Back to Square One
an illustrated narrative
Ganymede shuffled through the reports with disdain. From the start of the project, progress had been uncertain, at best, and now it was starting to backpedal... more rapidly so as each day passed. If he was reading the statistics correctly, the only prospects in the batch were, ironically, now out of reach--unattainable, either by force or by location, and the procedures for one reason or another could not produce duplicate results. It could conceivably take a thousand controls to match one anomaly.
To say that things had not gone according to plan would be an understatement, and a gross one at that. He threw the reports on his desk and leaned back in his chair disgustedly, propping his head up with one arm as he did so.
"Why are these three so particularly unbalanced compared to the rest?" he asked rhetorically, taking a sip of coffee. No one could determine a sound reason for it. In fact, one of the lot had been slated for disposal, but something had gone drastically wrong and now it seemed impossible to remove it even if they tried. The only silver lining seemed to be that there were only three abnormalities, and contained, but the project wasn't supposed to have any, much less ones of this scope.
"What do you think, Faulkner?" he snorted. "Is there something I'm missing here that's crucial to understanding these reports? How am I to believe what they're doing?"
Faulkner twisted the hem of his lab coat nervously. He had the feeling there was more riding on this project than he knew. "I'm not sure, Director. In fact, I observed two of them just this past week, and there didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Whatever changes that may have happened must have been recent."
Ganymede frowned. "How recent?"
"Within four or five days, I estimate."
"What has happened in that time?"
"The fugue found the score. However, that doesn't explain the opus."
Ganymede scratched his chin in thought. "Is that what they're going by now?"
"One of the field men came up with it, I presume as a joke... peculiar, that one."
"How do you know the timeframe is four or five days, then?"
"I am going by the records of abnormal activity. The opus... well, you know what happened, but that occurred at approximately the same time."
"It's impossible to tell whether one is related to the other. I can maintain observation, of course, but you know how Callisto gets about."
Disgusted, Ganymede spun around in his chair, facing away. "Well, if the project wasn't already doomed from being impossible to replicate, besides being illegal, it certainly is doomed now."
"What do you recommend, Director?"
He grunted in dissatisfaction, deliberating for a tense moment before facing Faulkner again. "The most reasonable thing to do would be a full abort."
"Exactly how are we going to manage that, Director? After all, just reintegrating our staff alone would take--"
"I mean a full abort."
Faulkner stared in complete disbelief as Ganymede silently raised a gun at him, shooting him cleanly between his eyes.
Darian turned over groggily. The sensation was unfathomably pleasant, his having awoken from a thoroughly dreamless sleep for the first time in the longest time he could remember. If only he could have that feeling for the rest of his life...
In his bliss, it took him a moment to realize he had overslept. "Guh!" He bolted upright, suddenly realizing where he was and looking around for a clock. On closer examination, though, the room, however nice, was sparsely decorated--a short dresser near the door had two familiar freshly-laundered outfits folded neatly on top of it, probably thanks to Sunni, and a small hamper on the floor for his dirty clothes.
A thought suddenly crossed his mind, as he was now older than he was supposed to look--or his correct age, whichever way it worked--that he was relatively disguised from the gang now. He wouldn't have to hide his face if he simply became older, because they wouldn't realize it was him. Was this his ticket to freedom?
It was like a light from Heaven shining down on him. He ran to the bathroom to look at himself more closely. Sure enough, the Darian from just yesterday morning and the Darian staring at him in the mirror were different enough to be easily mistaken for different people. Mind you, the resemblance was still there, but that could be fixed...
Eagerly, he looked around for something to break. Suddenly, he paused. Would that work? He hadn't aged noticeably breaking and restoring a mere plate. Would he have to perform a restoration as complex as actually healing someone, possibly from death?
That was something Darian wasn't as eager to do. It wasn't a good idea to let anyone else know what he and Alex could do. Sunni? Well, he didn't really feel comfortable with the idea of intentionally hurting her, even if he could heal her. And Alex...
