Where I Belong

The first thing that strikes me about Lindblum is its size. Never have I been in such a large place before, where airships float through the massive gates and towering buildings loom everywhere I look. I feel tiny, insignificant, and lost. This world of Gaia continues to puzzle me, even though it's been almost two years since I left Terra behind to start this strange new life.

That I should have a life at all is itself something I still struggle to understand no matter how many times my brother attempts to explain it to me. I appreciate his efforts, but I must find my own answers, my own place in this world, this Gaia that he and his companions fought so hard to protect. I still do not understand why, but I feel it is important for me to find out.

Leaving the isolated little village of the black mages and my fellow genomes was, I believe, the first step in doing so. It was not easy, but I cannot remain there. Like my brother, I was created with a soul. I have an awareness of myself that the other genomes are still struggling to grasp. Staying with them would have meant staying in the past, and my restlessness could not allow that. So I left, traveling to the dwarven village of Conde Petie and flying south on an airship—with the new steam-based engines invented by Regent Cid, airships are able to fly anywhere in Gaia, and so most cities and towns now have airship docks, even such remote places as Conde Petie and Esto Gaza.

I'm in what they call the Business District, a place which bustles with people and shops carrying all manner of goods. After the quiet of the black mage village, the many sounds of this city—the murmur of conversation, the insistent shouting of merchants plying their wares, the thudding of boots upon cobbled stone, and the low whine of the airships flying overhead—it all seems so, so loud. And everywhere I look, it's the same. My head feels ready to explode!

It's then that I realize that one of those many shouts is being directed at me. And it's not just another shopkeeper extolling the virtues of gysahl pickles or South Gate bundt cake. No, this voice is oddly familiar, though it's one I haven't heard in some time, not since my brother's last visit to see me in the black mage village some months ago. This isn't him, though, but I can't quite place just who it is. That is, until I turn and see the shock of deep red hair sticking up above a leather headband so wide I can barely make out the tiny brown pinpricks of the young man's eyes.

"Blank?" I ask.

He grins. "Thought that was you, Mikoto! What are you doin' here?"

Relief washes through me, more than I expected. It feels good to finally have found someone I know in the midst of this chaos, even if I don't actually know him all that well. The presence of Blank's patchwork face with its old sewn-up scars both reassures me and makes me feel oddly self-conscious. I run a hand through my neatly brushed blond hair—I've let it grow down to my shoulders, although I still wear much of it in a handful of tails fastened with loops of pink cloth—as a light breeze ruffles the hem of my pink skirt and the sleeves of my white blouse while my long, furred tail waves idly behind me. "I am not sure, to be honest. But I wanted to get out of the village for a while."

Blank nods. "Well, it's good to see you, Mik. Welcome to Lindblum!"

"Mik?" I echo.

"Oh, sorry, just easier than usin' your whole name all the time. It's called a nickname. But anyway, you look a little lost. Everything okay?"

I shrug. "I suppose. It's just… so different here, that's all."

"Well, why don't you come with me back to the Theater District?" he asks. "It's quieter there, and I'm sure the rest of the gang'll be glad to see ya."

"They will?"

Blank winks. "Sure they will! That monkey-faced brother of yours doesn't stop by to visit nearly often enough. Of course, him and the princess are always travelin' everywhere so I guess he can't be here all the time. So whaddya say?"

It can't hurt, I suppose. I nod. "Why not?"

----------

Marcus, Cinna, and the Nero brothers are a nice, if a little odd, bunch. But then, they're actors. And thieves. I suppose it goes with their profession. Blank is one of them, too, but he seems more relaxed than the rest. Easier to understand, I think. He's a little older than the rest, except for Marcus, who's the same age, but both of them are still younger than my brother. He was always the oldest, but he isn't here now. No, it's just me, his younger sister.

"Hiya, Mik!" Cinna waves. "Thanks for stoppin' by!"

Underneath that misshapen old pot he wears as a hat, Cinna's face is round and whiskered with a nose that's almost always red for reasons I will never understand. He's always holding a beat-up old hammer in one hand, and from what Blank tells me, he's the one who does most of the cooking for this little group. I don't know whether to be amused or afraid.

