Disclaimer: Incontrovertibly not mine.
A/N: Yet another one from As Deep as the Sky that went beyond the time limit. The idea of that ficlet collection is you put your music play-list on random and have to write a fanfic based on whatever song pops up, but you only have the duration of that song in which to write it. Since I didn't follow the rules and spent far longer than just three minutes on this one, I decided to upload it separately.
I'll admit that the final image in this fic is the first one that occurred to me when the thunderclap kicked in at the start of this song. The rest just grew around that image.
A Story of Scars
© Scribbler, September 2008.
I used have a little bit of a plan,
Used to have a concept of where I stand;
But that concept slipped right out of my hand.
Now I don't really even know who I am.
You turned your back
And walked away in shame.
All you got is a memory of pain.
Nothing makes sense so you stare at the ground.
I hear your voice in my head when no one's around.
-- From Believe Me by Fort Minor.
There were days when Valon wished the police hadn't pulled him out of the fire. He'd struggled at the time, trying to fight off their well-meaning but unwanted hands. They thought him just a hysterical kid, which he was, but he was also completely aware of what was going on. He didn't fade out of reality the way other hysterical people did, so when the roof beams groaned and the steeple finally collapsed he was fully, horribly conscious that he was watching the death of his entire world.
The flames stole his home from him. They also left him hospitalised for weeks, wrapped in bandages and lathered in salve, before authorities bunged him into a care home in Edogawa. He was morose and untalkative, even to the therapist who came in once a week to talk to traumatised kids like him. She tried to weasel his inner thoughts out of him, but Valon remained tight-lipped. He didn't want to talk to this woman, with her manicured nails and the neat chignon she'd tugged at to make herself look more windswept and approachable.
"C'mon, Valon," she chided, shortening her words and often dropping slang into their one-sided conversations to say 'look, I'm not an out of touch adult, you really can speak to me'. "You need to talk about this. It's not healthy to keep everything inside."
Valon didn't even waste his breath telling her to get lost. It wasn't that she was insensitive or unkind. She wasn't. That was just it. She wasn't anything to him. Nobody was in that place – not the attendants, not the other kids, not the prospective foster families who came to visit and looked at him like they were picking out a new pet. He didn't want any of them, nice or not, for the simple reason that they weren't Sister Mary Catherine.
Because the flames had taken far more from him than just his home. He had no family; had never really gelled with friendship as a concept. He was too busy wondering what the world wanted from him and getting his punches in before it could.
But not with Sister Mary Catherine; never with her. She was the first person to treat him like he was actually worth something. Before her he'd been nothing but a thuggish kid who talked with his fists and could only process one thought at a time. After she died and her church burned to the ground he was a bitter kid who screamed with his fists and grieved the only way he knew how – by kicking the shit out of anyone who crossed his path.
He was different after the fire; not just physically but mentally. He'd failed to protect what was most precious to him. That thought haunted his every waking moment, and followed him into his nightmares.
Eventually his words came back, and he stopped just staring at the walls, but with them came a biting rage that threatened to consume him. Anger etched his every move, making his knuckles sharper, his gaze fiercer, and filling his mind with a desire to get back at a world that had never given him anything good without taking it away again just as fast. He became hostile towards anyone who tried to show him kindness, as if possessed by a mixture of resentment – that they were trying to take Sister Mary Catherine's place – and an undernourished idea that if they were just going to leave him alone anyway, what was the point of accepting them?
Other kids took exception to the way he looked down on them and straight through them at the same time. They challenged, learned better, and then avoided him. Foster parents sent him back within days. He was still technically a minor, but the adult look in his eyes unnerved people even when he wasn't trying to punch them – when they were pretending his scars didn't exist, that was.
The scars weren't the worst part, but they were still a constant reminder of just how much he'd failed and lost. Livid purple and red, they indented one half of his nose, puckered the lower left half of his jaw and stretched across almost all his neck and back. He showered instead of bathed, and for a long time, even after the skin was less sensitive, he couldn't bring himself to touch the damaged places without a towel or washcloth to keep his fingers for registering what they were. In winter he took to wearing scarves and pulling them almost entirely over his face. Even in summer he flipped the collar of his coat high and glared out over it.
As he grew up and was thrust out into the world to fend for himself, he replayed that last night over and over in his mind. He wondered what might've happened if he'd followed his gut and gone after the guys who set the fire, instead of pushing his way past the police and throwing himself into the flames, trying to save a part of his life that already finished. Probably things wouldn't be much better for him, but at least people wouldn't look at him and flinch – or if they did then at least they'd flinch because he was dangerous, not because he was pitiful.
He fell into Duel Monsters by accident, when one foster family already had a son of Valon's age who was really into the game. Valon was sulky and refused to talk to any of them, but he learned a lot from observing the boy-who-would-be-his-brother-yeah-right. When he returned to the care home afterwards, Valon mugged some younger kids for their cards and distracted himself from memories, nightmares and what-ifs by filling his mind with strategy and rules instead. It was a good tactic, and served him well when he set to finding himself gainful employment and failed at that as well.
Well, he thought as he checked into a hostel with his few meagre belongings, at least I'm good at a children's card game. Even his internal monologue dripped with sarcasm, but that didn't stop him getting out his cards, laying them on the grubby bed and arranging and rearranging them long into the night. He liked to study their images, imagining a million and one scenarios in which things could have been different, if only he'd had powers like the monsters they showed. It was a silly pastime, but it kept him from going mad.
"This isn't what Sister Mary Catherine would've wanted for you," the chignon-therapist had said the last time she saw him. Valon stared back at her. He'd never bothered to learn her name, he realised, though he'd known her for four years. Fourteen years old and he'd decided he didn't need anyone. Eighteen and it was as true as anything else in his life.