He ran down the hallway and peeked in her room. No one there--she must have gone to school and left him alone to sleep... not that he felt that eager to hurt her, either. Well, that left one option he'd meant to try anyway.
Returning to the bathroom, he stared in the mirror, concentrating hard. It made him nervous, thinking of intentionally making himself young again, because--honestly--he liked being older. He actually looked fifteen now, more matured and defined. The mop on his head was disagreeable, but it was something he would have to put up with for a while, since a nicely-kept haircut was one of his previous distinguishing features.
That's funny, he thought. Nothing's happening.
Darian rustled around and found some scissors in one of the drawers and held it to his arm, hesitating. Pain was something that was all too familiar, but it would be the first time he sought it out. "It's okay," he muttered to himself unconvincingly, "I can heal, so it won't hurt... for long..."
Nevertheless, his hands trembled uncertainly as doubt filled his mind. What if the past few days had been a fluke, and he suddenly lost the ability? He was probably going to tear up his arm, and badly, for what? Yet something deep inside him said that the fear was vital, that if he wasn't afraid of the horrible consequences--
Finally mustering the nerve, he stabbed quickly, wincing as he drew blood. He focused on healing that, watching in amazement as the cut vanished without a trace. Glancing back up in the mirror, he looked to be the same age as he was a moment ago. He tried cutting himself again--screaming as he did, as he was nearly reaching bone--and healing that, with the same result. Even the pain was a vague memory, but not a hair on his head had changed.
"So, I can't get younger," he mused, partially in relief. It was annoying being little for so long, but at the same time it meant that he had to be extremely careful about who or what he fixed and when. "Well, that means I can't go back to sch--"
It startled Darian to realize he couldn't continue his studies from this point on, because bringing it to everyone's attention that he'd miraculously aged so quickly was absolutely the last thing he wanted to do. Without school, what would he do? Furthermore, without a birth certificate or other identifying papers, how would he get a job?
His cloud was quickly vanishing... Heaven was falling rapidly away. It was still in reach, but now he'd lost sight of how to get there.
Frustrated, he stuck his tongue out at his reflection. That reminded him that he hadn't cleaned up in over a day. A basket of fresh toiletries sat near the sink--no doubt reserved as his--and he momentarily wondered if he needed them... no, it was silly to use his ability so frivolously as that... He brushed his teeth, then stripped down and rinsed himself off in the shower, marveling at the combination stall-and-tub and how spacious it was compared to his back home.
Home... though the name didn't fit the place. It disgusted him thinking of ever returning there--how could he, after a taste of normality? He stood under the hot stream, lost in the depths of his imagination, until it occurred to him how much water he was wasting and turned off the shower, toweling dry.
Refreshed but still bored, Darian left the bathroom, changing into a fresh set of clothes and flopping back onto his bed. Mere moments after that, he got up again and wandered around the house aimlessly, trying to find something to do. As much as it thrilled him to actually stretch out and sleep, he found that he couldn't sleep any longer and had grown restless. Even Sunni had gone out for the day, which left him alone to occupy himself. Another thought crossed his mind as well--he didn't know the arming code for their security system, so it wouldn't be a good idea to leave just yet even if he felt like it. He could probably leave with no trouble, but as he didn't have a key, what if he set off the alarm trying to get back in?
With nothing else on his mind to do, he decided to at least make a sandwich, heading to the kitchen. The task was simple enough, to his slight annoyance, and he found himself wandering around the house instead of sitting down to eat.
Eventually, Darian found a room with several unsorted bookshelves--apparently they had simply thrown them up without any particular concern for organization yet. A group of language books caught his eye, and he decided to flip through them. After an initial scan, they seemed to be Alex's books for learning the common tongue.
"Interesting," he muttered, absorbing their contents over his sandwich.
