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One time in the evening, in the darkness, while they lie in the bed and on the floor and stare at the ceiling and pretend to sleep -- one time and only one, Walker asks him a question.

If they made you take sides... Where would you go?

There has been another close call that very day. Link cannot sleep for the adrenaline. Walker cannot sleep for the sheer terror creeping through his bones, the sensation crawling under his skin, the knowledge that everything marking him as "himself" is slowly being stripped away to leave only a conveniently vacant husk for rent.

If Link listens closely, he imagines he can almost hear Walker's heart beating, as he watches those lips move in the dark. Beating timidly, feeble and fluttering with all the other pent-up words he will not allow himself to voice.

Where would you go?

But they both know what he must inevitably say in reply; so he merely sighs as if this is all some great inconvenience, turning over underneath his blankets to face the opposite wall.

Go to sleep, Walker. It is nothing you need dwell on.

The truth is, though, in his heart of hearts -- a secret he guards obsessively against all comers, against enemies and superiors, against Walker, against himself---

He doesn't know the answer to that question.

 

 

The little boy is four and doesn't know his name, doesn't know much of anything except cold and rubbish and alley cats, running from children bigger than him, eating food when it's in his hands and not a second later.

He likes to sit in the pews at the parish because it's warmer than outside, and if he's quiet the big people don't give him dirty looks, and sometimes the acolytes have bread for him after Mass. He learned how to say the Lord's Prayer, even though the words are long and hard and he doesn't understand what they mean -- but he likes the old kindly priest with his generous smile, and thinks it would not be so bad to be like him; if the priest can say such long hard things, he wants to know how to do the same. So he watches the movements of the man's mouth and he learns, day by day, syllable by syllable, whenever he can spare a moment to come in. He recites it to himself on the street so he won't forget; he curls up in a pew sometimes and murmurs it over and over, especially on winter days, when somehow the words feel warmer than the icy wind outside.

"A talented boy," someone says to him one day in the midst of his recital, looking down on him in his empty pew from far above. It is a tall, tall, square-shaped stranger, with eyes that look like daggers: sharp and full of power, afraid of nothing.

The boy meets his eyes, and decides that he likes this man.

"Did you learn that all on your own?" The dagger-man accepts his wordless nod with a thoughtful look, stroking his chin. "How old are you?"

But he doesn't wait for an answer, fumbling around the pockets of his fancy coat with a frown that the boy does not quite understand, finally pulling out a little paper-wrapped parcel. He opens it up carefully to extract a small, perfect marvel that the young boy has been privileged to see only a few times in his life: a chocolate-chip cookie.

"Ah, but tell me, young man..." A moment later he finds the treat laid carefully in his hands, and Malcom C. Rouvelier smiles at him faintly, the dagger-eyes softened by crinkled crow's feet.

"Do you like sweets?"


At some point his duty has become not just to guard the world from Walker, but to guard Walker from himself.

Timcampy has gone flying through a window and there is glass scattered over the floor tiles, mingled with the same blood that stains Link's hands. He can feel them trembling faintly as he presses gauze against Walker's torso, stretching bandages around the angry, throbbing red wound, a new scar to join the one already there -- not quite so deep this time, but nonetheless full of rage for it. His hands are trembling and Walker's body shakes to match him, eyes ablaze not with silver or gold but with platinum, fixed to the floor and full of hate. For Link, for himself, for the invader. For merciless Time that would see him destroyed by inches.

"I can get it out," he whispers, voice shaking as deeply as the rest of him.

"I'm an Exorcist. I can exorcise. I will rip him out. I will cut him out. I can."

Walker is nothing if not stubborn. Full of will, purpose, drive. A dreamer of dreams that Link does not understand, even after all this time spent watching him.

"You know I can, Link," he whispers, and a hand closes suddenly about Link's wrist, grip so tight that he can feel his bones aching underneath.

"So don't stop me next time."

Link pauses in his work to glance up toward the other slowly, gaze lingering somewhere just below those not-silver eyes, and says the only thing he can say.

"...you mustn't hurt yourself, Walker," he murmurs, and swallows everything else along with the dry scream building in his throat as he begins to move his hands again.

"You mustn't... hurt yourself."

Afterward he absently begins to pick up the glass, and does not ponder what he will do when Allen Walker finally escapes somewhere he can no longer follow.

