Author's note: It's hard to believe it's been more than ten years since I first published this fic. My writing style and my life have changed a lot since those days. I decided to take some time to reformat it to make it more readable here at fanfiction net, and while right now I see it as a work written by a teenager, I think it still holds up, more or less, under time. I hope you continue to enjoy it. --Jennifer Rubio (nee Wand)
A Crystal Clear Destiny.
That's what they called it. From that moment in the Starlight Tower, a moment in a year that never happened, I remembered another lifetime and a love-- but only for a moment. Then it was all gone again. How can you call that a love story? I may not be Romeo, but it sure doesn't feel like one to me. I know a better story, though. One that doesn't depend on fate, and one that happened right here and now.
Everyone knows that I was destined to be with a princess named Serenity. But this is the story of how I fell in love with a girl named Serena.
by Jennifer Wand
The story actually starts one weekday night, Tuesday I think, when I was jolted out of bed by a huge clattering noise. Finding it impossible to fall back asleep, I flipped on the radio. A meteorite had landed, and right in the middle of town no less! There was noise in the hall of my apartment building then, and I figured that no one else could get back to sleep either. So I decided to join the throng of curiosity seekers. What could it hurt?
As I moved through the crowd, a strange feeling came over me-- like there was something I needed to grasp, but couldn't. It wasn't a memory or a thought or a feeling, nothing I could name-- just something. I fell deeper and deeper into thought... until a voice pulled me out of it. "Candy shop going out of BUSINESS sale?" shrieked the back of a blonde mop of hair. "What an incredible opportuuunity!"
The preteen yelp was so high pitched and typical, I couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, sure is, to turn into a humongous chocolate blimp," I remarked
to no one in particular.
I must have said it louder than I thought, because the girl wheeled on me. "Oh no, it's that annoying creep." It took me a moment to place how she knew me, until I realized she was probably one of the silly girls who had a crush on my friend Andrew. I might have not even figured that out, if it hadn't been for her somewhat unusual hairstyle. It stuck out in my head for some reason.
By this time, sleep was setting in again, and I was mostly on autopilot. "How's the empty meatball head?" I asked, sleepy and slap happy.
She was obviously more awake than me, for she snapped at me good. To tell the truth, though, I don't even remember much of the rest of the conversation. It was past midnight, and as anyone who's been out late at night would know, the whole experience felt more like a dream than a reality anyway. But I must have teased her pretty badly, because she turned her back on me, fuming.
What can I say? I'm a horrible teaser. Andrew's on my back about it all the time. University is tough, and living my life without any memories of my past or my family is tougher. Sometimes I think it must be my fault that I can't remember them at all. Maybe laughing at Andrew's little fan club makes me feel like I'm not the dumbest person in the world after all.
One image stayed with me from that night, however: as I made my way out of the throng, I saw the blonde girl heading home. There was something vibrant about her just then-- as if she'd been touched by the sun. The sight of her caused something to stir inside me, and that peculiar feeling came over me again, the one that I couldn't explain. But I knew one thing: she was absolutely beautiful.
Now I'm not the kind of guy who falls in love easily. Hell, I once told Andrew that I could barely stay interested for five minutes! So it really startled me when my heart started to pound like it did that night. The next morning, I was pretty convinced it was all a dream-- until I read the paper and saw that a meteor had, indeed, landed last night. Then that feeling was real, and so was that girl I saw. Could she be a part of my family whom I don't remember? From my life before the accident? Did a meteor have something to do with the way I lost my parents? I couldn't stop pondering... I even kept dropping my schoolbooks as I walked down the street. Not that I was actually reading them. I was too distracted by the thought that memories might be coming back to me.
That night, thought, my mind finally eased its constant questioning and came to a conclusion. "Darien, my friend, you're making waaay too much of this. She was a cute girl and you were half-awake, and a meteor crashed outside your apartment. That's enough to give anybody the creeps." That really made more sense than anything else I'd been thinking, so I put the questions (and myself) to rest.
I started out to class on the next day refreshed and relaxed. My mind was free of past life ponderings and mysterious girls, and I concentrated on the busy schedule ahead of me. That is, until something latched onto my arms and said, "Miss me, big guy?" I think I must have jumped six feet in the air. Was I relieved to find it was just a silly girl! "Whoa! You scared me there!"
"Oh, Darien," she drawled, "you don't have to be that way around me."
NOW I was confused. "How come you know my name and I don't know yours?" I asked.
She was shocked. "Okay, if you want to be that way about it..." (Was I supposed to remember her?) "My name is Serena, and you and I are meant to be together."
Hee hee! I thought, amused. This girl is a total wacko! Of course-- she was that silly highschooler from the other night. Her attitude shift seemed totally typical for her age. The way she looked up at me, though, with wide-eyed expectation-- it was really very cute.
"Hey, Serena!" came a raucous voice. "Hang on to that guy for me, will ya!"
"Whoa!" I sputtered. A red-haired girl in the same school uniform was wildly dodging traffic, making her slow way over here. At this point I was probably late for class, and definitely not eager to become the Junior High School catch of the day! "Another wacky girl!"
I bolted to class as soon as the girls started to bicker and Serena released her hold on me. As I ran, the redhead's loud voice rang out. "Hey, Darien!! My name's Ann!"
It was a heck of a day. After class, I had a delivery job at Metro Studios, and that place was an absolute maze! But I kept myself laughing by picturing myself at the center of some silly anime-- No Need for Darien! Girls fawning all over me? Nah, couldn't be!
A few days later, I was hanging with Andrew in the arcade. Andrew's a funny guy, the kind who's friendly and open to just about anyone. He has this infectious laugh and a spattering of freckles on his round face that seem to jump around when he grins. I'm really not surprised that all the Junior High girls have a crush on him-- spend a little time with Andrew, and everything seems easier somehow.
Despite his simple outlook on life, Andrew's probably a lot more mature than I am. He's been with Rita Blake for almost a year, and they seem as close as ever. Lately there's been some talk of her going to study in Africa, and Andrew's been nothing but supportive. If it were me, I'd never forgive a girl for leaving me for a bunch of bugs.
She showed up that afternoon near the end of his shift, to take him out for a bite. This ridiculous glow lit up his face when he saw her, and for a moment, sickening as it was, I was kind of jealous. Could there be a girl out there that'd make ME feel that way? One that wouldn't end up being a cross-dresser, a monster, or a wicked queen, that is? I laughed to myself at this absurd thought, and said out loud, "Now THERE'S a girl for me."
Andrew and Rita whirled on me and hit the spotlight immediately. "Who?" they interrogated, with the sadistic grins of true partners in crime. "Someone you're interested in, Darien? Who is she?" I spat jumbled protests, but they didn't seem to hear. "Is there someone you've got your eye on?"
"Heyy!" I shouted. "I don't even have time to look at girls, you know that! Why, the last time I even thought a girl was cute must have been--"
A few days ago. When Serena gave me that adorable smile.
My brain only froze for a second there, and I recovered nicely. Still, why did I think of her then? I wondered. I wasn't interested... nah, not yet.. but she did have an awfully cute smile.
The very next morning, I was again assaulted by the two-woman tag team. This time, the first one to grab me was Ann, the raucous redhead who'd been playing live action Frogger that other morning. As much as Serena was growing on me, Ann was really getting on my nerves. "Hey, Darien," she cooed-- or as much as her voice could coo, anyway-- "wanna go to that big laser disco after school? It'll be so coooool."
Never one to pass up a chance to tease, I mocked her Valley-girl accent as best I could. "Well, I find discos boring, actually. They're sooo last season," I sneered.
She didn't even seem to get the joke. "Karaoke maybe?" Oh, no! "I'm not a bad singer, you know." Nope, she wasn't bad. She was horrible! "Home, home on the raaange..." How does Andrew put UP with this!? "Where the deer and the antelope plaaaay..."
"Stop that! Noise police, citizen's arrest!"
With a sigh of relief, I looked down and saw Serena standing there, barring the way between Ann and me. "Hey, Meatball head!" I said, pleased. I patted her lightly on the head. "Hey, glad to see ya!" And you know what? I was.
She seemed as surprised as I was with this revelation. "You ARE, Darien? Do you REMEMBER?"
That threw me off, but luckily it also reminded me that once again, I was late for class. When she bent over to pick something up, I made tracks. I couldn't keep letting these girls make me late! And I had too much physics to ponder, so I couldn't dwell on that "Do you remember?" It slipped my mind... for a time.
I dropped in on Andrew later that day, to find his kid sister Lizzie having a conniption fit over something in the newspaper. Andrew was just staring on with an embarrassed grin. She saw me and immediately whirled, her ponytail bouncing. "DARien HI, you WON'T beLIEVE the COOlest THING..." she yodeled in a voice that made Serena sound calm and collected. Turns out she was psyched up about the opening of a new virtual reality theater, with those movies where you sit in moving seats, and some lifesize laser-tag type mazes. Andrew was less thrilled, and he whispered to me that the new VR theatre might take some business away from the arcade.
"What, d'ya think they're going to fire you?" I laughed. "Andrew, you're practically the reason most of those girls come here in the first place."
Andrew grinned. "Yeah, me and Sailor V."
"Oh really?" I raised an eyebrow. "I'm going to tell Rita about you two..."
Lizzie interrupted my remark "Oh yeaah, that's a great idea Andrew you can take your GIRRRLfriend! In those movies it'll be really scary and she'll have to hold on to you..." Her eyes got all big and starry, and she made kissy noises at Andrew, who looked like he wanted to crawl into the nearest hole. Without missing a beat, Lizzie turned to me next. "And you can bring whatever girl you've got YOUR eye on TOO, DAR-ien!" My head pounded, and I felt a strong urge to go climb in that hole with Andrew.
"Eh, I think we're a little too old for that," Andrew blurted, desperately trying to get out of a sticky spot. "What did you have for breakfast this morning anyway, Liz?" I rolled my eyes and stuck a quarter in the crane game, listening to their bickering as I tried once more to get the claw around that funny-looking guy in the tuxedo and cape. As I moved the levers, a strange thought occurred to me. What if I asked Serena to go there with me?
The thought made me blink hard, and Cape Boy tumbled back to earth for the billionth time. Well, what if I did? It seemed the kind of place she'd want to go... but was it worth the torture of all those teenybopper shrieks?
Probably not. Nonetheless, I decided I'd check out the grand opening on Sunday. If I knew Serena-- and something told me I did-- she might just be there. At the very least, I could pick up some pointers on dating, if I was really going to give it a try.
Sunday rolled around, and even when the alarm stopped, my ears kept on ringing. It was time to pick courses for next year, and I had my heart set on advanced genetics. My advisor, however, didn't seem to think it was a good idea. That had been a totally tiring debate, especially for a Saturday. And to make matters worse, my friend Mike had talked my ear off about this ridiculous idea he had to produce Hamlet at school. Needless to say, the entire night I was haunted by dreams of melancholy DNAs.
Why on EARTH had I set my alarm on a Sunday, anyway? I rolled out of bed and went to open the shades. Morning light burst in on me in a flood, and between blinks I thought I saw something staring at me. When I rubbed my eyes it was gone, but I could have sworn... truly!... that outside my window there was... a cat. A small black cat looking at me with an expression in her eyes that seemed frighteningly human.
