Chapter 1: Balsamine
A balsamine day dawned powder blue over the bamboo fields. The Chan family’s graves were fresh, but it was a day for starting over.
I will seal the lower floors for good, Fou announced. There will no longer be any entrance, unless ordered otherwise by the heir.
She, the Guardian, mourned just like the people. Her sorrow was cold in shadows on the stones. Dirge-like winds rose from the deepest chambers of the fortress, hollowed so deep and old into the mountain that chalky springs still bubbled through them. But the Guardian had hope, just like the people/
The heir. Bak Chan.
Whispers echoed to the dizzying ceilings, louder than they had dared to be since the incident. The tragedy, the experimental accident, the act of God. They said the Chan's son listened to the walls the same way his mother and father had, and that perhaps his bond with the Guardian would guide him on the path of his late and indomitable parents. Perhaps the Order would recover strong after all.
There were other whispers, of course, as there always were in the Order. Some reported glimpses of a child from nowhere, the one old man Zhu crafted a sword for. A new exorcist? Who? Someone was being promoted, sent up to Europe to be a bigshot Branch Chief. Isn’t he too young? I thought the Grand Generals didn’t accept anyone not Western-born. A skirmish in Ukraine had revealed new Innocence. The Generals were elusive. The world still moved.
The Guardian heard it all, for the stronghold heard it all. But Fou would not speak again—what had been set in motion was already too late to stop. Whatever happened, to the child or to the scientist, to the Innocence or the Generals, did not have anything to do with her outside her walls.
Kanda could not see the dawn outside, and had not ever been able to. But somehow—he didn’t know how—he knew what a sunrise. The Guardian’s door looked just like a sunrise to Kanda. The tiles radiated in arches of dull yellow and pink, just like morning light. They were mute with age and warm to the touch, and pulsed like Alma’s chest when he had insisted Kanda feel the beat of his heart.
Zhu had picked him a new name this morning. The old man knelt on his creaking knees draw characters in sand and talk about rice paddies in the country of the rising sun. Kanda didn’t understand what he meant very well, but he understood that Kanda would be Kanda now and Alma would Alma and that would be that.
Kanda traced the name out again, dragging his finger over the texture of the tile. He may not have ever seen the sunrise before, or a country of the rising sun, but another man very like him had. That man had seen much, much more than tiles. Kanda was not that man anymore, but he was not Yuu anymore either. Something restless and awake stretched its wings in his soul.
He was ready to be free.
For weeks, the heavy bleach had been wafting up to Komui's workspace. His colleagues winced around their scoured throats as they imagined their friends’ remains being scrubbed away, but Komui Li’s was a different anguish: impatience.
Komui felt the tragedy as keenly anyone else. Komui always had that sense, a sense of impact. But he was too tireless and anxious to feel it this time. He needed to get to the future as fast as he could. The death of the Director was a tragedy, yes, but it was also an inconvenience.
There was a transfer order with Komui’s name on it in neat European letters, just waiting to be approved—by a new Director or by God, whichever could get him to Britain faster. And there, somewhere, he had a sister, a small one, with soft white hands that reached up to brush like dove wings over his face.
Komui Li had an Exorcist for a sister, a sister who he had not even stood in the same country as since she'd been taken. She had gone where all the Exorcists went, all the men and women and children who could withstand the power of the thing they called "Innocence"—European Headquarters. Only a select few scientists of the Asia Branch ever went there, and only the very best transferred to work directly with the Exorcists.
So Komui had been better than the best. Edgar Chan signed the transfer form himself. Of all the reasons for Komui to wish the man was still alive, that Edgar had died before sending that letter kept him up at night longest. Komui had never allowed himself to look back at the unfathomable depths of effort and determination he poured into his pursuit, but now that he stood on the precipice of success or of failure, the distance he’d come overwhelmed him.
All of this, the young scientist would think to himself, through the daze of bleach fumes and overwork. All of this and it might be wasted because of postage.
But Komui kept his faith. Rebellious, Komui’s hope refused to be killed. Komui waited, just like his Lenalee, to be told he was released.
Like her, he waited to fly.
Note: Work is under revision. Writing style is gonna be REAL mismatched for a hot minute.
Chapter 1: edited
Chapter 2: Snapdragon
The footsteps approaching Marie's room skipped and hurried, just outside the informal infirmary room he'd been set up in, and Marie listened to their soles to know who he would be receiving. They were smart shoes, gentlemen's shoes, not the softer slippers that sometimes meant a medical attendant was coming to check on him, and Marie knew who it would be-Bak Chan had always tended towards his father in regard of dress.
The door hardly had time to open before the Chan heir had barged in-he was the sort of person who barged places, in a harried but purposeful sort of way.
"It's me," he said shortly, and then he had hardly paused to let Marie digest it before he was moving on to get out what he wanted him to know. "You can see him."
Marie sat up straight in his chair, strings dissolving back into Noel Organon's inactive form around his fingers-he had once again been limited to doing little more than idly plucking away at his Innocence.
"You mean Kanda?"
Bak made a sharp noise of confirmation. "That's right. He'll be accompanying you back to European Headquarters soon."
Marie smiled, deeply and genuinely. "That's good."
There was shuffling as Bak came further into the room and dropped a folder bursting with paper forms onto the table next to him. It made a tired sort of thud.
"Someone is going to escort him up to meet you-Zhu, hopefully. He doesn't trust many of us. You, maybe. Zhu. No one else."
Bak gave a sigh of haggard melancholy. Marie wondered how many calls by golem he'd had to make today, and how many questions his people had been asking that he couldn't answer.
"We can't definitively say what Central has planned for the Second, but I've sent in my argument towards keeping him on your team." Bak ducked his head. "For all my word is worth."
Frank and stout-that was what Marie was learning to like about Bak, but more than that he was learning that he was kind, the sort that couldn't be tempered into soft words but that was no less pure.
"Thank you," Marie told him sincerely. "And I don't mean just for him. For me, too."
He went back in his mind through the sound and clamor that had almost been the end of his life, and focused on the voice of the child who had brought him back.
