If Cross had understood, when he was asked to guard the Fourteenth’s vessel, that what he was really being asked to do was raise some broken little kid, he would have said fuck no.
He hadn’t understood. That was why he’d ended up in a godforsaken graveyard, standing over a tiny boy who couldn’t get God to forsake him if he tried. Cross was not best pleased with the situation.
The Fourteenth had been decent enough, for a traitorous, insane, murderous quasi-human. Decent enough that Cross hadn’t expected him to pick a…well, an adorable kid for his vessel. That was just screwed up.
This fiasco had barely begun, and already Cross was wishing he’d never been born. He usually made it at least a year into a project before the prayers for oblivion started.
He dumped the kid at Rachel’s place. The vessel was obviously going to be good for nothing until he got his head more straightened out, and Cross felt like he could use the time.
The argument could be made, of course, that worrying about the kid was an exercise in pain and futility. Cross had pitched that argument to himself, actually. It was the reason he’d never had an apprentice—young exorcists had a pitiful life expectancy, and there was no sense investing lots of time and energy in a kid who probably wouldn’t live to see twenty. Innocence be damned; he’d leave that shit to nutjobs like Theodore, who thrived on heartbreak.
And this Allen kid stood out as a lousy investment. Your average exorcist had bad odds of survival, but this kid had no odds at all. The sensible thing would be to keep from getting attached. The sensible thing, in fact, would be to put the kid in a freaking box and feed him through a grate until he changed.
The sensible thing didn’t seem to have anything to do with it. (Klaud Nyne had been heard to remark that Cross wouldn’t know sensible if it stabbed him in the heart. The woman had such a graphic imagination.) For reasons extremely unclear to Cross, he found himself running to everyone he could think of who knew a thing about kids and asking them, “What the hell am I supposed to do with a kid?”
He cared already, and was therefore screwed. Though not as screwed as the kid.
The people he ran to about child care gave him these reasonable responses about consistency and discipline and being understanding and whatever, and he’d say, “No, you don’t understand, this kid is really fucked up.”
And then, to a man or woman, they’d look at him dubiously and say, “Can’t you find someone who would be…well…better at raising children?”
So in addition to everything else, he was learning that nobody had any faith in him, which was goddamn annoying.
* * *
“Hey, kid,” Cross said, standing in the doorway of the kid’s room, a year to the day after he’d dumped him there. “Pack up. We’re going places.”
He’d come to pick up the kid, but only because he felt like he couldn’t put it off any more. It definitely wasn’t because he felt prepared. Still, it wasn’t safe to leave the kid without an exorcist for too long; he was special. The poor little bastard.
And God, he looked like a poor little bastard, sitting in that room. At least it wasn’t as bad as it had been when Cross had picked him up out of the graveyard. That had been bad. That had been a tiny kid following him mindlessly everywhere he went, running into him whenever he stopped, always silent, always with the big eyes and no expression at all.
Goddamn creepy. Obviously Cross had expected the vessel to be creepy, just not creepy like that.
This was an improvement, in the sense that the kid had one or two expressions, could take care of his own basic needs, and would every once in while answer a question. Or so Rachel said; the kid still hadn’t said a thing to Cross so far in their acquaintance. He also had no reaction to Cross abruptly reappearing after a year and ordering him around. That seemed unusual.
Rachel had apparently decided to make Allen’s room cute. Cross didn’t know what had possessed her to do that, and he didn’t know how she’d been able to stand it after she’d done it. Light greens and baby blues, fluffy blankets and bright pictures of birds, and in the middle of it all, on the tiny blue bed, was an empty-eyed doll with white hair and an angry scar.
The kid wouldn’t have looked out of place in a jail cell or an especially bleak orphanage, but in this soft room, he was all wrong. All wrong, but he didn’t show any sign of giving a shit. About that or about anything else.
“Come on, Allen,” Cross said. “I told you to pack.”
The doll blinked at him. “Pack?” he asked in a small, hoarse voice, like he screamed himself awake more often than not. Which was going to make traveling with him a real delight.
“Pack,” Cross repeated. “Clothes or whatever. We’re not coming back here.”
The kid stared. He stared long enough that Cross started to wonder if he was actually brain damaged, and then he said, “We?”
“Yeah, kid. We. You and me. We’re stuck with each other; lucky us.”
“Oh.” The kid thought that one over for a bit. “Mana said I wouldn’t be alone.”
So Mana had remembered enough to know they’d be following him. Interesting. “Good for Mana—he was right. You’re not alone.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the kid told him.
Cross might have been inclined to take offense, but it was hard to take offense when the kid looked so miserable it was a wonder he hadn’t just killed himself already. And wouldn’t that have buggered up destiny?
“Maybe it doesn’t,” he said in a reasonable tone, since he wasn’t allowed to be offended. “But if you’re gonna keep living, kid, you’d better figure out a reason to do it. Liking yourself or liking other people are the standard choices, but it doesn’t look like you’ll have any luck with those. There’s always revenge. Figure something out.”
The kid stared at him. Cross couldn’t tell if he was thinking about what he’d said, or if he was thinking about how miserable he was, or if he wasn’t thinking anything at all. Something was going to have to be done about that glassy-eyed look, because Cross couldn’t take much more of it.
“Remember what I told you about akuma, kid?” Cross asked, hoping to startle up an expression.
“Killing them is the only way to set them free,” the kid answered immediately. Cross didn’t particularly like the idea that anything he’d said had been taken deeply to heart, but apparently that did happen with kids. Or so he’d been warned by people horrified by the idea of him raising a kid.
“That’s right,” he agreed, trying not to think about his words getting carved onto the kid’s heart. “So making your dad an akuma, that was a real fuck-up. But killing him afterward, well. That was the only way to make it up to him. Do you understand?”
“You’re wrong,” the kid said. Cross wondered how he was managing to be pathetic, creepy, cute, and really annoying all at the same time. “I didn’t make it up; I have to do more,” the kid was saying. “I have to keep moving forward. I promised.”
“Uh huh,” Cross said, raising an eyebrow. “And you’re moving forward to where, exactly?”
“I’m going to kill akuma,” Allen said, maybe swore, and for the first time, Cross could see the spirit in him. Looked like he wasn’t going to stay a broken doll forever. “Killing akuma is all I’m good for, so that’s what I’ll do,” he concluded.
Allen wasn’t going to be a broken doll. He was going to be much scarier than that.
The Destroyer of Time, a thought whispered.
Not that the kid’s fighting spirit was going to make any difference, in the end.
“Whatever, kid,” Cross said, lighting a cigarette so he could look away. “I’m glad our plans for your future line up. Now pack, and I’ll meet you out front when you’re done. Hurry it up; I haven’t got all day.”
* * *
All the things everyone had told him he was going to have to put up with, taking care of a kid, those things didn’t happen. Allen never had a tantrum. Allen was never willful. Allen never got bad-tempered when he was hungry. Allen was a walking dead thing, and it was disturbing the hell out of Cross. As depressing as the moment of grit and determination had been, it’d been better than this. The only time he showed any sign of life was when Timcampy was playing with him.
Tim was so happy to have Allen around that it was actually kind of cute. He could hardly stay away from the kid, always flying around him and perching on his head and stealing his food.
And he was good for the kid. The day Tim tried to steal Allen’s food, Allen tried to pull it away, and Timcampy bit him—that was the first time Cross had ever heard the kid laugh. It was a happy laugh, too. Probably just as much of a lie as his occasional happy smiles were, but still, feeling well enough to lie was better than not feeling well enough to give a damn.
For the first month, Cross didn’t push the kid much. Just had him run easy, legal errands, clean the clothes, that kind of thing. It was partly out of concern, but mostly it was because they hadn’t run into any akuma. When he looked back on it, Cross could see that the month of easy travel had been a good call. Apparently the kid healed faster while traveling. Given the circus thing, it wasn’t a surprise.
During the lull, Cross collected information, Allen trailed silently, and Timcampy had fun harassing Allen. It was basically a good month, and by the end of it, the kid was smiling at least once every few days. He was acting almost like a normal kid. A normal exorcist kid, anyway.
If he was going to be so damn happy, it was clearly time to start training him.
* * *
During the month that Cross was inclined to cut the kid some slack, they didn’t run into any akuma. The very day he decided he might want to start training the kid, an akuma showed up. In his more paranoid moments, Cross wondered if this might not be Fate.
He’d always hated Fate. It figured that he’d be stuck trotting around with some epically predestined, saving-humanity-type martyr kid. He had to seriously fight against his instincts to keep from thwarting the Grand Plan just on principle. Logically, he knew that the Grand Plan was, as aforementioned, to save humanity. As such, it was very much in his best interest to let it happen. But still, it rankled. Fate. Most annoying natural force in a very annoying world.
Anyway, the convenient akuma appeared. Cross believed in taking advantage of opportunities, even if they were Fate-driven. He also believed that the best way to learn was by diving right in. So he grabbed the kid, threw him at the akuma, and stepped back to see what would happen.
What happened was that the kid took one look at the akuma, collapsed on the ground, wrapped his arms around his head, and started screaming.
This was not an outstanding first step on the exorcist career path.
Cross absently killed the akuma—Level One, hardly worth waking up for—and went to see what the hell was wrong with the kid.
“Kid,” he said, with a light kick to the ribs for emphasis. “Get up. What the hell is wrong with you?”
The kid switched from screaming to sobbing. Experimentally, Cross kicked a bit harder. Nothing changed, so he settled back somewhat impatiently to wait.
Making a huge thing out of a dead parent, Christ. Parents died. Fucking annoying, but it couldn’t be helped. The brat should be over it by now.
Two cigarettes later, the kid had worn himself down to gasps instead of sobs, and managed to get out, “It…it looked just like Mana.”
Right. That was unlikely, seeing as Mana had only been half-finished. All Level Ones looked essentially the same once they’d transformed, true, but Mana hadn’t really been a Level One, because he’d never put on his skin. He should have been nothing but a skeleton. So what was the kid on about?
“What are you on about?” he demanded. “Your Mana didn’t look like a Level One. And get up before I kick you harder.”