One sleepy shower later, I finally realized why I was awake before noon. I grabbed my favorite green blazer, slung it around my shoulders, and headed down to check out the VR place.
It was a ZOO! At 11 AM the line was already stretched way out into the street. A poor pimply usher squeaked at the crowd to stay in line, and pointed at the sign that said "2 HR WAIT." Nonetheless, pair after pair of giggling boyfriends and girlfriends stood there impatiently, awaiting their turn at the Hottest Thing In Town.
Laughing at it all, I wove up and down between the rows of people. Sure enough, I eventually saw Serena, but she didn't look at all pleased to be there. Instead, she was talking angrily to something she was holding-- a stuffed animal maybe? To my horror, I realized it was a real live cat, being held by its paws in a most inhumane fashion. "Stop torturing that poor cat! Pick on someone your own size," I said, a tad infuriated. She and the cat BOTH looked shocked, and I blinked again. Could it have been the same one? Surely there couldn't be two black cats in town with a knack for looking so stunned.
As that flashed through my head in the space of about a half-second, so did the fact that amidst all the couples, Serena was here alone. But like I said, this all happened in a half a second, so what really passed through my mind, of course, was more like "cat face alone serena hmmm." And what ended up coming out of my mouth was, "Just because you haven't got a boyfriend to come here with, you don't need to take it out on the poor cat, Meatball Head."
She was infuriated, and rightly so. That was a little much, even for me! I stood there feeling incredibly stupid until a welcome distraction provided itself.
I had heard that laugh before. That was the laugh of "Big Man" Hiro, college drinker extraordinaire. A few simple rules governed his existence: If Hiro was awake, Hiro was drunk; and if Hiro was drunk, Hiro was trying to pick up some girl. I followed the sound, hoping that a knight-in-shining-armor bit might counteract the obnoxious-jerk points I'd just racked up.
Poking through the crowd, I encountered a double surprise. One, the unlucky girl Hiro had chosen was Ann. And two, she'd just slapped Hiro across the face. "I told ya," she barked, "I'm not interested in a big doofus like you."
"Hey pal, what's your problem?" I said, striding toward Hiro. He turned on me angrily, and I half expected to see his fist already flying much faster than his brain. (His breath smelled horrible-- how could anyone drink so early in the morning?!)
"What's it to you?" he sneered, trying to intimidate me in his ridiculously intoxicated way. "Big Man" was a full head shorter than I, and didn't look the least bit intimidating. He stared at me, and I stared back without blinking an eye. It felt like some bad Western flick-- Hiro sizing me up just like I was Clint Eastwood. I almost wished I could reach for my trusty Magnum.
Finally, he grunted and staggered away with a painfully bruised ego. Exeunt Big Man-- but not before turning and making a ridiculous face and a "Nyah Nyah!" noise. Everyone laughed, and I had a feeling no one was ever going to let Hiro live it down.
Well, the knight-in-shining-armor bit worked, but not in the way I'd hoped. It was a groaner: Ann latched herself onto me and immediately started babbling. "Oh Darien, my hero! You rescued me from that horrid slime! How can I ever repay you? I know!" She answered her own question without even taking a breath. "I'll take you to the virtual reality theatre. Okay?"
All I could say was, "Huh?"
Then the chaos started again. Serena came round the corner and, seeing Ann and me, promptly exploded with jealousy. "Darien, there you are!" she gushed, making an obvious show just to enrage her rival. A second later, a new face showed up-- a pale, lean boy I hadn't seen around before.
He frowned. "Ann, what do you think you're doing?"
She blushed, and let out a string of embarrassed laughter. "Hi, Alan," she finally forced out.
Meanwhile, Alan's attention had turned, and he said as his cheeks flooded with color, "Oh. Serena!" My head was sure swimming now. What on earth was going on here?
"Alan, this is Darien, and we're going to the virtual reality theatre," Ann enthused. "Isn't that kewwwwl?" (The way she said it doesn't even deserve to be spelled "c-o-o-l." Ann was much more of a Valley Girl than a Tokyo Kid!)
I protested, or at least tried to, before Serena growled, "Well then take a hike, Ann, because Darien's gonna take me!" She let loose in a burst of singsong laughter, infuriating Ann (and really annoying everyone else, myself included.) As Alan talked to Ann in a low voice, I tried to make sense of the whole scenario. Ann wasn't Alan's girlfriend, or she wouldn't have introduced me to him quite so enthusiastically. Would she? And what was up with Alan and Serena? He obviously had feelings for her, but then why was he so jealous when he saw Ann clinging to my arm? As for Ann and Serena, they were BOTH driving me up the wall-- using me to make each other jealous. If this kept up, I'd never have a chance to tell whether Serena really liked me-- right now it seemed that she was just trying to anger Ann. All in all, I thought I'd rather be rehearsing Hamlet with Mike.
"Well, shall we get to it, Darien?" Ann jerked me away from my thoughts as the usher showed us inside. As I turned back, I thought I saw Serena's cat looking at us. (Serena needed to take better care of that poor animal!) Again, it had the very same look on its face. As I was dragged into the theatre by a pair of squeals, I groaned and finally realized: That was the infamous black cat that you DON'T want crossing your path.
Inside the movie, things were a little easier, despite the continued silliness of the Twin Teen Terrors. "Oh Darien, I'm soo scared!" cried Ann, and Serena countered with a scowl, saying they were "all bogus monsters." Still, she was clinging on to me just as tight! Ann had just pointed that out, when the nightmare got that much crazier: a FIFTH voice called Serena's name!
Was I relieved when she answered, "Dad? Sammy? What are YOU two doing here? You're too YOUNG to be in here!" I suppose I should not be happy to run into a girl's father in a movie theatre, but at least there wasn't a new player in this romantic knot of a game. One more person getting furious and jealous was definitely more than I could handle.
The rest of the movie passed without further complications, though I wish I could say it was without incident. Next, we got in line for one of the laser-tag mazes, where we were each given pistols and visors, and were sent off to zap some holographic baddies. It was my kind of game. I always liked adventures, hunting and chasing, especially when other people were around-- so sue me, I wanted to show off a little.
By that time, I had nearly forgotten that I was in less-than-ideal company. I was actually having more fun than I'd had in ages. Ann seemed to be enjoying herself too-- zapping away, shouting "Am I hot or am I hot? Let's see what new horror I can save you guys from." Alan was quieter-- at times it seemed like he wasn't there at all. I watched him curiously for a while. By turns he'd stare at Serena, or frown like there was somewhere else he'd rather be. He was a surprisingly quick shot, though, and, even stole some points from me. I was surprised at my sudden jealousy, and fought the bitter feeling down.
Of the three, that left Serena. And of course, she was a different story. No Annie Oakley, she'd scream whenever a monster sprang up and forget she had a pistol. She got adorably starry-eyed whenever Alan or I scored a point, though, and when she wasn't tripping over herself or bickering with Ann, she sure seemed like she was having fun. (I think she was probably having fun bickering too, but she'd never admit it.) I found her energy to be quite contagious-- for even when she was running like crazy, the girl was filled to the brim and practically glowing with life. It was hard not to smile.
Several rooms into the game, and we were doing really well. The monsters had gotten progressively harder, but between the four of us (well, okay, maybe the three of us, since Serena seemed to be zapping-impaired), we were really blazing a trail. I was feeling confident enough that I thought it might even be time to get a little closer to a certain person on my team. Unfortunately, Ann had the same thought at the same time. I offed a bad guy that popped up right next to Ann, and she "fell" onto me. Purring, she looked up at me. "Thanks, Darien, I could stay on your arm forever..."
It was a good thing I was feeling so confident, because I actually answered her instead of just muttering, "umm, ummm." I heard myself say decisively, "Sorry, but that's not happening."
She was crestfallen. "Huh?"
I decided to put the idea out of her head once and for all. "You know, some guys go for pushy girls, but it sure isn't my style." That ought to do it, I thought.
Up popped the cheering section (I was surprised she didn't have a "Down With Ann" T-shirt and banner, ready for the occasion!). "Ha!" Serena looked smugly at Ann. "That's telling her, Darien... acck!"
It was another bad guy, a rather menacing-looking one at that, who'd just popped out of the floor. Serena hightailed it in the other direction, dashing into a dark tunnel by herself. And it doesn't take a genius to figure out the ideas that popped into my mind! "Meatball head!" I shouted, running after her. Remembering that Ann and Alan were still there, I came up with the best excuse I could. "Don't go in there alone! You'll probably get lost in your own closet!"
I dashed into the dark. Now where was that annoyingly irresistible child hiding? It was just as well I couldn't find her... I had absolutely no idea what I'd say or do. The monsters found me first, a ton of holographic baddies popping out of holes in the wall and creating eerie strobe-like effects in the blackness of the cave. The tiny speaker in my visor let out beep after beep as I racked up points. Then, a series of little beeps rang in my ear, and I realized that I had made it to the final level. There was a prize going out to the first person who won the game on opening day... not to mention how impressed Serena and the others would be! Riding on a swelling wave of egomania, I ran through.
A familiar squeal drowned out the beeping of my visor, and I finally caught sight of Serena, surrounded by a ring of virtual monsters. Super Darien ran in to save the day, and when she whirled in surprise, I gave her a wink and a smile. Then her eyes met mine. For a fraction of a second, I felt an unfamiliar spark of emotion, and the smile trailed off my face as I stepped forward. Words began to form in my chest and make their way up to my throat.
I guess I'll never know what those words would have been, because just then, the daemons began to runneth over again. Serena squealed and flailed around wildly... was she trying to slap them into submission, or what? "Oooh, get 'em get 'em get 'em get 'em!"
I took a few quick shots. "Works better if you use the laser gun," I commented flatly, grinning to myself at her embarrassed expression.
With a final blast, I eliminated the last menace in that room, and she stared at me admiringly. "Wow, you're so good at this!"
In that case, I thought, I'd better not let up. If the girl's impressed with me, I want to keep her that way! "Time to go, Meatball Head!" I grabbed her hand and started running... "We've just got one more room to go!" Her hand was so small and fit so snugly in mine...I think she said something, but my feet and heart were both pounding so hard that I couldn't hear a thing. As we entered the passageway to take us to the final room, I looked back, laughing with excitement, to give her a quick smile. I turned to the front again almost immediately, but the momentary glimpse I got of her smiling, flushed face was forever seared on my brain. I think I will remember that look for the rest of my life.
Something tugged on my arm, and then Serena released my hand. I stopped and turned to see the boy that had been sitting in front of us in the movie theatre, the one Serena had called Sammy. He talked to her in an earnest voice. "One of these monsters is real. You can't blitz it with laser guns, and it's got Dad!"
She was shocked. "What!?"
"I'll check it out," I said, adrenaline still pumping from the games we'd been playing. "You stay here," I said to her. "I'll go help your dad."
Her little brother, for that's obviously who he was, looked up at me, sizing me up. It was a touch amusing: now was obviously not the time to inspect your big sister's date! "Come on," he said after a bit, "I'll take you to where my dad is."
I ran through the maze with the kid, and finally we arrived at a relatively large room with an eerily pink light flickering off the ceiling. It didn't take long to figure out that something was amiss-- it was the people, not the holographic monsters, that were glowing! A huge, ugly, insect-like thing was perched in the middle of the floor. From its head sprouted a few nasty-looking tentacles, like strong shoots of hair that could move by themselves. Sprawled all around the creature were limp bodies, each one radiating slightly with that sickly shade of pink-- the same one that lit up the room with its dim glow. Something spurred me to action.
