Back to Square One
an illustrated narrative
Holidays were tough on Darian. As long as he was in school, they couldn't force him to do anything, but he didn't have that excuse when school let out. He could easily run away and hide somewhere, but for how long? Unfortunately, he depended on them for food and shelter, and as enticing as freedom was, it wouldn't be long before they would find him through the network, if he managed to survive long enough as a bum.
It was almost definite that he would be called on in some fashion today, so he didn't dare wander too far, wherever he went... if he went anywhere. No doubt he would have to answer to Kotaro or Alex if he ran into them, which wasn't a pleasant idea. There was absolutely nothing he could do, it seemed.
Having recovered somewhat from his increasingly regularly-inflicted ills, he lay sprawled on the tiny couch--tiny even for him, as it was too small to spread out without having at least his head or feet over the arm rests, much less get comfortable enough to rest. At lengths, he turned on his side, curling into a ball, with his head draped over the edge of the seat. It was no use, though, he was too edgy and pained to sleep any more, despite his insomnia.
In a flash, Darian sat up. There was one thing he had wanted to do since the beginning of his problems--his real problems--and it was as opportune a time as any. He tossed on a loose shirt and some worn jeans, running to the bathroom and splashing water on his face, then wiping himself dry on a towel. Normally, he tidied himself up well to provide the semblance of normality, even pamperedness, but with things being the way they were as of late, he didn't care. No one was around even at this hour, which was surprising, but it was all the better to make his departure without the red tape.
Instinctively trying to avoid being seen, Darian weaved quickly in and out of alleys and buildings as he had become quite accustomed to doing. It wasn't as though he was going anywhere particularly bad or that he didn't want to be caught so much as it was firmly ingrained in his methods by now. Of course, anyone who cared wouldn't know why he was going, and anyone who knew why wouldn't bother to follow him there, but the fewer people who recognized him was still the better.
It had taken a bit of covert research to find the location, but he finally arrived at Swan Song Cemetery, the overcast sky eerily setting the mood. His target was easy to find:
The last time he had seen Mark was on the date of death inscribed on the headstone. Memories of his anger swelled anew... but distantly, as though of something Darian had seen in a movie rather than firsthand--familiar, yet foreign. The pain, as well, had been freshly lashed out, which had only served to fuel his hatred more.
More than anything else, however, he remembered the blood... vibrant, burning, like the fires of demons condemning him to an eternity of suffering. So much blood... Darian collapsed to his knees, strugging vainly to shut out visions of an insane madness tearing deep into a well of crimson, staining his hands with the most blood he had ever seen... even these months later, he wiped his hands on his shirt in a futile attempt to erase the evidence of what had been done. The pain was no longer physical, but perceived, like the sound of a soul in infinite torment, echoing endlessly through his skull.
Guilt bore down on his shoulders, so much so that he could barely lift his head from the weight. "What am I supposed to do?" he whispered tensely. "How do I make this right?"
A noise caught his attention, the sound of low chatter. Someone was approaching--he quickly scrambled to his feet and ducked behind another headstone. It wasn't so much that he thought anyone would think it suspicious that he was there, just that he still felt nervous around people in public areas. The headstone that concealed him was ornate, with a few shaped holes in it, through which he observed the newcomers.
A family of three--mother, father, and daughter. Oddly, they were dressed in street clothes, and of relatively festive colours. Didn't most visitors wear black when they visited?
The girl approached Mark's grave, bearing a bouquet. "I know you don't know me, Mr. Tool," she began, "but I was blind from birth. After you died, you donated your eyes to me, and for the first time I got to see my parents. We came here today to thank you and to let you know that your death wasn't in vain."
A knot clenched in Darian's throat, and he shuddered quietly.
The girl lay the flowers on his grave. "I wish we could have met in this life, but perhaps we will meet in the next... I'm not sure what else to say... thank you so much for your gift."
As the family departed, tears formed in his eyes. He laughed in reflex that something good could have come of the crime, but he knew it didn't change how he felt about things. In fact, his stomach retched remembering that violent day...