The kid didn’t get up, but he did push himself to his knees, and he sat there, hands on knees, and gave the very last answer Cross had expected. This would turn out to be something of a trend with him.
“Not the body,” the kid whispered, staring at his hands. “The…the thing tied to the body? The real person. Not the machine, the person. She was all rotted, and she was crying. She was crying just like Mana.” And then he started crying again, but silently this time, and he stayed stubbornly upright, back straight, eyes forward.
The person but not the machine, he said. Except that no one could see anything but the machine; that was the tricky thing about akuma. If anyone could see the soul, then it would be possible to pick akuma out of a crowd. And that, that would change everything.
“Kid,” Cross said carefully. “When the akuma looked human. Could you see the person tied to the machine then?”
The kid turned to him, startled out of tears. “Of course,” he answered, and then, incredulous, “Can’t you see them?”
Can’t you see them, he said.
“So that’s what you were…cursed with,” Cross realized, and for a moment he felt nothing but incredible, blinding rage.
The kid could see akuma. The kid could see akuma.
If they had known…if, in all these years of fighting, anyone had been able to see…how many lives would that have saved? Might the war have ended already, if even one person had had the same ability as this worthless kid? This brat who cried over a gift so incredible as the ability to see akuma? This little fool who dared to call it a curse?
But he made the mistake of looking at Allen, and abruptly couldn’t hold on to anger at all. Allen was tough to resent at the best of times, what with all the being little and cute and utterly screwed over, and he was hardly at his best. He was, in fact, sitting stiffly in the dirt with tear-streaked cheeks, trying and failing to look tough. When he got like that, it was easy to forget that he was any kind of special; hard to remember he was anything but a tiny kid who had seen too damn much already.
“Sweet Jesus,” Cross muttered. “Okay, kid. Couple things you should know before we go any further down this road. The big one is that no one can see what you see. This is going to seriously affect the way I train you.”
The kid tried to ask a question. Cross talked over it.
“And while we’re on the subject of how to train you, let’s talk about the honor and the privilege that is being a parasite type.”
“Parasite type?” the kid asked. That had been a high-speed question he’d squeezed in. Cross was impressed.
“That’s right. Innocence comes in two flavors: equipment and parasite.”
“Innocence?” asked the kid. Which meant that Rachel hadn’t told him anything, which meant that words would be had the next time he saw her.
Cross had to tell Allen the story about Innocence and God and the Millennium Earl and exorcists and the whole miserable situation, since Rachel hadn’t. He told it at a speed that left no room for questions, and when he got done, the kid looked like he might cry just from information overload.
“And you’re a parasite,” Cross continued. “Which means that your Innocence is a part of you, which means that you can neutralize akuma poison in your body. That’s about the only plus to having a parasite type, because mostly they just suck.” He had to pause to breathe for a second, and absently touched his mask before he thought better of it. Happily the kid was too busy blinking at him in shock to ask any questions about that.
“That’s why it’s going to affect your training,” Cross concluded grandly. “You should protect other people from getting shot when you can, because they’d die and you won’t.”
The kid looked momentarily happy.
“Or at least,” Cross said with savage glee, “you won’t die right then.” The kid looked less happy.
“Neutralizing the poison won’t necessarily undo the damage that’s already been done,” Cross continued. “Remember that you’re just human, kid.” So far, anyway. “You’re human, and humans can’t take being God’s puppets for all that long before they break. That’s what I meant about parasite types. The Innocence can only push your body into doing things it can’t do for so long before it shuts down. So even if you don’t get killed by akuma, you can expect to age fast and die young.” Well, ‘die’ in effect. “Anything you wanted to ask?”
The kid stared at him silently with a wide-eyed expression of horror.
“Good,” Cross said. “Now get up; we’ve got to find another akuma. You will know it as soon as you see it, and I expect you to take advantage of that. And if you fall down screaming this time, kid, I’ll break your kneecaps.”
* * *
The second akuma was a smoother operation from start to finish. Cross only had to kick the kid once before he started to show willing, so that was good, and he took the akuma down with minimal idiocy, so that was better. The acrobat background was definitely a help, although the year the kid had spent sitting on his ass hadn’t done him any favors.
Cross made the happy discovery that he loved writing up training regimens. Loved. The kid didn’t seem as happy about this discovery as Cross was. (Oh, the tilted-chair handstand pushups, best idea Cross had had in years. Ah, the clattering chairs and the nearly-dislocated shoulders!) The kid had no room to speak, though, because the third akuma was even smoother than the second, and by the fourth he almost looked like he knew what he was doing. Clearly Cross was an exorcist-training genius.
Allen did work hard, Cross gave him that. He worked insanely hard, and he almost never whined, which was creepy but useful. If Cross had a complaint about the kid, it was that he’d adjusted way too quickly to the idea that he was going to die young. So Cross did what any feeling adult would do, and told the kid that if he really did have a death wish, he should speak now before Cross wasted more valuable time on him.
“I promised Mana I would keep moving forward,” the kid explained. “But if I die while I’m moving forward, then…then that won’t be my fault. Mana won’t be mad. I can go be with Mana, and I’ll have done my best, so he won’t be mad.”
Surprise, surprise, the kid was fucking suicidal.
“I never promised you anything,” the kid pointed out, sounding…well, a bit resentful. This was new, the resentment. Cross generally thought it was a good sign. Resentful was better than suicidal any day. At least, it was in people Cross preferred alive to dead, which unfortunately included the kid.
“No, you never promised me a thing,” Cross allowed. “But if you wander around looking for an excuse to get killed, you’re not really keeping your promise to Mana. Your word is your problem, though.”
For one delightful second, Allen actually bared his teeth. Maybe having a kid around was going to have its benefits after all, if he was going to get steadily more hilarious with time.
If he could work on less suicidal, that might also be nice.
* * *
The kid turned twelve, and Cross went ahead and made him an official apprentice. It felt a lot like resigning himself to his fate.
The kid, who was getting more uppity every day, asked if this made him the official slave, rather than the unofficial slave.
Cross shoved him off a balcony to check his reaction time. Pretty good, actually.
* * *
Hilarity notwithstanding, Cross had quite enough misery in his life even leaving the kid out. Once you’d added the kid in, it was a goddamn unfair level of misery.
As if aware of this, the Earl decided that this was the very time to get feisty. Why, Cross didn’t know. He did have a suspicion, though. His suspicion had white hair and a scar and was currently eating its own weight in mashed potatoes. His apprentice was getting damned expensive to feed.
But whatever the reason, every rumor Cross picked up in every shady, back-alley place that knew about the war whispered the same thing: the Earl was collecting akuma.
He’d always made akuma, but he used to make them and leave them behind. Lately (say, the last fifteen years), he’d been making them and taking them along. Where? Not entirely clear. Asia, maybe. Which, though the kid didn’t know it, was the reason they were heading east. Why? Oh, now there was an ugly question.
Then there were the rumors about the Ark. The Earl had lost control of the Ark. The Earl had perfect control of the Ark. The Earl had a new Ark, and the old Ark had been destroyed. The old Ark was about to be destroyed. The Noah could control the Ark, but the Earl couldn’t. The Noah were rebelling against the Earl. The Noah were looking for the Fourteenth. The Earl was looking for the Fourteenth. Everyone was looking for the Fourteenth.
Dozens of rumors, most of them contradictory. What they all boiled down to, though, was that something was going on with the Ark, and everyone was after the kid. Fantastic.
This brought up the one disadvantage to the kid’s seeing akuma souls. If he could see akuma souls, then Cross was going to have to stop experimenting with akuma for the duration, because the kid would not like it. It wasn’t that Cross cared deeply about the kid’s happiness, but there was a point beyond which he just wasn’t worth having around.
Because he couldn’t experiment with akuma, he wasn’t getting the latest story on the Millennium Earl from them. That tended to make a man uncomfortable, particularly when he was dragging around the biggest liability in the entire war—in both wars. With training and maybe brainwashing, the kid might turn out to be a liability for the Earl. Right now, though, he was a liability for whatever poor schmuck happened to be standing next to him. Which was Cross, in the event.
He should never have agreed to this. Guard duty, what the hell? He’d been young and foolish, he’d had visions of saving the world, he’d been out of his goddamn mind. And now he was going to pay and pay.
And if the kid got up one more time for food, Cross was leaving him with the bill.
* * *
Cross did leave the kid with the bill, and, in so doing, began to discover the most hilarious thing about him to date: he was willing to do absolutely anything as long as he was convinced it was part of his training. Not just do it, but do it to the very best of his abilities. And maybe it was because he’d come up in the circus, but he was willing to consider a lot of strange things part of his training.
After pick up the bill, Cross tried get us dinner. It wasn’t met with the annoyed look he expected, but with the weary-but-dutiful look. Cross came to love that look, not just because it meant Allen would do whatever it was without complaint, but also because it took on a more and more hysterical cast as time went by.
It turned out his apprentice was willing to get dinner by…well, from the look of it, by any means necessary. He was also willing to cover strategic retreats, lie to people who wanted money, and con landladies into renting them rooms they couldn’t afford by sheer force of sweet smile.
He was willing to do really weird things, too, maybe thinking that if he didn’t understand it, he couldn’t decide if it was important or not. Fetch me this obscure, out-of-print book. Clean this rare glass measuring thing, and then tell me how it works. Take care of this man-eating plant named Roseanne; it dies and you die.
Which was not to say the kid was showing no spirit at all. Oh, no. Gone was the ghost of yesteryear, and in his place was a little charmer. Charming, that is, when he wasn’t flipping his shit and scaring people with his crazy, uncontrolled rage.
For instance, he’d once oozed them most of the way into a fancy inn that any idiot could see they didn’t have the funds to pay for. He’d stood in the doorway and tearfully confessed to the owner’s wife the sad tale of the hardships he and his uncle had suffered (never could bring himself to pretend Cross was his father), and it had very nearly worked. Silly wench had been about to let them stay for nothing; the wobbling lower lip said so. Cross’s appreciation for a circus education was at an all-time high.
Then it all went to hell.
