Filling In The Blanks
Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy IX or any of its characters.
A/N: I just want to share for anyone who it bothers… I don't think I will ever understand the difference between effect and affect so if you see that its wrong and it bothers you, I apologize for any times I've gotten it wrong :)
Chapter 73: It Affects Us All
After what seemed like ages in the pure darkness, surrounded by nobody but unsuspecting enemies, they eventually went their separate ways, and left the night spread out in front of Blank, still perched like a night owl on a rough tree branch, full of silence.
Crickets eventually began to chirp, and he soaked in the peaceful sounds for a moment. Slowly, it evolved from a late night of Kuja's goons, to the peaceful Southern Gate he remembered passing through when he was younger. He could almost hear the stars twinkle peacefully overhead, so far away from the troubles of Gaia. The mountains produced a jacket from the wind, bracing the people safely nestled inside of the pass.
He knew he should quickly snatch up Ruby and run before someone came back, but the suffocating pull of the past held him in that tree, his eyes closed and his breathing blending with the breeze. He tried to recall his feelings when things weren't quite so dangerous – when he didn't live underground or on the run… It was difficult… For over half of his life, he had to lie about who he was, and the painful frustration that wavered over him from that was never quite out of mind's eye.
"It's like a little town!" The laughter was so real in the statement, the redhead's eyes fluttered open, unsure if Zidane was standing below him giggling.
"Just a memory…" He murmured to himself, leaning back against the tree, figuring Ruby could wait just a little longer while he delved into a brighter past.
Slowly, the warm sun that had started to envelop him when he first began to remember came back, and Blank was pushed nine years into the past.
"It can't be a town when there's only one building!"
"Nu-uh!" Zidane argued, though a grin still overtook half of his face. "There are a bunch of little places around that building!"
Blank scoffed – so characteristic of the now bossy, still-spoiled eight year old. For the longest time, the blonde was the only one who could hold a conversation with the moody redhead… But as the months passed, he started to grow accustomed to their lifestyle, and the people in it.
Soon the night terrors of losing his parents began to fade, and his dreams were filled with wonderful plays and sparkling riches - Zidane, Baku, Marcus, Cinna, the Nero Brothers, and all the others in every single one of his imaginings.
As he grew more talkative, he grew bossier, and everyone saw what happened when the young son of late nobles didn't get everything he wanted. But by training and traveling, little by little, he was changing – something that, really, Baku couldn't wait for – he was tired of dealing with the little brat.
"But they're temporary – that means they don't count!" He insisted stubbornly.
Marcus raised an eyebrow at Zidane, wondering if the blonde was going to take that snotty attitude. The blonde simply shrugged, his delighted mood never quite leaving him as he danced around ahead.
"You should really be a little nicer to Zidane," Marcus advised, using what he thought was mature wisdom from a ten year old. Unfortunately, his ego was just as clouded as Blank's when it came to who was the best so the advice wasn't always the best. "He's the only one who can tolerate you for more than a few minutes."
"Why don't you just suck –"
"Boys!" Baku barked, "We're trying to be inconspicuous here!"
"Trying is the key word," Cinna snickered. Everyone rolled their eyes. The redhead supposed that the jokester thief's jests had never been funny.
"What is this place, Baku?" Zidane asked, peeling off of his far ahead path to loop back around to the group. "We've never been through here before!"
"We're at the South Gate," he let on a grin. "It's one of the three passes that connect the Mist Continent and keeps us strong!"
Nobody bothered to correct him and tell him Kuja had already taken over a healthy portion of it. He continued like he hadn't noticed their skeptical looks, "We're headed to Treno!"
"Treno?" Blank tilted his head, "What's that place?"
"Oh man, when you boys are older will you love it…" He wore a foxy grin as he meandered forward. "But for now… As long as we control these three passes – Gizamaluke's Grotto, the North Gate, and the South Gate, we'll have control of the continent and fighting the war will be a lot easier."
"And if we lose control?"
"If even one is lost, it's going to get a whole lot harder to maneuver… Not for us of course, because we have access to a ship – but if the older members of Tantalus have it, then we have to go on foot like we are now…" Baku shrugged, poorly hiding his bitterness. Bitterness from perhaps that he was assigned a team of trainees and couldn't move with the veteran members of the troupe. "And for recon missions that are better suited for kids because they can get away with more, that's a real hassle, especially if we have to make a quick escape!"