Infuriated, I grabbed the closest object-- my VR backpack-- and hurled it with all my might at the creature. "Back off, hosehead!" I snarled, and it turned, shooting long tentacles out at us. I grabbed Sammy and slammed us both to the ground with all my might as the monster's long arm zipped right over our heads.
The boy on the ground beneath me slowly exhaled, relaxing his tense muscles, and then struggled to get up. My shoulders ached, but I tried too. I heard someone-- Serena's dad, I realized-- call out to Sammy to run.
Slowly, I lifted my face toward the weird creature. It snarled, "You! You're mine!" and before I could move more snakelike tentacles were tearing through the air. I didn't have time to react.
But suddenly the insect recoiled, and good ol' Dad was standing there. He had one fire extinguisher in hand, and had thrown another at the monster. "It's time someone called in the exterminator!" he growled, playing Rambo and spraying the entire area with mist. I shielded my face, trying in vain to see through the fog. Then I heard a shout of surprise, and then the tentacles were around my ankles, and I was being dragged into the center of the room. My arms and legs were held fast. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Serena's little brother and dad were also bound fast. The monster lifted us into the air, rotating us around it like a merry-go-round. I struggled, but felt weak suddenly... as though my energy was being drained from me.
I'm not sure what happened next, but I thought another creature came down and talked to the bug that had us prisoner. And then, suddenly, I was free. I bounced backwards, karate training kicking in, and challenged the creature. As I'd thought-- there was someone else there. Obviously a woman, looking more like an elf, with bright pink hair and a smile that somehow made me feel queasy. In a sharp voice, she teased, "You don't wanna mess with her."
"Sure I do!" I snarled through gritted teeth. The monster swung at me several times, but I dodged, jumping backwards and rolling to my feet. Then, I heard a voice.
"Think I'll crash this party!"
We all turned. You can guess who it was.
At this point, I'd really like to say that I felt something, some glimmer of recognition, some spark of feeling. But I can't. All I saw was a girl in a strange costume, who was talking like a hero but certainly not acting like one. After a few failed moves, she melted into an absolute panic and we began the game of dodge-the-tentacle all over again. A frantic jump, and I came crashing down next to her. "I don't know who you are," I said, annoyed and frustrated at my failure to take down the bug, "but you'd better come up with something super fast!"
"I don't know what to do!" she gasped confusedly, and before I could retort, a flurry of white whistled past my eyes. It took me a moment to register what had just landed a few feet from me. It was... a rose! A white rose embedded right in the floor! I barely had time to gasp, before a new voice toned in, scattering my thoughts.
"Even this delicate flower can strike a deadly blow, for in beauty and love there is great strength." My head snapped up. And again, I didn't feel any strange pangs of recognition-- but perhaps that's more understandable, considering I'd never before met the figure who introduced himself as the Moonlight Knight.
What I did feel was utter disbelief. "Who's this nutball?" I managed to croak out. If I wasn't still concerned about Serena's family, I would have burst out laughing. "The Sheik of Baghdad?"
Turban Boy attacked the monster with an impressive-looking scimitar, and several of its tentacles fell to the ground, hissing green steam. I watched the whole scene with a kind of horrified fascination. It was all so ludicrous, so theatrical, but for some reason my fists were ready to fly. I felt strangely helpless sitting as a spectator. Why did I feel a sense of duty, as if my place was right in the midst of the battle?
Five minutes and four Sailors later, it was over. Two voices called forth, electric yellow air sparkled, and the monster, with a shriek, disappeared. As the victims scrambled to safety, I turned to the group of girl warriors. "Um, someone might explain what's going on here? Who are you all? And what was that... thing?" Just as I finished my sentence, a noise from the tunnel entrance drew my attention, and when I turned back, they were gone. Funny thing, though... in the instant before I looked away, I'm sure I saw strange looks on the five Sailors' faces. Looks of sadness, regret, and something untold...
It was quite a while before I saw Serena or her friends again. But still she popped into my mind at the oddest moments, all bright and bouncy and glowing slightly golden. I saw her behind the glass of a local bake shop selling small round cookies. Her face lingered long after blinding sunlight had yielded to clouds. And the view of the full moon from my apartment was so splendid-- once I thought I was looking in her eyes.
Every time, the odd little thump of my heart shook me out of it. I'd reproach myself for letting my thoughts linger on a girl four years my junior, and go on to other things. Still, Andrew called me on it. "You like someone, don't you?" he said one afternoon over drinks in the Crown Cafe.
I looked up. "Huh?"
Andrew gave me the wickedest grin possible on his chubby, friendly face. "Who is she?" he asked, leaning forward and resting his chin on his hand.
"Who's who?" I stuttered, trying to sound innocent but ending up sounding extremely deliberate.
Leaning back again, Andrew gave a little chuckle. "Fine," he sighed, "I'll play along. But whoever she is, amigo--" he took the straw from his drink and shook it at me-- "she must be something else to get your attention like this. I hope you win her."
I think I betrayed myself and nodded.
One morning, I thought I saw her again. I was jogging when the familiar hairstyle came into view down the road, just behind another girl in a high school uniform. The golden haze behind her head made me chuckle-- it was just my hyperactive imagination after all. I smiled and jogged toward the mirage.
Strangely, it didn't disappear, and I realized that I was looking at the real meatball head after all. Then what was that golden light? To my surprise, I noticed a figure floating several feet above the ground, drawing up some kind of energy from beyond a tall stone wall. Cries of fright reached my ears as I saw the sign on the wall: "10th Street Day Care."
"Someone call an ambulance!!" I cried as soon as I'd finished gaping in shock. I ran up to Serena and her friend. They both nodded urgently, and Serena went running for a phone. The other girl, who was petite with blue-tinted hair, ran towards a young woman clutching a baby beneath her crouched form. I kneeled and tried to comfort several of the small scared children at once. They were no older than 2, most of them babies who were just learning to crawl. Those who could still move grabbed me around the knees, the waist, the arms, crying in utter terror. All the small lives bundled around me made me feel kind of warm. I whispered consolations until the ambulances arrived.
On the way to the hospital, I asked Serena's friend what her name was. She stuttered, as if stunned I didn't know. "My-- my name? It's Ami." I was also surprised to learn that she already knew my name. Did that mean that Serena had talked to her friends about me? I berated myself for thinking about such things in this crisis situation.
We arrived, and everything happened in that hospital way, where the eye is just slightly quicker than the mind. I saw runnings about, heard urgent words, and felt a child lifted from my lap, but all the substance was lost in the hustle. The next thing I knew, we were sitting together in the room of the young woman Ami had run to.
Ami spoke in a soprano lilt, dampened with worry. "Jordan's totally fine, but Jordan's mum's in bad shape. She got it all in the attack and has to stay a while. Problem is, her husband's out of the country on a business trip, so there's no one to take care of Jordan. They just moved here about a month ago, so they don't really know anybody to take care of him. And the nursery here is jammed with all the other kids, so they really need him out of here. Poor little guy has nowhere to go. My mum and I would take him, but she's taking off for a medical conference in Paris, France. I just wish I knew someone who could take care of him." As she talked, I remembered the warmth of those needy hands grabbing me, the quivering eyes and lips, something liquid spilling into my heart...
"I'll take care of him," I said. "Tell the doctors it's taken care of."
Ami looked shocked. "But Darien, are you sure you want the responsibility?" I nodded firmly, but the truth is, the moment the words slipped out of my mouth, I was scared to death. What did I know about taking care of a baby, anyway? I tried to think back to the days of the orphanage, taking care of the younger boys... but a baby? I prayed that the paternal instinct I felt earlier would be something of a guide. Some baby books from the library and a fervent prayer would have to do the rest.
A little later, after the nurse checked Jordan out and arranged the papers, I returned to the nursery to pick him up. Serena followed me there. I didn't realize she was there at first, but I heard a small sigh behind me as I picked up baby Jordan and hugged him to me. I turned to see her standing a few paces from me, a slight smile on her face. In her eyes was some emotion I couldn't place, but knew I liked. Then, just as suddenly, it was gone, and she stuck a hand behind her head, laughing in sudden embarrassment. "Well, c'mon, let's go."
"...Let's?" I stuttered, in shock and mild apprehension. Was I going to let this walking tornado help me with a small child? I mean, I had to worry about Jordan's well-be...
Oh, stop lying to yourself, came the clear and strong inner voice. You're worried that she's going to be in your apartment and you're going to spend time with her, and end up liking her even more than you already do. I tried to argue with myself, but it was futile. Cracking a smile, I looked down at her. "Sure. Let's go."
I wouldn't be caught dead making googly faces with anyone else, you know.
But with Serena there, it didn't seem to matter. We were in my apartment, trying to amuse a baby who just wouldn't be amused. I thought all the muscles in my face were turning to rubber. "Hey, hey, hey, you're a happy baby, yes you are?" No, he wasn't. But we both kept up the goofy faces-- we probably made quite a pair! I wondered what poor hysterical Jordan was thinking.
My head hurt. This was tough work! I felt bad that Serena was staying around. She probably had other things to do. Besides, if she was half as frustrated as I was... "Okay, Meatball Head, you can make tracks anytime," I said. She was surprised. Realizing how nasty that sounded, I clarified. "I'm the one who volunteered for this, so I don't want you to think you have to help." She looked like she was ready to cut and run. But then again, I felt the same way.
She stayed, though, and I thanked my lucky stars for that. As frustrating as it was having a fourteen-year-old baby along with the nine-month-old one, her presence was comforting to me. Just knowing I wasn't alone in this venture was a great relief.
We'd quieted Jordan for a time, but then he started up again. Serena tried (desperately!) to fix him a bottle, but he kept crying and refused it. She began to worry frantically. "Has he got some kind of disease? Maybe it's... measles! Or chicken pox!! O-or whooping cough or tropical flu!!"
Meanwhile, my nose had alerted me to the true reason for Jordan's distress. "Kill the hysterics and hand me a diaper, would ya?"
It went on like that for several more minutes. Once the diaper was on, Jordan started wailing again, and I managed to nip both his and Serena's wailings in the bud with a bottle. I can just imagine what the poor baby was thinking-- this pair's a real brain trust!
Serena was piqued. "I don't get it, Darien. This baby comes along and you are sweet as peppermint. Then you see me, and you're Mister Sour Pickle!"
I muttered, "Just trying to survive Hurricane Serena." Honestly! How could I ever have thought I was interested in her? Milling about, lost in her own little world, then something goes wrong and she's too busy turning on the waterworks to solve the problem. And if I try to pull her out of her fit, she gets mad and stands there with steam coming out her ears, with this really adorable pout and eyes full of fire and...
After some more chaos (and a friendly bet as to whether Jordan would learn to walk or talk first-- I was in favor of the latter), Serena left. I rolled my eyes the minute the door slammed. Muttering some choice phrases about the meatball-headed hurricane, I turned back to Jordan. He was looking up at me with huge eyes, totally calm, as though he'd seen something that stunned him. I blinked.