Alex had had extreme difficulty getting to sleep that night and was now having the same difficulty concentrating in her classes, as fast as her mind was racing. It was no wonder Darian had pushed people away for so long--who would want to be friends with a murderer? At the same time, though, why did he cover it up? Truly, no one wants to go to prison, but isn't that a better alternative to living a lie? It would also have given him a way out of being in that criminal organization of his, but...
"But it wouldn't have solved anything," she sighed sadly, "and we wouldn't have met."
She snapped out of her trance. "Ja, Frau Katze?"
"Class is over. Are you feeling well?"
"Oh." She hastily gathered her things, flustered at having been so oblivious. "I'm fine, just... thinking."
"Gut. Can I see you for a moment, if you are not busy?"
Alex approached Frau Katze's desk cautiously. "What is it?"
She seemed concerned. "Have you seen Herr Grey today? He's never missed a day of school before, and I thought you might know something, since I saw the two of you leaving together last week."
"Oh!" Alex fidgeted nervously. "Um... yes, he had a bad accident over the holiday and is in the hospital now. I'm supposed to pick up his homework for him."
"I was not informed of this. Didn't his parents or guardian notify the school?"
"No..." Alex was hesitant to lie, but she didn't know what else to say. "I guess they didn't... that's strange."
"This is unacceptable. I will have Principal Peter call his home to make sure things are okay."
"No, it’s fine," Alex insisted. "They're obviously very upset about Darian being hurt, and it just slipped their mind."
A puzzled look crossed Frau Katze's face. She suddenly smirked at Alex. "It's nice that you two got to be good friends so fast. You seem to like him a lot, that is good for him to get a nice girl friend."
Hearing those words from a teacher's lips was strangely unsettling.
"Well," Frau Katze started, her tone patronizing. "Unfortunately, Darian's homework grades are very poor, so I don't expect him to turn any in even if you collect it for him. His participation has been falling off as well, even though his test scores are exceptional. The problem is that he doesn't seem to be trying to improve himself outside of school, and that's going to affect his future greatly if he does not do anything about it soon."
If only she knew, Alex thought, smiling. "Don't worry, Frau Katze, I'll help him do better."
"Gut," she smirked cryptically. "Wish him get well for me."
Alex smiled as she stepped into the hallway, not taking two steps before--
Kotaro leapt seemingly out of nowhere, taking her by surprise. She normally felt more attuned to where things were in relation to her, but her mind must've been more occupied than she realized.
"Hey, big girl!" he greeted, grinning with his usual overflowing excitement. "How are you and D getting along? Speaking of whom, have you seen him today? It's not like him to miss school."
"Hi, Kotaro," she returned, flushing red. Would it be safe to let him know the truth? ...probably not, unfortunately. He didn't seem like the type to keep secrets well. "--actually, he was in an accident yesterday... he's in the hospital now!"
"Oh, weak!" Kotaro cried, though even his upset face seemed to be smiling. "Which one is he in? We've got to go visit him and cheer him up!"
"Eee--I don't know. I saw it happen, but they wouldn't let me go with them since I wasn't family." She cringed slightly, hoping he would believe her.
"Well, shoot," Kotaro said, scratching his chin. "Looks like I'll have to call all the hospitals in the area to find out where he is!"
Alex blanched nervously. "You know, I think he's had enough excitement without you tackling him again!"
"Haha! Right," he laughed. "C'mon, gimme some credit! I only save that for desperate measures! Alright, though, we'll let him rest for a few days... but we're making him a get well card!"
It looked like she was in for a world of explanations at home... but then, so was Darian.
The day hadn’t gone as expected. It felt strange hiding things from Alex, but there were things that she didn’t need to know yet, and the news was difficult for Sunni to handle, herself. Even after arriving, her informant had remained outside the range of her detection, as though waiting for the opportune moment to strike...
Yet that wouldn't make sense at all. From the sound of the proposal, they were either desperate for help, or they wanted to be left alone. Hurting them sounded as if it would be not only unproductive but inconvenient, as well. Still, she couldn't figure out their motive in contacting her, much less continuing to leave her in the dark...