"Maybe," he'd replied, the first words he'd ever said directly to the therapist woman. "But she's dead, isn't she?"
And so Valon went on slinking around on the periphery of life, watching everything and telling himself he needed nothing and nobody. He had himself and that was all he needed, placing one card over another and then starting again, reorganising his deck at three in the morning to keep the dream-flames away.
Apparently others in his position – jobless, homeless and seeking some sort of release – thought the same. Valon never even knew there was such a thing as an underground Duel Monsters circuit, where people played for higher stakes than just the thrill of victory. 'Elaborate death trap' became more than just a clichéd line for James Bond movies, but they suited Valon's devil-may-care attitude, and when he won the money was great. Anybody who ended up in those matches was too far gone to care about anything except the ephemeral thrills they could get to remind themselves they were alive. When the crowds weren't baying for blood it was a cheerless and depressing place to be.
Valon rose quickly, long nights spent honing his skills coming into play on the field. People bet on him, on his recognisable scarred face and the dangerous glint in his eyes. They thought he was merciless, and so did he. After all, he didn't care about anything or anyone, right?
But apparently Valon wasn't as far gone as he thought. He fell out of favour when he refused to carry through and kill some kid who'd wandered into the pits and got completely out of his depth. His friends cowered on the sidelines, watching him tremble as his life points shrank to nothing and Valon's bloody victory loomed. Valon pulled his last card and was about to lay it out when one of the kids watching tried to break into the wire cage that surrounded the duellists.
"Let me go, let me go!" she screamed. "I have to get him out! He can't die – I won't let this happen! Kousei! Kousei!"
She was yanked back, but her screams stayed Valon's hand. Wrong gender, wrong name, but the words were so familiar they made him feel sick.
"Let go of me! Let me go! I have to get them out! I have to save them! I was meant to be inside, not out here. She can't die – I won't let this happen! Sister!"
Valon shook his head, remembering how he'd felt so proud of himself for shimmying down the drainpipe to go looking for the thugs who'd threatened the church that morning. Sister Mary Catherine would never know, he'd thought, unwilling to let them go unpunished for scaring her.
She'd been more than scared when they bypassed Valon's inept searching and set the church and the orphanage beside it on fire. She'd been terrified. Valon still heard her screams in his head whenever he let his attention wander.
The disgruntled crowd might have killed him if he hadn't fought his way out. They wanted blood – wanted vengeance and didn't care who paid the price so they could feel they weren't really at the very bottom of the heap. He saw the gaggle of kids sneaking away in the confusion. He felt nothing for any of them.
The final straw came when he'd been on the streets for a while, his temperament and lack of marketable skills (except duelling) preventing him from having a job for more than a few months at best. Duel Monsters had taken him from city to city chasing matches and prize money. Now he found himself hitchhiking back to Edogawa, trekking familiar streets and standing in front of the brand new church they'd built on the skeleton of the old one.
Suddenly he understood how descendants felt when idiots built malls over ancient burial grounds.
It looked nothing like it used to, and somehow that was a huge insult. It was like they were trying to forget the tragedy that had happened there, the way Valon never could. There were no scars on the area. The debris had long since been cleared away, the soot washed off and the memories of dead nuns, teens and babies cleansed from everyone's minds.
Valon punched the walls so hard his knuckles were just gore and bone, and then ran away when someone called the cops. He left ugly red smears on the stonework, but not even those were enough to remind people. It rained that night, washing away his blood and chilling him to the bone as he lurked in an alley nearby.
Nobody remembers, he thought desperately. Nobody cares. It's been driving me ad for years, and nobody fucking cares.
He'd lived for years with this raw pain, never easing or healing because he'd never allowed it to, and nobody even remembered. He was the only one who gave a damn, probably who'd ever given a damn, and who was he, really? Some no-hoper bum – exactly the kind of person Sister Mary Catherine had tried to stop him becoming. And he'd become it anyway. Worse, he'd done it in her name.
And nobody even remembered.
He slid into a heap, nestled amidst bulging, smelly black plastic garbage bags from a Curry House and Chinese Takeaway. It was his lowest ebb, and he genuinely wished he'd died that night too, instead of sneaking out and congratulating himself on being somewhere else when the only family he'd ever had burned and watched their own flesh melt off their bones.
Valon hung his head.
Then, like some strange belated angel, she emerged out of the shadows and held out her hand towards him. For a second he thought she really was an angel – Sister Mary Catherine, come to get him so he could be with her the way he should've been ten years earlier.
But it wasn't Sister. It was someone else entirely.
The woman offered him a place in an organisation dedicated to making sure tragedies like his didn't happen, told him she understood his pain, and despite his urge to send her away as a crazy idiot, he was caught by the look in her eyes. She didn't look like the crazies who regularly hassled him for money or more when he was sleeping in doorways. He'd seen that kind of despair overlaid by toughness all too often before – whenever he looked in a mirror, in fact.
"Just give it a chance," she said. "My boss helped me when I needed it most. He sent someone to come get me, just like he sent me to get you tonight. It may sound ridiculous, but he's not just some crackpot with a god complex." Between the fingers of her other hand she twirled a green Duel Monsters card that Valon had never seen before, even in illegal fights. "He knows what he's doing, believe me."
And beaten so far down he had to look up to tie his shoelaces, Valon did believe her. "Who are you?" he asked suspiciously.
The rain was so heavy it nearly drowned out her voice, but Valon could read lips when there were only four syllables involved. "My name is Mai."