Double-decker ice cream floaters. They were one of the few happy things that Ben could still remember clearly.
The depths of memory clung to the image of himself as a child, sitting on his knees in a little booth with face and hands covered in ice cream. His father or mother might have been there. But he didn’t really know since the image grew fuzzy around the edges whenever he attempted to push his memory beyond its threshold.
If given the chance, the Half-Lunar would have been happy enough to simply forget everything. Wipe things clean. Start life over again. But the wavering half-memories of his lost childhood would not release him from their haunting grip. The knowledge that he had once held a happy, normal life before the blurring void of Zot continued to plague his soul.
FuSoYa said that with time, my memories might return. He said that I just have to wait for the side-effects of Zemus’ mind magic to fade.
His human life was lost to a time that he would never be able to recapture… much less hold on to for comfort.
But it’s been five years now. I’ve found nothing more about my past than what I knew when I first woke in the Giant of Babil.
It was another reason that the Master Wizard had yielded to the fact that he had to return to the Blue Planet, despite the hostility he knew that he would receive. Ben was absolutely certain that this world was his place of birth. He also knew that he had lived with his family for many years in the town of Mysidia and they had made frequent trips to visit Baron.
If I’m ever going to discover who I really am, I have to stop waiting and start searching for my truth.
A hazy image of Baron was his final memory from the Blue Planet before he was taken to Zot.
So what better way to start my search than to return to the place I last remember? That’s how one goes about searching for all things that are lost.
And maybe that was why he had asked the page boy to lead him to the ice cream shop. It was one memory that still remained strong.
As they rounded the final corner to the Baronian Square, Chase froze, stopping dead in his tracks. Ben stumbled to a halt, barely missing trampling the boy for being so lost to his thoughts.
“What’s wrong?” the Half-Lunar squinted down at the sandy-haired boy. “You said you knew the way?”
Chase did not reply. The only sound that came from him was a soft-throated half-cry.
Ben lifted his eyes to scan the square for the very first time. Having been so engaged on his own thoughts, he had not been paying attention to anything in the town around him. Now that his gaze drifted away from the stones at his feet, the picture of destruction met him with a sudden sharp intake of breath.
“The dragon attack… did this?” Chase swallowed.
Everywhere, buildings of the city lay splintered as if the structures had been nothing more than matchstick houses. People dotted the mounds, digging in the rubble to find what few things they might be able to salvage. Somewhere down the road, the sound of chocobo carts rolled through the town, sent to retrieve the bodies of the warriors that had fallen during battle with the dragon.
I didn’t realize so much had been destroyed. We were just glad to have defeated the Dragon.
A dull, emotionless veil dropped over Ben’s mind. It was the only thing that could cover the panic that threatened to break through the cracks of his façade.
“Does this mean we aren’t going to get ice cream?” he heard himself say. His voice was so distant. His thoughts had grown fuzzy and estranged to his own will.
Blinking rapidly, the boy swallowed and worked his mouth before finding the words to reply, “How could you even care about ice cream right now?”
“That’s… what we came here for…” Something chided him for being so petty. But coming to grips with the people’s suffering felt far too overwhelming to even know where to begin.
Chase’s face contorted. It was hard to tell if the expression held dismay or shock or just sorrow.
Is he gonna cry?
Confusion shifted on top of pattering guilt. When Ben’s voice rose, it was soft to even his ears, “Chase… Are you upset at me?”
“Can’t you see that people are sad?” the boy demanded.
Ben wrinkled his brow, trying hard to follow the child’s train of thought. “Well, I didn’t make them sad, did I?”
“No, I don’t think so…”
“I even helped to protect them this time,” his words came, a little bit defensive.
“Y…yes… I know you did, but…” the boy didn’t seem to know how to continue the conversation.
“Then what does this have to do with me?”
Chase glanced at the pile of stone and wood that marked the remains of a building. It now sat scattered in rubble across the block. “Because when people are sad… don’t you want to help to make them happy again? Don’t you feel sad for them, too?”
“Me? Sad?” Ben frowned. “Why would I be? The loss of a few buildings is a very little price to pay… I have more important things to be concerned with.”
“You don’t mean that!”
“You’re too young to understand,” the Half-Lunar attempted to explain. “In life, there will be these sacrifices. You can’t cry over everything lost or you’ll never get around to doing what is most important.”
“No…” Chase shook his head slowly. “You’re the one that doesn’t understand.”