I awoke the next morning feeling like I had a hangover. Jordan was a restless, lonely baby who missed his mommy a lot, especially at 3 AM. I got up, changed him, and held him, singing in whispered tones:
"and following the moonlight shining in your eyes
two lives collide in one endless dance..."
When he finally quieted, I got back in bed but couldn't sleep. I guess I missed my mother too, and I looked over at the only photo I had of her and my father. The photo that wasn't even a memory, but was all I had left of them. Even with the extra body in the room, my apartment felt huge and lonely and empty.
Sunlight came in a repeated ringing of the doorbell and a girl's voice. "Wake up Darienn! Time to go shopping!" it sang out, probably waking up half the tenants in the building. I stumbled to the door, muttering that if I got evicted tomorrow, it was Serena's fault.
She was in my apartment before I even opened the door all the way. "I dragged myself out of b-- I mean, I jumped out of bed this morning because I knew guys like you sleep in till NOON and I didn't want you to forget that we need to go to the store and get fresh diapers and baby powder and some clothes for the poor kid, since he IS staying with you for a week and we couldn't exactly break into Mrs. Winston's house and get his wardrobe, and I don't think he'd fit into your tuxedos either, so I came over to get you up and out the door! Now I brought a stroller from when my and Sammy were little, because you're a heavy baby to carry all over town, aren't you Jordan?"
Blinking, I realized for the first time that she had got Jordan up, dressed, and in the stroller, all during her breathless monologue. Actually, it was me who had to catch my breath, just watching her go. I had an amusing little image of Serena the wind-up toy-- if you turn the little key enough times, she'll talk and walk for hours straight without running down.
While we were shopping, a voice rang out behind us. "Aw, look at the cute little family! Aren't they adorable." We turned, and for a moment I thought I was seeing double. A pretty young girl in a white dress stood before us, with blue eyes and blonde hair the exact same shade as Serena's. Only this girl wore her hair down, tied back with an orange bow. Next to her stood a tall girl with wavy dark hair and keen eyes. Finally, I recognized the third girl in the group as Serena's friend, Ami. "You make such a cute couple!" the blonde finished.
"I'll give you a couple... of black eyes if you don't stop it, Mina," Serena retorted in annoyance. Thank goodness she was busy waving her fist in the girl's face, and didn't notice my reaction. I think I blushed, or smiled, or a little of both.
As we walked home, Serena told me about her friends. The tall one's name was Lita, and all of them were in the same grade. They really sounded like a choice group-- brains, tomboy, beauty queen, and-- well, and Serena. She stayed to put the stuff away, but then departed with regrets, saying she had to go to "Rei's temple" for a study session. Turns out she was also friends with the girl priestess at the Cherry Hill Temple.
After she left, I repeated all the names one by one. "Serena, Ami, Mina, Lita, Rei." I made mental notes of all of them, then wondered why it was so important to me. Luckily, Jordan's bawling interrupted my contemplation. I laughed and picked him up. "Poor guy," I said. "What's troubling you now, buddy?"
I fixed him a bottle and sat deep in thought while he drank it. It was strange how I felt lonelier after I was with people... it didn't seem to compute. Even when I was with someone, I wasn't letting them in. And when the person left, and the opportunity to let them in was gone-- I felt more alone than ever. Serena was something else, too. Her clutziness, her annoying speeches and wild mood swings-- they melted a bit of the wall I kept so firmly in place. Leaving a crack or two that might very well become a hole. And if that happened, I wouldn't ever be able to keep myself from being hurt again. The thought scared me to death-- but the thought of hardening my heart to Serena, to the new, warm feelings-- scared me too.
A flash of yellow rubber in my face made me look up. Jordan was waving the bottle, only half-empty, in my face. It took me a moment before I realized-- he was offering me some! His red hair bounced as he nodded. Repeating "Bah bah" over and over, he gave me a questioning, encouraging look.
I took the bottle, squeezed a few drops into my mouth as a sign of good faith, and returned it to him. "Thanks, big guy," I said, as I watched him pop it back into his mouth and suck away. "But unlike you, a bottle or a new diaper doesn't always take away my troubles."
I gave him a self-deprecating smile. "She's kind of clutzy. And young," I told him. "But I like her, Jordan, a LOT. And I don't know what to do about it." He blinked those huge pearly eyes at me, and I laughed. "No, I don't understand it either," I said, lifting him up. "C'mon, let's get you in the bath."
I bathed and dressed him in a blue, cute baby suit that we'd bought this morning. The doorbell rang then, and in came Ann! I was very surprised to see the red-haired harpy (horrible name for her, I thought, Darien, you are so harsh sometimes), partly because it'd been a while since we last met, and partly because my address is unlisted-- which meant that Ann had followed me home! "Hey, Darien, it's me," she smiled. "I heard you were on baby duty this week, and I thought, I'd better see if you needed a hand with him. I'm really good with babies, you know." I recognized that tone all too well-- it was the Let's Impress Darien tone of voice. I rolled my eyes. Jordan just plopped himself on the floor and proceeded to happily dismantle a box of tissues.
Ann noticed the miniature snowstorm at her feet, and snatched the box away. "Hey, you stop that!" she scowled, and Jordan began to cry. "Yeah, I know you don't like it, but you can't go messing up Darien's nice clean apartment. So it's time to shut up already!" I was mortified. Really good with babies. Right.
Jordan chose this moment to plant a symphony of smells upon us. Not a bad move, bud, I thought. If I could get away with it, I'd react that way to Ann, too.
I had her change him while I cleaned up the scattered tissues. Luckily, they were right in my hand when Jordan also decided to share his lunch with Ann-- after he'd eaten it! I shrunk in embarrassment and tried to soothe Jordan. Ann took his upset stomach as a personal insult. Her sugar-sweet demeanor vaporized and she roared out of the room. I ran after her. "Ann, wait, don't go, please! I don't want you to be mad."
But I was too late, and Ann was gone. Instead, Serena, who had observed Ann's exit, was standing there, looking rather sad. "You've-- found someone else to help you with Jordan, haven't you? Fine, I-- I'll take off. See ya 'round." She turned to go.
I grabbed her by the wrist. "No, Serena, don't you go too!" I said, aware of the distress in my voice.
She was confused. "What's going on?"
Her wrist was so warm and small inside my hand. No, no time for that, I had a baby to take care of. "Jordan threw up at her and she got unglued."
"What is she, your girlfriend?" Serena had tears in her eyes.
Her wrist was so warm and small inside my hand, and she still had to ask that question? "O-- of course not! What made you think that!?"
What came next was a total revelation. I stood there, shocked, as the words came spilling out of her mouth. "You know, I don't care if she is. I've had it with the way you treat me. You can take care of Jordan by yourself! I'm outta here!" TREAT her? The way I treat her!? Had I behaved that badly? My God, she had no idea how I really felt about her, did she?
But before I could even breathe again, she turned her head, gasping. "Look!"
I did. Jordan was on the other side of the floor, reaching out towards us... and standing straight up! We gasped... and gasped again when he took a step toward us! Laughing in excitement and shock and nervousness for the baby's sake, we both leaned toward him. "I don't believe it!" I beamed.
She said smartly, "You owe me ten bucks, pal."
He took a step-- we held our breath-- then another. Time was an achingly slow-paced parade of smiles and nervous chuckles-- another step-- and another--
--and Jordan sat with a plunk on the floor and proceeded to empty my tissue box again. Someone took someone else's hands, and we laughed and congratulated ourselves and each other. Our voices mingled in the happiest laughter I'd ever heard.
How was it that our hands were still joined, folded over one another? Even as we kept laughing, the moment changed, transmuted itself until it was no longer just about the baby. Now we were thrilling to something else, a rhythm, a spark. Something tangible, and real, and flowing between our interlaced fingers and our locked eyes. I wanted desperately to grab the bouncing, flushed girl before me and pull her closer. If another moment passed between us like this...
But it didn't. "Hey, what's going on?" said a familiar lilt. We turned. Ami was standing in the doorway, smiling pleasantly but with her eyes on our joined hands. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything!"
Serena disengaged herself from me, and I wondered vaguely how Ami knew where I lived. Maybe Serena had told her? "Ami, it was totally amazing. Jordan started to walk!" she shrieked.
"Halfway across the room!" I added enthusiastically, and bent down to help him up again. Ami enthused, and I said, "Hey, Jordan, why don't you show Amy how you can walk?" He was too busy playing with my tissues to care about all the fuss.
All at once, Serena was on her way out. "Sorry, Dar," she said nervously, "we gotta book it. Big report due for biology tomorrow." They said their goodbyes and disappeared out the door.
I looked at the door where she'd been just moments ago. What was that? She sure bolted out the door fast. Did I imagine that odd spark between us? I could have sworn she felt it too. "Hunh," I said.
"Bah bah," said Jordan.
The next day Ms. Winston called. She said she was leaving the hospital that day, and she wanted to take her little boy home. I said we'd be over shortly, and hung up the phone with a sigh. I was going to miss that sympathetic little face. Jordan had probably heard more of my inner thoughts in the past two days than anyone else had all the rest of my life. (Except, maybe, for Fio-- but that's another story for another time.) I'd lowered my walls for the little guy, and I was going to be lonely without him. Perhaps it was time that I reconsidered joining some clubs at school. But for now, I picked up the phone again.
"Hello?" came a warm female voice.
"Hi. Uh, is Serena there?"
"Just a minute." Then, in a singsong soprano followed by a stage whisper: "Seree-na, telllephonne!! ...It sounds like a boy!"
A moment. "Hello?"
"S... Serena?" My words were sticking in my throat all of a sudden. "It's Da..."
"Darien?" A shocked, hushed voice that soon faded into her regular cheery tones. "What's up? More trouble with Jordan? EMS to the rescue, that's Emergency Miss Serena, you know!"
Emergency Meatball Service, I thought. "Not exactly. He's going home today, and I thought you'd... maybe want to come to the hospital to see him off. Since you've... taken such good care of him with me, I thought you ought to be there." I cursed the words for acting so damn scratchy, and wondered how ridiculous I would sound if I ever called to ask her for a date.
"Wow, yeah, I'll be there. Meet you in the hospital lobby, then?" I nodded, forgetting that she couldn't see me over the phone. "Okay," she burbled on. "Laters, Darien!" I heard a click and stood looking at the phone as the dial tone started up again. I pinched myself. Did I really just make that call?
We met in the lobby just seconds before Mrs. Winston came out in her wheelchair. She was very, very happy to see her son again; I was happy for her, but disappointed that my "parenting" days (and days with Serena) were atan end. The two of us kneeled down on both sides of the stroller to give our farewells. Those big eyes looked at me.
"Mee bah hed."
So did she.
And a stroller with a happy child in it wheeled away from two stunned babysitters. We stood up and stared, barely blinking, at the Winston family as they got in the car and rode away.
Serena's jaw was on the floor. "Unbelievable," she said flatly. "He said my name!" As for me, I felt something very good. I missed that baby, but I wasn't lonely, like I thought I'd be. Instead, there was this feeling of sureness, and a knowledge that breaking down some of my inner walls might not be so dangerous after all.
Then, as if lightning had struck us both through, Serena and I grinned and turned to each other in unison. "We're geniuses!" we both cried. "We taught him how to walk AND talk! All... right!" She gave me a high-five and grinned eagerly. I smiled back, no longer hiding the feelings in my eyes.