 


The captain of the unit he has been assigned to is a dour man, as unaccustomed to pleasantries as Link himself, but with an entirely out-of-place sense of humor. When they first meet, Madarao orders his novice Crow to fall prostrate on hands and knees in lieu of a salute -- and Link does exactly that, and then the man laughs at him.

"So Howard Link, was it? You're a quick one. And would you have fallen on your hands and knees for your instructors too, if they'd so ordered it?" he wonders, sliding the toe of his boot under the younger man's nose.

"I... suppose so, sir?" comes the confused reply.

Madarao kicks him in the chin.

Link can hear laughter again through the searing pain as he clutches at his jaw, knocked onto his side and staring off toward the far end of the courtyard. Madarao crouches in front of him to arch his eyebrows, smirking -- and then the pale face turns deadly serious as he shakes his head.

"You are in the wrong then, Howard Link," he says quietly, "and I am going to teach you all about it. Do not bow your head to just anyone who holds power over you. Are you a blasphemer? Be a loyal man, certainly -- take your orders, do as you're told. But bow your head to the Holy Virgin alone. That is the only thing that will save your soul in a place like this."

Link stares at him confusedly, voice faintly unsteady with pain, muffled underneath his hands. "But sir, my superiors-- Inspector Rouvelier, how could I be so rude as to--"

"Did I say anything of rudeness?" There might be a sneer playing about Madarao's lips as he rises, perhaps; but if it was there to begin with, it is gone by the time he is on his feet, extending Link a hand up.

"Think on it, novice. This is your first assignment, and my gift to you."

Link follows his captain's orders, but does not understand what he means, not that day nor for many years after.

 


The end came quickly and mercilessly.

Link is alone now in the little bedroom; the floor is meticulously clean, the bed stripped of sheets, the window long since replaced. He is alone and he is packing up his things, piles of books and reports waiting in boxes outside the door to be hauled away back to the Vatican. Where he too will shortly be returning.

The owner of this room is dead. His body sits in a meeting room on the fourth floor, laughing heartily and guzzling wine as he happily shares the Millennium Earl's secrets for the Order's gratification. He is pleased to be alive, pleased that the prospect of vengeance is finally within his grasp. Before the week is out he will probably be sent on a mission to some far-off land. There is no room for sentiment, no room for mourning without even a body to bury. The war must go on; the Order must prevail. Nothing else in the world matters.

Link lies flat on his back on the tile floor, stares at the familiar ceiling, and pretends for just a moment that everything is exactly the same.

He pretends that his bedroll is sitting in the closet, not packed away in a wooden crate. He pretends that Timcampy is hiding just on the other side of the ceiling lamp; that there is stale cake stashed inside the wardrobe drawers and unpaid bills shoved into every crevice of the bookcase. He pretends the walls are not bare and those prized juggling balls have pride of place over the mantle again, instead of lying stashed inside his luggage where he couldn't bear to throw them away.

He pretends that if he waits here long enough, Walker will come back, the way he always does.

And then the door creaks open.

Link sits up with a start, only to find a golden-eyed corpse staring him in the face, looking surprised somehow. The Musician is different in many ways from the person once called Allen Walker; those eyes are exactly the wrong color, for instance. The row of crosses stands out raised and black against his dusky skin, somewhere between tattoo and scar, unnerving in its starkness; the rumpled black shirt he wears, open down to the center of his chest, would surely have set Walker to blushing with embarrassment.

But then he smiles, and is not a corpse all of a sudden, but a ghost come back for the haunting.

"So he was right, after all," the Musician says softly, and nudges the door shut as he comes closer.

"...what are you talking about?" Link murmurs back, trying his best to sound businesslike, perhaps succeeding save for the undeniable catch in his voice. If only he could turn away, this would all be easier -- if only he could turn his head, get up and finish packing and not look anymore, then he could talk and exchange greetings and flee like a civilized person but this---

That face. That smile, full of love and sacrifice and hope and longing for the future, even one without himself in it--

Link knows that smile. He knows it inside him, deep inside in places he cannot put names to, where the ache will never subside.

"Ah, no need to worry about that, Mr. Link." The Musician has a panther's gait, lazy and primal, full of nothing but confidence. He strides over to settle himself on the floor beside Howard as though it is the most natural thing in the world, throwing a casual arm about trembling shoulders, faintly shaking his tousled white head.

"You don't need to worry about a thing. Just came by to deliver you a little something that you're owed -- taking care of a few obligations, you understand. So anyway... Allen Walker sends his regards and, hmm... bottoms up!"

Then the dead man's lips press warm and wet against his own, and time stops.