Blank visibly paled, no longer wanting to ask any more questions.
"So," Zidane scrunched up his face, taking the redhead's job, "Is our mission to Treno technically a recon mission?"
Their leader peered down at the blonde, wondering what kind of angle he was getting at. "Yes, I suppose it could be considered that."
Blank and Cinna flinched back like they'd touched something hot, unsure if they wanted to continue.
Zidane grinned a smirk far beyond his years. "But we'll be okay," he turned to his two cowering teammates and winked, "because we have control of the passes."
Their captain squinted his eyes as the blonde raced forward once more, looking every which way and trying to soak in the warm sun. "What's his point?" He barked gruffly.
"He's kind of weird like that, isn't he?" Marcus observed, still trying to use his wise 'I'm-all-grown-up-but-not-really' voice. "He puts all those pieces together like that to make sure he's got the mission right," the boy readjusted his bandana, rolled up and tied around his head almost like a headband, his black hair sticking up in awkward spots beneath it, "but then uses that to make those two feel better about going…" He jerked his thumb at Blank and dropped his voice. "I think it's to make Blank less scared."
"I'm not scared!" He piped up from behind them.
"Nobody ever said you were," Marcus turned around with a conniving, Chesire grin before sprinting forward to join the adventurous blonde of the group.
And just like that, the warmness started to melt away as the memory got fuzzy. Why did he remember when they passed through the South Gate for the first time? Was it because looking back, it was obvious how much Zidane tried to help him to know exactly what they were supposed to be doing, and to not be afraid of their mission? Or maybe because he recognized almost a decade later that he was terrified and maybe still was, but now he didn't have to pretend to be brave…
He loved dangerous missions – especially with Zidane back at his side. And just like that, he realized that Tantalus was probably worrying because it had been at least an hour, and he really needed to focus on Ruby instead of the past… Things would get better if they won this war, and maybe – just maybe…
He wouldn't have to hide the fear under his brave recklessness anymore.
"What exactly is a visionary?" Steiner's skepticism wasn't hard to make out as he leaned back on the rounded bench, seemingly unimpressed by the city and its people and the story thus far – even though really, he was.
"Visionaries are beautiful," Cotex told them with a nod of his head. His long, dark hair wavered over his shoulder in the soft breeze around them. "They see things we cannot see…"
"Quina do not understand," he shook his head sadly, "Quina confused!"
Dagger had to silently agree with the Qu. She didn't particularly like the way these Cleyra-Bermecians enjoyed talking in riddles, and wished they could just get to the point.
"She sees hypothetical situations… Depending on your choices now, she sees many outcomes of the future… Some are right, and some turn out dangerously wrong."
"So she's like a psychic?" Steiner asked gruffly.
"A visionary," Cotex corrected with a soft smirk, "Her mind automatically works in variables and interchangeable decisions for an outcome, so it's not quite predicting. Therefore, it is probably never one-hundred percent true, but it looks to be true, because it is one outcome of your life."
"What makes her so special? I've heard of these kinds of mindful creatures before… There must be more," Beatrix pushed.
"Kalipso is able to see how the world would be without war… She can go back and hypothetically change someone's decision. For instance… if Kuja decided not to take over the whole world, she can envision what Gaia might look like."
"That would drive me mad…" The brunette woman mumbled as she delved into thought.
"Many believe visionaries are insane," Fratley commented in passing. "Besides the Bermecians, there are not many who believe…"
"But they're real," Steiner forced out, sarcasm intertwined between his words.
"Your friend, Irontail, is one of those who does not believe…" Cotex seemed to find this amusing as his tinkling voice rang out in the air.
"Sounds like him," Fratley mumbled pleasantly. A sour look pressed onto the man's face, and a few of the Bermecians snickered.
"So how do you know of her visionary powers?" Freya spoke for the first time, seemingly coming back to the present after a long walk in her own mind.
Cotex sighed, a certain sorrow filling his breath. "It is true, there are those who fake this beautiful talent… Sometimes to mend broken hearts, and other times to get ahead of enemies, but that is never the right path… Kalipso is one of two visionaries there ever were, she is the descendant of the first."