I was flying high, as if I could do anything. Later that night, I gave Mike a call. "You still want someone to help you with Hamlet?"
I have a terrible urge to name this chapter Darien's Dynamic Directing Debut.
Apparently, Mike's director was upset that he couldn't direct himself in the starring role, and quit. So Mike needed me to tame the Great Dane. I sympathized with Mike on that, until he told me HE was playing Hamlet. The guy actually managed to keep a straight face as he complained about the actors who quit when they learned there wouldn't be auditions for the leading role. I considered telling Mike he was being hypocritical, but figured it wouldn't be worth the effort.
I soon discovered why directors are often so bad-tempered. Mike's next crisis was the money to rent out the Little Theatre. "I spent all the funding on royalties and sets!" he wailed. The sets I understood-- there was a great Gothic castle all set up, complete with a glittering crescent moon-- but royalties on Hamlet? Mike explained it to me later, some crazy business having to do with using the exact revision that was in someone's movie-- but I digress. The point is, I ended up shelling out for the theatre rental, and telling Mike that if the show didn't make enough to cover at least half that cost, I would slice him up and eat him with two eggs for breakfast.
By that time I was really getting in the swing of things as a director. I liked putting things together, fitting puzzle pieces into place-- and when the pieces were characters and actors, the puzzle was that much more challenging. Nothing gave me quite as much of a thrill as cueing the actors during a block. "Now!" I'd shout in a deep voice, turning to the actor and making momentary eye contact. It actually stunned some of them, so much so that they'd have to stammer, "Uh, yeah, right!" before going into their sequences.
I'd stay up nights working through scene problems in my head. Even when I tried to sleep, I'd see little dotted lines, like in cartoons, tracing out possible paths for Polonius. Maybe if he went around stage left, behind Gertrude's bed? But then Hamlet would have to face the other direction so he couldn't see him. But if he moved before bright eyes and a cute smile, full of energy, no Darien, you're thinking about Polonius, not Serena, but imagine that energy radiating into me, wrapped in my arms...
I sat up in bed and frowned. Another night resigned to thinking about her, I guess. I had an odd little image of Serena as Ophelia, and me entering her room with my doublet all unbraced, taking her by the wrist and holding her hard, perusing her face and giving her a sigh so piteous and profound... "Oh my lord, I have been so affrighted!" said meatball-headed Ophelia. Me too, I thought.
Even in her absence, the warmth I felt for her was melting me slowly, driving me closer to madness-- or delicious sanity, I didn't know which. I yielded to it, and let myself fall asleep to the song of dancing blue eyes.
A few days later, it all began to hit the fan. Gertrude got pneumonia and had to stay in bed for three weeks, so I pulled Jo from the company to take her place. Then Ophelia tore into me for that. "I'm the second lead. I should have seniority!" she raged. I tried to tell her that she'd already learned all of Ophelia's lines and was doing a great job there. Besides, she was a little 4'9" slip of a girl! I needed someone taller and more imposing as the Queen. While we were debating that, Laertes sprained his wrist and was suddenly incapable of swordfighting with Hamlet. Rosencrantz broke up with his girlfriend and fell into a deep depression, Claudius decided he couldn't understand Shakesperean language, and Guildenstern failed a final exam. One by one, the storm of "I quit"s washed over me. Before you could say "to be or not to be," my play was not to be.
Mike took me aside one morning after class. "Darien, buddy," he said, patting me on the shoulder like a priest comforting a condemned man. "I'm really sorry about what happened to your play."
"MY play? Are you implying..." I began in shock.
"It's a damn shame," he went on, shaking his head. "It's a good thing we were able to get money back for the royalties, but the theatre and sets I'm unable to do anything about." He started inching away from me at this point. "The Little Theatre called me up, by the way, and wanted to know whether or not we were going to be there after all. I gave them your name and number. 'Bye!" He dashed around the corner so fast, all I saw was a cloud of dust. I was still standing there, utterly frozen and feeling nothing except for a sudden ache in my wallet.
That afternoon, I did something that I'd never, ever admit to: I whimpered. The great Darien laid his head in his hands, slumped over the back of the Sailor V game, and whimpered in utter defeat. "I can't believe this!" I cried, as Andrew and Lizzie stood by solemnly. "He won't even help me pay the theatre back! Now I'm stuck with a theatre, a set, and no play! Why me?"
"Hmm," came an unfamiliar voice close to me. I lifted up my head, and noticed who was standing on the other side of the Sailor V game. At the controls was a dark-haired girl in the uniform of a private school. I soon recognized her as Rei Hino, the priestess friend of Serena's. I immediately recognized her two friends, Lita and Mina, from that encounter a few weeks ago.
"Ya know, Darien," she said, winking and giving me an "OK" sign, "I may be able to help you out."
Lizzie set down the drinks methodically, with the air of an army general. She leaned over, reaching across the table to put down Mina's drink... and stayed there. The girls began to sweat under the force of Lizzie's stare. Embarrassed grins crept onto their faces. I had to clear my throat and say, "Thanks, Lizzie," before she realized she'd been standing there, bent over by the waist and scrutinizing the three girls, for a full minute.
She turned to me, blushed beet red, stammered, "You're welcome," and retreated to the corner, where she proceeded to give Andrew her full espionage report. They whispered not-soft-enough to each other about which-one-of-these-girls-was-the-one-I-liked-so-much. I bit my lip and tried hard to ignore them.
Meanwhile, Rei continued her speech. "Now most of the plays my grandpa has are... well, not exactly high drama. But he does have a big collection of children's plays, and I think we could find something there that's really fun."
"And I'll ask everyone if they'll pitch in," enthused Lita. "A kid's play sounds like a great idea, because we're not exactly professionals--" at this Mina cleared her throat meaningfully-- "but we should be able to swing it, dontcha think, guys?"
"...It's worth a shot," I said, feeling some enthusiasm for the first time in days, but not daring to jinx myself by showing it. "All right then. When do you want to meet?"
"We'll get everybody together and meet you outside the Little Theatre tomorrow afternoon," smiled Rei. "How's three? Okay, great, we'll see you then!" And all three girls promptly filed out of the booth, disappearing, and leaving me to pay their checks. Good grief.
Three in the afternoon outside the Little Theatre, as promised. And as promised, a veritable stormcloud of teenagers came bustling down the block. A red-haired girl I didn't recognize and a bespectacled boy, Ann (who waved enthusiastically at me and then hung back for some reason, fiddling with something in her hand), and all five of the girls I now thought of as Serena & Co. Everyone waved and giggled their way down the street.
Serena looked beautiful, I thought, and immediately wanted to shoot myself. Where did I get this stuff? She looked the same as she always did. She looked... beautiful. I felt like the biggest sap. I yelled at myself inside. But my eyes persisted in looking at her, and she persisted stubbornly in looking beautiful. I tried to address the whole group, but ended up talking directly to her. "Well, what do you think, Serena? Do you think you want to be in my play?"
"I sure do! I think it'd be a major blast!" she gushed, and I wondered dimly if I could ever capture a bigger place in her heart than she had for everything in life. She loved sunshine, ice cream, sleep... I didn't just want to be a part of that list. How would I know, in the face of such bubbly enthusiasm, if she loved me (or anyone) that little bit more?
Rei had suggested Snow White as our new play, and no sooner did I agree then a full-blown battle broke out among the girls for the title role. My optimism was dampened by the clash of heads, and I prayed that I wasn't doomed for failure in the theatrical world. I tried to remind the chorus of starlets about the other roles, but it was like talking to a wall. "This is exactly what happened with Hamlet." I groaned. "Everyone had to play the lead or nothing at all."
Somehow they managed to sort things out. Ann won the coveted role, while Serena, appropriately enough, got the part of her rival. The others (including tall, lanky Lita) sulkily stepped into the shoes of the seven dwarves. (Well, six dwarves. but who's counting?)
We began rehearsals, and I found the junior high kids to be more enthusiastic, less self-absorbed, and quicker to learn than the college students I'd struggled with. It was a breeze. Almost immediately, I began to look forward to those afternoon sessions. I acted as director, stage manager, Prince Charming, and Grand High Poohbah; and somehow we all managed to work together in a way that felt almost natural. There were a few snags: the short boy, Melvin, borrowed itchy animal costumes for the dwarves; and Ann got a little too enthused about her kiss (Ann! You are supposed to be ASLEEP!); but on the whole, things went great. We had only a week and a bit to rehearse, but we made more progress than the entire cast of Hamlet.
Ann was surprisingly helpful. One night she asked to walk home with me. "I think we should get to know each other better, since our characters are supposed to be so close". I rolled my eyes as usual at her flirtation, but once we got outside, she stretched and smiled infectiously. "Night air feels good, doesn't it?" she sighed. She sounded just like a child who was just discovering the joys of an evening breeze. I wondered briefly if that was true.
"I'm almost out of energy," she babbled. "But I'll get some more, soon as I get home."
I looked at her, wrinkling my brow.
"I mean..." she added, "can't get by on no sleep, right?" She laughed, slightly nervously, then turned her head upward to look at me. "Say, Darien? Is it okay if I get to rehearsal a little early tomorrow? I have a block free and I'd like to organize the props once and for all. We can't have Serena asking a sock who's the fairest of them all again, can we?"
I laughed. "No, I guess not. Ann?" I heard myself add, and she made a surprised noise. "You really care about this play, don't you?"
She paused, standing still in the street. "...Yeah," she said, as if just realizing it herself. "I do."
We threw some ideas back and forth for the rest of the walk home, and she came up with some pretty decent stuff. In between brainstorms, we discussed her love for karaoke and my knowledge of motorcycles. We found that we both shared an interest in gardening, but that her brother, Alan, had the real green thumb in the family, and he was mostly interested in trees, where my forte was flowers. When we got to her place, an apartment in a complex similar to mine, she paused as if waiting for a kiss, then blushed as her brother came to the door. Finally, she just gave me a friendly hug and headed inside.
"Ann," I grabbed her hand just as she was about to go. She blushed, very surprised.
"Thanks for all your help with the show," I said, grinning. "It's going to be a big success."
Another confused pause, and I could have sworn Ann turned pale for a minute. Had she seen a ghost? Or were compliments that foreign to her?
"Thanks," she stuttered. "G'night." And the door shut.
I whistled as I walked home. Imagine that. Someone I was dead set on disliking, who always gave me bad vibes, was turning out to be okay. I wondered whose fault that was. Were my defenses that far down? Or was Ann coming out of her own protective shell? Maybe it was a little of both. In any case, I was glad she got the part. It seemed to agree with her.
As I fumbled for my apartment key, though, a thought struck me. What if things HAD turned out differently? What if Ann had ended up as the wicked queen? I guess that would leave Serena as Snow White, I thought. Well then, what would it be like to kiss Serena?
I thought of nothing else all night.
It was the day before opening and we were having a marathon rehearsal. Everyone was working hard, getting used to the sets and costumes and lights, and we were running through for the second time. Snow White ran through the forest, screaming and looking terrified. I was watching from back stage in my itchy Prince's robe, when Ann suddenly doubled over. A collective gasp rose up as she collapsed, breathing hot, hurried breaths, sweating, and looking almost unnaturally flushed. We all ran to surround her in a semicircle.