I wave to him. "Um, you're welcome."

We're in the group's home in Lindblum's Theater District. Blank was right—it is quieter here, for which I'm glad—but I still do not know what I want or what I'm looking for. Perhaps it will come to me in time, as such things do. So for now I content myself to spend a little time with my brother's old friends and wonder if I'll ever have any of my own. It's a strange thought, one that never occurred to me until I left the black mage village, but it hovers in my mind like a fly that will not leave.

Marcus is leaning against one wall of the old building. "Long as you're in town, feel free to crash here if you want. We got space, as long as you don't mind Cinna's snoring."

"Hey!" Cinna retorts. "I don't snore!"

Blank raises an eyebrow. "Like hell you don't. At night you're a regular buzzsaw, man."

Ignoring them, Marcus just stretches his gangly frame and grins, his broad face half-hidden beneath a large orange bandana. Nearby stand the Nero brothers—Benero, Genero, and Zenero. I can't tell which is which, since they all look the same, and I have no idea why they wear those strange black masks with the snouts and the goggles. When they talk they have a tendency to echo each other's words, and their voices are so similar it's hard to tell them apart.

"Yeah!" Benero chimes in.

"You do too snore, Cinna!" Genero—at least, I think it's Genero—adds.

"Yeah, you snore loud, Cinna!" Zenero (or Genero) says.

At that moment, Blank leans close to me, a wry grin on his face. "Don't let it bother you, Mik. Half the time I can't tell 'em apart, either."

"That makes me feel better," I reply.

While Cinna mutters to himself and stalks off, Marcus looks at me. "So, what brings you to Lindblum, Mikoto? It's a long way from home, isn't it?"

"Perhaps, but… I needed to get out for a while."

"Any idea what you want to do here?"

I blink. I hadn't really thought of that. "No, I… I was so focused on getting out that I never gave much thought to what would happen afterward."

Blank scratches his chin. "Well, what do you like to do?"

For a moment I'm not sure how to answer. It's not something I get asked very often, nor do I think about it much. But now that I am thinking about it, there is one thing I can say that I enjoy. Back in the black mage village there is a garden, one that I planted and grew myself. The black mages taught me how, and I came to find it oddly satisfying to see the flowers blossom and grow, to water them and see the bright blooms of color erupting from the earth. In a way, given what I was created for, I suppose it's ironic. I find a measure of peace in bringing life when I was originally intended to bring death.

"I… I like to grow things," I answer. "Flowers, you know?"

"That's cool," Blank answers. Suddenly his eyes light up. "Hey, I just got an idea! The district's mostly rebuilt now, but it could definitely use a good flower shop."

Marcus nods. "Yeah, that'd brighten the place up, sure enough."

"A shop…?" I stare at them. "My own shop?"

"Why not?" Blank says. "We'll help you get started. There's a little place down by the air taxi station that nobody's using. It'd be perfect!"

Oddly, I think I like the idea. "Alright. So what do we do?"

Blank grins, his patchwork face eager. "Great! Don't worry about supplies and stuff, me an' Marcus can take care of all that. Ain't nothin' in Lindblum we can't find. Me an' the rest of the boys'll fix up that old shack down the street and make it into a proper store. All you gotta worry about is growin' your flowers so they'll be ready when you open it."

"You can use Ruby's old room while you're here," Marcus adds, "since she's havin' such a good time with that theater of hers in Alexandria."

"Thank you," I reply.

As I look at Blank, I find his exuberance strangely infectious. Perhaps it's because I've never had anything to be excited about before. I'm a little nervous about the whole idea, but I've watched the black mages in the village do enough business in their little shops to know how it works. And the streets here could use some Burmecian lilies or Alexandrian roses to spruce them up, now that I think about it. My gaze lingers on Blank a little longer than I'd intended as a small flutter races through the pit of my stomach. Surely it's nothing, merely a little nervousness about the shop. Isn't it?

----------

Three months have passed, and I've grown used to the sights and sounds of the district, of people coming and going down the cobbled street. The shop is doing well, much better than I had expected. Blank stops by almost every day to visit and help out in the little greenhouse in the back. He's not here at the moment, but I'm sure he'll be by soon enough. I'm getting ready to plant another row of geraniums and he's promised to bring a few more bags of earth. In the meantime, I've been going up and down the rows of flowers, pruning and watering and listening for the jingle of the bell hanging over the front door.