Two children stood only a few feet away, watching as their parents salvaged the remains of a shattered shop. With a very soft and plaintive sound, the youngest began to cry. Neither father nor mother seemed to be able to pull themselves from their task to comfort the tears.
The older child reached down to hold the youngest. Upon closer look, Ben could see they were brother and sister. And the boy…
It’s the little boy that I met there in town before! The one with the lucky stone!
A strange, tightening feeling rose up in the Half-Lunar’s chest. He found it hard to swallow, as if there was a big lump of emotion welling in his throat, fighting to break through the numbness that had invaded his mind.
So, he lived through the attack!
Before he realized it, Ben found himself kneeling down awkwardly next to the children, head tilted in attempt to catch a glimpse of their faces. The girl’s was covered in dirt and traced with silver tracks where her tears had passed.
Chase remained standing where he was, watching with a hint of curiosity.
“Hey there…” Ben dropped one palm lightly upon the little boy’s shoulder.
The child startled, blinking up. It took a moment before recognization shifted through his clear eyes.
“Mister!” the little boy breathed.
“What happened?” the most rhetorical of questions drew from between Ben’s lips. At the moment, he had no idea what else to say.
“Daddy’s shop…” the boy choked, hugging his sister more tightly. “The shop and our house… it got destroyed.”
Ben’s mouth hung open for a long moment. His heart groped for something he could say to ease the hurt. His mind chided him for letting himself get so concerned over something that had nothing to do with him at all.
“I guess the Lucky Stone didn’t really work,” the boy intoned with a hint of bitterness.
The Half-Lunar blinked, “Is anyone in your family hurt?”
The boy shook his head.
“Then everyone made it through the attack alive?”
The boy nodded.
“In that case, I think your Lucky Stone worked just fine,” Ben placed a hand on the boy’s head. “You still have your parents… and your little sister. They need you to look after them right now. So you gotta try to stay tough for them, yeah?”
“I… guess so…” the boy nodded again.
“You can build back your Daddy’s shop… but you can’t build back people,” his eyes softened. “That’s why I think your Lucky Stone worked. Your family is still here… no one was hurt. That’s what is really important.”
The boy’s hand unconsciously moved to touch his pocket. No doubt the stone was tucked inside. The merest hint of hope and belief touched the child’s face when he looked up at the Half-Lunar.
That was when Ben’s gaze dropped on a small, brightly colored patch of material peeking out from under a piece of broken stone a few feet away. Carefully, he reached over and lifted the rock up in one hand. Peering underneath, he uncovered what was left of a battered toy chocobo.
Pulling the toy out from under the stone, the Half-Lunar brushed it off, attempting to clean some of the grime from the once purple plush. Then, without a word, he turned and offered it to the little girl.
“My Marnie!” Instantly, she grabbed the toy in a familiar manner and clutched it to her chest.
For a moment, Ben could see his image reflected in the depths of her round eyes. With a strange little sound, she buried her face into her brother’s side, holding the toy between them in what seemed a sense of mutual comfort.
She had stopped crying.
“You really are a Master Wizard…” the little boy echoed the words from the day before.
Ben rose slowly to his feet. “I suppose… I really am?”
Across the mound of stone and wood, the father’s voice could be heard shouting to his children. Maybe something important had been found. Maybe something that had been bitterly lost was recovered. But for all the sorrow of the day, the man’s call held one of sudden hopeful discovery.
The two children instantly made a dash for the call, disappearing around the corner of the stone without a second thought. The Half Lunar watched them as they ran. Then he let out a long deep breath.
Chase was peering at the Half-Lunar with a little smile on his face.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Ben grimaced.
Chase continued to smile ever so slightly.
“Whaaaaaat?” the Half-Lunar demanded.
“I knew you didn’t mean it when you said you didn’t care,” the boy’s eyes lit up as his smile touched them.
“It was just a toy…”
“Maybe to you.”
The Half Lunar wrinkled his brow in confusion.
Chase just went back to smiling.
“Well, I’ll be!” A jovial exclamation broke across the somber atmosphere of the street. “If’n it’s not Master G. himself!”
“Eh?” Ben’s head turned. He knew without a doubt someone was addressing him. Still, it was the first time he had heard anyone call him something odd like ‘Master G.’
“Fancy seein’ yer face outs and abouts the town!”