"I'll-- be-- okay," she coughed, waving us away with a long, sweeping arm. "Just-- let me-- get some air!" She stumbled into the wings and out the double doors that led into the hallway. We all stood frozen for a moment, then I walked briskly after her. I peeked out into the hallway... and there was no sign of her.
I panicked. Without our lead we couldn't continue with the play. What if she got sick? Then all my hard work... struggling with Hamlet, then putting this new show together at the last minute... would be for nothing! I gritted my teeth and clutched the doorknob convulsively. Behind me, I heard Serena say, "Let's take fifteen or twenty minutes off, guys." I turned slowly, and six heads nodded in unison. Turning back, I left the auditorium and headed outside.
Serena bumbled along beside me, a concerned yet weightless presence I could just barely feel. Together we walked down a block, listening to the sounds of light traffic and noisy birds. When I sighed, she broke the silence. "You know what you could use? A shake at the cafe."
I thought about the last time I was in a booth with members of the opposite sex. No, Andrew's inspections were not for me. Suddenly remembering something, I lifted my head and smiled. "I have a better idea," I said as I motioned for her to follow me. "Come on."
We headed across the street, to a grassy area on the outskirts of McKenna park. Maybe half the view was highway, but it was shady, and I leaned against a tree, reaching into the folds of my funny costume. Finally, my fingers found what I knew was there. I brandished two chocolate chip cookies with a wink and a smile.
Her eyes shimmered with delight, and she grabbed BOTH of them! My stomach whimpered in despair, but then I laughed. She bit into one cookie, then the other, and grinned "Yummy!" through each bite. I felt a little light-headed watching her devour my dinner in five swift bites, but I suppose she enjoyed it enough for both of us.
I lay forward in the cool grass, resting my chin on my hands. "You're doing a really good job," I remarked.
She smiled and blushed a little. "Thanks."
"So," I drawled, feeling ten times more relaxed. "What does Serena do when she's not casting evil spells on Ann or playing the Sailor V game?"
"...Same as anyone, I guess," she shrugged. "Hang out with my friends, read comics, eat, sleep."
She shook her head vigorously, still flushed.
She giggled hysterically. "Never!"
"No exciting adventures?"
I sat up again. She continued to hesitate, looking strangely sad. Finally, she looked up at me, and smiled. "I'm just a normal teenager, really," she said, but I thought I saw a half a tear slide out from under her eyelashes at the words.
"Yeah!" she went on, a grin on her face that went from forced to genuine and back again. "Same as everyone else. I take care of my friends, don't take care of my grades, and daydream a lot. What about you?"
"Me too," I said. "That is, I daydream a lot too."
"Really?" she said, and opened her eyes wide. "About what?"
About you. "Stuff. Mostly my past." I was about to explain to her, when somehow, I got the feeling that she already knew. I was reminded of that first night I saw her, when I couldn't concentrate the next day, wondering if she was somehow part of those lost years.
She was leaning forward, looking up at me. We were both kneeling under a tree, the wind playing a song on one side and horns honking on the other. I saw the answer to a question in her eyes, but I didn't know which question or what the answer could be. "That's funny," I heard her say softly, in an almost awed tone. "I always dream about the future."
I think her hand was touching mine.
A blare of horns and a blast of exhaust from a gigantic truck broke the moment, and we both coughed. "Yecch!" she said, making a face. I agreed with a disgusted noise of my own. Suddenly, she was freaking out again. "Ohmygosh we're gonna be late! C'mon Darien we gotta GO!"
"Go where?" I was still trying to figure out where I was!
"Back to rehearsal! Duh!" She was halfway across the street already, twin ponytails darting through traffic. I leapt forward, shouting a warning. But by then, she was on the opposite sidewalk, and it was I who was dodging fenders. After a perilous dash across the street, I caught up with the wailing blonde. "Always always late for everything! Why do I ever go anywhere?" I had a hard enough time keeping up with her, and couldn't get breath enough to remind her that the rehearsal would have to wait for us anyway. But who would dare interrupt the Queen in the midst of one of her royal panic attacks? Not I... besides, I had the sudden certainty that if I were to stop her, it would be by catching her by the waist and wrapping her up with arms and whispered words. And I would never be able to let her go again.
There is a lot that happened next, stuff I don't really want or need to explain. Suffice it to say that despite Ann's quick recovery, our big performance didn't exactly go off as planned. Strangely enough, the crowd loved it. Or at least, they loved whatever they saw out there, since we never even made it on stage!
I made my way to the lobby of the Little Theatre and stood in the midst of the departing throng, trying to fit the pieces together. Kids filed past me, jabbering about Sailor Scouts and a monster clown of some sort. But their babble wasn't much help, and I gave up with a sigh. All that work. All those hours, and I don't even remember the moment it all was for. Why was it that everything I wanted most in life seemed to vanish from my memory? I felt like a shadow in a wooden frame, and stiffly steered myself away from the accursed theatre.
Somehow I found myself on that patch of grass again, staring idly at the passing cars. I picked up a small pebble and threw it into the road. It disappeared into a cloud of dust kicked up by thick rubber tires. Vaguely, I wondered if there was a stone big enough that it wouldn't be eaten up by rushing traffic.
There was sunlight on my back, I thought dimly. But the sun was setting in front of me, and I couldn't feel its warmth through my shell of wood. That's when I realized it wasn't actual sunlight, but the glowing presence of a person. Serena. I knew it was her without even looking. "I'm sorry your play didn't work out," she said, sounding hesitant.
I shrugged silently, my back still to her. But I felt one of my wooden supports crack slightly, as if under pressure.
"Ann was upset too. You didn't see, but she left even before you did, and she wouldn't talk to anyone."
Crack! There went another one.
She sat down beside me, but I couldn't get the Darien puppet to turn his head and look at her. I was still so stiff inside.
"I feel kind of sorry for her, actually," she continued. "I mean, we were talking the other day about how lonely she's gotta be. This play meant a lot to her."
Crack! Inside me, a huge beam splintered, and liquid poured in.
"Hah hah!" She suddenly leaned back and laughed. "Bet you're surprised to hear that one. Me? Feel sorry for Ann? Like, even!"
I finally turned my head. The remains of my rigid framework fragmented and dissolved. And as she laughed, I felt even the metallic mask of my face become fluid, allowing emotions to seep into its crevices and peek out from behind my eyes. She looked up at me and took a breath in. I imagine that at that moment, she saw everything I was feeling. All the hurt, the loneliness, the feelings I fought back so often I never even thought to name them. I was being read like a beloved book, with my paragraphs all present for Serena to explore, dust flying off the old, ripped pages that had been shut on the shelf for so long. I was free and vulnerable. My eyes began to water.
And then, the searching glance was gone, and everything was different again. My heartbeat sped and deepened to where my chest could no longer contain it, and my pulse leapt to my throat. Serena's head was leaning against my chest, her arms wrapped around my waist. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I know you were lonely too. I wish it had gone better for you. I'm sorry." A tiny tear stained my shirt.
Then it was all over again, and she was getting up and walking away with a pleasant wave and a bright smile. "Well, I'll see you around, Darien! Bye bye!" The sunset flashed red light off a car window and into my eyes. When my vision cleared, she was gone.
I didn't move for another half hour. I just kept replaying it in my head. How she plunged against me, her warmth so suddenly apparent... After the shock wore off, I rubbed my eyes and exhaled loudly. Could I recapture that moment again? I was sure it had vanished already, lost along with all my most precious memories.
It hadn't. I felt my arms fill with light. Blonde hairs tickling my chin, whisperings with a puff of breath against my shirt-- all as real as the actual encounter had been. My mind replayed it again, stretching it out, willing Serena to remain next to me for a full ten seconds longer. And the question I'd asked myself earlier returned to me: Was there anything in my life I could hold dear, that wouldn't disappear into the void of lost memories and missed moments? What could I be sure of? What could I count on? What was true?
Serena was the answer. Serena was alive and real, was always there. She was as sure and honest as truth itself, with her array of funny faces and embarrassing escapades, but an unwavering smile in her eyes. If the sun rose tomorrow, surely Serena was bouncing along, getting into scrapes and jabbering with her friends. And if she was bouncing along tomorrow, surely the sun would rise. Serena was my answer. And I loved her. I loved her. I loved her.
The next several days were magic. I thought I would explode with energy. My problems were gone, I had all the answers, I was on top. Wake up in the morning, think of Serena. Go to class, remember the smell of her hair. Trip on a stray soda can, recall a time when she did the same. A lot less gracefully though, with a multitude of agonized faces and a shrieking wail-- birds had fled the surrounding trees. I'd covered my ears. It was an awful noise. I loved her.
It had been a wonderful day. I had run into Ann in a bookstore and seen Serena at lunch. Granted, Ann had steered me away, but I did get a glimpse of her, ecstatically engrossed in her sandwich. Later, I glided into the Crown arcade, humming like the automatic doors. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Andrew and Lizzie, a matched pair of gaping faces. Their frozen expressions tickled me immensely. A girl slammed another quarter into the Sailor V game and hurled several curses at the digital demons, so I patted her on the shoulder and told her to do her best. She blushed, and as I walked away, I heard the "Game Over" music reprimand her for not paying attention. It made me chuckle.
Eventually, Andrew broke out of his shocked coma, and caught up with me. "Darien!" he shouted, laying a hand on my shoulder as if he were telling a dog to "stay". "Man, somebody got up on the right side of the bed this morning! What's going on, pal?" I remained silent, a sly smile creeping across my face.
He tried to guess. "Play a big success?"
"The play was a disaster," I said in a serious tone, smiling broadly, enjoying confusing him.
He tried desperately to fit the two conflicting expressions together, and failed miserably. "Get a big promotion?"
I continued to grin, saying in a deadpan voice, "No. I'm really short on cash these days, too."
But by then, Andrew had figured it out. "It's that girl, isn't it?" He snapped his fingers and pointed at me with a knowing smile. I smiled back.
"It IS her?"
I kept on smiling.
"Something good happened?"
The look on his face was classic.
"You and she are together now?"
Everything came to a screeching halt.
Fairview Park had been through a rough time over the past several months. There had been some talk of an office building replacing the green paths and renowned flower gardens. Equipment had been brought in. Even though the park's head gardener, Harold Baxter, had stopped the project with a massive public support campaign, the bulldozers had already tore up some trees, leaving quite a bit of damage. But the havoc wreaked by those machines was nothing compared to the abuse these paths were getting today.
I stormed every which way, kicking up dust clouds and clods of earth. Even the occasional wildflower perished under my angry feet. The sky was neon yellow with sunset... almost unnaturally so. Gentle breezes curved around the leaves in a soft, airy caress. But I was not feeling gentle.
It wasn't enough! A single moment had left me so transformed, so deliriously in love, that I hadn't cared. It hadn't even occurred to me. But now I knew better. It wasn't enough... that memory, the knowledge that I loved her, the fondness of the familiar past. I wanted the future. With all the uncertainties and hesitations it might bring... the very stuff I'd been running from for years, I now needed desperately. It was the oddest feeling-- that I'd been turned upside down, that all my thoughts were backwards. It seemed so illogical, and so obvious all at once. All I needed was to hear it suggested from Andrew, and I felt as if it had always been true. I wanted to be with Serena. I didn't just want memories-- I wanted a present and a future with her by my side. I wanted her to love me, too.