Well, he had come to pay his respects and offer his pennance. If nothing else, he hoped it would heal the wound in his soul. He got up and dusted himself off, walking to Mark's grave again, but the white roses only served to tear at his guilt. Darian found himself kneeling over the grave, wishing desperately that that day had never happened...
Suddenly, a shriek echoed through the cemetery, shattering the silence. He bolted upright, looking around to see what had happened.
"MY EYES! WHERE ARE MY EYES?"
The girl! What had happened to the girl? Why was she screaming about her--
As though emerging from the back of his mind, Darian suddenly heard a duller, quieter sound, like thumping, steadily growing louder... more frantic. He perked his ears this way and that but couldn't quite make out where the noise was coming from...
"I CAN'T SEE! WHAT HAPPENED TO MY EYES?"
Then he pinpointed it---slightly in front of him, but nothing was there except the headstone. No, it sounded more like it came... from... below--
"Oh, shit," he shouted, jumping in fear. A vision of the plate came to mind, how it had repaired itself at a mere touch. Alex being stabbed... had she really been stabbed, but immediately healed as though she hadn't been touched at all? Now this--could Mark have... come back to life? But how would that explain--
Conservation of matter, his memory recited. Basic scientific principle--what was broken from the plate was returned to the plate, where Alex was stabbed was immediately restored, but Mark's eyes were donated after his death...
...meaning the eyes, when restored to Mark, would have to have been taken back from the girl.
"Call an ambulance!"
Darian's mind was racing. He didn't know how he had caused it, but he had to do something to fix things. Feigning ignorance, he ran towards the family.
"Can I help?" he called to them. "What's the matter?"
The mother looked frantic. "She just started screaming about her eyes! Do you have a phone? Please, call an ambulance!"
Perhaps if he just touched her... "Let me see what's wrong."
As he put his hands on the girl's face, envisioning her as she was moments ago, her eyes bolted open. To his immense relief, all seemed to be normal.
"I... what happened?" she said, dazed.
"Are you okay?" Darian asked.
"Y-yes..." She rubbed her eyes and blinked several times. "Just now, it felt as though my eyes had been ripped out of my skull..."
"I saw it, too," said the father, which gave Darian a chill. "It looked like her eyes were gone."
"That doesn't make sense," said the mother. "How would they just disappear?"
Darian cringed reflexively. "...that sure sounds like a freaky ghost story!" he eeked.
To his surprise, the girl laughed. "Maybe a ghost is haunting my eyes!"
"Oh, now you're just being silly," chided the mother.
"Well, whatever it was, I'm sorry I gave you such a scare. Heh, maybe I'm worried my eyes will stop working again, or someone will take them away and blind me again..."
"Goodness, don't talk about such awful things."
The father turned to him. "Thank you for your help, young man."
Darian blushed, and not out of pride. "I'm sorry to have intruded. I'm sorry..."
"No... no trouble at all."
They parted amicably, waving goodbye. With a sinking feeling, however, Darian suddenly realized that to put everything right again, he would now have to kill Mark a second time. He envisioned the dead man suddenly coming back to life and finding himself buried alive... then moments later having his eyes ripped from him--
The thought made his spine tingle all the way down to his tail... but there was no humane way to do this.
Nausea boiling in his stomach, he returned to Mark's grave, laying a hand on it and envisioning a cold, dead grave. The screams died quietly away...
"What good is this?" he spat, kicking at a rock in disgust. "I wanted to make amends, not make things worse! It was bad enough when it was just me! Why do I keep ending up hurting p--"
"Darian? Is that you?"
Anxious, he looked up to see Alex, her jaw hanging open in surprise. Crap, he thought, turning to run for it. Not a good--
"Wait, what?" He froze, staring at her dumbly. "Of course it's me. What's the matter?"
She cocked her head at him in bewilderment. "You look like you've aged a whole year in just a day! What happened?"