A small, heavy-set man in oil-splotched cover-alls paraded up to him. His face was concealed within a massive, bristling brown beard. It was so impressive that it immediately made Ben think that perhaps this was what FuSoYa might have looked like had he been a human. What little bit of face that was left to him was hidden behind a thick set of aviator goggles and a huge toothy grin.
“And how are ya, Chase, M’lad?”
“Just fine, Master Cid! Thank you,” the little boy beamed widely at the stranger.
Behind the man strode a young girl who looked to be no more than twelve or thirteen years of age. She was dressed down in an over-sized flight jacket and also wore a set of goggles strapped atop her head. Her wild brown hair gave the distinct impression that she was related to the stocky little man. There was an expression of slight discontentment upon her face.
“Um, I’m sorry?” Ben frowned slowly at the man. “But do I know you?”
“I dunno, Master G.” He grinned widely in response, “Ya tell me.”
The Half-Lunar squinted, green eyes tracing over the stranger in frustration and surprise.
He knows who I am… it’s obvious in the way he makes reference to my name. But…
“Around these here parts, I’m known as Cid.” The man wiped down one of his grimy hands on his even grimier apron, then thrust it out towards Ben. “Cid Pollendina, Chief Engineer of Baron. At yer service.”
But… he’s not afraid of me at all. How… odd.
Ben’s face was blank as he stared uncertainly at the outstretched hand.
The man who had called himself Cid seemed like he was waiting for something. There was a patient feeling about the way he left his hand hanging in mid-air.
“I… um…” the Half-Lunar looked from the hand to the man’s face, then back to the hand again.
What do I do?
“Don’t tell me they wiped all the manners outta ya too? It figgers,” the Engineer sighed softly. He closed his hand around Ben’s with a gentle grasp and began to shake it slowly – up and down. “This is how it’s done around here, boy.”
“It’s just a way us commoners say ‘hello’ and ‘nice to meet ya’! That’s all. It’s called ‘shaking hands’.”
“Oh… uh… okay?” Ben nodded, studying the shaking hands carefully.
“And this here is my daughter, Corleona,” Cid nodded his head back over one shoulder.
A sudden shyness welled up within his chest nearly freezing his breath hollow. As much as Ben hated it, this was always the way he got when he was forced to talk to any girl for the first time. And he didn’t understand why.
It’s nothing more than a little human girl-child. What do I have to fear from her?
“Er… eh… hello there?” the Half-Lunar thrust his hand out towards the girl in stiff imitation of Cid’s gesture, his green eyes blinking rapidly in apprehension.
Even though the girl slowly reached out to take his hand in turn, it didn’t help the matter. His mouth grew even drier than it had been before. Almost as soon as their hands met, Ben yanked his away.
There was a glimmer of caution in her eyes as if she didn’t quite know what to make of him and was considering the worst possible scenario.
With a father’s intuition, Cid deciphered his daughter’s expression. His husky voice held a hint of warning, “Leona, be nice there, girl…”
“Um… no. It’s okay…” Ben ran his fingers through his bushy white hair nervously.
Though he may have discounted it verbally, something within the Half-Lunar wished it didn’t have to be that way. Cid’s kindness seemed almost genuine. It was a pleasant change from the panic-stricken reactions he had been acquiring the past few days from just about everyone else.
It would be nice not to constantly have to struggle with these people—each and every one of them. But I suppose how can I blame them? Golbez was a huge, black-armored demon in their eyes…
A slow, nasty smirk rose to the girl’s face. Then she leaned over towards Chase and muttered in a familiar manner, “Where did you dig him up from?”
Taken by surprise, the young page blinked at her, “Do you really wanna know?”
Leona leaned back with a slight shrug, toying with the straps of her goggles. The unconcerned tone of her voice contrasted sharply with the word she spoke, “Yeah.”
“He’s King’s Cecil’s brother…”
“King Cecil’s brother?” the girl echoed with a splutter. Then she lightly smacked the boy in the back of the head.
Chase cringed, wincing at the blow.
Ben’s mouth opened as if to voice a protest. His brows lowered as his gaze fell heavily on the girl.
“Man, for a boy who isn’t supposed to fib, you sure come up with the craziest ideas! Everyone knows that King Cecil doesn’t have a brother!” Leona turned her gaze towards her father, shaking her head with self-important exasperation. “Kids…”
Cid’s frown spoke only disapproval.
The Engineer cleared his throat, glancing over at Ben musingly.
“Riiiggght?” the girl pressed, a flustered look rising to her cheeks.
