There never seemed to be enough food. It was always a scramble to find something to eat and once he had it, to hold onto it. It was hard and he was just scrounging out enough sustenance to survive. Someone had cared for him once, he knew. He hadn't always been hungry. He had memories, deeply buried and cherished, of a time when he'd gone to bed each night with a full belly -- a full belly, warm arms around him and a soft lullaby in his ears. Now, he had none of those things. He had an empty belly, no arms to keep him safe and protected… and no melody, no sounds of any kind. The same accident which had robbed him of the first two had also robbed him of the third. And trying to scrounge food without it… well, it wasn't easy. So, he went hungry a lot.
People didn't like to see a beggar child. It made them uncomfortable, uneasy, reminded them that there but for the grace of the Protectorate went they. It was uncommon in this day and age to see a beggar child, too. Children were scooped up by the local orphanages long before they had time to start running wild on the streets. But he was smarter than that -- smart enough to not get caught. He had to be. He'd had to survive too many disadvantages to be otherwise.
It was hard, though, to be on his own like this. Food really was scarce for everyone, not just for wild beggar children. And even by being small and canny and thinking far outside the box of the five senses to get by, he still went to bed with his only lullaby being the sound of his growling stomach on far too many nights. It made him think… maybe it wouldn't be so bad, living in an orphanage. He could hide the fact that he couldn't hear, somehow he'd always managed it. It would be harder at an orphanage, but somehow he'd do it. He had faith.
Funny that… faith. He didn't know why he had it or what he had it in… but he did have it. Maybe it was faith in a better life, faith that there would someday be more to his existence than this day-to-day struggle for survival… faith that someday there would be another set of arms to hold him and a new lullaby to fall asleep to. That faith was as much a part of him as his lost hearing, his knobby knees, his brown hair and his ever-growling stomach. It sprang from some deep part of him, crystal clear and bright like the great falls of water he saw sometimes in his dreams. And that faith… it had a voice. He couldn't understand it yet, not completely, but he somehow knew he would in time. It had started speaking to him on the day he lost his hearing and the longer and harder he listened in the stillness, the more he thought he understood. And that unnamed voice wouldn't let him give in for long, even on the dreariest of days. It sang to him then, strange songs, alien songs… hauntingly beautiful songs. And even on those terrible days, that was often enough.
Lately, the voice had been tempting him, prompting him to take risks he might not otherwise take. But his faith was unshakeable. It had to be. It was all he had to keep him going. He didn't dare let it go. So, he kept his faith and continued to follow the sounds of the only voice he could still hear.
Several months ago, he had followed the voice to an old, broken down skateball arena. It was far outside the walls of the nearest orphanage -- nearly far enough from the tent city he currently called home to be unable to reach it without supplies. There were caves nearby, though, shelter from the sun, and he'd lived enough days without water and food to be well used to its lack for the short time he was usually there. He'd explored the caves first -- old mine shafts, nothing of true value left behind. They'd been stripped long ago of anything useful and held no interest for him. Once he'd ascertained that, he'd turned his attention to what he truly wanted to explore… the skateball arena.
He didn't know how the game was played, knew only that it was played in the orphanages and that great skill in it brought great prestige, special privileges… food, water. He saw the teams out here, sometimes, practicing outside the walls, even holding unsanctioned matches. He'd learned their symbols by heart, could recognize all of the teams who practiced here by their equipment and colors alone. And as he watched, he realized that his inner voice, the source of his faith… it was clearer, here. He could make out words, sometimes, though it was like listening through static. The voice whispered names to him: the Sandhawks, the Desert Furies, the Sidewinders, the Diamondbacks. He came to know them all.
On one such visit, he'd emerged from the caves to find the arena deserted. But… it was practice day. The voice had said… how could it be wrong? It had never been wrong before! Heart sinking and faith shaken, he sat down heavily behind the upper guard rails. A day and a half's travel to get there and a day and a half's travel to get back, with barely enough water to wet the insides of his mouth a few times along the way… and now he had nothing to show for it. He dropped his head onto the railing and fought the desire to weep. Weeping would do him no good, would in fact do him harm, lose him water that he could ill-afford to lose. But the dashed hopes of his waylaid fantasy escape were almost too much to bear and it was too late to start back tonight anyway. He had no choice but to hole up for the night and hope for the best. Resolutely, he curled up in a tight ball to conserve heat for the night and told himself to go to sleep. He would manage it because he had to, because he had no choice. It wouldn't be the first time he'd gone to bed hungry and disappointed.
Once he'd drifted off, he began to dream of those long forgotten arms, those long forgotten lullabies. The dreams happened more often on those nights he slept out at the arena. They came easier, in more detail. In fact, he could almost feel the vibrations of a true song on the wind… a real lullaby. The feeling, the sound, was so tangible, he awoke half-expecting to feel those arms wrapped around him and gently rocking.
There were no arms.
…but there was a lullaby.