He froze. While it was true he hadn't looked in a mirror since yesterday, he certainly hadn't looked in one since leaving the cemetery. Did something change him?
"Uh... I had a growth spurt?" he said, grinning weakly and running a hand through his hair.
With a shock, he realized his hair had grown out--it was nearly chin-length now, where before it had been closely-cropped.
"I have to go," he said, darting away as fast as his legs could carry him.
Alex's voice trailed off as he dashed in and out of stores, up and down stairs, in and out of alleys in a mad effort to lose her. To his great irritation, she seemed to be trailing him.
"Damn her persistence!" he cried, darting up a fire escape. As he leapt from one building to the next, coming worryingly close to falling more than once, he struggled to block out everything but thoughts of escape. Now more than ever he needed time alone--one hundred percent alone--to think, to try to reason out what was going on and why.
He finally skidded to a stop behind a roof-access stairwell, tucking himself behind the side opposite the door. Even then, he waited several tense moments before relaxing, listening closely for any signs of pursual. Finally, he kneeled down, tired.
What had she said? You look like you've aged a whole year in just a day! What happened?
He stared at his hands. They looked almost the same, but he could tell they were a little more defined, stronger, possibly more steady...
"What's happening?" he whispered. "Could this be why I've looked so young all this time?"
With a start, Darian tumbled to the ground. Alex glared at him directly, having removed her shades.
"What's making you younger?" she demanded.
Darian was awe-struck. "How did you--"
"You're not very good at covering your tracks," she scolded. "You double-back a lot over the same ground, and you made a lot of noise climbing the fire escape! It probably wouldn't kill you to work out a little, too, to help you jump farther."
He merely stared at her, completely dumbfounded.
"Oh, don't act so surprised that I could follow you! I've escaped a war zone, Darian! I've had to do a lot of things to save myself and Sunni!"
"The point is that I'm tired of you running away and not telling me anything! What do you know? What's going on that I can do this?"
With that, she pointed at a trashcan, and--with a brief flicker--there was suddenly can-shaped litter floating slightly to its left. As the litter tumbled to the ground, Alex grabbed Darian's shoulders.
"Tell me what's going on! This doesn't make any sense!"
He didn't say a word, staring blankly into her eyes. Nothing made sense anymore... nothing.
"Don't tell me you can't tell me!" she screeched. "I don't want to hear that! Tell me, or--"
He snapped. "What's gotten into you, Alex? You were so shy just a couple of days ago!"
"Me?" she cried. "What's gotten into me? You spend these past three days doing your best to push me away when I just want to be your friend, and what's gotten into me?"
She grabbed his shirt collar, throttling him. "I spent all last night trying to figure out what happened, and I discovered I could move things with my mind! Not just move them, though--I can separate things... like blood..."
"I killed that man, Darian! I k-killed..."
Her voice became a high-pitched squeal as she buried her head into his chest, crying. Darian was at a complete loss for words.
"I'm sure you didn't--"
"It was in the papers this morning, and on the news... they found him late last night, dead from an unknown cause of blood loss, but I knew!"
She sat up, sniffling. Regardless of how he felt about befriending others, he hated seeing her cry.
"Just tell me," she pleaded. "What's going on?"
His willpower ran out. There was no way he couldn't tell her at least what he knew of his own abnormal ability when she was fully aware of one of her own, but...
"Is there somewhere we can talk in private?" he asked.
She looked around. "We're alone here," she said.
"Yes, maybe... but sound carries pretty far. There's a pretty good chance that we were overheard just now."
Alex perked her ears, listening. "I'm pretty certain there's no one around for quite a ways. Almost everyone's at home this time in the day."
"Believe me, it's not safe to talk here."
They stood, straightening themselves up. It was starting to occur to Darian how tightly his clothes fit now, which worried him quite a bit--getting a whole new wardrobe for himself out of the blue would prove to be even more costly than getting a much-needed bed.
"First, though," he said, picking out a wedgie, "I need to go shopping."
