but they're still wrecking the place! Why can't they just give it up and leave us alone!?"
Freya knelt down beside the little summoner and shook her head sadly. "Unfortunately, that is the way of things. They may have lost, but our enemies are determined to make all living things join in their misery."
Eiko scowled sullenly down at her feet, then flicked an anxious glance over at Dagger. The young woman stood at the railing, with a tight, pinched expression on her face as she struggled to hold back her tears. At a discrete distance, Steiner helplessly watched his young queen.
Suddenly, Dagger gasped, leaned perilously over the railing, and pointed at the Tree.
They all lunged toward the railing and stared in astonishment as the ravaging of their world simply... stopped.
The Iifa roots froze in mid-thrash, then started to crumble into a dark, heavy ash. Wherever the ash landed, plants sprouted before their eyes, covering the wounded earth in a gentle, soothing blanket of greenery. But the most encouraging sign was the fact that all the foliage they saw was native to Gaia. There was no trace of the malevolent tendrils of the Iifa Tree or the alien plant life of Terra.
Quina stared up at the sky and waggled its long tongue in astonishment.
"Now sky color is changing!"
They all craned their necks back and stared upward. It was like witnessing a sunset in reverse. The angry red sky first softened to a gentle rose, then slowly shifted through a light purple, then changed to a rich, stunning blue.
"What the devil's going on?" Regent Cid muttered, tugging on his great mustache in bafflement.
It was Dagger who expressed the thought that had occurred to each of them.
"....Zidane...?" she whispered.
In the bright sunshine, the Iifa Tree no longer had its previous sinister, forbidding appearance. Even as they watched, they could see birds flying in from all directions to cautiously explore the Tree's great branches.
"Just a few moments ago, it looked hideous and now it's... beautiful," Freya murmured.
Cid turned to Dagger and said, "Do you want to...?" He waved his hand vaguely in the Tree's direction.
She gulped, then nodded quickly.
The Hilda Garde 3 majestically turned and headed back toward the Iifa Tree. Tension grew as they steadily approached. All the other airships had departed, forced to retreat because of the sudden lack of Mist.
They received no warning except for the gentlest touch of wind on their skins. The next thing they knew, the Hilda Garde 3 was circling the Tree instead of heading directly toward it.
They tried approaching several more times, at a variety of speeds and altitudes, but nothing worked. Every single time, at the same distance from the Tree, there was the gentle, but irresistible deflection of their course. Finally, the airship settled to the ground, just beyond the invisible boundary.
Approaching on foot brought them almost within touching distance to the main trunk. But instead of being open and easily accessible like before, the massive trunk was sealed shut by an impenetrable wall of interlocking vegetation that reached upward as far as the eye could see.
Beatrix glanced to the female Genome called Mikoto and said in a frustrated tone, "Can you at least tell us if he's *alive*?"
Dagger and the others held their breaths as Mikoto glanced at the great Tree, then said simply, "I don't know."
Steiner muttered, "What do you mean that you don't know!?"
The Genome gave all of them one of her unnervingly impassive stares. "The Iifa Tree is causing too much interference."
The knight rubbed his chin and muttered, "I suppose we could try cutting our way through...."
"No!" both Eiko and Dagger responded immediately.
"My Queen...," Steiner said, rather taken aback by their forceful objection.
Dagger bit her lip and remained silent as Eiko twiddled her fingers. The little summoner finally blurted out, "It's just that... it doesn't feel right to try forcing our way in like that! I mean, it's not doing any harm now. I think we should leave it alone!"
Cid coughed and said, "Well, in that case, perhaps we should better arrange to keep a watch...."
Dagger quickly shook her head and said, "No. I don't think there's any need for that."
"Why not, my dear?" the Regent asked.
"It's... just a feeling. I believe Eiko's right. There's no danger here as long as we respect the Tree's boundaries."
Steiner muttered gruffly, "As you wish, my Queen." He hesitated, then blurted out, "But it sits very ill with me to turn our backs and abandon a close comrade!"
Surprisingly, it was Vivi who answered. "But we're not abandoning Zidane. Because even if we're not here, he'll always be in our hearts. Zidane wanted us to continue with our lives, no matter what happened to him. That's why he insisted on going by himself."
Dagger nodded in agreement. "I'll wait for him, as long as it takes, but each of us has things that we need to do, whether it's helping to rebuild kingdoms," she said, gesturing to herself, Beatrix, and Freya.
She glanced at Amarant and Quina. "Or broadening our horizons with new ideas and experiences. Whether it's simply growing up," Dagger smiled at Eiko, then looked at Vivi and Mikoto. "Or trying to understand who we really are and what we can become."
Dagger lifted her chin proudly. "Better than anyone, Zidane knows that the world goes on even if he's not physically here. But he's with us in spirit. We carry a part of him with us no matter where we are and what we do."
She glanced up at the Tree and added, "I don't know what happened here. I don't know how or if Zidane's involved. All I know is that everyone on Gaia has been given another chance at life. Zidane would want us to make the most of that opportunity."
Both Beatrix and Steiner saluted sharply, as the others nodded in understanding.
"Magnificently expressed, my dear girl," Regent Cid said with a proud smile.
She blushed furiously at the compliment. Everyone looked at each other, then in unspoken mutual agreement, they separated, each wandering in different directions to seek privacy for a few parting thoughts before moving on.
Dagger walked forward until she could almost touch the towering walls of the main trunk. She closed her eyes, then lightly placed her hand on a nearby root. She quietly stood there for several moments, then turned to rejoin her companions.
With a firm tilt to her chin and warm smile on her face, she said, "Let's go. We have a world waiting for us."
As the Hilda Garde 3 headed back to Lindblum, Dagger stood alone on the uppermost deck and watched the Iifa Tree slowly fade into the distance.
No one else knew of her discovery, although Eiko might have picked up the subtle signs, too.
....the Iifa Tree itself now bore the faint, yet unmistakable 'feel' of an Eidolon.
(Zidane, I'm certain that you're somehow responsible for this. Somehow, you managed to tame the Iifa Tree and save Gaia. I have no basis for this belief, nor do I have any idea how you might have accomplished it, but deep in my soul, I knew this to be true.)
She glanced upward at the brilliant blue sky.
(No matter how long it takes, please come back to me. My heart will be waiting for you....)
For the most part, the Iifa Tree was left to its own devices. Occasionally, a few foolhardy people attempted to disturb the Tree's privacy in order to search for valuable secrets or treasure. However, none of the would-be intruders were ever successful. They were usually found wandering the mountain paths in a befuddled state by the helpful dwarves of Conde Petie.
But if a person could have reached the Iifa Tree and stood beneath its great canopy, that individual would have marveled at the beautiful, wistful melody of its infinite leaves as they rustled and sang in the wind.