"I want to keep him with me."
Bak nodded, and he couldn't be sure but he thought he might have returned his smile, albeit thinly.
"I'm glad that at least something good came from my parents' work," he said, and Marie didn't need exceptional hearing to pick up on the fragile, youthful despondency of a son questioning his mother and father.
Marie thought that Bak himself might be one of the best things the Chans could have produced, but he didn't tell him so-he'd probably had enough by now of sympathy and hopeful praise to his reputation. The moment passed on its own, and then Marie heard him rock back on his heels, drawing his head back into his neck and shrinking into his shoulders like a turtle into its shell, obviously mulling something over.
"Zhu says it's fate that Yuu saved you. He says it's your destiny," he said in time. "That you're…bound to him."
Marie nodded slowly. "I am."
"And that you'll follow him."
Back crossed his arms, then uncrossed them, and finally held them uncomfortably at his sides instead.
"I," he said, with something hard in his voice, "don't believe in fate. Do you understand?"
Bak was a blunt man, but a good one, and that very same bluntness of his found its counter in his own natural awkwardness, which made his intentions easier to read. It was because of this that Marie smiled and waited, perceiving that the small man would have more to say when he was done putting his thoughts in order. Eventually, Bak shifted again, like a bird ruffling its feathers, and he knew he was ready.
"I don't believe in fate at all," he continued out of nowhere. "But I do believe in unavoidable coincidence. And I believe that it was unavoidable coincidence that you encountered Yuu when you did."
"Hmm." Marie considered that. "Unavoidable or not, for now, I'll fight for him. He's why I'm alive."
"He is," Bak agreed, and then fell quiet, and Marie suspected he was dwelling on all the other people who weren't alive.
A golem that Bak must have brought with him suddenly gave a loud sputter, and they both jumped.
"Someone's going to retrieve the Second Exorcist. Fou is going to keep an eye on them, just in case." The message died out with another sputter and the golem flapped its way onto Bak's shoulder.
"I should go," he muttered. "Before he gets here. If you need anything-"
"You won't see him?" Marie interrupted, already half-expecting the answer.
Bak shook his head as though it hung heavy on his neck. "No," he said. "I'm not sure either of us are ready to look each other in the eye."
He gathered up his files into his folder and then moved quietly to the door, but he hesitated when his hand was on the door handle.
"I'm glad he saved you," Bak said. "And I'm glad you brought him out of there."
And he was gone before Marie had the chance to say that he was, too.
Marie found his way carefully from the chair to the bed while he waited for Kanda, and settled himself into what he hoped was a non-threatening posture. Bak had said that Kanda didn't trust freely, and Marie didn't blame him. He himself had moments where rage turned his black world red, thinking how he had almost become one of the corpse-vessels of a Second Exorcist, and it was hard not to silently question what the Order said it was doing to help him.
The sound of heavier footsteps-Crow footsteps, Marie imagined-alerted him to new company in the hall, and he listened until he detected a much lighter pattern underneath them.
"Here we are," someone said from outside, and then there was the familiar opening of the door, a pause as it was presumably held open, and then a long, soundless stretch in which Marie felt a pair of eyes on him. Kanda must have entered the room after a while, because there came the same noises again-hinges, latch, and handle-and he was alone with the boy.
Marie waited to speak until the heavy Crow cloak had swished out of earshot. Zhu must have been busy-there was no way a Crow would have been anyone's first choice to escort Kanda, of all people.
"Do I call you Kanda?" he asked, and there was a quiet, wordless affirmative.
"It's good to see you," Marie tried to add, but now there was only a slight falter in Kanda's breathing that might have been a halted word. It was apparent that Kanda was locked up tight inside himself.
Considering it was the first time Marie had seen Kanda since the incident, there wasn't much other than that he could think of to say-the boy moved around the room a little bit, keeping quiet and close to the walls, slinking by them the way an injured animal might when it didn't want anyone to know it was injured. It was obvious to Marie that Kanda wouldn't reply unless prompted, so he made sure to stick to questions-simple ones, mainly about the Asia Branch and Zhu, but mostly Marie did it so that he could concentrate on his voice and his presence, and try to memorize both. If he was going to have the boy traveling with him, he wanted to be able to pick him out from everything else purely by sound.
Marie hadn't adjusted yet to communicating without visual input, so he spoke in what he thought was Kanda's general direction-he was hard to hear, even for a man with such acute hearing that he had used to be able to hear a song from five streets down, next to a busy marketplace, and then recreate it on his strings for his teammates. Marie knew there was no real point in looking at someone like he was trying to…well, look at them, but it was a habit he didn't think he would be able to break for a long time, and he did it even when it was someone else speaking to him. He also had the tendency to lean towards the voice, which he was trying to make himself stop-Kanda, jumpy as a cat and twice as likely to scratch, didn't like it at all.
Finally, he succeeded in drawing him into conversation-or perhaps, drawing the conversation out of him.
"Do you have your Innocence yet?"
There was a pause which he imagined was Kanda either nodding or shaking his head.
"No," he said. He sounded cautious about it, like he didn't quite trust his own voice. "Zhu still has it. They told me he's making it into a real sword."
"Oh, I'd been wondering what form it would take for you," Marie said with a bit of a smile. "I think it fits you well."
"It's a chokutō," Kanda murmured back, either repressed or recalcitrant. "It's harder to kill with than a katana, but Zhu said that was what he wanted me to have."
Marie got the feeling that Kanda wasn't looking at him. He recrossed his legs on his seat and tried to keep his stance as relaxed as he could.
"Whether or not you feel it yet, eventually you'll start to be uncomfortable when you don't have your Innocence. You'll get used to having it with you."
Marie held up his hand and splayed his fingers so Kanda could see the thick iron bands that adorned each one.
"I know they call Exorcists the people made to wield Innocence, but Innocence is part of the Exorcist. Each one is unique in how it reacts to its Accommodator, but I've always believed that synchronization isn't just an Exorcist understanding Innocence better. I think it's the Innocence starting to understand its Exorcist better, too."