"What's taking you so long?" she chided.
"I don't like this one. The legs are too long."
"That doesn't matter--I bet you outgrow it anyway!"
Silence. "Yeah, you're probably right."
The thrift shop was the seediest place he had been in in quite a while. He didn't trust anything to be sanitary, but they didn't have the money on hand to go anywhere remotely more reputable. Darian emerged from the dressing room wearing a plain shirt and slacks, which hung loosely on him.
"This really isn't my style," he mused. He liked his old clothes, as wearing them helped him try to forget his dark reality, but they were a luxury he couldn't afford anymore.
"I don't know," Alex commented. "I kind of like it."
Darian raised an eyebrow. "Really."
"It makes you look relaxed... your hair, too. You should keep it grown out!"
He frowned. "I hate taking care of long hair. It's too much trouble."
"Oh, stop being so uptight about it." She glanced over at the pile he had tried on. "Are you getting anything else?"
He cringed. "I ought to, but I've already blown nearly half my stash between this and going to the movies with you guys last night. I'll have nothing if I keep up this shopping spree."
"What's the problem?" she scolded. "You're going to live with us from now on."
"You?" he cried, taken aback. "What makes you think--"
"Didn't you look at yourself in the mirror? You've gotten noticeably older very fast. It'd be better if you kept out of sight for a while, until we've figured out what's going on."
"What do you care what 'they' think? If they try to track you down..." Alex waved her finger.
Darian sighed wordlessly, but he didn't feel any better about it. He just hoped it wasn't all going to end in tears. Deep down, though, he found that he really enjoyed the attention.
They paid for three changes of clothes--including the ones he was wearing--and left the building. Still rooted in habit, Darian immediately went into his old escape routine, but Alex stopped him before he could get too far.
"Remember," she said, grabbing his shirt, "I caught up to you--you're going to have to do better than that."
He stared at her. "What?"
"You're not going to run away on me again, are you? I'll find you, no matter where you go."
"Besides, we still have to have a talk about you-know-what."
Darian could tell that she wasn't going to let the matter drop. "Fine," he relented. "Where do you want to talk?"
"I told you already--you're living with us now!"
"Guh," he exclaimed. "How can you think I'd be safe at your place, after I--they robbed you?"
At the misspeak, she glared at him tensely. After a few moments, though, she merely shook her head in disapproval.
"We've gotten set up now," Alex explained. "We signed up with a good security place. They couldn't make it to our house until the day after the robbery, unfortunately, but I guess things worked out okay after all, huh?"
"So now you'd be able to stop an entry-level like me, but what about the higher tiers?"
Darian froze. He'd probably let slip something he wasn't supposed to say. Nervously, he glanced every which way to see if he'd triggered something bad.
"Look," she scolded, "you're just making yourself suspicious by doing that! There's no one listening in on us or anything like that!"
"How do you know?" he retorted.
"Use your EARS!" she chided, grabbing one of his and tweaking it. "You'll find more things that way than using your eyes alone."
Right, he thought. That's how you got stabbed in the chest, is that it?
"Let's get going already," Alex prodded, grabbing his hand. To his dismay, she took a very direct, easy-to-follow route. He felt his face grow cold with fear that another attacker would strike, when she suddenly darted to the side.
"Someone's watching that way," she explained. To his surprise, Darian found that he could make out the sound of a rifle being readied and a tiny red dot on the ground a ways to their left...
...but how? Surely he would have missed those things had he not been two steps ahead, where Alex was. It was like a daydream, almost... though he couldn't understand where the hallucination came from. "You heard a rifle?" he asked.
"You're catching on," she muttered, but it didn't make him feel any better about the vision.
They continued in this fashion for some time, eventually arriving at Alex's house, looking much the way he had seen it three days prior. He felt very nervous being there, but there wasn't much he could do, in the presence of a girl who could--
--what was it, exactly? Not just moving things, probably... separating them? Regardless, he preferred having all of his parts where they were, old or young.