At that crucial moment in the proceedings, a guy walked by on the street, eyes firmly fixed above the rabble, which was why he tripped over a dog. In the way of guys like that, he blamed the dog. Shouted at it, hit it with his cane, the usual routine.
Cross tended to think those men were pathetic. It developed that his apprentice had rather stronger thoughts on the subject. Thoughts along the line of kill, kill.
He nearly beat the guy to death with his own cane. Cross’s first thought was, “Christ, I have trained him strong.” His next thought was, “Shit, police.”
Prying his apprentice away was not easy. (Strong, very strong). By the time he succeeded, the inn door was locked and bolted. Not that it really mattered, given the fleeing from the law they were going to have to do.
Cross respected uncontrolled rage, but it just didn’t work for the kid. It was out of harmony with the charm. It was aesthetically displeasing, and that’s the only reason he said a thing about it. His apprentice, predictably, didn’t have the sense to be grateful.
“Now you’re saying I’m not allowed to be angry?” he demanded. He was so damned irrational.
“Fuck, be angry, I don’t give a shit whether you’re angry or not. But my advice to you is that you don’t let people see it, stupid apprentice. Your strength is cuteness, and you blow it when you fly off the handle like that. The friendly face gets you miles. My bet is you could’ve made that guy cry over the stupid dog if you’d come at him with the sweet face; told him the dog was yours. You’re good enough. And that’d stick with a guy like that longer than a beating—or it’d stick with him in a more useful way. Just because you don’t feel it doesn’t mean you can’t play it. You should know that, circus brat.”
The kid considered, and then gave him that serious, carving-your-words-onto-my-heart look. Cross hated that look; it was his least favorite look. And if he didn’t like the look, then he liked it even less when he could see the words being instantly put into effect.
Yeah, in a sense he’d wanted them put into effect. Gradually, or something. Not the next day.
* * *
“Stupid apprentice, I don’t even want to know what you’re doing. What I do want to know is what the hell you did with the rest of my clothes.”
His apprentice gave him a thousand watt smile from behind a hand of cards, and the guy he was playing with guffawed. Cross wished them both dead, fuck the war and everything to do with it.
“Bess said she wouldn’t mind washing our clothes,” his apprentice told him with the very same innocent smile that Cross had advised him to use on suckers. “And Mr. Jeremias said he would teach me to play cards until Miss Marjorie finishes breakfast.”
It was over the top. It was over the top, but he was so damn cute it was working anyway. If he started lisping, though, Cross might have to kill him.
“Your boy’s a real natural at cards,” said the aforementioned Mr. Jeremias.
“My apprentice,” Cross corrected in an outraged hiss, stalking over to get a better look at this…farce.
Jeremias, Cross noted on inspection, was precisely the type of man that Allen usually took against on sight. Bulky, squinty-eyed, short on both words and temper. Allen didn’t have many prejudices, but one of the few was personified in Jeremias.
And yet here they were. Buddies.
On closer inspection, it became apparent that Jeremias’s skill with cards was not the kind of skill men acquired by playing honestly. Fast hands. Incredibly fast hands. And the kid had always been dexterous.
Cross thought it might be wise to walk away from this while he could still plead ignorance.
The knowledge would be useful, though. For one thing, he’d be leaving his apprentice with more bills from now on. God knew there was plenty of debt to go around.
“I’ll be out until tonight,” Cross said, and thought, Hell, may as well test how far he can stretch the charm before it breaks. Learn by doing. “When I get back, you’re going to tell me about Russia. Most of Europe is easy enough, but getting into Russia’s always been a bitch. Ask around and check how easy it is to cross the border and where it’s easy. We need to do it without flashing the cross; I don’t want anyone knowing where I am. Ten years ago it was just a matter of money in the right hands. Find out what’s changed, find out who’s important, find out who can be bribed.”
“Bribed with what?” his apprentice asked incredulously. All of that, and what the kid was worried about was the money. Right.
“And get money for bribes. We need to be there next month, so hurry the fuck up about it. You get all that?”
“Yes, master,” the kid said with smile. Only those who knew him well would recognize it as completely deranged. Not bad, apprentice.
“Tonight, then. And fold my goddamn clothes this time.” And Cross strode out of the room with a spring in his step.
“Damn, boy,” he heard just before the door closed. “Your master always that much of a dick?”
“He’s my master,” Allen replied blankly. Cross smirked and went to see a man about some illegal documents.
* * *
In fact, it took more than a month to get to Russia, which meant they were skating closer to winter than Cross would have liked. He punished his apprentice accordingly.
Punishments were every bit as fun to devise as training schedules. Every. Bit.
And, Christ, he’d had to do something, because otherwise the kid was bound to notice how light the training was getting. Cross didn’t like it; the whole situation was ridiculous and unsafe. But if the kid never slept, he was going to be off, and if he was off and Cross ignored it during training, he was going to die. Unacceptable, under the circumstances.
The kid had ugly dreams. Like most people with ugly dreams, he tried to dodge them by not sleeping at all, which just made the dreams all the worse when exhaustion won out. Cross knew how the mind liked to store shit up for the instant you let your guard down.
Cross knew all about ugly dreams.
If he was feeling honest, Cross could admit that the month deadline had been impossible, and that the kid was actually pretty good at getting information. He was quick, and most of what he found out wasn’t wrong. Rare, for a first-timer.
At least, Cross was assuming this was Allen’s first time illegally crossing borders. He hadn’t personally spent any time tailing Mana, though, so for all he knew, Allen had illegally crossed borders while learning to walk.
The other thing he’d been using to keep the kid’s mind off his troubles was the debt. Nothing like new troubles to distract you from the old ones. Looking back on it, it might’ve been a bad idea to foist all the debt off onto him. He was a responsible type; he wasn’t happy to just let debt sit. Apparently he’d decided that the only way to cope was to become a card sharp right now. That meant a cute little kid running to a string of seedy bars and asking various shady men, hey, wanna game?
In the unlikely event that the kid survived akuma, Order scientists, the Millennium Earl, and the hostile takeover of his own brain, he would only go on to be killed in some dive afterward. Unless the dives got him first.
He was such a bad investment. He’d always been a bad investment, and he got worse every goddamn day. Cross was getting really, really tired of running thug interference. Maybe he ought to let some of the scrawnier thugs through, just so the kid understood what he was letting himself in for.
On the other hand, Cross had to admit that the card expertise was useful. And damned funny, besides. It had even been funny that time in Lithuania when the kid had scammed everyone in the bar out of everything they had and nearly been murdered. Cross had had to menace bystanders; it had been classless and stupid.
The expression on the kid’s face had made it all worthwhile, though. Apparently, up to that point, he’d thought that Cross would just leave him to die if he got caught. A bit of the gratitude wore off after Cross made him spend the next four hours kneeling on the stone floor of their crummy room reciting, “I will not get caught,” over and over until he was hoarse. It wore off, but it didn’t disappear completely.
Gratitude. Almost as unsettling as the words-carved-on-the-heart thing.
Further to which, Cross was unhappy to note that by now, he had a pretty good idea of what the words carved on Allen’s heart were, between listening to the things he’d said during nightmares and fevers, and just watching the way he acted. There weren’t all that many words.
From Mana: “Keep moving forward,” “I love you.”
From Cross: “Find something to live for,” “Only let them see what they want to see.”
When those were the words that guided your life, you were just about bound to be crazy, and the kid was no exception. But he was learning to do crazy with such style. Cross had to admire it.
* * *
Cross had decided on Russia because he knew a lady there who had a bar, a cousin in the Order, and some sidelong connection to the Bookmen. She collected information with an effortless, terrifying grace that Cross lived in awe of. Moscow was much further north than he wanted to go, but information was information, and good information—particularly in the absence of his akuma network—was a rare enough commodity that the thousand mile detour might be considered cheap. Or at least not out of the question.
He was also looking forward to Sofiya’s first look at his apprentice. In fact, her reaction alone might make the detour worthwhile.
* * *
“Dear God, you’ve found another one just like you.”
Allen’s smile slipped at that, but in the spirit of his new determination to smile no matter what, he managed to prop it back up.
Sofiya snorted, unimpressed. “Cross Marian,” she said, raising an eyebrow and folding her arms. “I thought you wouldn’t show your face here again after the last time my husband beat you.”
“Ah, dearest Sofiya,” Cross said with genuine fondness. “How could I stay away?”
She snorted again. “Well, don’t stand in the street,” she muttered grudgingly. “I don’t want people to realize that I know you.”
She stepped back, then, after a moment of hesitation, turned and headed up the stairs. Cross decided that she most likely wanted them to follow, and so he did, with a bag-dragging apprentice trailing after.
“One night!” Sofiya announced, flinging open the door to a tiny room with one tiny bed, which meant the kid would be sleeping on the floor. “One night, and then you are gone, Cross Marian. Gone before my neighbors have seen you.”
“Does this mean the noble Alexei is away?” Cross asked, peering curiously around the doorframe, checking for booby-traps.
“My husband is downstairs in the bar,” Sofiya informed him. “And I am going now to tell him that you are here. You will have time to prepare yourself before dinner. That is when you can ask your questions as well. And you!” She turned to glare at Allen. “That smile may work on your English girls, but in Russia, the women will steal your money and leave you in a gutter for a face like that.”
Allen, bless him, ducked his head sadly and said, “I’m sorry, ma’am. My master hits me if I don’t smile.”
Sofiya stared. After a good, long pause, she turned slowly to Cross with a look of disbelief. “Cross Marian,” she said. “Where in God’s name did you find this?”
“Found him in a gutter,” Cross said, and noted that his apprentice had to bite his lip against a smile.
“He is just like you. I did not realize there could be two,” Sofiya said with some horror, then marched out, slamming the door behind her. They stood and listened as she clomped down the stairs, swearing in Russian.
“She likes you,” Cross informed his apprentice. His apprentice collapsed onto the bed and really, honestly laughed.