Kanda winced to himself, closing any form of expression inwards and unreadable. His hand clenched, tendon after tendon, and Marie understood, even if he couldn't say for sure whether the boy was already that much an Exorcist, at least, to know Innocence as his will and body and hated how he was inescapably faced with his own accountability, or if he still rejected its intimacy to him and resented what he might view as a circumstantial attachment. Most Exorcists found themselves on both sides of that coin at least once in their lives, and it was up to them to decide in the end what was true, so Marie said nothing more about it.
Learning Innocence was something that took a lifetime-and most Exorcists didn't have long ones. Marie could only hope for Kanda that he had a General who would make sure it wasn't too short.
Among the Black Order, it was said to be an honor to be called before the Grand Generals.
They only presented themselves directly to Exorcists the first time they synchronized with their Innocence, and then only saw them again on the off-chance they lived long enough or were dedicated enough to break the critical one hundred rate, at which point their full synchronization would be observed a second time. The vast majority of non-Exorcist staff never saw them at all, and the only other occasion for them to show their presence was for the revelation of a prophecy from the Cube, as of recently-but even then, only the Exorcist Generals had met personally with the Grand Generals.
So one might understand why General Froi Tiedoll felt he'd seen them a little too often.
He was scratching at his leg through his dusty trousers while he waited for the elevator to descend, dislodging flecks of dried paint from his gold-trimmed General's coat. Grains of his drawing charcoal blackened the creases of his fingers, and callouses formed rough and white like calc on his hands. He resembled the local baker more than the eldest acting General of the Black order, but resemblances meant very little when one could shape reality itself in his hands. His father had been a traveler and a romantic, his mother an Athenian beauty he'd met trekking through Greece. Tiedoll had gotten his propensity for wind-chasing from him, while his mother's curls translated on him into a coarse frazzle.
He was not a man made for war, but sometimes the most unsuited of tools could do the most unlikely of jobs, if one had the ingenuity. And Tiedoll had not only survived this job (which not many did), but succeeded into Generaldom.
From faintly below in the Order's belly, Hevlaska's ghostly light illuminated the lines of his face, cast in crags by the surrounding darkness and grimmer than most ever saw-though one might not be sure it wasn't just a trick of the light.
The elevator drifted to a smooth mechanical stop in empty air, and there was a series bright flashes as a row of bulbs and lenses came to life at once, their beams directing upwards like spotlights onto five of the Order's most enigmatic and influential figures-the Grand Generals. Tiedoll remained impassive except to squint in the harsh, white-washing shine as the hooded men bore down on him from their imperious seats, their faces as ever unseen. Their reserve was tangible and almost sterile, untouched by any humanity at all.
But today, Tiedoll was not willing to see their dispassion as otherworldliness, or a necessary detachment from a world they weren't truly a part of, or as a holy elevation from the trifles of plain living. Today was the day they had told him about the Second Exorcist.
They hadn't showed him logs or files-they'd all been destroyed or locked away so deep that no one would ever find them again. A single Crow had come to inform him (how the men moved from place to place, and who directed them, was a source of mystery to Tiedoll), recounting in lines it sounded like he'd memorized what the research entailed and what that research had ultimately resulted in. It had taken less than a minute-the man hadn't even removed his hood-and then he'd stepped aside and indicated for him to proceed to the deep chambers where the Grand Generals waited. Tiedoll had spent the whole ride down using the black canvas of the walls to color in the details he was savvy enough to know the Crow hadn't said, and the picture he'd painted in his head was grisly and still too wet to touch, like fresh blood spilled.
"General Froi Tiedoll. You've been told of the tragedy of the Asia Branch."
No mention of error on the Vatican, or of how they had nearly condemned Noise Marie from his team when the man was still alive. Tiedoll gave a mirthless smile.
"I have been informed of the project, yes."
They didn't thank him for his time; he was expected to be grateful of being allowed into their presence. There would be no formalities, either-the Grand Generals wouldn't have called for him unless there was something they wanted.
"You have expressed past desires to take on the younger Exorcists as your apprentices."
"That is true." Tiedoll adjusted his ragged traveling cloak around his neck. "If this is about the Second Exorcist, then I am assuming the child needs somewhere to go?"
"He is not a child."
They did not like being anticipated. Tiedoll's smile hardened a degree as they went on.
"He is fully capable of being as dangerous as Alma Karma. He needs an Exorcist of greater power to keep him in check. In this case, a General would be best."
Another one of the men picked up from the last, as if rehearsed or cued.
"Of course, any General would be equipped to adequately subdue the Second if he were to get out of control. However, there has been some question about whether or not you have the moral equipment to do so."
Subdue. Of course.
"Of course I have no objections to the charge," Tiedoll said, delicately avoiding their attempt to corner him, "and in fact, I'm honored that it was me you chose."
There was a murmur among the robed figures, as soft and sibilant as bat wings, that Tiedoll couldn't decipher. The Grand Generals were an eerie collective mind, but not an unintelligent one. They surely detected the question hidden in his statement-why me?
"You may be wondering why you were selected for this," one of them said down to him, and Tiedoll internally sighed. It was impossible to tell which of them had said it, since they all even sounded alike to the other, but it hardly mattered when they were all insistent that everything be their idea.
"So I was." He didn't bother hiding the dryness of his tone.
"Winters Socorro already has Kazana Reed and Chakar Rabon in his discipleship, both junior Exorcists, and Marian Cross won't be filling the position for obvious reasons."
There was another sort of unified grumble-sometimes, Tiedoll thought that Marian's best quality might be his ability to irritate the Vatican.
"In any case, since your team has been eliminated, and Noise Marie has already had contact with the Second Exorcist, you should have the most success to take him as an apprentice."
Tiedoll refused to show the pain at the reminder of the team he'd lost-each of their deaths was a barb, and new enough that stirring their memories only pierced him harder. Instead, he focused on the implications of their answer. It appeared they expected the Second to be unmanageable-or at least extremely volatile. There was no other reason for them to refuse putting him with Socorro when they obviously favored a more hardened choice-they thought that if they did, Socorro would kill him quickly.
"I see. I am to take it that Noise Marie will be returning to my team, then?"