Ben could feel his stomach sinking rapidly. This was exactly what he had been trying to avoid by leaving the castle for a little while.
Face it… you’re never gonna escape it here. You’re guilty…
The girl crossed her arms, hues of red emigrating through her flustered face. “Okay… the three of yous owe me a mighty good explanation!”
“Er… maybe it’s better that we didn’t–” Ben’s words were quickly overridden.
“Leona! Behave yerself!” Cid snapped sharply. He seemed to be bracing himself at the end of his patience. “Ya should treat Master G. with a bit more respect than that!”
Ben winced, taking a step back out of the crossfire.
“Master G?” Leona scoffed, her voice full of contempt. The way her eyes narrowed, there was little doubt that a scalding rebuke was soon to follow.
“What does the ‘G’ stand for? Goofball?” A slight groan escaped her lips, “Just what we need — another snowball clogging up the works of Baron!”
Cid’s face was blank with mortification. One grubby hand lifted to slap his forehead in a gesture of annoyance.
“Hun?!” Ben’s eyebrows rose in two arches straight up to mark his surprise. He wasn’t quite sure what the words meant. But the insulting tone was all he needed to catch the basic drift.
So, she’s got guts… does she? And a mouth bigger than she should have a right to! It’s a surprise she’s kept her tongue this long considered how badly mannered she is!
Humming in warning, Chase grabbed himself a fistful of Leona’s coat and began tugging on it repeatedly to get her attention.
“Ah man… another high-and-hol…” The girl paused, shooting a dirty look down at the page. “What’s your problem? Yer bothering me kid!”
“Goooollbezzzz…” the single word hissed from between the boy’s lips. The tone alone was enough to turn Ben’s blood cold.
“Ahh… hah… whatever…” Leona jabbed one finger towards Ben’s midsection repeatedly. As the word began to dawn on her, the motion slowed until it came to an absolute stop. “Did you just say Golbez?”
Chase nodded in silence.
Part of him silently cheered in triumph as the girl reacted as many before her had – she leapt quickly behind her father seeking protection. Another part of him grew terribly ashamed that he could even consider being happy about such a thing.
Leona’s eyes narrowed. There was fear. But there was also a terrible brewing anger storming across her face. “Now let me get this straight… We’re letting the same guy who hypnotized the king, let my Dad rot in prison, and threatened the known universe with destruction… just walk around?”
Ben’s mouth worked open and shut soundlessly. Then with a defeated hunch to his shoulders, the Half Lunar dropped his eyes to the ground.
“Is it just me or do you guys have a few nuts and bolts loose?”
A huge forced-grin slipped over Cid’s face as he gave his daughter a quick hard pinch on the arm. Apparently such a thing did little to work at such an age because Leona’s expression grew even more angry and defiant.
“I thought that he’d be dead somewhere, rotting on the end of a pike in the underworld!”
Chase winced, backing away from the girl. His eyes lifted upward as if watching for a stray lightning bolt that would strike Leona from out of the blue.
“Don’t you wish,” Ben retorted with a deep-throated grunt.
“As a matter of fact…” the girl’s voice rose again, only to break off this time under the weight of father’s disapproving glare.
“Ya wanna finish that sentence?” The Engineer crossed his burly arms over his chest, and then continued, “This man may be Golbez… but he is also Cecil’s older brother. And it’s not yer judgment, but Cecil’s that has allowed him in Baron. So I’d be mindin’ my mouth if I were ya, girl.”
Leona was not swayed by the words. In fact, she seemed all the more angry at the sight of her father defending what she probably considered to be a terrible black-armored demon.
But why should I care?
“That doesn’t change how I feel about the situation,” her voice came as a hiss.
I don’t care how you feel.
“And if I were you,” When her gaze fell on Ben, the pure hostility shook him to the core. “I’d be packing my bags and making my stay short… I don’t like you. I don’t trust you!”
I don’t care!
“And I’m not the only one!” With a powerful jerk, the girl flung herself from her father’s grasp and dashed back up the street at full speed.
But if I really don’t care, then why do I feel…
Ben looked down to see his hands shaking.
Stammering in disbelief, Cid stared after the retreating form of his daughter. Then he turned to the Half Lunar with an apologetic expression on his face.
“She’s right,” Ben spoke before the little man could utter a sound. His green eyes lifted, watching as the girl finally vanished around the corner. “No need to honey-coat the truth.”
I am… and always will be… nothing more than Golbez.