Alex swung open the door. "サニー! ただいま!"
"Guh?" Darian blurted.
A cheery woman in her twenties peeked out from the kitchen. "ああ, アレックス! 今晩は!" She glanced at Darian and seemed momentarily surprised. "あの, 友達は?"
"ダリアンです, ね!" Alex glanced at him, laughing at his confusion. "I'm sorry, Sunni doesn't speak common very well."
He merely stared at her.
"ね," Sunni sighed, "娯楽室を嫌いんですか?"
"お願～い!" Alex pleaded.
She waved casually. "やれやれ... 夕食すぐ準備するでしょう."
Alex turned to Darian, grinning widely. "We can talk in my room," she said. Why didn't he feel good about that?
Before he realized what he was doing, Darian started walking towards her room without bring led. Behind him, he heard an angry "Hmph!" and immediately stopped in place, flushing red.
She grabbed him by the ear and dragged him down the hall. "I suppose you looked through my things, too," she snorted. "After all, you took my mother's ring!"
"I didn't look through your clothes!" he cried, wincing at the pain. "I had a strict policy about not doing that if I could!"
"You're so lucky that I've already forgiven you, or I'd really be mad!"
As they entered her room, Alex closed the door behind them, which only served to fuel his nervousness. "Now," she began tersely, "tell me everything you know about... whatever this is." She waved her hands carelessly, trying to wordlessly illustrate her ability.
"Where can I sit?" he asked.
She glanced around. "Oh, on the bed, I don't care."
He looked at the bed with the eyes of a hungry man looking at a feast. If living with them meant getting to sleep in an actual bed... that alone would be well worth the risk. Ah, he thought, but what would she think if I told her that? The idea made him chuckle.
"Well," he started, taking a seat, "I can tell you what I know about my power, but that's not much. Certainly I don't know anything about yours, other than what you've told me."
He sighed. "I first noticed it when I dropped a plate. It shattered, but when I picked up the pieces and put them back together, it was instantly as though the plate had never been dropped."
Alex's eyes grew large. "You... fix things?"
"It looks that way."
She caught on. "So, when I got stabbed--"
"I healed you, yes, probably."
Her eyes lit up with hope. "But... that's a wonderful ability! You can do so much good with a power like that! You saved my life, and you can save so many other lives, too!"
Darian shook his head. "No, I can't. You saw for yourself how I've gotten this much older in one day. It's like my power comes at the expense of my youth."
"You could make yourself younger again!" Alex protested.
"I don't know. I may have already been doing that subconsciously, which is why I looked younger than I should have been. I'm not really eager to test it out to see."
"Why not? You have this amazing power that can do so much good--"
"--and so much bad!" he retorted. "I accidentally brought someone back to life, someone who had donated his eyes after his death, and it tore his eyes out from the girl who received them!"
Her jaw dropped open. "You... what?"
"Whatever I restore, I do it down to the molecule. I make things exactly as they were, with exactly the same matter it was made up with before. That means if anyone or anything--anything--received something physical from someone's death, bringing that person back to life would mean taking those parts back from their recipients."
He could tell what she was thinking from the look in her eyes.
"Even if I only healed immediate injuries," he continued defiantly, "if people found out about what I could do, they would line up from all over the planet to be healed. If it turns out I can't make myself younger, then it wouldn't be long before I turned 100, and I would have only healed a fraction of the people who wanted it. How do I choose who gets to be healed? Shouldn't I have a say in that? And what if I want to stay as old as I am now and grow old naturally? Isn't that my right? I want to live, too... it's not fair to put that kind of pressure on me."
That may have been too much. Alex had the expression of a child who watched someone kill her most beloved pet.
"You're right," she sniffed, looking away. "It's not fair..."
He felt that knot in his throat again, the one that formed from seeing her cry.
"It's not fair that we have such worthless, destructive powers!" she shrieked. "What can I do? I break things. I even killed a man! What good is having this power if all we can do is hurt?"