"Correct. Unforeseen circumstances have allowed him to return to duty. Both Noise Marie and the Second will join you-at present, they are both still posted in China."
Tiedoll raised a bushy eyebrow at the "unforeseen circumstances", but didn't bring it up. "Good. Then I expect they will be sent word they are to become a part of my team."
The Grand Generals all nodded together. "Correct."
"I look forward to taking on a new apprentice." He clapped his hands together. "I shall take my leave immediately."
"May God be with you."
The elevator hummed and then started into ascent, the echoes of their words rising with him. He didn't know what he could do for the Second Exorcist, nor did he know anything about him other than that he possessed natural abilities which far outstripped a regular Exorcist and that he could heal from supposedly any wound-well, that and one more thing.
In his pocket was a picture, a photograph he'd been handed with the absurdly sparse briefing folder while he spoke with the Crow-he didn't think he had noticed that Tiedoll had kept it. It was a sad picture to him, with all the smiling people who probably stayed up for sleepless hours of the night debating the moral worth of the things they did in God's name, and with the two children standing at their front in strange clothing and fading but fresh scars faintly visible on them.
He had asked which one was the survivor, and the Crow had pointed to the boy with the long, dark hair threatening to obscure his face and the sullen, tired look. What Tiedoll found himself captured by was something about his eyes-something about them that reminded him of the elevator trip down to the Generals, and how it felt to be moving down through darkness with no way to see where he'd come from or how far through the emptiness he would have to reach before he found the wall.
And that told him more than anything the Crow could have said.
One might think from the way he acted that Tiedoll was not angered by many things. They would be wrong-many things disturbed his temper, but only very few of those things ever disturbed the surface of his tranquil façade. This one was coming close.
Tiedoll was, above all, an artist. It was his specialty to make something from nothing-and so it would be with the Second Exorcist. But first, Tiedoll would need his tools-tools that the Order couldn't provide.
He emerged out of the elevator chamber and back out of the labs, to where the vast, cathedral-like windows of the Order cast caustic sunlight into the building, and he felt better for it. It would storm again on the island soon, he was sure, but he wouldn't be around to see it.
Tiedoll put a hand into his pocket with the photograph and hummed a song to himself that he had heard on a French streetcorner once-a pleasant ditty that gave away no nerve. After all, what had he to be nervous about? He had suggested to the Grand Generals that he would be traveling to China to meet his new apprentice, and he was departing the Order to do so. No one would stop him.
In truth, though, Tiedoll had never said any such thing, and that knowledge was what gave his little melody its extra beat. Tiedoll had certainly told the Generals that he would be taking leave from London, and certainly he'd said that he wished to discover more about the Second Exorcist, but he had at no point in their interrogation of him declared outright that he would actually be going to Asia to collect him. In fact, once he had gotten far enough away from the Order-too far to stop, but not too far for a message not to be intercepted-he would send word ahead to Marie to bring young Kanda over to the Order himself. His General would be away on business.
Tiedoll walked humming and unaccosted right out of the Order, and then he walked right off the boat from the island, and not a man stopped him. It was, he thought privately, very foolish to assume-and even more so to expect someone you had misled to not return the favor. But who knew? Perhaps he would to go Asia, if that was where Marian Cross could be found.
For, just as it was foolish to trust someone by virtue of wearing your colors, it was foolish just the same to assume that someone unfound was unfindable by another man.
Tiedoll boarded the train from England with vengefully high spirits. Here was the perfect opportunity to get lost in transit.
Best to leave Marie a message.
Chapter 3: Dahlia
It was a day after visiting Kanda, and Marie had taken it upon himself to practice moving through the building unaided. He had been fairly adept at it before the recent incident had knocked him back off his feet, and he felt well enough now to try it again-better than he should have, in fact. He had an inkling that Kanda's blood might have had something to do with it.
The medical staff wouldn't approve, but Marie wasn't as brazen as some of his Exorcist brothers and sisters who made their breaks out of the infirmary, and the nurses here weren't half as used to their patients making breaks in the first place. Marie had already spent enough time remembering his teammates on his strings-it was time he prepared to fight once again.
Marie knew that voice, as well as he knew that it was useless to tell Bak there was no need to yell.
"Bak. Did you need something?"
The young scientist huffed to a stop, haste ceasing at once, and then thrust something into his hands in abrupt charity.
"Here," he said bluntly. "You've already got great ears, so the nutjobs down in tech development took apart some golems to put these things together. We think they'll make battle easier when you're back on the field, and you'll be able to contact Headquarters whenever, too."
Marie felt the things over in his hands, refraining from pointing out that Bak was one of those "nutjobs", too. "What are they?"
"Headphones. They'll help you hear better."
Marie looked down at them out of instinct, forgetting for a moment that doing so would not make the situation any clearer.
"You put them over your ears," Bak prompted.
"And putting things over my ears will help me hear better."
Bak snorted with the haughty impatience that Marie worried was going to get him hit one day. "Just put them on, Exorcist."
Marie put them on, to appease both Bak and his own curiosity.
"Do they work?" Bak asked excitedly.
Marie turned his head from side to side, trying on practiced impulse to pinpoint the locations of the sounds as if they were actually happening around him.
"Yes, loud and clear. It's amazing!"
In his mind's eye, he could see Bak breaking out into a grin of boyish glee at his amazement-the kind that could only come from a true love of one's calling.
"Isn't it?! I-"
There was a beeping in his ears and Marie quickly gestured for him to stem the inevitable outpour of information for the moment.
"I'm getting a message, I think."
His finger found the button on the side of the set and there was a brief cough of static before a voice broke through.
"General!" Marie exclaimed in surprise. Bak inched in close to try and overhear.
"It's a relief to hear from you, my boy." Tiedoll sounded tearful, but then, he did most of the time. "It'll be even more of a relief to have you back on the team-you and the child, of course."
It took a moment for that to sink in.
"You mean you'll take Kanda?"
"Of course! It'll be like having a new brother for you, Noise."