It does so a moment later, and sure enough, Blank strides in, several large bags of soil in his arms. "Hey, Mik. Where do you want these?"

"Just put them in the corner. I'll get to them in a moment."

While he puts the bags down where I've shown him, I finish watering the bluebells I was working on when he entered. Once that's done, I join him by the bare patch of ground where those geraniums are going to be. I reach into the front pocket of the old trousers I wear when I'm working in here and pull out a packet of seeds. Tearing it open, I get down on my hands and knees and shake the seeds into my open palm. "Blank, would you pour out some of that soil, please?"

"Sure thing," he says.

A few moments later, the ground where the geraniums are going to go is covered with a thick layer of soft black earth, and together Blank and I plant the seeds up and down the row. We talk a bit while we work, me telling him how the flowers are coming along or about a few of today's customers, as he goes on about the show he and the others were in the other day. Blank's just mentioning something about his performance when my hand brushes against his while sifting the dirt.

My skin tingles and I get that fluttery sensation again. "W-What were you saying?"

"Hmm?" he suddenly looks away. Why won't he meet my eyes? "Somethin' about the show, I think. Can't remember now, though."

"It's alright. Thanks for your help."

He rises, smiles, and reaches down to help me up. Smiling back, I take his hand and let him pull me to my feet. But just as he's about to let go, I suddenly slip over the loose earth and stumble into him. Blank catches me easily, but at first he doesn't let go. And I'm not so sure I want him to. It isn't the first time I've had strange feelings like this, but I've never been this close to him before.

My heart is pounding, and warmth races beneath my skin. I can't seem to look away from Blank's eyes, from the deep red strands of his hair. What would it feel like to run my fingers through it? I'm very much aware of the sensation of his arms holding me close, and of how near his face is to mine. What is happening to me? Why am I feeling this way? And why is it only Blank who causes these feelings? It's so confusing and yet so wonderful. It makes no sense and yet total sense, all at the same time. How can that be? A thousand questions race through my mind, but I have no answers.

The bell on the door jingles a moment later, and I step away from Blank as though doused with cold water. My heart beats rapidly, but I force myself to calm down as I go to meet the customer, an airship engineer named Fenwick. He comes in twice a week to pick up lilacs for his wife. I've come to know some of my regular customers a little, and I find these relationships more fulfilling than I had thought possible. People greet me on the street when I take my morning and evening walks to relax and tend the flower gardens I've grown here and there in the district, and I've come to enjoy those encounters. But more than anyone else, it's Blank that I like to be with most.

So why has it become so difficult? So filled with strange feelings?

----------

"Mikoto!"

I jerk awake at the sound of Blank's voice. What is he doing here? I open my mouth to reply and instead cough heavily as smoke suddenly fills my lungs. What is going on? I spring out of bed, still coughing, and look around at my small but comfortable home above the shop. Except I can see little aside from the smoke and the flickering orange glow of… wait, is that… fire?

It is. The smoke stings my eyes enough to make them water, and the heat floods my skin, but I manage to run downstairs to the shop, shouting out for Blank and not caring that I'm wearing only a thin nightdress. I can hear him calling back to me, but the flames and the smoke block him from my sight. Near the bottom of the stairs, one of them splinters and I tumble with a shriek to the floor. Pain sears my shoulder and my head, and for a moment black spots swim through my vision. I shake it off and get to my feet, hurrying toward the sound of Blank's voice as quickly as I can. Timbers crumble from the walls as the fire consumes my shop, my flowers… everything I have. How can this be happening? Why?

"Mik! Where are you?" Blank shouts.

"Over he—"

I'm cut off by a huge, rending, splintering sound as the ceiling suddenly caves in on me. I throw up my arm in front my face and try to move, but it's no use. Chunks of wood and brick and burning timbers hit my head, arms, face, legs, everywhere. I fall with a groan, pain sizzling in every part of my body, pinned down almost to the shoulder by debris. One arm is free, but the other is buried. My legs are numb, I can… I can hardly feel them. My face is covered in soot and streaked with blood. Am I… am I going to die? I feel… weak… I can hardly move against the rubble, and I'm beginning… beginning to… beginning to feel lightheaded. Is this… it…?