* * *
“What is it exactly that you are wanting from my wife, Sofiya Nikolayevna? Always you come here, always this same greedy face, morda kirpicha prosit. I have said to Sofiya Nikolayevna, ‘Why is it that this man thinks he can come here, to Alexei Ivanovich’s house, and ask his wife questions, ah? Why does he think he can make these demands? Who does this man think he is?’ This is what I ask her. And do you know what she tells me?”
Cross shook his head, trying to look less greedy and more trustworthy and sincere.
“She tells me that you think you are a great general from this Black Order.”
“I do think that,” Cross agreed.
“Do not interrupt me when I am talking, or I will beat you more than I did the last time,” Alexei said with a scowl.
Cross shrugged and sat back.
“She tells me you think you will save the world. Why would you do this? Who has asked you to save the world? I have not asked you. If you had asked me, I would have told you to let the world burn itself out like the pile of shit that it is. Lucky for you, Sofiya Nikolayevna does not feel this way, and so she will help you. As for me, I am sick to death of the sight of you in my house. If it happens again, I will kill you.” Having covered the important stuff, Alexei stood, his chair scraping back loudly. “That is all I have to say to you.”
And he left. Allen watched him go with wide eyes until the front door banged shut, then turned to Cross with the curious face that Cross was coming to loathe. “What does morda kirpicha prosit mean?” he asked, eyes alight with interest.
“That Cross Marian’s ugly face is asking for a brick,” Sofiya explained helpfully, settling into Alexei’s vacated chair.
“Oh,” Allen said, apparently delighted. Cross rolled his eyes.
“Get lost, stupid apprentice. Don’t you have money to make?”
Allen snapped from delighted to sullen in an instant, then remembered to cover it up with the smile. If he didn’t learn to smooth that out, it wasn’t going to do him any good. “Fine,” he said in a carefully even voice. “Please try not to spend any more money before I get back, master.”
“Don’t worry,” Sofiya said grimly. “He won’t be leaving the house.”
Thus reassured, his apprentice headed out, casting a last, dubious glance over his shoulder.
“What is it you wanted to ask not in front of your boy, Cross Marian?” Sofiya asked the second the door closed. “Is it that you don’t want him to know what he is? Or is it that you thought that I did not know?”
Cross smiled, and thought that he might just have fallen for Sofiya all over again. “I know better than to think there’s anything you don’t know, lovely Sofiya.”
“Don’t let my husband hear you call me that. Blood is very difficult to get out of the wood,” she said, giving him a Look. “Interesting that you don’t want your boy to know. If you were someone else, I would wonder if you were worried for him. But you have never cared for anyone but yourself.”
“No, I never have,” he agreed. It sounded so plausible. Crying shame it was a blatant lie. “He’ll be useless to me if he finds out. He’d probably be paralyzed by grief or something equally annoying.”
“Would he?” she asked, arching a skeptical eyebrow. She tended not to believe anything Cross said. “Or would you?” she continued with a considering frown.
Cross smiled winningly and reached a little desperately for the vodka.
“Tch, men,” Sofiya said, apparently willing to let it go. “So, the Fourteenth. There is one puzzle solved. What is it you want to know?”
“The Earl’s gathering akuma,” Cross said, tipping his chair back and holding his glass speculatively up to the light. “I’d like to know why. Failing that, I’d like to know where. Any news about the Ark would be nice. If anyone’s seen any Noah around. Anything like that.” He emptied his glass and let the chair slam back to all four feet. “What do you know?”
“What do I know?” Sofiya asked scornfully. “Here I am on the edge of the world, and you have to come to me to ask what I know. Unbelievable.”
“You have magical information-gathering techniques,” Cross informed her. “You’re my intelligence hero.”
“You are a fool and you always have been, Cross Marian,” Sofiya said pityingly. “And you want to know about the Ark. I hate to think what idiot thing you will do once you know. The Earl has a new Ark he is building, that is what I hear. Obviously because he cannot trust the Ark that belonged to the Fourteenth, he is making one of his own. I have not seen any Noah, but it does not mean anything; I do not know them. As for the akuma, you know why he is gathering them; your stupid questions are a waste of my time.”
Cross said, “I was hoping you would tell me I was wrong.”
“And your stupid lying to yourself, that is even more a waste of my time,” Sofiya sneered. “But where. I’m sure it is Japan. People in Japan, they love death too much.”
“And Russians don’t?” Cross asked with a smirk.
“Russians love regret; it is not the same thing,” Sofiya told him. “Russians love hating the past, sometimes they try to destroy the future so that there will be no more past to hate—Russia has her problems. But it is not the same thing as loving death, loving the dead. Japan, she loves death, and they are too much alone on their strange islands. That is why the Earl took them.”
Cross generally tried not to ask Sofiya where she got her information, figuring that it would probably annoy her, and in that case there would be no more information. But sometimes he couldn’t help himself.
“Japan’s been cut off for centuries, Sofiya. How did you manage to find out anything about them?”
“How?” She looked surprised, as if the answer should be obvious. “My sister has moved to Vladivostok, who can say why. Thousands of miles from nothing, full of tigers, Vladivostok. But her husband fishes, and he was tired of Irkutsk, and he moved them so far. The islands where he fishes belong to Russia or Japan or no one at all, and when the men who fish are not fighting, they talk to each other in a strange language that doesn’t belong to anyplace on land. Fishermen are all the same. They talk about fish and weather and their homes, but mostly about fish. Still, they will tell each other strange things that happen, and my brother-in-law tells these things to my sister because she is bored by stories about fish. Every two years, I will get a long letter from her. When they finish the railroad, it will be much faster, but for now it is very irritating. Vladivostok, unbelievable. Moving from Moscow to Irkutsk to Vladivostok, unbelievable. My brother-in-law is a stupid man. But you see that it is easy to know these things.”
Cross saw that it was easy to know things if you happened to be related to all the most usefully placed people on earth, but he didn’t feel the need to say so.
“That is all I know that will help you,” she said with a sniff. “See, you have come hundreds of miles for so little, and now my husband will kill you if he sees you again. You are as stupid as my brother-in-law, and now you must also pay me. You must tell me everything you know, and I know how you hate that, Cross Marian.”
* * *
In the event, they got two more days to rest at Sofiya’s before she booted them. This was because the kid had, miraculously, made a friend of the terrifying Alexei.
He refused to tell Cross how it had happened. Refused. Cross had very nearly begged him before he’d realized what he was doing. All he knew was that it had something to do with the two of them ending up in the same bar, a game of cards, a brawl, and his apprentice’s timely use of the phrase morda kirpicha prosit.
Thinking it over, that might be all the explanation Cross wanted.
The terrifying Alexei had then decided, based on their newfound blood brotherhood or what have you, that Allen’s thirteenth birthday wanted early celebrating. Cross couldn’t pretend to understand why.
“This year is an important year in a man’s life,” Alexei informed his equally mystified wife. “This is the year Allen Walker becomes a man. That foreigner,” and here Alexei sneered at Cross, “knows nothing of this. He would treat this year like it was nothing, that is how stupid he is. So we are the ones who must celebrate it, or Allen Walker will never be a man.”
“God forbid,” Sofiya murmured.
As coming-of-age celebrations went, Cross supposed it hadn’t been too annoying. There had been a lot of vodka and very little talking. Allen had been tortured all night with random phrases in Russian that Alexei expected him to memorize, which had been pretty entertaining.
They left Sofiya’s place on a high note. Cross wanted to remember this forever, because he was absolutely sure that it would never happen again.
* * *
Getting from Russia to India was a hideous proposition, thanks to Russia’s deeply irritating attempts to conquer the known universe. It was really going to be a trick, avoiding attack by sundry disgruntled masses who, as far as Cross could tell, just hated everyone at this point.
Ideal conditions for akuma, of course. And that was an upside. His stupid apprentice could get some practice in after slacking in Russia. What with his insomnia and his early birthday parties, he’d hardly acted like an exorcist-in-training for months. But his insomnia had trailed off (finally), and he was a man now (apparently), so surely they could get on with the vicious training.
They quickly ran into a Level Two and a whole flock of Level Ones in a town otherwise filled with dead Kazakhs. It was perfect, it was ideal. Cross had never gotten the chance to see his apprentice in a real fight before, and a real fight was the only way to tell what he’d learned.
Cross took down the Level Two, figuring it wasn’t sporting to throw everything at the kid at once, and then stood back and let his apprentice handle all the Level Ones. Few dozen, nothing too steep.
It went so well for a while. The kid needed to come up with a few more sweeping attacks than he had, but he was being pretty tireless about taking them down one or two at a time, and dodging the rest in the meantime.
At least, he was until he got down to about five. At that point he had an attack of who-the-hell-knew, ennui or something, stared up at an akuma, and just came to a stop. Unsurprisingly, he got shot.
Equally unsurprisingly, because the world hated Cross, a couple of Level Twos took that opportunity to descend out of nowhere with yet another flock of Level Ones. Since his apprentice was writhing on the ground and turning black, Cross had no backup, which meant that Judgment was not going to be enough. He had to wake up Maria, and he hated waking her up for stupid things.
By the time he and Maria had finished off the akuma, his apprentice was sitting up, human-colored again, looking really shaky and somewhat in awe of Cross.
Cross was in no mood to appreciate it.
“What the fuck was that!?” he shouted. Complete loss of dignity. Entirely the fault of stupid apprentice.
The kid blinked, looking like a startled duckling. “I…I’m sorry, master,” he stammered. “I guess I got shot, I—”
“You stopped. You stopped and stared at an akuma. You might as well have written shoot me across your forehead, what the hell is wrong with you?”
“I didn’t…I didn’t mean to, I just, just looked at the soul, and I know I shouldn’t I didn’t mean to, but I did, and it, it looked—”
The kid abruptly stopped talking. Possibly this had something to do with the way Cross had aimed Judgment at him, on the theory that now was as good a time as any to find out how Innocence worked on Noah vessels.
“Do not. Tell me. It looked like Mana,” Cross said carefully, arm very steady. “I don’t know what I would do.”
“Then why did you ask?” the kid demanded, voice going tight. A distant part of Cross’s mind wondered if the kid was brave or suicidal, mouthing off like that to a lunatic with a gun. The rest of him changed gears from very annoyed to mildly homicidal.