"Just because she is a descendant does not mean she is real…" Freya insisted, tilting her hat back so the rest of the circle could see her intimidatingly icy eyes.
Cotex stared at her for a moment, as though debating saying a thought out loud. He must have decided against it, because he shut his mouth and leaned back, the brief traces of anger she'd seen vanishing from him in a blink.
"You might go to see her for yourself," he challenged instead.
Freya sat back also, knowing her manners, especially in the presence of someone who was helping them so much. But she didn't like it. There was something about Kalipso that sounded painfully familiar – something so far in her past she had forced it out completely.
The Cleyra leader went on to explain how she was found out, and her past. It was a tail peppered with wondrous magic, and lined with enchanting words to make the whole thing seem more enticing. Steiner wasn't impressed for the entire duration of the story, and Beatrix shifted her eyes from the Bermecian to the man, unsure whose side to talk. Fratley sat pleasantly, an undeniably good poker face plastered over his expression. Quina stopped listening to the story almost as quickly as it started, and that simply left Dagger.
She wasn't sure, considering her companions, if she should believe such a nice story. To possibly see part of her future if they were to win this war… To see what would happen to her friends and loved ones – to her kingdom… For her, more than the rest of them, this was an important chance.
But it was dangerous… False hope wasn't a good thing in this stage of the game, and she chewed on her lip as the Bermecians continued to comment on the story, only enhancing it further. And the glory of Kalipso's more impressive trick… To see what the world would be like without Kuja's influence… To see what would have happened to her had she grown up normally… It would be a treat to see something that beautiful – a Gaia untainted by the pollution of war.
On the other hand, one would never know what kind of things it would do to the minds of those scarred by the events of the world. Would Dagger live in regret because of her decisions?
Suddenly, Beatrix's hand was on her shoulder and they were all staring at her.
"Hm?" She asked a little innocently.
Steiner stuck his nose up in the air and crossed his arms, and this is when she realized all of the Bermecians had disappeared from the gazebo. "We are absolutely not falling into this hypnotic trap!" The ex-knight barked out.
Fratley raised his eyebrow, "Why are you so adamant about avoiding it, Steiner?" Amusement glittered his face, and upon seeing this, crimson flooded the knight's face.
"There is no reason we need to make our goals toxic with tricks… To see a world without this war, or to see a future that might not come true is a dangerous thing…" Beatrix defended Steiner as he calmed.
Dagger bit her lip. So Beatrix agreed with her first thoughts. It was toxic – especially to people so involved in the resistance. It could take all of the fight completely out of her. Yet the only teenager amongst them, the curiosity stabbed at her mind, and her heart, a little too painfully.
"Are we all in agreement then?" Freya asked, her arms crossed grumpily over her chest. Everyone was wondering what was going on with her since they'd entered the city, but no one was daring enough to ask.
The ruby ring that Fratley had given her glinted on her finger, and Dagger stared at it, sinking back into her thoughts. But maybe relationships blossomed in this war that wouldn't have happened had they not been drawn together by a common enemy.
Her heart stuttered as Zidane's bright eyes swirled into her mind's eye. His loving smile and his chiming laugh – would she have met him? That curiosity peaked now, worse than before.
"In agreement for what?" She asked sheepishly, realizing this was the second time she'd missed the question.
"None of us will go see Kapliso," Steiner stated forcefully.
She stared at each of them, and besides the dazzlingly friendly expression on Fratley's face, everyone else's expressions told her that they all agreed.
"Right…" She drew out, trailing off towards the end with an unsure close.
Everyone moved on from her timid answer quickly, except Fratley. His forest green eyes lingered on her face for just a moment, before innocently turning away.
"Let us relax for the rest of the day… Perhaps later we will be able to meet with Cotex and the other leaders…" Freya said. She gestured to the city, feeling more relaxed now that the conversation about the visionary was over. "Feel free to explore…"
"We'll be staying at the Golden Lance Inn almost at the top of the path… You can't miss it really," Fratley said with a nod. "Enjoy your day of expeditions…" His eyes landed on Dagger again, as though speaking directly to her, before he took hold of Freya's hand and led her gently from the gazebo.