Sunni stepped onto the bus, weighed down with groceries for the week, when she heard a familiar voice call her name.
"Ho, Alex!" she greeted, walking over. "How was school today?"
"It was hard," Alex sighed, frowning. "I had to make up a reason for why Darian wasn't there, since everyone seems to think we're together now or something. It doesn't look like he has any really close friends."
"Really? Just because he's in that--"
"Well, there's one guy, Kotaro, but Kotaro seems to want to be friends with everybody, whether they like it or not."
Sunni smiled widely. "He sounds like a fun character."
"Yeah, kind of," Alex laughed. Her face quickly became pensive, however. As they disembarked at their stop, walking towards the house at a leisurely rate, she listened carefully for signs of spies or assassins, but they seemed to have suddenly fallen off. Strange...
"Are you going to ask him about it, then?" Sunni prompted.
"Well, I must, because we're not going to be able to help him if we don't get the whole story."
"Speaking of which, I don't entirely approve of having him live with us, helping him or not. Regardless of what your or your parents' wishes are, I am your guardian, you know--"
Alex pouted. "He doesn't have anywhere else to go!"
"I know that, but it's still unorthodox having a boy stay with us when you barely even know him."
"He's not like that! He's--"
"What? Really, do you know he isn't lying? After all..."
Alex frowned. There was truth to Sunni's words, as much as she hated to admit it. "Alright... I don't know... but what do I believe? It's terrible to think that he's done something as awful as that. I just can't imagine--"
"Who did what?"
They froze, startled to see Darian waiting for them outside the house, a book in his hands. Sunni recognized it as one of their language dictionaries.
"What is it that you cannot believe?" he asked again in their native tongue, not looking up.
Alex stared in astonishment, and Sunni echoed her sentiments. "Did you learn our language in one day?" Alex asked.
"I do not know the informal forms, and my pronounciation may be inaccurate," he commented, continuing to leaf through the book, "but I understand the general idea."
Darian tapped his head. "I told you before that I take notes in class purely out of possible benefit to others. I do not actually need them, as I have a photographic memory."
"Amazing!" Sunni commented.
"Alex was correct, by the way," he added scoldingly, staring at Sunni as he did. "That was an extremely rude comment you made to us last night."
Her face flushed. "You even remember what we said, even when you didn't understand it?"
"All of it."
She smiled warmly. "I was just teasing."
"I know that, but it was still rude."
Darian merely waved his hand dismissively, tucking the book under his arm. "Can I help you carry in the groceries?"
Sunni glanced curiously at Alex, whose face had turned a brilliantly flushed red.
Alex was tense through dinner. They had engaged in some idle chatter to help improve Darian's vocabulary, but for the most part her mind was still fixated on the larger matter of what to do about the entire situation. When they were finished, Sunni took their dishes and shooed them out of the kitchen, "because you have important things to talk about, right?"
They opted for the guest room this time, sitting on opposite sides of the bed. "So, what's Sunni hinting at now?" he asked.
She fiddled her thumbs nervously, uncertain how to begin. "We're both concerned about how to get you out of your situation. It's not that we couldn't afford to keep you hidden here, but--"
"--what would I do?"
Darian seemed saddened, looking away. "I can't make myself younger."
Alex perked her ears, attentive.
"I cut myself--twice--to make sure I could still do it. I cut pretty deep, too, to make sure I wasn't mistaken. I just couldn't change back to my original age, though."
"And you really tried with all your might?"
He paused, thoughtful. "Not really, I guess. There's a part of me that's too happy to finally look more my age, instead of like a little kid. I just don't want to go back to that life, you know? It got me excited thinking that, if I made myself just a bit older, I might be invisible to them now, because they wouldn't recognize me easily...
"...but that won't help me finish school, or get a job. I can do more than I could, but less. It's like I'm even more trapped now than I was before, and I still have no idea how to fix things--how to stop the gang forever. That's what's kept me going all this time, I think, the idea that I'm where I am now to make amends for all the bad things I've done."