“It’s been two years,” Cross said, as if the kid hadn’t spoken. “Two years. Get the fuck over it and move on, or lie down and die and stop wasting my time.”
“Oh, so I’m eatin’ up your time,” said Allen, losing both his cool and his posh vocabulary. “Shit, so sorry. Didn’t know that getting you food and washing your clothes and paying your debts was a waste of your time. Guess you’re gonna hafta find another slave after you off me. That why nobody’s seen you with an apprentice before? You kill ‘em too fast?”
It’s because I’ve never had an apprentice before, and this is precisely why. “If you’re going to lose it every other time you face an akuma, then you’re useless as an exorcist and you’re useless to me.”
“I’m not doing this for you!” the kid shouted, looking utterly insane and one harsh word from breaking. “I’m not doing it for you or for the world or for your stupid Black Order! I’m doing this for Mana!”
“Really?” Cross asked so, so softly. “Because I hate to break it to you, kid, but Mana’s dead. You killed him, remember?”
The kid put his hands over his ears and screamed.
“And how did he look when you did it, kid?” Cross shouted. “What did he say? Tell me what he said to you.”
“He said thank you! He said thank you because he didn’t get off on torturing people like you do, you sick fuck!”
“You’re saying he lied to make you feel better? You’re saying the man who raised you was a liar like you are?”
“Then why do you think he was lying, Allen? Why did he thank you? Tell me why!”
“I don’t know why!”
“Because he meant it, idiot apprentice,” Cross said with a sigh, lowering Judgment. Something about the sight of the kid shaking threw him completely off his stride. True, he was shaking with rage, but it was still shaking. Which meant Cross had made his apprentice hysterical. Again. Fantastic. As common sense reasserted itself, it also occurred to him that If he were dead, he’d be easy to keep track of was probably not a reasonable thought.
“Meant it?” his apprentice said, looking up at him, still jittery angry, but starting to be confused on top of it.
A sorry picture they made, the two of them: Cross looking down at his apprentice, gun at his side, feeling something like ashamed, and the kid pushing uncertainly to his feet, shell-shocked.
Ridiculous. The whole apprentice idea had always been ridiculous, and it still was.
“He meant it,” Cross confirmed. “The only thing you can do for akuma is free them, and they’re relieved when you do. I told you that years ago, stupid apprentice.”
Allen blinked at him, the rage receding. “You did not tell me they were relieved. You just said it was all you could do!”
They stared at each other.
“I also told you to find something to live for,” Cross said after a long pause, dredging up some of his usual asperity. “Did you manage to misinterpret that?”
“No, I got that,” Allen muttered, acting almost like himself.
“You don’t have to do anything for me or the Order, you’re right. You can’t do anything for Mana; he’s dead. So do it for the akuma.”
“Do it for the akuma, stupid apprentice. You’re the only one who can see that they’re grateful. Look at them, since you can. Witness. Someone ought to.”
Allen studied Cross’s face, and the last of the anger faded to a deeply serious expression that wasn’t quite the carving-words-on-heart face, but near it. And just as unsettling.
“When we get to the next town, master,” he said eventually, “I’ll get our dinner.”
“You were going to anyway, kid,” Cross informed him.
* * *
It must have been some kind of breaking point. The kid had been getting more feisty for two years, but now, suddenly, he was inclined to argue.
On the one hand, Cross was glad. Fighting spirit was a good thing in an exorcist, even in a pre-doomed exorcist.
On the other hand.
“Leave me alone, kid. I’ve got to seduce the owner.”
“That is not how you get dinner money,” the kid said, giving him a disgusted look.
“Oh yeah? You got a better idea, stupid apprentice?”
“Of course I have a better idea, stupid master!”
“Let’s see it, then,” Cross said, tipping his chair back on two legs and putting his boots on the table. “I am all eyes.”
“Yeah, I noticed that,” the kid muttered.
The kid could really be a little shit sometimes. This had not been at all apparent back when he was in the broken doll phase, and it hadn’t become obvious until just recently. Even more irritating, his nice-kid mask for the suckers was becoming bulletproof, which meant that no one knew what a shit he was except for Cross.
As Allen oozed up to various patrons to do his little-lost-waif routine, Nadia, the owner, walked up behind Cross and slid her arms around his shoulders.
“You might have explained to him that I’d give you two dinner for free,” she whispered into Cross’s ear.
God, he did love visiting Nadia.
“Now where would be the fun in that?” he asked, dropping his feet and turning to pull her down into his lap.
* * *
Nadia’s information led them to Aiday in Shymkent, who sent them to Elizabeth in Delhi, which was where Cross had been planning to go in any case. As Delhi was the focal point for England’s deeply irritating attempts to conquer the known universe, it was as good for Order gossip as it was for every other kind of gossip. Elizabeth ran the most popular brothel in the city (catering to everyone’s tastes, yes), which meant that the best gossip always made its way to Elizabeth.
That was the good news. The bad news was the news itself.
“You won’t like it, Cross,” Elizabeth said briskly, slipping into a truly indecent negligee and checking her lipstick in the mirror. “The Vatican has completely lost the plot now.”
“Meaning they hadn’t back when they were forcing Innocence onto tiny, screaming children?” Cross mumbled around a cigarette, watching Elizabeth change with interest.
“I don’t know if it’s a step down from the screaming children, but it’s certainly a step in the same direction,” she replied, absently slapping his hand away from her garter. “I just fixed that, don’t touch. James says there’s been a lot of murmuring behind those doors his ear is always pressed to. Somebody is developing an interest in the Egg. I don’t have to tell you what that means.”
“The idea of you having a brother who’s a priest,” Cross remarked, sidetracked, “is bewildering.”
“All those men alone together,” Elizabeth murmured, applying eyeliner. “What wouldn’t appeal to James?”
“Celibacy?” Cross suggested. “Hierarchy? Sermons?”
“Celibacy?” Elizabeth turned to him, wide-eyed. “We are talking about the Catholic Church, aren’t we?”
“Snippy,” Cross noted.
“Sermons, well, he likes to talk. And almost no one avoids hierarchy altogether. Congratulations on being one of the few.”
“Thank you, I worked hard on it,” Cross said graciously. “Travel, travel, travel. So, the Egg. The Vatican wants to fight fire with fire? The Vatican wants to have its own army of the undead and become the Earl? The Earl is secretly the Pope.”
“And you are less secretly an ass, but I don’t have time to stay and discuss it. Customer.”
“I assume that shiver was caused by the thought of all the money.”
“How well you understand. I’ll cry and cry when I get too old for this. Really I will.”
* * *
The bad news was piling on the bad news. The Earl was out to get him, the Vatican was out to get him, and he had his own dark suspicions about the upper ranks of the Order, who were thoroughly owned by the Vatican in any case. It was enough to put a man in a mood.
He’d planned, due to some lingering, Alexei-induced guilt, to do something for his apprentice’s thirteenth birthday. Given that it was also Christmas, a small celebration hadn’t seemed unreasonable.
The mood revised his ambitions downward.
“Congratulations on becoming a man, apprentice. Now get the fuck out of bed and make me breakfast before I have to kick you on your birthday.”
“Mr. Bulgakov was right about you all along,” said the lump under the covers. “Morda kirpicha prosit.”
“So how much Hindi have you learned?” Cross asked, amused despite himself.
“Just one word so far.”
“What does it mean, stupid apprentice?”
Cross stared at the lump for a moment of silent contemplation. “Couldn’t you have learned ‘thank you’?” he asked.
The lump snorted. “Not from those guys,” it said.
* * *
Allen had a tendency to take in knowledge from everything around him without discrimination. It was only a small step down from being as disturbing to watch as the Bookmen. He absorbed information. When information wasn’t around to be absorbed, he ferreted it out. Having gotten it one way or another, he then remembered it forever.
Cross probably should have thought of that before taking him to a brothel. Having made the mistake of taking him, he should have thought of it before leaving him there unattended.
He didn’t think of it. He was too caught up in worrying about the endless bad news and the million and one schemes he was going to have to set up to keep ahead of the million and one people who were trying to thwart and/or kill him. He left Allen with a list of bills and a training regimen, and headed off to start setting things up.
Apprentice notwithstanding, there was no question that he needed to set things up, to put plans in motion. They’d had ten years of relative quiet in which to prepare, and now everything was going to shit at once. Time to test out how thorough their planning had been.
This also meant that he was going to have less time to train his apprentice than he’d anticipated, and that meant that training would have to become more vicious, which would make Allen even more resentful. It would be a sight to behold. It couldn’t be helped, though. He didn’t want Allen along for the sabotaging of the Vatican’s plans, because the kid was never going to be the Vatican’s favorite person anyway. As for the Earl, Cross wasn’t going to let his apprentice within two thousand miles of Japan any time soon. Besides which, Cross was going to need tame akuma before he started messing with the Earl, and Allen wouldn’t support that. At all.
So Cross wandered, and talked, and schemed. Whenever he wasn’t setting up the next ten years, he was inventing sadistic training schedules and assuring himself that this was concern and not panic. Prudent concern. Not panic. After all, his apprentice was the biggest scheme going. Fretting over him was only logical.
At the end of one productive morning, Cross stepped into Elizabeth’s and looked for his apprentice. He’d told Allen to meet him in the front. He did understand that that wasn’t exactly the kind of advertising the brothel went in for, but even so, he’d expected the kid to still be there when he showed up.
“Seen my apprentice today?” he asked the door guard, trying to keep from sounding, God help him, worried or something.
“Oh, uh.” The door guard looked embarrassed. A brothel door guard looking embarrassed. What. The hell. “Some of the girls took him in back.”
Cross stared. “He is just thirteen,” he pointed out.
“Yeah?” the guard brightened a little. “He don’t look that old.”
“Where in the back?” Cross sighed, resigned to hauling a precocious apprentice out of there by the ear.
“Probably the Blue Room or somewhere in there.”
“Blue Room?” Cross repeated, confused. “Those aren’t rented rooms. What…?”
“I dunno what they were gonna do to him,” the guard said, starting to look spooked again, “but they said they wanted privacy.”