She sobbed uncontrollably, tears coating her face no matter how much she wiped them away. Darian frowned, saddened by the wretched sight. In a flash, Alex was tear-free and sitting upright, breathing normally. She blinked at him, confused, but with a slowly-forming hint of recognition.
"Did... you do something?" she asked.
He shrugged. "I like it better when you're not crying."
Alex stared at him in disbelief. "You just sat there and told me you didn't want to be old so fast, and you restored me to before I was crying?"
"I don't mind," he said, smirking.
After processing this, Alex couldn't help laughing quietly, shaking her head. "It looks you were wrong after all. You are stupid."
Darian basked in the glow of her laugh for a brief moment before she stood, a renewed vigor in her eyes.
"Let's go," she said, taking his hand again and helping him up. "サニー!" she called as they walked back down the hallway.
"いいです, ね?" came the reply. "夕食準備します!" As they entered the kitchen, Sunni smiled widely. "ずぼん続はきましたか?"
"無礼な!" Alex screeched, upset. "私達に信用しません..."
Sunni laughed, waving weakly. "ボケ..."
Darian frowned at being left out of the conversation, but it really couldn't be helped. Alex waved him towards the dinner table. "Sit! I bet you haven't had a decent meal in ever."
He obliged, but still seemed uncertain.
They ate Sunni's best shabu-shabu noodles in relative silence, after initially teaching Darian to use chopsticks. He caught on surprisingly quickly, even asking them why they were called shabu-shabu and doing a good shabu-shabu himself. Toward the end of the meal, Alex took him aside and made him a proposal.
"You have a lot on your mind," she said, "and it may be of benefit to you if you take the opportunity to talk to someone about it, just to have it out. Sunni doesn't speak common well, so she would be a good listener."
He shifted uncomfrotably. "I don't--"
"I will leave the two of you alone in the meantime."
"...okay," he agreed hesitantly.
Getting up, Alex walked over to Sunni, whispering something in her ear that he couldn't quite make out.
"囁くなければなりませんか?" Sunni asked aloud.
"聞きます," she said, nodding.
Alex turned back to Darian. "Come get me in my room when you're done." With that, she vanished down the hallway.
An uncomfortable silence passed as Darian tried to muster the nerve to say anything. They had just met and here he was going to divulge his darkest secrets to her, someone at least ten years his senior.
"Well," he began. "Where do I start?"
"どうぞ," she prompted warmly. "リラックス... 危険じゃない."
He looked up and met her friendly emerald eyes. To his surprise, when he opened his mouth, the words came tumbling out...
"I'm done," came a voice from the hallway.
Alex looked up from her homework. "Come in." Shyly, Darian stepped inside. "So, how did it go? Do you feel any better?"
"Sort of," he said, scratching his neck. "I feel weird talking to someone who doesn't understand me, but it did feel good to come out and say it."
"That's good," she said, smiling. "I bet you're tired now, aren't you? It's been a busy day, after all."
Darian suddenly looked embarrassed.
"What?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. "I was going to have you sleep in the guest room."
"Oh, of course," he said, suddenly looking relieved. She raised her other eyebrow at him.
Alex led him farther down the hallway, coming to a fairly empty room, save a queen-size bed. She was almost certain she saw his face light up in excitement at the sight, but she dismissed it, instead turning farther down the hall. "The bathroom is over here to the--"
In the instant she had looked away, Darian had collapsed on the bed, still clothed, and fallen asleep instantly. A moment of silence passed before Alex had to laugh, in spite of it all.
"Well, you do deserve a good night's sleep, huh?" she sighed.
As she returned to the kitchen, Sunni was washing the dishes. "彼もかっこい, ね?" she said, winking.
Alex smirked, rolling her eyes. "ええ, ちょっと." Then her face grew sullen. "So how bad does he look?"
Sunni's face was no longer warm and cheery as she lowered the dish in her hand. "It's worse than you thought. While you killed that man accidentally in self-defense, he killed a man deliberately in cold blood."