Marie smiled widely in Bak's direction and pressed the earcup to the side of his head, like he could physically hold the wonderful news closer-they got to keep the kid. Kanda got to be released into a General's supervision, and at that the supervision of a General who, Marie would swear, would never relinquish any one of his apprentices into Central's clutches once he'd taken them into his care.
Marie felt lighter than he had for all the days he'd stayed at the Asia Branch-what he'd previously written off as a product of the oppressive recent solemnity darkening his spirits, like a cold, heavy coat he was fatigued to wear on his back, had all along been simply worry and dread. Dread of what might come to be in his future, and in Kanda's, of what it would mean to return to the battlefield without wanting to die.
He could tell this now, because at the General's words, the emotion that loosened the restraints of his nerves was unmistakably relief.
"Marie, listen." The General's voice drew him back to Earth. "You're going to have to bring him back to the Order yourself. I have business of my own to take care of, but I'll meet you there later. Will you be alright?"
Marie frowned in slight confusion. "Of course, General."
He knew better than to ask what the "other business" was, but he couldn't help his concern. It was just like the General to go off on his own, and to exclude his apprentices for their own safety, with no regard for his own.
"Are you sure you don't want me to meet up with you?"
"No, no, there's no need for you to worry," Tiedoll assured him benignly, like he was simply going into town on an errand. "It's best for you to stay with young Kanda-keep him safe until I get back. All I need to do is ask someone a few…important questions, and then I'll be right back."
"Important-?" Bak tried to butt in, but Tiedoll carried on blithely.
"Oh, and don't be alarmed if the Order doesn't seem to know where I am. I left rather unexpectedly, you understand."
"General," Marie sighed with despair. Bak wisely inhaled the things he had wanted to ask, and the General's chuckle carried over his golem with a rushing of wind that swept away half the sound.
"I must be on my way," he apologized. "Make sure that both you and Kanda get safely to the Order."
"Yes, General," Marie said. He seriously absorbed the new charge-probably more seriously than he needed to, but he was determined to carry it out. "Please, make sure that you take care as well."
Marie didn't think it was because of the headphones that he could hear Tiedoll's smile.
"I will do my best," his General promised him. "And I'll look forward to seeing you at the Order."
The connection cut to silence, and Marie clicked himself out of the network. Bak was waiting for him to explain, he could tell, and practically bursting with questions.
He restrained himself. "Hey, Marie. I think you just lost your General."
"Oh, no. I should have expected this." Marie shook his head fondly. "Whenever the Vatican starts stepping on his toes, the General usually…goes for a bit of a walk. Normally he tells me, but he can't normally tell me why, in case the Order asks about him. You won't see him on any trains for a while, or anywhere affiliated with the Order."
Bak thought about that. "Should I just pretend I didn't hear anything?"
"I don't think it matters too much. My General can be as bad as Cross when it comes to not being found. Although if you don't have a good reason to spread the information around, I would prefer it if you did not."
"Sure, sure," Bak tutted. "I get it. I guess you're probably used to this sort of thing happening around the Order, aren't you?"
Marie just smiled. "Thank you," he said. "I think that you will make an exceptional Branch Head."
"Ha. Well, I'll try and make sure this place is still waiting for you, if you ever come back. Maybe we'll see you again someday-and maybe we'll even see Kanda again, too. Just…in better days." His voice went distant; his thoughts, to the dead.
"There will be better days," Marie could hear Tiedoll saying. "Have faith."
And Marie thought this might be the first time he believed. He reached a hand to Bak, and waited until he felt him awkwardly take it.
"Thank you," Marie told him again. "For everything you've done-for me and for Kanda both."
Bak quickly took his hand back, and cleared his throat. "Yes," he said, by the sound of it fiddling with his jacket lapels. "Yes. I'll take it that you'll be leaving soon-as soon as you can, if I know you at all."
Marie could do nothing but nod. Bak sighed.
"You might want to leave sooner rather than later, then. Otherwise, someone might start causing trouble about you taking Kanda. Not all of Central agrees that he should be released, you know, and if they find out he's not being transferred to a General, it's likely someone will use that as an excuse to start hemming you in with red tape. Right now is your chance-no one is filling in all the old jobs yet, so everything is completely backlogged-paperwork, communications. I'm going to start putting things in order as soon as possible, but…well, there are some other things I could do first."
Marie was solemn, but at peace. "You'll do well with this place," he said.
The two men shared a moment of understanding between them.
"We'll do better, from here on," Bak said, and it was the greatest affirmation Marie could have heard.
They left early, when the morning was damp and the sun was watery.
Marie imagined he felt Bak still watching them with the Guardian's eyes from somewhere in the mountains behind them. The waver and then halt in Kanda's footsteps said he might be thinking the same thing, checking back for a sign of him Marie knew he wouldn't find.
In a way, he was glad that they were parting the young Chan heir without a farewell-it helped Marie find some certainty in what he was doing, a conviction in his course that made him readier to face it. He was an Exorcist, after all-always had been. He had his mission, and Bak had his, and his work never ended but it still had to be done before he died.
He took a deep breath. The air was sweet and clear, and it would carry him home.
"Let's go, Kanda."
There was a barely audible sound that might have been agreement or might have been a pebble down the mountain, and they started into the bamboo fields.
The sun was starting to rise, and Marie found it wasn't so different without his sight-he could feel slats of coldness and warmth shifting over him as he walked, light and the bamboo leaves taking turns, and it wasn't as hard to navigate the tall stalks as he would have expected. All he had to do was imagine that it was music he was listening for, picking out the strains of individual instruments the way he had loved to do as a child. There was the rustling squabble of the wind and the leaves, the soft crunching and nervous, pattering heartbeat that was Kanda creeping through the forest, the whisper-drop of a feather from a perching bird.
The golem they'd been sent along with fluttered noisily ahead of them for Marie to follow, which was strange because he'd always thought the golems were fairly hard to hear before. The headphones really were working-he could hear the difference.
After a short time it became apparent that nature was the only thing he could hear, though-Kanda didn't have anything to say. He didn't ask any questions, or try to start up a conversation, and Marie didn't push him.