“Christ,” Cross said, and whirled away to march up the stairs.
What the hell? What the hell? He wished he had the guard’s confidence that this was something the girls had come up with, but he knew his stupid apprentice well enough to know that if he was off in a strange room with a bunch of beautiful women, that was not an accident.
Whatever horrified, half-formed expectations Cross might have had, stepping into the hall to the sound of uproarious laughter was not among them. And this wasn’t the delicate, feminine laughter used on customers, but real, honest, cackling laughter.
They were a couple of rooms down from the Blue Room, as it developed, but that didn’t matter, because all Cross had to do was follow the cackling.
The brothel was well off, and there was living space separate from the rented rooms. This was where his useless apprentice had pranced off to, dragging, from the sound of it, every prostitute not working along with him. Since it was midday, that was a fair few prostitutes.
Cross peered around the frame of the open door, and while there was a simple enough explanation for what he was seeing, he didn’t want to accept it.
“Allen, I am telling you, that’s circus makeup. That wouldn’t work here.”
“It looks much better my way! Look, see? Like that.”
“No—here, come here. Like this. There. Look at that.”
“Look at that, look at what? You can’t see anything; it looks like no makeup at all. That’s why my way is better.”
“That’s why your way is better in the circus.”
“How is the circus different from here?”
In the Blue Room, there were at least ten women sitting on the bed, on chairs, and draped over his stupid apprentice, every one of them cracking up, except for the one sitting directly across from him. She was the one arguing with him. About makeup.
At some point, the argument had gotten to a stage where demonstration was deemed necessary, presumably the point at which they had moved to this room. The girl was demonstrating all of her points on Allen’s face, and he was demonstrating all of his points on hers. From the look of all the dirty cloths around, they’d started over several times already.
“No, I mean it! In the circus, you’re entertaining people, and here, you’re…well, you’re still entertaining people.”
“Well, okay, yes. But here, you’re entertaining people from close up.”
“That’s actually an important difference in makeup, Allen.”
“You look like a tiny whore, stupid apprentice,” Cross cut in before he had to listen to this argument circle around again.
The women all jumped and looked uncomfortable. Allen, on the other hand, turned to him with that openly calculating expression that boded well for no one at all.
“But do I look like a tiny whore you’d pay for, master?” his apprentice asked. “Or would you go for her?”
And the room erupted in laughter again. Sadly, this time it was entirely at Cross’s expense. He crossed his arms and silently vowed to remember this the next time they were training. “I am really, really sorry to have to say this, stupid apprentice, but with the way you two are made up right now, I’d have to go for you.”
More laughter, and it was probably telling that the kid’s only reaction to that statement was to look disappointed. Cross wasn’t sure what it told, but he was sure he didn’t want to know.
He sighed, straightened, and walked over to the mirror, figuring that his dignity was about as shot as it could get for the day anyway, so the kid might as well learn something. “Come here, idiot,” he said, shooing the girl out of her seat and snatching the eye stuff up from the table, since they hadn’t gotten to the kid’s eyes yet on this go-around. The kid looked confused, but he went back to his seat easily enough.
Cross tried to ignore the giggles when he started painting the kid’s eyes. He did the right one the way the girls would like it, what Maria used to call Hooker’s Delight style. He did the left the way stage performers would. Then he grabbed the kid’s chin and turned him to the mirror.
“Here’s what she was saying, stupid apprentice. See on the left? Your scar’s kind of fucking it up, but that’s supposed to make your eyes look bigger, right? And it’s supposed to define them. It does that, but it works best from a distance. You’re not seeing it because it’s what you’re used to, but a normal person is going to think that style makes you look like a panda from up close. Right?”
The kid frowned a little, like he did when he knew you were right but he didn’t like it. “I guess…” he allowed grudgingly.
“Now the right. This is still less subtle than your average woman is going to be, but it’s a lot more subtle than the goddamn circus. The point isn’t to make you look like you have makeup on, and it’s not to make your eyes show up from a hundred yards away. It’s just supposed to make them look bigger. That’s why it goes thicker here and here. See?”
“Ah…” His stupid apprentice was staring fixedly into the mirror, and Cross knew he was committing the lesson to memory in that freaky way of his. Cross shuddered to think what he was planning to use it for, but he didn’t mean to ask, or, with any luck, ever find out.
“Wow, General Cross,” someone cooed. “You know an awful lot about makeup. I wonder why that is.” And the laughter started up again.
* * *
As punishment for his sins—and there were many sins, true, but surely they weren’t this bad—the kid had decided, after that, that he really got along with whores.
It wasn’t fair. Really, it wasn’t. There was no justification for a world in which he had to fish his male apprentice out of brothels all over Delhi because the kid was determined to go to them for tea and a chat.
“It’s not just tea and a chat,” his apprentice informed him in the resentful murmur that indicated a whole wave of passive aggression coming on. “Your creditors don’t follow me if I go into a brothel. I don’t know why.”
Possibly because the kid had an unerring instinct for picking the brothels with huge, angry, humorless bouncers—the kind that did not take well to hassling of the clientele. Not that Cross was going to share this thought with his apprentice; he was more fun to watch when he was living in an information vacuum.
All the same, Cross was starting to think that it would be best to move on. He’d learned all he was going to learn, and his little apprentice was picking up too much behavior from the company he was keeping. He was too damn young to be picking up that kind of behavior; it made people think unkind thoughts about Cross. He was really hoping it would wear off once he got Allen away from Delhi.
* * *
It did not wear off. It was honed. Worse, Allen had apparently decided, at the ripe old age of thirteen, that seduction was a weapon to be used against the unworthy.
Well, he’d always been nuts.
The kid had gone from the circus, which was hardly the tamest of places, to running around with Cross, and Cross recognized that he wasn’t an ideal model of decency. Furthermore, the people he knew tended to be shaky when it came to standard ideas of morality. Following up on all of that, Cross had had the kid spend six months living in a brothel immediately upon turning thirteen.
Really, the kid had been doomed to sexual deviancy from the start, so there was no point in Cross’s worrying about it now. There were hundreds of more critical things to worry about. Thank God.
Cross dragged the kid from Delhi to Bombay, where Cross knew a series of accommodating, gossipy people with businesses or homes to stay in. They hung around Bombay for a few months, then had to leave rather abruptly because someone caught the kid cheating at cards and tried to round up a mob and beat him to death. Again. Had he learned nothing from Lithuania?
Sadly, this crisis came at a time when Cross was a little drunk. Drunk enough that Allen actually had to carry him out of Bombay on his back. Allen showed signs of being peeved about this.
He insisted that Cross was a useless drunken layabout, and that it was all his fault that Allen had to cheat in the first place. Cross replied that it was a disgrace to get caught, and that being chased out of town by an angry mob should be treated as a learning experience. Allen tried to kill him with a boot.
The next morning, in a hungover haze not improved by boot bruises, Cross decided that it was a fine time to work on his apprentice’s endurance. Make the most of the trip. It wasn’t revenge, it was just that the kid had finally grown enough to make serious training worthwhile. Really.
Five mile run every morning, followed by an hour of strength exercises, followed by an hour of balance exercises, followed by balance-and-strength. The kid hated running and loved balance-and-strength. Which was to say, he liked the tilted-chair handstand pushups. The kid was sick.
From Bombay, they made their way slowly to Bangalore, and Cross wondered how long it would be before the kid managed to pick up dirty words in Kannada. He guessed a day or two.
Cross would have liked an appreciative audience for what he and his apprentice could do to a town. On a good day, they walked in and split up, and Allen headed off to find the gamblers. Cross suspected that he and Timcampy tag-teamed in some way, though he’d never figured out how it worked. Cross headed to the nearest bar or brothel likely to contain someone who knew things. Allen extracted money and Cross extracted information. Allen gave very little back and Cross gave even less. They left.
On a bad day, one or more brawls got started, and they had to run like hell. But hey, that was exciting too.
If Bombay had been a brawling city, then Bangalore was more than smooth enough to make up for it. Chaaya, whose husband ran a restaurant, and who was the least unsavory of Cross’s acquaintances, had something approaching good news. Vatican infighting had—surprise, surprise—reached epic proportions, which meant that dire Vatican plans weren’t going to hit anyone for a while yet. Which left Cross free to focus on the Earl. Joy.
In the meantime, the kid had cultivated a motherly type named Damini, who he’d run into while buying vegetables. Cross had had the good luck to be nearby for this one, which meant he knew what they were allegedly doing.
What the kid did couldn’t exactly be called lying; every story was a variation on the truth. It was just unsettling for Cross not to know which variation they were going with. Then again, it wasn’t safe to eavesdrop, because Allen might catch him. If Cross wasn’t around for the story, Allen described him pretty accurately. If he knew Cross was listening, however…
“My parents died in an accident when I was very young,” Allen told Damini with big, soulful eyes, while Cross hid behind a nearby crate of mangoes. “If Uncle Cross hadn’t come to get me, I don’t know what I would have done.”
“Oh, you poor thing.”
“No, no,” Allen insisted earnestly. “Uncle Cross came after me, so it turned out as well as it could, given…given what had happened.”
Damini had to rummage for a hankie at this point. While she was looking away, Allen’s eyes slid sideways and met Cross’s. Allen held the look long enough to clearly establish that Cross had been spotted and was about to be played, and then he turned back to Damini, innocent waif once more.
“At least you had a relative to take you in!” she was saying. “Think what would have happened if your uncle had been less responsible!”
“Uncle Cross is such a wonderful person,” Allen agreed, the image of sincerity. “I worry about it sometimes. He’s too generous, you know? He gives things away to anyone who needs them, so we’re always in debt. He just can’t turn down a person in need. I think he’s too kind for this world.”
Damini looked teary again. Cross tried not to gag.
“That’s why we’re here, actually,” Allen continued blithely. “Uncle Cross is trying to help people in India. I wonder if he feels responsible for what Britain has done?” There was an ominous little pause that Cross knew was aimed at him, then Allen sighed “He’s just so self-sacrificing,” with exactly the right balance of fondness and worry.