A young girl, barely into her early womanhood, stood in the center of the skateball arena, braced easily on her stick, skates in a haphazard brake position to keep her stable. She had a dark cloud of hair, wild, uncontrolled and free. Her eyes were dark, too, deep and unfathomable as they gazed off into the distance, seeing sights only she could see. He could see her throat work as she sang her song and the wistful, yearning expression on her face as she did was so painful to see that it had wrung a tear from him before he could think to stop it. And as much as it pained him to see it, he would gladly have given his sight in trade if he could have heard the song which caused it.
When she finished her song, another skated out of the shadows to join her. He was taller, maybe a little older, but not by much. He had dark hair, too, but not as dark, not as wild. His eyes, though… Where her eyes were dark, his were water blue, piercing and clear. The boy held his arms open and the girl skated into them as they folded around her.
He was seeing his long lost memories played out in new patterns right before his eyes. He wanted that. He wanted it with a yearning so strong it wrung another unexpected tear from him. They didn't stay long, the boy and the girl, but the impact of this one visit had already been felt. He wanted what they had. He wanted it enough to risk capture, to risk death… to risk his freedom for a song and a hug, for the simple connection of human kindness. The next day, he left the caves and walked back to the road, only this time, he turned in the opposite direction. The voice prompted him to turn towards the orphanage, instead, to follow the promise of that song, of those strong, comforting arms. Faith fully restored after last night, he didn't question it.
The Warden was surprised, he might almost have said shocked, at his appearance. Children simply did not wander up to the orphanages and wait to be taken in. It just wasn't done. He knew that, hoped to curry favor by putting up no sign of resistance. He'd need all the favor he could get until he found the pair from last night. He was given a number designation, a place to sleep, and the dubious pleasure of providing his own name, if the expectant look on the face of the Warden was any indication. It was a pleasure he declined. He couldn't have spoken his name if he'd wanted, wasn't even sure he remembered it. The Warden simply smiled sadly at his silence, patted him on the shoulder and sent him on his way, no doubt figuring that he would tell him when he was ready.
He kept to himself, faded into the background as he'd learned to do on the streets. Food was more plentiful here, if strictly controlled, but that didn't always mean he went to bed on a full stomach. One thing he hadn't counted on was that the older boys and girls would take advantage of someone weaker if they could, would steal a smaller boy's ration for themselves if it wasn't well guarded. He learned to snatch up his food and bolt it down quickly in the beginning, preferring to suffer a bout of indigestion than another night of no digestion at all. It wasn't always that simple, though. It was hard to stay alert, to stay aware, to keep everyone from figuring out the secret of his lost hearing and to look for his missing singer at the same time. He was bound to slip up, eventually. And he did.
Another blue-eyed boy -- this one with hair as fair as the desert sand -- started harassing him, picking at him, stealing his food, his water… and the adults did nothing. They simply smiled and turned the other cheek, letting the strongest prey on the weakest. It was the way of the world and honestly, it wouldn't have even occurred to him to complain about it… if not for the other bigger boy who intervened on his behalf.
This one was big, as big as the adults, and built for strength, too. He was like a small mountain from a smaller boy's point of view. And he didn't understand this bigger boy at all. He could have ruled the orphanage with that strength, had even the fair-haired tyrant eating out of his hand. Instead, he chose to use his size to protect, to shield… to help. It was a concept so foreign to him that it made no sense. That didn't mean he was above taking advantage, though. He stuck near the bigger boy whenever mealtime permitted, found that having a protector meant that he didn't go hungry nearly as often as before. As a system, it worked… except for one thing he hadn't counted on. Being around him so much, eventually even a gentle giant like his new protector was bound to figure out that he couldn't hear. And he did.
Rather than turn him in, however, he smiled, reassured him as much as he could that he would still be protected, even now. He was less than sure about it, though, when his secret-keeper betrayed that secret at the first opportunity. Still, he kept faith. That inner voice was quiet again, back to mumbling indistinctly, but he still got the distinct impression that things were moving along according to some great plan. He accepted it even unsure as he was.
The first new boy was as dark as his protector was light. But even though his skin, his hair, his eyes, were dark… his disposition was bright like the rays of the sun. He all but radiated that positive energy to everyone around him. And he was quick. Even though he was smaller, he and the bigger boy were a good match. No one stole his food, for sure! Between the two of them, the boy ate well, safe and protected from all comers.
Several days later, the two brought him to the attention of a third boy. This boy was tall, too, but lanky like a smaller boy. He hadn't grown into his height, yet and it made him awkward. In every other respect but one, he was average. Average… but twitchy. But what fascinated the smaller boy the most was that this boy… he was blind. Oh, not completely, he was pretty sure, but he needed the assistance of a special frame on his face to see -- glasses, they were called. Without them, he was as blind as the smaller boy was deaf. He wondered if the blind boy had his own special brand of faith to help him along through his trials. He found himself almost hoping that he did.
It wasn't until nearly a month later that he had that hope confirmed. The newest boy came to them, excited and sure of himself for the first time since they had met. He held in his hands a slim metal headband with two circles attached. It was a strange, alien device and he didn't want to go near it, didn't understand what it could possibly be for, but again, that inner voice prompted him to trust, to accept the gift. The blind boy smiled as reassuringly as he could -- not very -- and lowered the strange device over his ears.