"That's a heavy weight to carry," she noted sympathetically. "You're really set on trying to disarm them yourself?"
"I have to do it," Darian insisted. "They've hurt so many people already, and they'll keep hurting people if nobody does anything to stop them. I'm in the best position to do something, what with all that I know about them."
Alex curled into a ball, pulling her knees up to her chin. "You don't have to work alone, you know."
"I'm grateful enough that you're letting me stay here, but I can't let you get hurt trying to help me." He glanced over at her. "Why are you helping me, anyway?"
Her eyes went out of focus as she stared into the distance at nothing. "I'm not sure, exactly. I lied to you when we first met the other day--I wasn't talking to you just because I wanted to make friends. I could tell there was something special about you, even if I wasn't sure what, and that's why I tried so hard to befriend you, even after it seemed you didn't like me. It's... as though we have a shared resonance or something."
"Resonance?" Darian asked, ears twitching at the word.
She played idly with the bedcovers, drawing a random pattern with her finger. "Have you ever... felt something was right? Like all the signs seemed to point a certain way?"
"I'm not sure how you mean."
Alex felt silly mentioning the sound, but she had to know. "It's like... bells go off, I don't know."
He seemed to mull over this. "Kind of. I do feel better with you around, actually."
She had to smile at his comment, despite herself. "It's funny how much guilt one person can bear..."
Darian looked at her with a puzzled expression, but it was too hard for her to keep it bottled up any longer. Tears formed in her eyes again. "I can't believe someone like you could've--"
"Could've what?" he asked, now genuinely concerned.
"You killed someone in cold blood?" she shrieked. "How could you? How can you live with that kind of weight hanging over your head?"
His eyes grew large, an expression of rage crossing his face. "You lied to me! You told me Sunni didn't speak--"
"She can't roll the h' or r' sounds perfectly," Alex interrupted, frowning, "but she understands what you say."
"You betrayed my trust! I thought I was talking in confidence!"
"Sunni won't tell anyone but me! What I know, she knows, and vice versa!"
He turned away, disgusted. "How do you expect me to trust you if you're going to pull things like this behind my back?"
"I had to find out somehow! You won't tell me anything!"
Wordlessly, Darian stood, as though to leave.
"Wait, don't go," she begged suddenly.
His shoulders slumped, defeat in his posture. An impatient growl rumbled in his throat. "What do you want from me?"
She looked at him with pity. "I want to know why. I want to understand what happened, what you’re not telling me. Otherwise nothing any of us do can fix anything..."
The tension in the room from his silence was painful.
"I just want to help," she whispered.
He didn't move from his spot for several moments, tensely clenching and unclenching his fists. When Darian looked at her again, his face contained volumes of sorrow.
"I'm not proud of what I did," he said simply.
Alex gestured for him to sit. "Tell me about it."
He reclined uneasily on the bed, restless, staring off into nothing. "I started at an orphanage--that's the only way I can really describe it, a big building cut off from society with just a bunch of us kids running about until we were old enough to actually start developing useful skills. It became a sort of boot camp once we could be disciplined, and, since I was smaller, they had me train more in espionage and thieving than in hand-to-hand combat or any of that.
"In the beginning, I didn't mind it much, actually. I didn't have any reason to question my treatment, so it felt normal. After I met Kotaro, though, and he tried on many occasions to be best friends with me, that’s when I realized everything was wrong. They told me I couldn't see him anymore, and they would punish me if I tried to tell him anything." Here, Darian lifted his sleeve a bit, to show the lashes across his forearm. "I always wore long sleeves, even in summer, to hide these from others."
"How horrible," Alex cried sympathetically.
He ran a finger over the gash marks along his wrist. "These were the first I'd gotten. I still don't understand what I did to deserve them, but to this day I have nightmares about getting them, being cut deeply and getting locked in my room with only with a low-end first aid kit to try to patch the wounds myself, like some cruel lesson in survival. I couldn't even move the rest of the day afterwards, as painful as they were and as afraid as I was of a cut reopening."