“Oh, if there’s anything I can do to help,” Damini cried.
And that was how they’d ended up staying at her place for free. And if they wanted to remain at her place, Cross would have to be nice to his apprentice, because otherwise it would knock holes in the story.
Allen was an evil-minded little brat.
Still, it was lucky that he’d found Damini, because Chaaya had a phobia about letting Cross anywhere near her daughters. People were always hiding their daughters from Cross and pushing them at Allen, and in the end, it made everyone uncomfortable. No justice in the world.
Despite not being allowed to bully his apprentice or get within a hundred yards of Chaaya’s daughters, Cross had to admit that Bangalore was a record-setting success. Money, information, and housing had all been ridiculously easy to come by. On top of that, a bundle of mail that had been chasing them since Europe finally caught up, which kept Cross busy. (Bookman had written ten goddamn letters, varying degrees of panicked. Bastard clearly didn’t have enough to do with his time.)
The kid turned fourteen, and Chaaya made a fuss. The fuss made Allen really uncomfortable, which Cross found hilarious. Apparently you were only allowed to accept charity if you’d conned it out of someone. The kid’s head was a weird place.
They couldn’t stay forever, of course. It was almost a shame. On the other hand, Bangalore had been so easy that Cross felt permitted—nay, obligated—to torture the hell out of Allen once they left for Puri. Cheering thought.
Torturing him would be effortless, too, thanks to Chaaya, who would be horrified to know what Cross was planning to do with her information. She always kept track of places in Southern India likely to have high concentrations of akuma, just in case an exorcist came by. Places of hate and dissension and disease. Per tradition, she handed Cross a marked map the day they left, and testily ordered him to fix it.
Though neither Chaaya nor his apprentice would appreciate it, this was a perfect training opportunity.
* * *
“But how do I kill ten at a time?”
“How should I know? Better hash it out with your Innocence. They’re all different.”
“…Master, does your Innocence talk to you? Do other things talk to you, too? Do you hear lots of voices no one else hears?”
“Next time you get in over your head, I’m going to let you die.”
“Stupid lying master. Is every Innocence really different?”
“No, I just say that to hear myself talk, Jesus. Yes, they’re all different. Worst one I saw was the brain-melting one. No idea how that worked. She could melt akuma brains just by looking at them. That wasn’t the problem, though; the problem was the side-effects. She could read minds. She couldn’t help reading minds.”
“That was bad?”
“You’d want to read an akuma’s mind, kid? And it’s not like exorcists are particularly settled and happy, either, and that’s who she was stuck with. Who’d want to know what we’re thinking?”
“Well. But couldn’t…couldn’t she find akuma? It seems like it’d be useful for that.”
“Maybe it would have been if she’d been less nuts.”
“…What happened to her?”
“Threw herself off a cliff into the sea. Innocence, still unrecovered.”
“You get a sick thrill out of being depressing, don’t you.”
“Why aren’t you practicing, stupid apprentice?”
Cross had been glad to see the broken doll turn into a charmer. It had even been interesting when the charmer started to get resentful and argumentative. Now the kid was getting cocky, and that was straight-up annoying. The best remedy for cockiness, of course, was to prove to him every day that he wasn’t as good as he thought he was. Cross was more than happy to perform this task.
Cockiness notwithstanding, Allen did improve by leaps and bounds. So much so that Cross occasionally felt the need to call up Maria and wipe out a hundred akuma at once, just to prove that he was in no danger of being surpassed by his apprentice. Whether he was proving it to Allen or to himself, he wasn’t sure. Allen always responded with a sucking-on-lemons face, though, which was rewarding.
Disappointingly, the kid had never been bothered by Maria. He hardly seemed to notice her, actually. Spoilsport.
Cross refused to help the kid fight unless there were more than twenty akuma. The rest of the time, he observed, the better to mock later. So he was watching when the kid finally worked up the courage to look at an akuma as he killed it.
It had been the last akuma; he’d probably been talking himself into looking the whole fight. The akuma dissolved, and Allen stood staring at the empty space where it had been for a long time. Eventually, he turned to Cross with a calm expression that wasn’t much like him.
“You were right, master,” he said. “They really are grateful.”
“You don’t need to sound so surprised that I was right, little shit,” Cross muttered. Allen lost the calm look and rolled his eyes.
His determination took a definite step in the right direction after that. Sure, he’d been determined back when he was fighting for the memory of a dead man. Now that he was fighting for something he could see and hear, he was closer to obsessed.
Cross had no problem with obsessed.
By the time they got to Puri, Allen was strong enough to keep up with anyone less than a General. As befit an apprentice that Cross would bother with.
* * *
Puri had always had too many akuma. Apparently it was a holy place to die, whatever. On the upside, it also had a lot of people who knew more about akuma than your average Hindu, which was useful. Plus, Cross could force Allen to run on the beach until he puked. It wasn’t cruel if it was training.
It wasn’t cruel if it was a necessary distraction.
Cross knew a lot of people, and it was entertaining to introduce the kid to most of them. Not all of them. Cross would prefer it if Vikram never knew that Allen existed.
Vikram was brilliant and insane, but that could be said of most people Cross found worth his time. The problem with Vikram was that no one could predict what he would do next, Vikram least of all.
All of Cross’s basic necromancy had been learned in Puri. All of his early experiments with altered akuma had been done here. A lot of speculation on how to kill Noah, a hundred possible ways to destroy the Earl and the Ark, ways to destroy and torture and change—all studied in Puri. If he had a master for the darker side of his education, then Vikram was that master.
Cross pushed open the door of a shack on the extreme edge of town. The shack wasn’t the result of poverty so much as absentmindedness. Vikram didn’t care enough about things outside of his research to find a more comfortable home.
Once inside, Cross noted with great interest that Vikram had somehow managed to dissect an akuma without causing it to explode.
“Ah, Marian,” he said, glancing briefly away from the corpse. “Pass me the scalpel on the table, please.”
As if Cross had been gone five hours, rather than five years. He passed the scalpel.
“Yes, thank you. This is very interesting. See how the frame is incorporated into the skeleton? Yes. It is so difficult to study them while they are still active, you simply have no idea. And as soon as they are no longer active, dust, dust! Very frustrating. Cunning, cunning. But frustrating. Pass me the towel.”
Cross passed a towel, which Vikram used to dab…blood? Ichor? away from the bone he was inspecting. He scrabbled at the exposed bone with the scalpel, and the akuma’s head, located somewhere across the room, screamed feebly.
“See see see!” he cried, gesturing enthusiastically with the scalpel. Cross leaned cautiously forward. “See the bone!? A complete change. Perfectly complete, yes. Machine and man—melded! Brilliant, brilliant. How does he do it? See, even the marrow is now partially metal. See the sheen here? Yes. Fascinating. Well. I must consider this. Tendons, blood, nervous system, also incorporated? Just bone? Please put those pieces in those jars, Marian, and I will take care of these. Yes. I will make tea and we will talk. So much progress has been made while you were away!”
Cross silently placed pieces of akuma into separate, labeled jars, and watched as Vikram used his Innocence to deposit the rest into their jars.
Vikram’s Innocence took the form of a net, and could be used to capture as well as kill. He preferred to capture, unfortunately for the akuma.
He’d never responded well to any suggestion that torturing akuma amounted to torturing the human souls trapped inside them. His wife, mother, sister, and younger brother had all been killed by akuma the month before he’d discovered his Innocence. The combination of the experience and the timing had made him…unhinged. No one who’d tried arguing with him about treatment of akuma made that mistake a second time. Sometimes they didn’t have the option of making the mistake a second time.
Vikram straightened after placing the last jar, and Cross noted the strange look in his eyes just in time to hurl himself sideways and avoid the scalpel that had been heading unerringly for his throat. He hit the ground to the sound of Vikram’s laughter.
“Well, well, yes. It is Marian after all,” he said fondly, offering a hand which Cross carefully took. “I do apologize, but you know how I must test these things, good Marian. Why, you could be anything at all.”
“Come, come! I will make tea, yes. Oh, but I meant to tell you about the newest discovery! And this dissection has been very useful. I think you will not need it, however. You have Maria to do your dirty work for you, yes. I must resort to more crude methods, unfortunate. Akuma appear to have been constructed with a self-destruct mechanism! Very useful, very useful. Also destroys the soul attached, unfortunate, can’t be helped. Also I believe the murderous impulse to be largely chemical, and therefore easy enough to change, should you wish to have servants. You do make servants of them, do you not? Strange, strange. Still, I believe you previously used them simply as a device for eavesdropping on the Earl’s instructions to his akuma. This will be different, better, more complete. I believe you may command true loyalty of them, once the murderous impulse has been removed or controlled. Removal, more effective. Control, less destructive. In any case there is the dead man switch, in the form of the self-destruct. See how simple? Here?”
Vikram pulled down a jar and displayed the contents. All Cross saw was a tangle of wires mixed with brain tissue, but he nodded anyway.
“Voice-activated! Brilliance, brilliance. Reset it to your voice, no trouble with loyalties. This is a simple thing. Let me tell you.”
Vikram spent the next hour detailing physical and mental alterations that could be made to akuma, complete with theories about the effects of Maria’s sound waves on the akuma mind. Cross nodded and took notes, and didn’t interrupt. When Vikram eventually wound down, Cross was so overwhelmed by ill-gotten information that he forgot himself enough to say, “Thank you, Vikram. This will—”
He didn’t finish the sentence, because Vikram had shoved him sharply in the chest and he’d slammed into the wall next to the door. Vikram had always been surprisingly strong, considering he appeared to run on nothing but tea and hysteria.
“Stop that,” he hissed, wild-eyed. “I have always hated your voice. You know how I hate your voice. Do not speak. Leave this place. Marian would not have spoken. Marian knows better. Leave this place before I kill you. I do not know what you are. Leave, leave, leave!”
Cross dashed out and slammed the door behind him. After a pause, he leaned against it and listened to Vikram shouting to himself inside.
“Guess no tea, then,” he reflected.