"I'm here, Mik, just hang on," a voice murmurs, almost in my ear. Blank's voice.

I can hear him throwing debris every which way, but it sounds distant, faraway. Everything does, now. Someone else is there, too. Marcus? They're pulling off the larger, heavier timbers while other figures move around in the background. A wet, spashy sound fills my ears. Water? I think… I think so. That must be the Nero brothers and Cinna, then. My vision's blurry now, but I think I can see the buckets. But… everything's swimming. I can… I can hardly stay awake…

The next thing I know, I'm in someone's arms. Blank's arms. He carries me outside, and the cool night air—well, it's not really cool, but it's cooler than it was inside the burning wreck that was my shop—revives me a little. I still hurt everywhere, but I… I think I'm alive. Vaguely, I see other people around, gathered around the shop and the nearby buildings, throwing water on the fire with buckets and steam-powered hoses. I grasp Blank's arm with my good hand as he gently sets me down. "Blank, what… what happened? Why is the shop on fire?"

"Dunno, Mik. But you know how hot it's been this summer. I'm guessin' somebody left some oil or somethin' out too long next door and the heat set it off."

My eyes are wet, and not just from the smoke. "I… I've lost my flowers… everything…"

"You're alive, and that's what matters most."

I never thought anything could mean so much to me, but… it does. A year ago, even half that, it would not have mattered, yet now… I can't imagine doing anything else with my life. I've seen sometimes how people's faces light up as their loved ones give them flowers they've bought from me, flowers I grew and which gave me as much joy as they did those who bought them. The gardens I've planted in the district have made the place warmer, erasing the last of the scars left by Queen Brahne's attack those years ago. I never understood before how such fragile things could make a difference, but now I do.

Blank picks me up again. "Come on, Mik. Let's get you back to the hideout. I'll have the doc take a look at you when we get there."

I hold on tight as he carries me—I can feel my legs a little, and I can already tell one of them is broken. As we hurry up the road, I lay my head against his chest. "Blank?"

"Yeah?"

"You saved me. Thank you."

Although the world is starting to swim away again, I can feel him pressing me a little closer. I don't mind. "No prob. It's what friends are supposed to do. Right?"

"Friends? Is that… what we are…?"

"Yeah. You sound surprised."

I blink away more tears. "It's just… I've never had any friends before. Not really."

"Well, Mik, I think you've made more than you realize since comin' here. You'll see. And don't you worry about the shop, we'll get it all fixed up for you good as new."

Fog clouds my mind, and Blank's voice seems to be coming from many miles away now. I can feel myself slipping into unconsciousness, but I manage to hang on for a few more moments. Smells of leather and fur swirl around me, from his clothes, but they're pleasant smells. They're him, and that comforts me. Before the darkness takes me entirely, I touch my good hand to his seamed face. "That would… be wonderful. I hope… I hope… you're right…"

----------

Six weeks later, my leg is nearly mended, and the rest of my injuries have healed. I've gotten used to Ruby's old room at the Tantalus hideout, but I'll be glad to see my own place again. Blank and the others have been busy rebuilding it ever since the fire. Myself, I was recovering. I don't know how long I was out after that first night, but it must have been hours because the next thing I remember was seeing daylight filtering in through the hideout windows.

I'm there now, though Blank tells me that work on the shop is almost finished. A smile crosses my face as I think of him. Maybe it was the fire and what we said afterward, I don't know, but we've grown closer since then. I still have those odd fluttery sensations in my stomach when he is near, and my heart speeds up whenever I see him, but I don't mind so much anymore. I still don't quite understand what it all means, but… it doesn't matter.

I turn to leave and there he is. "Hey. How are you feeling?"

"Better, thanks to you."

"Hey, just lookin' out for ya, that's all."

I laugh. "Well, I'm in good hands, then. Where's everybody else?"

"Come on, I'll show you," Blank grins.