The sudden cacophony of sounds after years spent in dead silence was confusing, terrifying and he let out a cry and flung the device from his head in a panic, then quickly fled. It had just been too much. In that one brief instant of restored hearing, he'd been assailed by hundreds of noises, only a few of which he recognized, most he did not. He stayed hidden that day and the next, didn't even come out for mealtimes. If that overwhelming confusion, that sense of drowning in sound, was the price he paid to have his hearing back… he wasn't sure it was a price he was ready to pay. He liked his silence, he understood it, could function in it.
It took nearly a week before the voice weakened his resolve enough to prompt him to return to his newfound friends. The giant was hurt, he could tell. He'd thought he was doing something good, something that would be appreciated, by bringing him to these other two boys and he'd been repaid by being snubbed, abandoned. It was wrong, no matter why he'd done it, but he didn't know what to do to make it right.
The blind boy stayed as far away from him as possible, seemed to be pretending that he didn't exist. He was hurt, too, but he showed it differently. In him, it looked like anger… and maybe it was. His brand of faith was different… his faith was in his intelligence, in his brains. There wasn't much he didn't know or couldn't figure out. He'd seen a problem in the boy and had fixed it, then was snubbed as a reward. He was just as hurt as the gentle giant.
It was the dark bright boy, though, who finally gave them back their uneasy peace. With a piece of paper and a pencil, he carefully wrote down two words and thanks to the education the Protectorate provided all in the orphanage, he could now read them. The two words were "Trust" and "Faith." Well… maybe he could. It was the same thing that the voice wanted from him -- trust in the plan and faith in himself and the voice. Well… maybe he could trust these newfound friends, too. He took the electronic ears and fled the room, only pausing long enough to scribble down the words "Thanks" and "Sorry" on the paper. The others accepted that and let him go.
It was days before he worked up the courage to try the ears again, weeks before he could stand to leave them over his ears for longer than a minute… nearly a year before he could bring himself to wear them full time. And his favorite place to experiment with them was the old arena. It was quieter there, more natural, fewer sounds to relearn or learn anew. Sometimes his three friends came with him, more often than not, though, he was alone. Not many would risk the punishment of digging trenches just for a jaunt outside the walls. But for he who still remembered being free, for he who had given up his freedom as a deliberate choice and in the hope of something better, he could no more stay cooped up inside the walls than he could hear without help.
As fortune favors the brave and the foolish, though, these actions were soon rewarded. Two years to the day of when he first saw the girl singing in this arena… he saw her again. Her hair was just as wild, her eyes just as dark and full of promise, but her body had filled out, acquired curves it hadn't had before. This was no longer a girl on the cusp of womanhood. This was now a young woman. And when she opened her mouth to sing, this time, he found himself moving the electronic ears into place without even being aware of doing so. And the song… the song was as gorgeous as he'd ever hoped it would be. It was haunting, breathtaking and so, so sad. It was the song of someone alone and friendless in a strange place, someone yearning for somewhere she can belong. It was a song which spoke directly to his young, lonely heart and he was down in the arena and in her arms before he was even aware of moving.
She held him without a qualm, her voice a soothing murmur of sound, not threatening or overwhelming in the least. In fact, he was so wrapped up in her mere presence that he'd even forgotten the electronic ears in that moment. They didn't matter. Nothing else mattered but the feel of those warm, protective arms around him and the fading vibration of the song in his new ears. The other voice was silent. It didn't need to say anything more. It had already accomplished its end -- somehow he knew that.
When he finally pulled back to look into those eyes -- still the color of midnight -- they'd acquired a companion set of ocean blue. It was the same boy he'd seen with her two years ago, also filling out the promise in his one-time lanky frame. He had skated up to join them sometime during the embrace and was now looking expectantly at him for an explanation. He could give none. Speech was still too new.
His three protectors skated down then, ready to take on the newcomers in a battle if need be, but he somehow knew it wouldn't. That faith again, speaking its piece. That had been what this was all about, this one moment… bringing these five together. Somehow… they six would change the world. For right now, though, he was far more concerned with the girl who still had one arm loosely wrapped around his shoulders. She dropped down to one knee to face him, smiled and said simply, "My name is Terra. What's yours, sweetheart?"
And as he stared into the depths of those dark, dark eyes, the song working its gentle magic on his memory… he suddenly knew. He settled back into her arms and murmured, "Daniel. My name… it's Daniel." Then, belly full, warm arms around him and that haunting melody in his ears… Daniel leaned against Terra and smiled. Terra's ocean-eyed friend was strong, more than a match even for Daniel's giant, but somehow just as gentle. And Terra… Terra was someone special. She would be the salvation of all of them, the voice said. Content in the knowledge that he'd finally done as he was meant, Daniel snuggled into Terra's arms and let the gentle murmur of those five older voices wash over him. Whatever tomorrow would bring, they would face it together.