He’d sometimes wished, in his younger years, that he could hate Vikram. Unfortunately, Vikram was just what happened when an exorcist lived too long and spent too much time alone. You couldn’t hate something that pitiful.
Every time he left, Cross thought that if he really cared about humanity, he would kill Vikram and save it from him.
An idle thought. All he was really going to do was get his apprentice the hell out of Puri before Vikram realized that he existed. Before he realized what Allen was.
* * *
Allen looked up from a half-demolished meal with wide, surprised eyes. “Leaving? We just got here. We just got here and you made me run all day, master. I’m tired.”
“I know it’s a trial for you to stop eating for ten minutes together,” Cross snapped, “but I have more important things to do than sit around Puri and watch you stuff yourself. Get up.”
The words weren’t far off, but the tone…the tone was all wrong. Apparently he was making a habit of losing it in front of his apprentice.
“…I’ll get our bags,” Allen said quietly. Cross must have sounded really awful, because Allen just stood and left the food behind. Cross actually felt guilty until Allen paused in the doorway and sniped, “It’s not like I had time to unpack them, anyway.”
The kid didn’t take long, which was good, because the owner and a fair few patrons were glaring at Cross like he’d kicked a kitten. Apparently Allen had had enough time to charm the whole room. Cross vaguely wished he had that kind of dazzle.
Allen reappeared, laden with luggage, and sweetly thanked the owner for the hospitality. The owner pressed bags of hurriedly collected food on Allen. Allen was exceedingly grateful. The owner insisted it was no trouble at all. Everyone had a good glare at Cross, who really was going to hurt someone if this kept up much longer. They eventually managed to pry themselves away.
They made it about ten steps down the road before the interrogation began.
“What’s wrong with you, stupid master?” Allen demanded, peering suspiciously up at him. “You’re brooding and twitching and your eyes look crazy. You yelled at me.”
“I yell at you every day,” Cross reminded him.
“Not like that. You only yell at me like that when I actually do something, and I haven’t done anything. Lately.”
“Lately. I like that lately.”
“And now you’re trying to act like you, but you’re still twitching.”
“Don’t push me, Allen,” Cross snapped, then immediately felt guilty. Here the kid was, practically expressing concern, which was utterly unlike him. And how did Cross respond? By biting his head off. How very Vikram.
He checked to make sure the kid wasn’t crying or whatever. He wasn’t. He was looking up at Cross like Cross needed his head examined.
“Do you have a fever?” the kid demanded, eyes worried.
Cross blinked at him. “We’re going to Calcutta,” he said, for lack of anything better to say.
“Okay,” Allen said, rolling his eyes. “So was that a yes or a no on the fever? You could have malaria. I’d have to take care of you for months; it would be awful. I want to start bracing for it now, if that’s what your problem is.”
“I don’t have a fever,” Cross said irritably. “And I didn’t hit my head, though I may yet hit yours. We’re going to Calcutta. Now stop asking me stupid questions.”
“Stupid questions for a stupid master,” Allen muttered, but Cross didn’t miss the little smile on his face as he looked away.
Apparently his apprentice had decided he was fine. Good that one of them thought so.
* * *
Cross spent the trip from Puri to Calcutta feeling strangely like he was putting the final polish on a gem he’d found and cut himself, just before showing it off to the world.
Cross Marian’s apprentice.
Theodore always seemed to have some paternal thing going with his apprentices, but this was possessiveness, pure and simple. Cross wanted people to admire his apprentice, but he was happy that the kid was unlikely to let them within an emotional mile. Moreover, he was coming to hate the idea of the Noah takeover with unprecedented, idiotic fervor. Cross didn’t have anything against the Fourteenth, but he had made Allen. He’d never liked people messing with his things.
Ridiculous was not an expansive enough word for the situation.
They arrived in Calcutta. It was about as useful as Cross had expected it to be, which was to say, not very. There had been an off-chance that someone worth talking to might have been passing through, but it didn’t pan out. If anybody knew anything, they weren’t telling. On top of that, people kept trying (unsuccessfully) to beat up his apprentice. Tiresome.
“You should leave,” Mukta told him. “And so should I. This place will explode soon. This is where the Indians who love the British come to live, and because of that, it is the place where the Indians who hate the Indians who love the British come also. It will probably end badly, and even if it does not, this is a useless place for us both. Everyone keeps their secrets close.”
“I do hate people who can keep a secret.” Cross sighed unhappily at the godforsaken, sticky-sweet drink Mukta had given him.
“It is interesting that your boy is made of secrets, then,” Mukta commented, eyebrow raised.
“My apprentice,” Cross corrected automatically. “And I like people who can keep my secrets just fine.”
Mukta murmured a non-reply, and refilled his glass of nasty, sweet whatever. Possibly as a punishment.
If Mukta was right (and Mukta’s charm was that she was almost always right—it certainly wasn’t her outstanding taste in refreshments), then Calcutta was a wash, and it was time to head to China. If Cross knew Anita, and he rather thought he did, she would be perfectly willing to embark on a little political sabotage with him, and that would free up time for akuma-altering.
There were other benefits to Anita. There were, in fact, endless benefits to Anita.
The only problem with this plan was that it would be a bad idea for his apprentice to go to China, and Cross had, in some strange part of his brain, been hoping to keep Allen around at least until he turned fifteen.
But he was nearly fifteen, and he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself. It was high time for Cross to stop being stupid about his doomed apprentice, anyway.
* * *
The last night in Calcutta, Cross sat in the main room of Mukta’s place and watched the kid screw half the patrons out of most of their paychecks. Watched him do it with that goddamn sweet smile, watched him only let the crazy eyes show when everyone else was looking at their cards.
It was a strange thing, but though Cross remembered a time when the kid had absolutely terrified him, he couldn’t find any of that now. Maybe familiarity had bred complacency—he did know the kid backward and forward. He wasn’t sure Allen realized what an open book he was to Cross.
Nah. He’d know the kid knew when he started using it to his advantage.
“Here, stupid master,” his apprentice snapped with a scowl. Apparently he’d walked up while Cross was staring off reminiscing. That would do Cross’s image no good. Maybe he could pretend he was drunk and salvage some dignity that way.
“Here what, stupid apprentice?” he asked.
“Here’s the money you asked for,” the kid said in the tightly controlled voice that usually came just before he grabbed Cross by the shirtfront and started screaming at him. “I’d stick around and watch you spend it, but now I have to go make more money for your eighty-three creditors.”
“Am I down to eighty-three?” Cross asked, surprised and a little appalled. “How did that happen?”
His apprentice closed his eyes, clenched his fists, and started silently chanting whatever it was he chanted at moments like this. As far as Cross could tell from lip-reading, it was something along the lines of, “Murder is wrong, murder is wrong.” Which only went to show what the kid knew.
The thought hit him, as he watched his apprentice trying to talk himself out of killing his master, that he was really proud of Allen. Bizarre thought. As far as he could remember, he’d never been proud of anyone before. Impressed, yes. Not proud.
It wasn’t only that the kid had come so far, that he’d trained so hard, that he put up with Cross’s shit with relatively little bitching. Any exorcist who survived a year had to do the same or similar. As for the inhuman politeness and ability to forgive, that was more freaky than impressive, and Cross tended to blame it on Mana. It was better than wondering if it was some Destroyer-of-Time-related fate crap.
But the Destroyer of Time didn’t need to be a tiny con who charmed the hell out of everyone without thinking about it. He didn’t need to be a sarcastic viper who lied to everyone but himself. He didn’t need to know bad words in twenty languages and love the goddamn circus. That was just Allen, living as hard as he could from inside a cage he didn’t know existed.
He’d become so interesting; of course Cross was proud. He had a right to be proud. The kid was his apprentice, after all.
Fuck, he could never let Allen find out.
* * *
“Agh! Look, I had to! I couldn’t have him following me, that would screw everything up—will you stop attacking me? For Christ’s sake!”
Cross ducked the tiny gold ball of rage that was trying to dive-bomb his head, and waved defensively with the hammer he’d just used to knock out his apprentice.
“I had to hit him that hard! He’s got a head like—okay, fine, but what’s done is done. Done!”
Timcampy was not impressed with this argument. When Tim wasn’t impressed with an argument, he had an unfortunate tendency to bite.
“Ow! Jesus—I am leaving. Yes, I am! What…did you just say he’s too young? Too young? Christ, you sound like somebody’s grandmother. Ow! Stop—stop, Timcampy, stop, one second! One second, I’m going to be serious, for fuck’s sake!”
Tim paused dubiously in midair. Cross had never figured out how a golem could look dubious—it didn’t have a face, after all—but Tim was talented that way.
“Right,” Cross breathed. “Here’s how it is. I need to leave, and I need to do a lot of things that would make Allen very unhappy. I’m also going to mess with the Earl, and it would be stupid to have the kid along for that. Anyway, he would be in my way.”
Tim edged closer. Cross raised the hammer. Tim stopped.
“And,” Cross continued, “he needs to go to the Black Order. The Vatican will be all over him no matter what, and it’ll help him to have official exorcist status. Now that the Li boy runs the day-to-day, the Order may even be the safest place for him. Besides, that’s where the Bookmen have been lurking lately, and you know how much those psychos have been looking forward to meeting him.”
Tim looked like he might have been a little persuaded, but then again, he might just have been waiting for Cross to lower the hammer.
“He’ll have you to look after him,” Cross said desperately. “It’s not like I’m abandoning the kid. I’ll pick him up again before he has to fight the Earl. I wouldn’t let him take on the Earl alone.”
Tim dipped a little in relief, and Cross felt a wave of righteous indignation. “You thought I’d let him handle the Earl alone?” he demanded. “You thought I’d let the best fight in human history pass me by!? Are your goddamn circuits scrambled?”
Tim bared his teeth. Cross dropped the hammer to the floor, unimpressed.
“Take him to the Order,” he instructed, then turned away and headed to the door. He put one hand to the latch, paused. Didn’t look back. “If he starts remembering things he doesn’t remember,” he said quietly, “tell me right away.”
Timcampy sagged in the air, then fluttered sadly down to rest on Allen’s chest and wait for him to wake up.
Cross walked out the door.