But it was hard to know what the boy was thinking. He'd shown no sign of trying to talk, but no sign of splitting from Marie, either-no sign of running. For some reason, Kanda seemed to think he needed this, what the Order could bring him-that or maybe he just saw no point in being anywhere else.
Marie really wasn't sure what he would do if Kanda did try to run. Let him go? Follow him? Convince him to stay?
For now, he would leave that to Kanda-it wasn't necessary that Marie understood his logic. He didn't want to teach Kanda that being in his presence meant being cornered with words or being put on the defensive-Kanda shouldn't have to think of Marie as someone who tried to pull him outside of what he was comfortable with, and Marie wanted to keep the tentative trust he had.
It was a right that most Exorcists afforded each other, after all, when it came to their backgrounds-the right to say nothing at all. Innocence didn't care if its Accommodators came from rust or riches, and it was hardly possible to find one who hadn't had the course of their life somehow twisted by the war even before they were explicitly involved in it. Some left behind a past full of shadows, and others came from a life of memories too fond to recall without the Order's reality harshening a raw heart.
Very few became agents of the Vatican without looking to start over. In Marie's opinion, sometimes the only way to survive the war to fight it as someone else.
He wondered who Kanda would be.
For his part, Kanda kept staring around the bamboo fields-he couldn't decide if he liked all the green surrounding him or not. It was hugely different from the gray, man-made environment he was used to, but at the same time, the monotony of it-one stalk after another stalk after another three hundred-lent it a feeling of cyclicality, like maybe he really wasn't going anywhere at all.
He did like the way they appeared to reach towards the sun above, though-it reminded him of something, maybe something someone had said, something that wouldn't quite form into a whole memory. Something about the lotuses.
It itched at the back of his mind as he walked, but not quite in a bad way-it reminded Kanda of sensation returning to a body part that had been idle too long. He took in a slow breath, pulling air in and pressing the surreal out, so that it was easier to think in the present, and of where he was going.
Of course, the Order was all he knew-but this would be his first time in it as a cog rather than a captive. How much different would things be, in Europe, and as an Exorcist? Kanda wondered these things in the bracing manner of one who did not truly want to know the answers, and tried not to feel too much like he was about to walk into a living cage. If he had to be in a cage, better one that would at least move with him-better anything that might give him even a chance of chasing the woman, and that…significance she carried with her, as though there was more meaning to the woman than just a woman.
It was a painful significance. But it was a pain that filled.
Kanda had learned by now that emptiness was an emotion. He had also learned that nothingness was worse than pain.
He shook the thoughts into the back of his head like he always did and squinted in front of him-it always got harder to see Marie when he thought like that. He concentrated until the lotuses cleared away a bit and blurred back into comfortable semi-reality, letting Marie's tall silhouette sharpen into clarity again.
There was the vaguest tilt of the head from the man as if in answer, and a brief warmth over the visible edge of his face which said that, consciously or not, he sensed Kanda's attention. Kanda looked away-he did not know fully what to make of Marie yet, other than that he wanted to follow him.
It was not that Kanda had no questions, it was that there were so many things which he did not understand that he couldn't even begin figuring out how he might be able to-there was nothing for him to ask, and nothing he wanted to say, anyway.
He found himself scrutinizing Marie's back from behind again-even breaths, casual efficiency, his balance held at his center. He wondered if he could ever be that calm, if the storm could ever be that quiet. His life thus far had been monotony interrupted by violent chaos, but no upheaval seemed to breach Marie's level existence. Even in his stride, there was a confidence like still, deep water as he moved through the dense field-one that Kanda couldn't hope to match despite Marie, as he had told him, not being able to see anything at all.
Kanda was not sure he understood fully what it meant to be blind, but it unnerved him deep down, deep to his heart, to imagine what the world would be like if all of it was dark and he couldn't see the lotuses at all-because of course they would still be there, rustling just against his ear or folding under his foot. Perhaps he would even find them brushing over his skin when he got into bed-perhaps they would grow over him and suffocate him while he slept.
Sometimes, Kanda wondered if they breathed.
A part of him-a large part of him-wanted to make Marie tell him what the world was like when the lotuses weren't there, but he remembered what Zhu had said about not telling anyone else and he didn't. Also, said a voice that was very quiet but also very hard to ignore, he didn't want to hear that the lotuses weren't real. Even hearing Zhu say it had made him self-conscious, because how could Kanda be a part of this world when he couldn't see it the way everyone else did?
The lotuses and the lady and sometimes the other things that whispered, he thought, would always be just beyond either reality or fiction, something he didn't quite have a name for yet. They couldn't be all in his head-the lady had to come from somewhere, right? From that other life that was his.
It had all seemed so clear at the Asia Branch. Out here, surrounded by all these strange things and getting further away from the familiar, it seemed that she got farther away, too-though at times, like now, when his thoughts became too deep, he would see a ruffled hem disappear behind a bamboo patch, or the sun would flash softly off of fair hair in the corner of his eye. He could…see her, almost. He was so aware of her it hurt to describe it, especially because somehow that made her feel so much farther away.
How big was this world, he wondered? And how far away from him could she be in it?
Kanda felt something like a shudder flash through him, and felt that he had found another thing which he knew out of nowhere. Whatever was beyond the green could simply swallow him with its…bigness, and it would be very difficult to be found. The lady had to be very lost, wherever she was.
Kanda had to duck suddenly under a low-hanging bamboo leaf, and blew it indignantly away as he lost two paces to Marie. For now, his world was close and near, and full of the bitter, damp smells of leaves in the morning. His journey was just beginning, and he had time to reach the end.
He decided he liked the green after all.
As the day stretched on warmer and brighter, Marie found himself settling more and more into the familiar rhythm of travel. He hesitated less in his direction, and he had been able to pick up their pace a little. By the time the sun was starting to feel hot on his skin, Marie felt confident that they had come far enough and made good enough time to stop for a while.
Bak, along with his overly enthusiastic assistant Wong and a few other unseen scientists and researchers, had packed them both food and blankets to be rolled out, probably more than they would need before they were back in civilization. Marie found a sheltered spot to stop, assuming Kanda would follow (he hadn't said one word for the entire day), and unslung his pack from over his shoulder to sit down and rifle through the contents.