Finally, the girl stood and stretched, shaking loose her limbs that wound so tightly from the trek to the city and maybe a little from the story of a future she didn't know.
"Be careful Dagger," Steiner instructed as his eyes shifted. "I feel the beliefs of the Cleyra-Bermecians are much different than our own."
"I'll be alright, but thank you." She nodded and stepped back out into the sun, content with sitting on the grass, watching the flowers in the wind, and listening to the tinkling sound of the water.
"Do ya have any idea where an exit might be?" She whispered fiercely to him.
Blank shrugged, "I stayed back to get you, you know… I haven't gone through here in years – it's changed so much."
"So ya don't have no idea even though the mountain didn' changed, and the exit would be in the same place it's always been?"
The redhead wheeled around and glared at her. "Ruby, do you want me to rescue you?"
"Sugar, I coulda gotten out without ya…" An arrogant expression smeared across her face, and Blank turned away, crossing his arms to pout.
"Let's try this way…" He suggested in an attempt to change the subject. She smirked because that was his way of silently telling her she was probably right. But, she didn't say anything out loud because as much as Ruby didn't want to admit it, she thought his constant need to protect her was sort of cute.
They rustled almost noiselessly through the grass, the dew staining their boots as they pressed forward. The later it got, the more lights went out, and it made it more difficult to see. Luckily, it helped them stay out of detection as well.
Blank's piercing, emerald eyes stared up at the mountain, blacker than the rest of the night, ominously peaking over them. The moon hid behind billows of clouds, most of the light shrouded by the giant mountain top. If he could just follow the mountain, they'd eventually reach an exit.
A knot twisted in his stomach. Hopefully they'd have some warning before stumbling upon it so that they didn't stumble into a group of guards. It sounded like a hassle – a messy one at that, and that was one thing he didn't feel like dealing with.
Ruby latched on to his arm, jumpier than she cared to let on. She had never been through the pass before, and cursed Baku for going on ahead without giving some instruction about where they were – he would know more than any of them.
They stopped next to one of the few stone buildings in the camp, their chests rising and falling rapidly. "I think – it's just around – this corner…" Blank panted, turning to look at the girl.
Her hair looked blonde in the moonlight, a silver glow around it. With no makeup on her face, she looked like she did when she was young. Her eyes were wide with unspoken fright, and suddenly Blank had the undeniable urge to kiss her.
He grabbed her face in his hands, a blush creeping to his cheeks when he realized just how much shorter than her he was. As his short breaths puffed onto the soft skin of her face, he stood on his tip toes, pulling her gently the rest of the way, and locked his lips with hers.
At first, there was no reaction. He pressed tightly against her, almost desperately. But soon she was kissing him back and pushed him into the wall of the building. Something passed silently between them that while they were trapped in an enemy fortress in a war they had been losing for years, maybe they should still take a second to realize they were both still alive, and still with each other.
Neither of them realized when a presence left the building, shutting the door quietly. His footsteps padded lightly into the dewy grass, and he turned the corner with a candle, hoping to find the outhouse. Instead, his light illuminated the two thieves, pressed against each other in one long kiss.
Ruby's arms hung limply around Blank's neck, as his arms snaked around her petite waist. It took him a moment to realize they were kissing and not just hugging because they were so still. As quietly as he could, he drew his sword.
But the classic sound of metal scraping a metal sheath pulled Blank back into a harsh reality as he pushed the still-unknowing girl behind him, jerking his body to the side.
"Who are you?" The man boomed, and both Tantalus members flinched back. Their cover had been so easily blown, and the soldier wasn't about to keep their presence a secret. There was silence as Blank took a step back, forcing Ruby further away from the shining sword.
At that very same moment, the moon broke through the clouds, casting a shallow glow of light around them. As it pooled, the soldier squinted his eyes at the two, recognition pulling at his mind. "Who are you?" He asked, much quieter this time. His voice sounded more confused than angry this time, and Blank took it as a good sign.
"I'm kidnapping her," the redhead blurted out without thinking much about his alibi.
"What?" Ruby asked at the same time as the soldier. It seemed to break the man out of his reverie.