How was I going to do it? Stupid question. I ask her out, of course. I tell her how I feel. Everyone knows the answer to that question... we've all given advice to a lovelorn friend at one time or another. But it never seems half so simple when the tables are turned. And the idea of talking to Serena, much less telling her my feelings, seemed so much more complicated now than ever. How to wave, whether to say "Hi" or "Hello," whether to look in her eyes or pretend to be looking past her... these were the most difficult questions I had ever pondered! I stopped short, laughed at myself for being so ridiculous, and continued. A man on a mission, in a haze of thoroughly enjoyable frustration, tearing up the paths of Fairview Park.
After a while, I decided to take notes on other couples. There were certainly enough of them in the park on such a beautiful afternoon. I took a seat on the rim of a large fountain and let the sights and sounds trickle in. A burly man with glasses blushed visibly as a young woman with her dark hair in a braid talked; someone said "Darr-ling!" and someone else said "honey"; two teenagers chased each other around, hurling insults and filling the air with electricity; an old man and woman walked slowly together, holding hands, only partly for support. I smiled, noticing things I never would have noticed before this week.
Snatches of conversation reached my ears. Most prominent was the voice of a red-haired young woman, complaining to a hapless dark-haired young man whose arm she held in a death grip. "I tell you, Robert, one of these days my students are going to drive me crazy!" she whined. "And now this Ann Granger girl is absent aGAIN. It's the second day in a row for her, and I'm absolutely sure she's not sick. And her brother Alan, too. Who knows what those two are up to..."
No mistake-- it had to be the Ann I knew! As poor Robert tried to ease the troubled teacher's mind, I rose to my feet. Had she been that broken up about the play? Or was there something else going on? In any case, I thought I should check up on her.
After buying some flowers from a nearby cart, I set out for Ann's apartment. Like Serena had said, she always seemed kind of lonely, and it would give her some cheer to know a friend was looking out for her. Not to mention that it would take my mind off my dilemma for a while. Might be nice thinking about something besides Sere...
Guess who was standing outside the entrance to Ann's apartment building.
I was walking too fast to stop now, and the old familiar habits slid back on like a favorite suit. "Hey, how ya doin', Meatball Head," I said, immediately kicking myself for using that nickname.
She didn't seem to mind. "Oh! Hi, Darien! Who are the flowers for?"
Although still self-conscious, I felt at ease in Serena's presence. My tense muscles relaxed, and I explained, "Someone up there. Just doing a good deed, you know, visiting a sick friend and all that."
"She's not really sick, you know, she's faking it," she said, and then added something in a whiny tone that I could barely understand. I laughed. "C'mon Serena, don't be jealous. She helped me with the play and everything, remember?"
As I started walking towards the door again, she gave me some spooky "Don't go into that apartment!" fairy tale. I assumed she was trying to keep me away from Ann again, and brushed the comment off. Did that mean she was jealous? That she did like me? I just couldn't tell! When the elevator doors closed, I let out a heavy sigh. Love was stressful!
Ann's face was exactly what I needed to see. "Huh? You came all this way with these beautiful flowers... just to see me?" Whenever Ann was happy, she seemed just like a kid who was discovering joy and friendship for the first time. She'd literally start to glow. So much so, that she even invited Serena in, when she showed up right behind me.
The four of us sat together on Alan and Ann's couches. It was strangely tense and silent for a few moments. Then Alan brought a tray of wonderful little pastries over to the coffee table, and Serena immediately dove right in, breaking the ice. She made little annoying satisfied noises as she stuffed her face, and I laughed embarrassedly. "Well, she sure likes your food."
"Why don't you two leave us alone for a little girl chat?" Ann suggested. "You could show Darien the view from the balcony. It's spectacular."
I was mildly surprised at this, but glad Ann was starting to reach out for some girlfriends. Alan and I wandered out to the balcony, where we stood in uncomfortable silence, watching the sinking sun dip Tokyo windows in blue-tinted honey light.
"You're interested in Serena, aren't you?" I heard myself ask, rather more bluntly than I would have chosen to put it.
He blushed, perhaps at the idea of revealing such personal information, but I got the distinct sense that he was ashamed. As if there was something wrong with him liking her. What could it be? I wondered. Perhaps Alan and Ann aren't brother and sister after all... but no, that couldn't be it. They were too young.
Finally, he countered my question with a question of his own. "How about you and Ann? I know she's got a ridiculous crush on you. What's going on with that?"
My ego reeled. Ridiculous, to like me? Ouch! "Well, your sister's a very nice girl and all..." I looked back briefly through the sliding glass door at the two girls, who were inching their way toward a door. "But I really don't think anything's going to happen in that department." He seemed relatively relieved, though still somewhat suspicious of me.
There was another moment of silence. Alan and I stared at each other.
Then, boldly, I turned my head and gave him a sidelong glance. "But I gotta warn you," I said slowly, "You better expect some competition where Serena's concerned."
Alan was about to respond, but then my whole world turned upside down.
There was a deep rumbling that shook the whole building, and a yawning noise not unlike a cry of pain. We rushed back inside to an empty room. I panicked. "Where's Serena gone??" Then-- and it all happened so fast that I can't recall all the details-- through the door, the one Serena and Ann had been moving towards, shot four huge green tentacles. The door fell to pieces, plaster shattering all over the room. Then, more of the fingers-- roots, I realized later-- broke through the wall, and again, punching holes and wrapping the floor of the room in endless folds. The entire wall shattered, and the ceiling too, huge scraps of metal and plaster falling into the abyss and disappearing. The roots kept growing, shooting out like angry arrows.
The apartment was no more, and as I looked up, I realized I was beneath a giant tree-- huge green and grey leaves, each as tall as a person, hung on gigantic branches; roots stretched down to envelop the entire apartment building; and long snaky tendrils curving around the trunk of their own free will. And one of them had Serena!
She was screaming and screaming, held in a boa constrictor squeeze by one of the tree's moving roots. "Serena!!" I cried desperately. She looked so helpless, suspended up there, glowing slightly, crying out in pain and panic. Her cries were what convinced me this was real, that I wasn't dreaming or in some bad B movie. Serena was in real danger, and I had to save her! I rushed toward the tree, dodging a strange creature of some sort that came crashing down next to me. Vaguely, I sensed Alan beside me, calling Ann's name. I could tell he was changing, becoming some other creature, and with crystal clarity I recalled the attack in the VR game and the monster that zapped those babies. Alan and Ann weren't who they seemed to be. They were some kind of monster, something extremely evil. But monsters and rivals didn't matter. Even my own safety didn't matter. I HAD to save her-- I couldn't bear life without her! Focused, I kept dodging tentacles and moving toward the base of the mighty trunk.
Suddenly, I felt my running feet leave the ground, and I pounded on air for a few minutes before I realized the tree had grabbed me too. A huge root had wrapped itself around my waist. The sky was darker, or was it the tree? My vision was blurry. I sensed, somehow, that the vine holding me was draining my energy, as well. My strength ebbed. My whole body shouted for me to go limp, to succumb, to stop trying... I wanted so badly to just pass out...
...but Serena was still crying out. My Serena, my heart! Her pain was impossibly hard to watch. I summoned as much strength as I could and put it all into my left arm. "Serena! Give me your hand!!" I shouted, reaching out for her.
She put her arm out too, reaching upwards toward my hand, but we were too far apart. I tried to wriggle out of the tendril's grasp, anything, just let me get to her! She cried out with the exertion. We both stretched a little farther... our fingers almost touched, but then fell short again. I felt so weak. She sobbed, "I can't!"
Her hopeless look tore me to shreds. "Come on!" I cried. "I know we can do it!" We, Serena, I prayed inside. You and me, together. Trust me, come on! I will save you if you let me! Please, look at me and see how much I care about you!
I looked at her face, full of determination again, but so pained. My heart felt like it was going to shatter. I reached harder and farther. My arm felt like it was going to leave its socket. My eyes were overflowing with tears. Serena! I just had to reach her...
...and I did. Two of our fingers caught, interlaced, and fumbled for a better grip. Strength flowed through me in huge warm waves. The beginnings of a smile lit her face, and mine. "Oh, Darien," she whimpered in relief.
But then something struck my hands, and her grip slipped away from mine. I looked up. It was Alan, but not the pale blond Alan I knew. He was hovering in midair, and had kicked our fingers apart with a blue boot. His skin and hair were blue, and he somehow reminded me of a mean-spirited elf.
"Why did you bring us here?" Serena demanded, her voice dampened with pain and desperation.
Alan was still looking down at me. "Keep your crummy hands away from her, you hear me?" he said coldly.
"Alan!" said a familiar shrewish voice. It was Ann, who had transformed into a pink creature similar to Alan. She was hovering below us, near a huge, broken-off piece of apartment wall. "You've got no right to talk to Darien like that!"
"So, you finally admit you like the guy," Alan said. I tried to turn to Serena, but my energy level was too low. My eyelids felt so heavy. I managed to open one eye and look down at her. She looked how I felt... utterly drained and terrified. There seemed to be no voice inside me all of a sudden, and as the two aliens (or monsters, or whatever they were) argued in front of the tree, I mouthed a pitiful "Sorry" to her. Then my strength was gone, and I lay limp in the arms of the clinging vine. My eyes were slits, but I could just barely see Alan and Ann bickering below. They were telling the tree... the "Doom Tree," they called it... to drain our energy, but Ann wanted to drain Serena, whereas Alan wanted me out of the picture. My poor befuddled brain just drank this all in, to be sorted out later. All I could think at that moment was, it was so dark...
Then a huge light poured forth, and the green arm holding me started to squeeze tightly. I felt everything inside me collapse, a cry coming forth that I knew was mine, but I didn't feel myself shouting. I didn't feel anything. I was only dimly aware of sensations. A voice near me-- Ann's?-- shouted "Let him go! You heard me, now let him go!" It hurt... everything was gone inside me, I was hollow and dying... and then I was falling. It was black and I was falling. Something, no, someONE caught me. Someone else was talking, a new voice. Two new voices. Three new voices. The person next to me disappeared. My head was resting against rock. Were there fireworks in the sky? Then there was nothing.
Heavy. Like a weight, huge and grey and unmoving. The cloud over me, or maybe the body I was inhabiting. Why couldn't I open my eyes? Why couldn't I hear anything, either? The whole landscape behind my closed eyelids was dark. No, there was an orange sun rising in the east. A person. Next to me. Serena. Yellow slants of feeling illuminated the horizon. My head was raised slightly. Her hand was beneath it, supporting this lump of a body. I could feel the pressure of it against my neck. I tried desperately to move, but succeeded only in groaning. It wasn't until her fingers interlaced with mine that I realized I had lifted my hand to meet hers.
Sunshine danced on the edges of the field now, but I still couldn't move. Her fingers weren't bare. No, she had gloves on. Why was that? I felt a searing pain rip through my spine. I was lifted from the floor, and fell down hard against stone rubble. The orange glow of her body's presence was gone. But her hand was still in mine. And because of that, the birds were starting to sing. My mind awoke as if to a pleasant early morning.
I started to hear other voices. Alan and Ann, arguing. The new voices from before. They sounded familiar. Serena released my grip, and I heard her footsteps running. The voices screamed, Serena screamed, and I could tell from her voice that she was coming back toward me, as if she'd been pushed. Pain tore me through-- her pain. She was hurting. I called to myself in frustration. Help her! WAKE UP!