 

 

"Our Father, who art in heaven... hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven... Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses... as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but... deliver us from evil..."

His charge sts in the back pew of the chapel, golden golem making circles overhead as Link says his prayers.

He knows many more of them these days than he did when he was a little child; but this is still the one he repeats over and over. This is still the one that makes him feel warm against the cold outside, and he desperately needs to feel warm right now.

Madarao stands beside him, staring up into the dark recesses of the cathedral vaults with a blank mask of a face.

"You feel that we have done wrong, Link?" he murmurs when the other has quieted at last, casting a slit-eyed look down on his protege of old. Link finds he can no longer meet the captain's gaze.

"This is---"

His voice shakes slightly, and though every conviction in his soul screams out, he does not know if he can continue. This idea, this grand divine plan -- demons and immortal souls and the man he has put his faith in over so many years, so many orders obeyed unquestioningly---

"This is what, precisely?"

Madarao, as ever, is unrelenting.

Link stares down at his hands. Remembers how numb they felt with that fragment of the Egg in his grasp, even through his gloves. Remembers the pleased smile on the Inspector's face, so happy to be one step ahead of the Supervisor. Happy to stride further down the road to victory.

That broad road, toward that wide gate.

Victory. By any means necessary.

"This," he murmurs quietly, "is an abomination." And swallowing against the horror in the back of his throat, because to say anything less would be to turn his face away and hide, he continues:

"Blasphemy. Wrought by my hands."

"Oh? You believe so?"

Another moment of blank, impassive silence and then--

Then Madarao is smirking at him again.

"What have I always told you, Howard Link?" he sneers quietly. "When you bow your head to the wrong men, you must suffer the consequences."

 

Link's things are long packed. Some have gone back to the Vatican and its libraries; some lie tucked away in the dark corners of a Headquarters storage room, ready to be locked up and forgotten. Allen Walker's room lies empty, though perhaps it too will be a storeroom someday, given that the Supervisor can little bear to place some new Exorcist in it.

Along with the books and papers and reports, Link has returned his Inspector's uniforms to the place where they came from, as well as his dark Crow robes. He has owned the same ones since he finished growing, and they are immaculate but careworn, deeply imprinted with the scent of incense and too many memories to count.

And like Allen Walker's memories, they are gone now.

By the end of the month, he had resigned his post as Inspector, and even his lifelong calling as a Crow. Such an unheard-of gesture caused a great uproar at the Vatican's offices, or so he has been told. He knows only that the letters from... not home anymore, he supposes, but his boyhood refuge at least -- the letters came fast and furious, orders that he was to return to his proper post, notification of a reprimand, a demotion, a court-martial. And a few items of personal correspondence, sealed with the Rouvelier family crest, accompanied by deliveries of the sweets which had always so bonded them.

I baked these for you, Howard. I worry for you greatly; I must confess that I am very disappointed by this decision, and believe you are making a grave mistake, perhaps even a sin in allowing your heart to waver. At least for the present, the Musician is our ally, but your place is not with him -- you must return to the fold where you belong. You are being led astray, Howard. Harden your heart to wild fancies and the temptations of grief. As you enjoy these cookies, I hope they will remind you to reflect and repent of what you have done.

But he will not repent. After all, there is nothing to repent for.

Given his specialized combat skills, the Supervisor has made special dispensation for him, given him a place as a member of the Exorcists' staff. His duty: as always, to escort the bearer of the Crown Clown, to be his backup and right hand. Link is by the Fourteenth's side on every mission; they travel together, fight together, gather intelligence. Link is the one who runs the errands, and he does not particularly mind this state of affairs. He sees to their lodging, goes out for their food at night. Sometimes he bakes for them. Sometimes he brings back mitarashi dango, and for his sake, the Musician obligingly eats them all.

Sometimes at night he watches the Noah sleep, and pretends he can see the glint of silver eyes, staring up at the ceiling out of the darkness.

For once in his life he followed his heart, and he's thrown in his lot wherever it will lead him, for good or for ill. The one his thoughts dwell on so often no longer exists in heaven or on earth, and yet he feels that this is where he belongs, seeing Walker's dream fulfilled with his own two hands.

He still prays, of course. Daily and nightly. He prays for the souls of humans, the souls of Akuma and Noahs.

He prays many things that go unheard.

If they made you take sides, Link... where would you go?

In his heart of hearts, in the quiet places, in the secret places where only one may hear:

It is there that he finally whispers the answer.