He found simple foods, lasting foods, packed for the trip, most of which Marie could identify by touch and smell but some which he could not. Kanda came inching quietly into the space with him, and accepted what he was handed-Marie trusted Bak, and Kanda trusted Marie, at least for the moment.
They were dry foods, unfortunately, for the sake of not spoiling, and so both mostly tasteless and prone to sticking in the throat. It was tempting to use their water supply to swallow them down, which Marie knew would be foolish to waste-he had no doubt that the golem would lead them to their destination, but Marie still wasn't sure how many days it would take them to reach it, and more importantly, if they would encounter more clean resources along the way.
Kanda, from the awkward, muffled crinkling of him adjusting and readjusting his fingers, was spending some time turning his own portion over and over in his hands, not seeming at all familiar with the foods or how to eat them, which Marie found slightly strange. Out of the two of them, Kanda should be the one who was more at home-he'd been raised in the Asia Branch his whole life, though that life was admittedly much shorter than Marie's had been so far.
"What's this?" He eventually asked, with audible suspicion.
"It's…" Marie wasn't sure how to answer that. He couldn't see what he had, after all, and he believed Kanda understood that already. Did he mean something else? "It's safe food. From Bak," he finally settled on.
There was a very serious pause, which Marie filled in automatically as a slow nod.
"Not pills," he muttered, and then, "Or mayonnaise." Marie had no idea how to interpret that, but for Kanda, at least, everything seemed to have been clarified. There was quiet munching and nothing else-all must have been well, he supposed.
Or at least, all was well until several hours later after they had resumed the road, at which point Marie was unexpectedly faced with his first real moment of adult terror as Kanda, out of nowhere, began retching violently into the undergrowth, yanking him out of deep, meditative thought and directly into images of a future where something was seriously wrong and Marie lost the kid before he even got him to Tiedoll.
There was then urgent questioning, some rather unhappy answers, and a forcedly calm call by golem back to the Asia Branch which assured him that this was temporary and not life-threatening, causing Kanda to pipe up indignantly to remind him that he'd said he was fine in the first place. Marie ignored him in favor of listening to a scientist who apparently knew about these things explaining to him that while Kanda was biologically like any other human in that he could live off the same food they did, after subsisting off of vitamin pellets and pills for so long the switch to "normal" meals was probably taking its toll on his body.
This was not overly difficult for Marie to wrap his head around, but trying to convince Kanda after this incident that the solution to his discomfort was to put himself through more of the same was a task in itself. Once the golem was disconnected, it returned to being their navigator, and Marie eventually relented with trying to convince Kanda, when his responses went from terse to sullen again.
As time went uneventfully on, Marie felt the sun's heat moving and waning overhead as the afternoon passed on into evening, and he tried to tune his ears to the winds and the vague, omnipresent static-noise of the world as he off-handedly speculated on how close they would be able to get to the trains before he would hear them.
He wasn't accustomed enough to this part of China to have a guess on exactly when that might be, having never been to the Asian Headquarters before he'd been relocated there for medical attention, but he could weakly estimate that they would need to camp at least a few nights along the way before they reached the train-conveniently located in the nearest city to this branch of the Order. Trains were still a novelty in China, outside of the major cities, and Marie doubted it was a coincidence that they all seemed to connect to the Order eventually-the Order always had the best technology, and every now and again it allowed the right people to "discover" something which would further their own cause.
Marie recognized his own bias tainting the observation, and made himself quash down the bitterness-the Order was insidious, but he was a part of it. He stopped where he was and breathed out through his nose, while Kanda's footsteps faltered out of their pattern with his and found their stop a moment behind him. Marie listened, and thought hard about the life attached to them.
He slung down his pack again and imagined slinging off his thoughts with it. "Kanda, let's rest here for the night," he decided.
The boy was strong-stronger than a normal boy his age, certainly-but he wasn't used to hard travel the way Marie was. He didn't protest when Marie began to feel and sort out the bedding material stored away, partially warm from his body heat, and he came close to receive what was his before retreating out of reach again like he thought he was in danger of being grabbed.
Marie settled himself in-it was occasionally an inconvenience to cover his whole body in blankets made for the type of man who did not have to stoop through doorways to avoid hitting his head.
"I'll wake you when it's time for us to go."
Still no complaints. Kanda did nothing but blink at him for a second or two (possibly not even that), and then curled wordlessly into his blankets, leaves and loose earth shuffling as he turned to face away from Marie into the spindly forest.
Marie focused on the silence for only a few moments before he turned his head back up to the sky he knew was above him, and with the feel of cool darkness on his face, thought about what he'd learned and what he was unlearning, after so many years of being an Exorcist. Those heavy thoughts carried him to heavy dreams, in a slow slumber, but even drifting on the verge of falling into it, he was somehow resignedly aware-Kanda did not sleep at all.
Tomorrow would be long-and no less because Marie didn't know what it would bring.
Chapter 4: Nettle
The day they left the bamboo fields was the day Marie truly began to worry about Kanda. Ironically, it was also the first day when he knew that Kanda had actually slept through the night.
As the breathy sound of wind in and out of the leaves filtered into his awareness, Marie lifted his head from his bedding ever so slightly so that he could listen for his companion, confirming that yes, Kanda was still there, and yes, he was asleep, and still sleeping.
From just at Marie's side, there was a leathery, impatient shifting as the golem uncurled itself-they had settled into a tentative routine of morning and night, with the golem leading them during the day, and then as night fell, rustling its wings stubbornly into its sides and landing near the bedroll of whoever was less likely to shoo it away, like it intended to sleep with them. Usually, that was Marie-Kanda had complained before about feeling like it was watching him, which, knowing the Order, it might have been.
Speaking of Kanda. Marie sat himself up stealthily, debating with himself whether or not he ought to wake Kanda right away, but he needn't have bothered. As soon as his muscles twitched with so much as the idea of motion, he heard Kanda jolt up abruptly, and a little bit wildly. Marie kept still and calm to let him look around and remember where he was for himself, but Marie wondered if his reaction came from being woken up, or from whatever he'd been woken up out of. He wished he could see his face to know.