He turned his arm over to reveal the thick, dark scars on the back. "These were from a whip. I don't know what kind it was, since I never actually saw it, but it took out huge parts of my skin with each lash. I bled so much from them that I had to wear thick bandages and a red sweater to hide the damage--"
Alex's mouth dropped open. "You went to school like that?"
"I didn't want to give them the satisfaction of breaking my spirit," he spat. "It fueled my anger, though--I admit--it didn't help my self-image." Darian paused, thinking, rubbing his arm absentmindedly. "Most of these were from keeping something I stole, ironically... stuff like a cheap little music box. It wasn't self-propelled, so it only played the tune while I turned the crank. I didn't think they would notice, or care, but it turns out that music box was really rare... worth over a hundred rio. I only kept it because it was nice having something to entertain myself, just a silly toy instead of textbooks and thieving gadgetry.
"I have others across my back and legs, as well. Some of those were from hanging out with Kotaro. Most of the time, I was just kicked and beaten. It wasn't really that I did anything wrong, I think, as much as it was to emphasize how they didn't want me potentially telling someone too much or turning traitor on them."
"You can heal your scars, though, right?" Alex mused.
"Maybe. I wouldn't bother, though. I'm already used to having them, and they're evidence of my abuse. It would feel wrong to just wipe them away when I can't also just wipe away the years of anguish I've been through."
She frowned pathetically. "Why did they treat you so cruelly?"
Darian shrugged. "I didn't care. I mean, I cared, but it wasn't a big deal to me not to have friends. Kotaro, though, still tried to be mine, and, as difficult as it was to push him away, each day that passed I started to envy his freedom and his loving family more and more.
"That made me curious about my family. My father died before I was born--that wasn't too much for me to handle. My mother, though... I have absolutely no memory of my mother, and I remember everything about my life. It became maddening to think that anyone would give birth to me and knowingly give me away to such a horrible life. I had to find her--even if she was dead, like I believed--and try to find out if she didn't give me away, but I was forcefully taken from her instead.
"In my spare time, then, I searched all the public records I could find and asked anyone I could--who wouldn't be suspicious of my searches--for anything about my mother. As a result, I've almost never done homework, between gang activities and trying to find out about myself. I've never found another Grey, though, which is making it difficult. So I got Mark to help me.
"He was one of the second-tiers in our regular runs. We didn't always steal things--sometimes it was transporting drugs or other contraband, or spying on rival gangs. Mark always made a point of taking care of me, in retrospect, trying to do things to help me out even at the risk of punishment to himself. I guess they were just training their replacements, even if I wanted no part of it, though Mark went a little further."
"What does this Mark have to do with it?"
"I asked him for something... nothing much, but I was sure he could get it for me, being farther on the inside than I was. I mean, they have access to everything, right? After so many excuses about it not being a good time or other people getting suspicious, it got to me. I went crazy and strangled him on the spot, all my anger and frustration bursting out all at once in a fit of rage. He fought back, but I was stronger... not strong enough, though. Finally, I grabbed a knife and slit--"
By that point, Alex was cringing in a mix of fear and sorrow. "Do I need to continue?" he asked. She shook her head violently. "So now you know why I didn't want to tell you, in particular because it doesn't do any good having you know."
"What kind of wicked people are these, Darian?" she muttered bitterly. "That's no kind of life for a person to have."
"I know that now," he agreed. "It took a long time to see through the façade. They didn't even punish me when they found him, which surprised me. I guess they were already thinking of getting rid of him, or it was blackmail to keep me in line." He chuckled sadistically, eyes growing dark. "Unfortunately, my biggest mistake was that I killed the wrong man."
Alex seemed to stop breathing.
"I'm kidding," he smirked, though he could tell she didn't believe his lie. "Still, it's insane, thinking about that now... how could I kill someone over something like that?"
She looked at him with mournful eyes. "What did you ask him for?"
"...a photo of my mother."