"I injured this woman –" Blank jerked his thumb behind him. "- and she fled here for help. She's the one all of you guards –"
"No…" The man shook his head and straightened, putting the two teenagers even more on edge. The redhead was at a complete loss as to what this man would do with them since he hadn't killed them yet. "That's not where I recognize you from… Besides – your protective stance does not say that you've kidnapped her…" A grin overtook his features, "Nor did that kiss…"
The two of them blushed. Was he taunting them? Or… teasing them?
"Terra…" He suddenly said, his face brightening in recognition.
"What?" Ruby asked again, straightening. That face didn't look like one who was ready to kill them. Maybe if they cooperated with what he said, they would be able to break free.
"I saw you –" he pointed at Blank, " and you –" then at Ruby, "- in Terra! You were part of that play…"
It finally clicked in Blank's mind what the man was talking about. When they performed day in and day out at Terra. Who was this man?
"I went with some buddies on our night off to see I Want to be Your Canary…" He stiffened. "The dreamer Kuja was after… That fight. You were both there… You took the dreamer away from Kuja's clutches in just the last moment – stole his ship and –" The man snapped his mouth shut.
Blank chewed on his lip. Should they deny it? But then what could he say they were doing in the South Gate that was so obviously controlled by soldiers – scouts at both exits.
"That's right," Ruby said from behind him. Forcing Blank's arm out of the way she stepped forward cautiously. "You were there then? At that last fight between Zidane and Kuja?"
The man seemed to recoil at hearing Zidane's name. "Zidane… is that his name?"
Ruby nodded, "He has a name… and a life… friends and family and a girl who loves him."
"A girl who loves him?" The man parroted. Unconsciously, he stuck his hand into his pocket, feeling the worn corner of a photo taken over a year ago – the last time he was home.
"He's fighting to get his home back… Not to kill, not to force a belief upon people, but to be free…"
As he processed her words, the picture on his pocket illuminated in his mind. He was there, in regular clothing when his face wasn't lined with grime from being out in the war. One of his arms was wrapped lovingly around his son, not even old enough to walk, big blue eyes staring up at the camera. It wasn't easy to get a baby to smile, but for this particular picture, a toothless smile was directed towards the lens and the person cooing behind it. Even with hardly any hair, and a chubby little face, the resemblance of a son to his father was undeniable. His other arm was wrapped around his wife, long dark hair falling far past her shoulders, one of her hands holding the hand of her son. Her swirling turquoise eyes shined with a short lived happiness – before her husband went to war.
(A/N: I imagine those really old photos where you have to put your head under the blanket or curtain or whatever you use, and press the button. I know FFIX probably doesn't have cameras, but bear with me on that for the sake of this moment)
He thought about his home – just on the outskirts of Dali, and the painful reminder came to him that Dali had been destroyed… But there hadn't been time to stop there and make sure his family was safe, despite being stationed so close… If they were still alive, his son would be talking and walking and starting to remember things – his own father not one of them.
"Who are you?" He asked again, his voice so unsure.
"I'm Ruby, and this here's Blank. We was tryin' to pass through…"
"Enemies of Kuja…" That wasn't a question.
"How about fighting for freedom from this war?" Blank tried, the sensitivity in his voice foreign to even his own ears.
The man scoffed, and the redhead pushed forward, gripping Ruby's arm incase he'd have to pull her back. But surprisingly, the man straightened further and sheathed his sword.
"We have to believe that those who have passed want all of us to survive…" The man turned away, almost ashamed that he was doing what he was. "Kuja has drawn this war on far too long…" When he glanced back up, his eyes were glistening, unshed tears misting his vision. "I have a son who does not know who I am, and don't know if my family is still alive after the catastrophe at Dali… You must have been there…"
Ruby nodded silently before Blank could deny anything.
"The killings should stop… Kuja needs to be stopped… He will not halt until the whole world is in submission… In other words," the man shot a disgusted look at the ground, splotched with darkness, "He might just have to kill everything in order to achieve that goal."
"What are you going to do with us…?"
"The exit is around this corner and down the way… Everybody is asleep in the tents down there… I'll call the scouts away from their position so you can get past."
Blank's jaw dropped. One of Kuja's soldiers was letting them go? "Why are you doing this?"