I take his hand and follow him outside, where I sigh contentedly as the late summer sunshine warms my face. I can walk again without crutches now that my leg is better, but I can't help a slight limp. It'll be that way until it heals completely, but I've learned to live with it. Magic and potions help, but really they can only do so much.

We walk leisurely down the cobbled street, my pink and white skirt swishing around my knees, until we approach the corner where my shop used to be. As it is again. I stop as my eyes take it in, and a gasp escapes my lips. Marcus and the rest are there, putting the finishing touches on it, but so are half the people in the district. And… I don't remember the shop having an awning before… or such a large sign. Through the windows I can see inside, and it's filled with flowers, row upon row of them in pots and bouquets. Though I can't see into the greenhouse from here, I don't need to. I know it's full of new flowers and supplies and everything else I need.

"You guys…" Tears slide down my cheeks.

"You like it?" Blank asks.

I hug him tight. "I love it! Thank you, thank you!"

"Everybody likes it!" Benero says.

"Yeah, we all do!" Genero adds. I'm pretty sure it's Genero.

"Of course we do!" Zenero (or Genero) finishes.

I'm laughing and crying at the same time. It's just… I never knew… how much it meant. To others, and to me, too. But I do now. And I'm starting to understand what my brother and his friends were fighting for, why they risked their lives to save this world and its people. I still get lost sometimes when I wander through the other districts in Lindblum, but it isn't so bad anymore. I don't feel so small, so alone. This place, these people—they're everything to me, now.

Cinna grins widely. "We built you a brand new shop, Mik! Everybody pitched in!"

"It's wonderful…" I breathe.

"Well," Marcus flashes me one of his lopsided smiles, "you've brightened this place up so much, we all wanted to help out."

I nod. "Thanks."

"Alright, alright, let the lady through," Blank orders good-naturedly. "She's got a shop to run!"

----------

By nightfall I'm worn out. It's been a busy day, one of the busiest I can remember. But it was my grand reopening, so I suppose that's to be expected. I've got dozens of new flowers growing in the greenhouse, and Blank's promised to bring me some more soil and fertilizer. I can't wait to see him again—he didn't stay long once the customers came rolling in.

I've just finished tidying up when the bell on the door jingles. I hate to turn away a customer, but it is closing time. Only it isn't a customer at all. "Blank, hi!"

"Hey, Mik. Looks like you had a good day."

"One the best days of my life," I agree.

He approaches me, and my heart begins to race. "You gonna go for a walk, like always?"

"Yes. Would you… would you like to join me?"

"Sure," he nods.

Outside, the night is clear, with a thousand stars glittering in the sky. It's quieter now that the air taxi is closed for the evening. Blank and I walk down the street, and as we do our hands find each other. I slow as we near one of my little gardens. The flowers look good, bright and strong as ever. There's a park bench nearby, and I sit down for a moment to rest—my leg still aches a little, but it's not too bad. Blank sits down beside me, oddly quiet.

"Something on your mind?" I ask.

I think I've flustered him, although I don't know how. He runs a hand through his bright red hair. "Well, kinda. Don't quite know how to put it, though."

"What is it?"

"Just never felt this way before."

Does he feel… the way I feel? And why am I hoping so much that he does? What does it all mean? I take his hand again, enjoying the feel of his fingers grasping mine. More than anyone else, he's the one I look forward to seeing every day, the one I feel closest to. I'm close to my brother, but he doesn't visit all that often—although he was there with me not long after the fire. He stayed with me for the first few weeks, him and the princess. But they had to go. Blank was there for me, too, and always has been. But I don't think of him as a brother.

What is he, then? What do I want him to be?

"How do you feel?" I ask him.

For a moment he doesn't reply, but then he grins. "Like this."

He reaches up, then, touches my cheek, and pulls me to him. My heart pounds furiously, but I'm barely aware of it as Blank touches his lips to mine. I slide my arm around his neck and return the kiss as warmth surges through my body. Is this… love? Do I… do I love him? Is that what I'm feeling now? It's all so new, but… it can't be anything else. I love him.

After a while, I pull away, a small smile on my face. "I know where I belong…"

"Where's that?" Blank asks.

I snuggle close to him as he wraps his arms around me. "Right here."