A blurry face slowly sharpened in front of my bleary eyes. Thank God, my body was finally listening to my commands! Despite the weakness in my limbs, I forced myself to stir, and the figure in front of me came into focus. "It's me, Darien," it said. I saw the gleam of a golden tiara. "Sailor Moon."
And it was as if I had never forgotten.
"Meat-- ball-- head?" I said. It took all my strength to force the breath from my lungs.
She was crying. "That's right. Do you finally remember us? Oh Darien, do you remember... about the Moon Princess?"
My Moon Princess. The girl who had haunted my dreams for months. The champion of justice whom I'd saved a million times as Tuxedo Mask, and who had saved me in far more perilous times. And my Serena. The wacky girl whose crazy antics and sincere smiles made me fall head over heels in love with her. Of course they were the same person. How could I have ever thought they weren't? And how could I have ever felt anything but safe and joyful with her by my side? Had there really been weeks when I had felt indifferent toward her, ready to blow my top at her, nervous about how to approach her? I knew in my head there had, but my heart couldn't remember them. I had always felt, and would always feel, completely at peace when I was with her. Sailor Moon, Princess Serenity, my Serena. She was my love. "Yes," I whispered, looking joyfully into those huge blue eyes. "My sweet."
"We'll be together again, I promise," she said, choking through her tears. My own tears flowed freely, too. "Just like you were there for me, Darien. I'll fight to protect our kingdom, so we can be as happy and peaceful now as we were then." As she spoke, I felt strength return to me. Each tearful, healing word brought me back to myself, and back to the truth that was us. I sat up slowly. She sobbed her question again, scared to believe that it was real. "Do you remember?"
I squeezed her hands tight, smiling. "Yes. I remember everything."
"KNOCK IT OFF!" squealed Ann's high-pitched, annoyed voice. The scenery went white, and I grasped Sailor Moon's hand as tight as I could, feeling Ann's blasts scorch my body again and again. Time after time I was thrown into the air with the force of the attacks, and I could hear Sailor Moon's cries mingled with my own.
Finally our grip was severed, and I went flying backwards, hitting a cold slab of concrete. Her body followed mine, but she got up immediately. Every inch of me throbbed and stung. I felt as if I was missing some vital part of me, something that would give me the courage to get up and protect her. The same something that enabled me to transform to Tuxedo Mask. Those powers seemed foreign; I couldn't grasp them. As it was, all I could do was yell "Don't!" as she stood in front of me, taking the full brunt of each blast.
Between explosions and the painful pulsing of my head, I could hear Sailor Moon and the two enemies having an angry exchange. I looked up at the pair, both of whom were still hovering in midair, far above us. Alan looked doubtful, almost moved. But Ann was furious. She was glowing neon pink, shouting and sneering. "Renounce your love for Darien and I might spare you," she snorted at Sailor Moon.
"Your love for Darien..." The mind of the thousand-year-old prince melded with the mind of the inexperienced nineteen-year-old boy. And it occurred to me, I didn't know how Serena... this Serena, not the princess from the past.. felt about me. Things could have changed. After all the time we spent apart, and all the time I showed her only an evil face-- how did I know she wasn't just protecting an innocent person, or a friend? What was I, this Darien in this life, to her, the Serena of the present? My heart made an odd little jump.
The next few words I heard made me feel stronger and more alive than I'd ever felt. "Never! I'll never renounce my feelings," she cried. "True love can't be taken away by anyone."
All I could think was: "She loves me!"
Ann giggled maniacally. "You're a sentimental fool, but I can make you change your mind in a flash, Romeo." I was on my feet and in front of Sailor Moon in a heartbeat, and crossed my arms in front of my face as Ann's white-hot blasts of energy hit. We were both blown backwards, but I protected Sailor Moon with my body, looking up defiantly at the enraged creature.
It hurt. I didn't care. I heard the protests of a worried warrior behind me, but by the power of the Earth, I was going to protect her! I took another blast, which left me raggedly breathing and barely conscious. Then, the white ball of power zoomed toward me again, hitting me squarely in the chest. I screamed as everything went white, then black. If only I had the courage to protect her!!
I felt an eternity had passed. And I had sensed the presence of great pain and great power. But as I awoke and stumbled to my feet, I wasn't sure where I was or what was happening.
It was very quiet. The sun was rising. We must have been there for hours. But the sun was a full half-circle in the eastern sky, and the whole horizon stretched unbroken around us... the tree was gone! Only a strangely sweet smell hung in the air where it had been. At the same time, I had the distinct feeling that it was not dead, that it had been lifted from its ancient shell and was alive, somewhere else, somewhere close by.
So the crisis was over. I looked around. Alan was crouched on the ground, holding Ann-- who, I realized with horror, was dead. Blood seeped from the corner of her mouth, and her eyes were shut tight. Alan was unmoving, although his eyes were half-open and he was breathing... it was as if he was in a trance. The expression of grief on his face warned me not to disturb him. Then I saw Sailor Moon. She seemed to be in a similar trance. Unmoving, she kneeled on the floor, near a huge graying root. I recalled my last thought before I lost consciousness. Had I protected her?
I felt a smile crawl to my face. As I reached deep inside myself, I recognized the presence of a new power, or the old powers I'd once held, perhaps a little of both. I had a sudden vision of white robes floating somewhere near my soul, then joining with it. I closed my eyes and drank in the sensation. Certainty filled me. I was whole once more.
"Sailor Moon," I called, looking down at her. No answer. "Sailor Moon." That time, she blinked and stirred, as if waking from a dream. "Are you there? Sailor Moon!"
She drew in a breath and opened her eyes wide, looking up at me. Already she seemed like she was about to cry. "Is... is that really you?" she asked in a tremulous voice.
Relief and joy flooded through me. "Sure is," I said, smiling, at a loss for words, not even sure what I was saying. But was I ever glad to be saying it! "And it sure is good to be back, Meatball Head."
Tears started falling again from her sparkling eyes. But I didn't feel like crying. I wanted to run through town like a madman, to pick a million flowers, to watch her play every game in the arcade and to try every one myself, to jump into the lake or just to take a rowboat out there, to learn how to fly. We were together. Everything was fine.
As always, she knew what I was thinking, and echoed my own thoughts back to me. "Darien, I can't believe it. It's so perfect! Everything's okay!" Before she even finished, her arms were around my waist again, gentle sobs shaking softly against my chest. "I was so afraid I'd lose you again!"
I put my arms around her, closing my eyes, so I could just BE with her for a few moments. Our arms, wrapped tight around each other, encircled the world.
A voice sounded behind us. "Ann!" We turned, still holding each other, and saw Alan staring down at his beloved's body with hesitant hope. He repeated her name, and we realized that her body was glowing, color returning to the pale pink cheeks. She stirred and her eyes slitted open.
"A-- Alan?" Her voice, still the same voice, but changed and sweet somehow. I didn't know what was going on, but my hands on Sailor Moon's waist let me peer a bit into her mind. I could tell that there had been a great healing, and that two more minds were now open to the truths of love.
"You're back!" he said in a shaky voice. "You came back! Ann!"
In the most sincere tone I'd ever heard from her, she said, "I wouldn't leave you."
In my arms, Sailor Moon started. I followed her gaze to a small sapling, hovering just above the cracked floor. "Oh, look, the tree! It's come back to life!" Her voice was drenched with emotion, and I felt how exhausted she was. I held her as tight as possible, giving her back the strength she'd given me that past night, and doubling it with fierce joy.
I was back in the arms of my love, where I belonged. The girl I was destined to be with forever was the girl I had loved for today, and the puzzle pieces finally fit into place. Everything was as it used to be... but no, that wasn't true. Everything was new, even what I'd known before. We'd had new adventures, and we'd fallen in love again. Now, those experiences were part of us, just as our memories of the past were. I was Prince Endymion, I was Tuxedo Mask, but I was also Darien. I fell in love with a beautiful princess on the moon, and I fell in love with her again on the streets of my hometown. We were two lovers who'd found each other for the first time-- again. And once more, we stood at the beginning of forever.
Ann and Alan rejoiced, two pairs of eyes and minds sparkling at the thought of their second chance. "They've been healed," murmured Sailor Moon, and I sighed an agreement. As the two flew off into the sunrise with their new home, she said softly, "Got a feeling-- I think they're gonna make it this time." I knew they would.
The entire blue expanse of the sky stretched before our eager eyes, filled with rebirth and happiness. Life twinkled from every tower and brilliance bounced off each pane of glass. In the open air, I felt the huge city resonate with the clear tones of my soul. It was a true, glorious, morning.
Wow! So I'm finally done with this monster 'fic that I promised months ago.
I pray it lives up to your expectations, because I've worked so hard on it,
I really want my work to have paid off! As always, your comments and
suggestions are welcomed... while I think I want to put this story on a
pedestal and never touch it again, I will certainly take your suggestions into
account for future 'fics.
Geesh! I feel like my reason to live has been stolen from me now! :-)
There are a number of people whom I need to thank. First of all, people who
don't know they've contributed:
the incomparable Toby Proctor, whose terrific performance allowed me
the smallest peek at the person inside the easygoing Darien, and who can yell
"Serena!" like nobody's business.
Ditto Terri Hawkes-- while direction and scripting didn't allow her
to take Serena to the next level of high drama, she definitely put all she had
into what she had to work with. Hack dub or no hack dub, there were some A+
voice talents there.
Nikki Purvis-- yeah, Nikki, despite yourself, you have contributed
to a pro-Darien 'fic! :P :) See if you can find the place where I steal a
phrase from your Top 100 list.
Austin Loomis, aka Pajama Specs, for his English lyrics to Moonlight
Densetsu, which I used in one of the chapters. I now consider those THE
official lyrics, Austin-chan. See you in Net.Tokyo!
And people whose support and enthusiasm helped me reach this day (geez, it's
not like I just won an Oscar or anything. Get off the podium, Jen-chan!)
I wish I kept a list of names, but this thank you goes to all the
people who wrote saying, "I loved First Kiss. When's Darien's View going to
happen?" I thank you all for your patience, and I hope you know that you have
really kept me working. Knowing that there was an audience out there waiting,
gave me incentive to work harder and to get this finished. Thank you.
Similarly, all the visitors to the Tuxedo Mask Shrine. The loyal
Darien fan base... This 'fic is debuting along with a major revision to the
Shrine, HUNDREDS more pictures. A little extra gift for all my Tux-loving
Finally, people who have been editors, readers, and helpers. Actually, there
are only two, since I kept the status of this so hush-hush. But they deserve
an extra thanks for being so helpful and working with me when I was in a
writer's block pinch. And that would be:
Pandora and Myrna, the incredible Waldron clan. Thank you, oneechan
and future daughter, for all your good advice, loyal Darien worship, and
excellent friendship over the few months we've known each other. You both
mean more to me than I can say.
All right! I'm done talking already! Goooooodnight, everybody!!
"Darien's View" is a Sailor Moon fanfic by Jennifer A. Wand, completed
September 25, 1997. Sailor Moon and all related characters, names, etc. are
copyright Naoko Takeuchi, Bandai, Kodansha, and a bunch of other people whose
names I will add if they threaten to sue me. See you on the Sailor Side!