"If I can save a life instead of kill – no matter who it is, I am willing to do it…"
Without another word, the duo from Tantalus started forward, passing the man without problem. But then Ruby remembered something and slammed her feet into the ground, stopping them. "Wait!" She whispered urgently. "Ya said yer family lived in Dali?"
"Yes," he told her, his voice rising in slight question.
"Do ya have a picture?" She asked softly, stepping towards the man, remembering how his hand found his pocket almost unconsciously before. Blank's feeble protests were muffled as she threw back a kick at his shin.
He fished the old photograph out of his pocket and stared at it lovingly for a moment, sadness filling his entire being, before gingerly handing it over.
She straightened out the rustic paper and peered closely in the darkness. She recalled hearing that many of the people from the disaster in Dali eventually moved on from Treno to Lindblum… This could give any survivor a chance to start a new life, and many of those people stopped by the old theater for help from the only person able to openly give aid…
As she soaked in the faces of his family, she tried to recall seeing any of them in passing. The wind whipped around them, chillier now than it was before, and Blank whined quietly behind her, beckoning her to go before they were caught by a guard more fond of Kuja than this one.
Just as she was about to hand it back to him, something sparked in her mind. She worked with children at the old theater every single day… Normally, she played with the older kids, teaching them simple skills and playing make-believe with them… Ruby hardly ever tended to the ones too small to be left alone at playtime… But the one time she did…
"Yer son…" She glanced up, tears in her own eyes when she realized she could give this man peace. "I've seen him…"
"He still looks a lot like this… But maybe even more like ya…" She laughed as the tears finally fell from her eyes. "I seen him in Lindblum…"
"You did?!" The soldier was crying now and rushed forward, gripping her shoulders with his hands. Blank's dagger drew in the background as he tried to be menacing, but neither of the two noticed. "Are you certain?"
She nodded vigorously, "Yes, yes, I'm sure."
"Where? Did you see my wife with him?"
And suddenly her heart broke into a million pieces as she shot a pitiful glance back at Blank. He stopped his blabbering impatience for a moment and stared at the man, knowing exactly what kind of look she had just given him.
"While we were there, I was workin' in the old Tantalus theatre to help the kids there… All of the kids had either been split from their parents, or lost them in the war... Most of 'em were orphans."
The man gave one heave of grief, squeezing his eyes shut, trying to block out what he'd just been told. But, with what little composure he had left, he lifted his head to Ruby, all dignity of a sergeant was gone. "Thank you for telling me my son is alive…"
"I'm so sorry," she whispered to him as she wiped the tears from her face with her dirty gloves. She smeared more dirt across her face, a lopsided smile trying to find its way to her lips to give him some sort of comfort.
He straightened as best he could, his shoulders still quaking with held-back sobs. "Go now…"
"Come with us…" She pleaded.
He shook his head, "If I go, no matter how much I want to, they will follow, and you will likely be caught wherever you are headed… I will stay to protect you, and the future of my son…"
His hands slid off of her shoulders as he stepped back, nodding to Blank.
"Come on, Ruby…" the redhead said quietly, taking her hand and pulling her close, before they turned and fell out of sight, sinking into the darkness where the guard couldn't see them again.
The two followed his instructions to the exit just as they heard a high pitched animal call. Hiding behind a stone jutting from the ground, they watched with amazement as the guards dashed inward, mumbling curiously to each other. This was their chance to escape…
Leaping into the torch light under the man-made arch, Blank ushered Ruby forward. She glanced backwards sadly, tears still stinging her vision. For once, Blank didn't push her to move forward, or grouch at her for caring a little too much.
Just as she turned to continue, he spun around quickly, hoping to hide the traces of tears in his own eyes. Without another word to each other, they made it safely out of the South Gate, feeling far more indebted to the enemy than they ever thought they would be.
A/N: Well I hope that was kind of a fun chapter! I know that there wasn't much about our friends in Cleyra, but there will be plenty later, I promise ;) Anyways, I saw for the first time a few weeks ago "The Pianist" about a Jewish pianist hiding out in Poland for the duration of World War II (amazing movie based on a real story), and I'm like, that inspires me to show kind of the other side of the war too…
Anyways! Enough of my blabbering… I hope you all liked it!