Thinking on that as they packed and began to go, Marie came to the uncanny realization that he had never actually seen Kanda with his own eyes. It was very strange to think he never would. He could describe how he felt, sharp bones and taut angles, with a child's perfect, smooth skin and soft hair (he was positive that it was a shadowy color). There was a feel even to his eyes, narrow, ice-sharp slits that followed all his movements with suspicion, and an awareness of a bold spirit which peered critically out at the world around it.
He was learning Kanda's sounds, too, always like rain and wind and sometimes fraught with things that snapped their teeth. But for all that, Marie would simply never know what he looked like. It brought a sense of strangeness and a very real sense of loss which he had not quite felt before.
And it was as he was thinking about things he wasn't feeling and things he was losing that they arrived at the end of the bamboo.
Marie felt it as it happened-the wind suddenly became clearer in sensation, the smell of the air became drier and unfamiliar, and Kanda stopped short at the same time Marie did.
Kanda's reluctance made sense-spaces that didn't end in walls were still daunting concepts for Kanda, who had started and then spent his first year of life in a contained area-but Marie knew his own was irrational. He felt off his balance just at the thought of open ground with no immediate aids, even though it was probably less treacherous of a surface than rotting leaf litter.
He took carefully measured steps back to Kanda, counting each one in his head to remind himself he could, and then put a hand onto Kanda's shoulder-if he could find that without seeing it, then certainly he could find something as big as a city.
As per usual when he initiated any sort of physical contact with Kanda, the boy-though he neither lashed out nor moved away, like Marie had been warned he had in the past-froze into place and then tremored just perceptibly under his hand like a powder keg, as though only immense self-discipline was holding him in place.
Well. They both had things that needed working on.
"This way, Kanda," Marie directed gently, drawing courage from the almost-confidence in his own voice. The golem winged in impatient circles around his head. "We've almost made it."
Had they? Well, they were closer than they were before.
Kanda subjected Marie to a sky-colored scrutiny, unseen, but stayed under Marie's hand, because he was young enough and because he wasn't sure he wanted to move forward yet. The world ahead, still touched with green in patches, was…was a world, unbounded and frightening.
Kanda measured the distance to where the bed of bamboo leaves ended-that line was a threshold to Kanda, and once he was over it he felt that the whole bright sky could glare down at him and he would be exposed to everything in it and under it. But when Marie went on, so did Kanda.
Ahead was the only way, he told himself. Follow Marie. He could do that- follow Marie.
He held his breath-the cover of the arching plants broke-and…nothing happened.
Kanda felt no earth-shattering change. His eyes adjusted to the light. He heard a bird call that he hadn't before. Nothing else. To add to the non-event of it all, Kanda yawned.
He picked his way after Marie, making up the pause, and found that without the tension he was much more tired than he'd thought. Lately it had become harder than Kanda remembered to make his mind transition from thought to sleep. At the Asia Branch, he'd never had to think about how to sleep, but it was different when he knew he would be waking with a destination.
For the very first days of their journey, Kanda hadn't been able to sleep at all. He hated sleeping outside in the dark and the unfamiliar noise, but exhaustion did it eventually-exhaustion and enough days of Marie's even breathing nearby, and one night Kanda wondered about the sky and trains until his wondering simply became dreaming.
He still didn't like sleeping outside, of course. But Kanda had decided he would rather sleep out in the bamboo for the rest of his life than endure the experience that Marie was calling a "train"-which, from what Marie had said, promised to be teeming with people and confusing new terms and probably too much noise.
And Finders, Kanda recalled. Bak had said they were supposed to meet Finders in Europe. Kanda didn't know what Finders were, but it didn't matter to him that much-Kanda didn't like sleeping outside, he didn't like trains, and he didn't intend to like Finders, either.
Marie was steeling himself in his own way as they wore on.
He was nervous, but not showing it. Tiedoll's words were coming back to haunt him: keep him safe.
Bak had made a point that worried Marie-the Order was vicious, and a two-headed beast. It would be loath to let the last Second Disciple out of its teeth, but the reception waiting for them in Europe might be less than welcoming for someone with so little reason to owe loyalty. Marie hoped this wasn't the case, because he was not nearly prepared to defend their freedoms as secret and keeper, respectively, without the support of his General.
At least the timing was good. With no official word from Asia Headquarters to tell anyone otherwise, Marie was just bringing in a new Exorcist from his last mission, since the operatives in the Second Exorcist project had last reported Marie as being held for medical treatment (probably until they could claim he died of complications).
With European Headquarters temporarily without a Branch Chief, Marie hoped he could get Kanda's paperwork into the system before the next Chief got things in order. No one would question an Exorcist file with some holes in it-that sort of thing was standard for Exorcists.
What Marie was more worried about, actually, was what sort of uncomfortable questions might come up about where he'd come across a Japanese Exorcist. Akuma-savaged Japan had proven impassible to all Order affiliates trying to get in, and all human citizens trying to get out. Suspicion was sure to follow Kanda, but hopefully it would stay at rank-and-file-the Branch Chief never bothered to communicate personally with his Exorcists, except when severe disciplinary action was required.
In those cases, the Branch Head would come to them himself, flanked with shaven, stripe-uniformed guards, usually just before the unfortunate soul was dragged off for questioning under threat of inquisition. Marie had only ever see it happen once-Winters Socorro had gone the whole way laughing like a madman, and come back laughing harder.
The memory was disturbing one, and he didn't want to relive it. Marie debated calling ahead to the Finders at the European Branch just to put his mind at ease, but he knew it would be premature rather than prudent, and that the less warning he gave to Headquarters, the better off he would be.
He forced his attention ahead. This far out, the air was starting to change. It had been changing for a while-the chorus of half-conscious nature sounds had begun to die out, and there were fewer trees cropping up along the way. The ground was flatter, too, and there was a smoky edge to the air-all signs of human habitation. Marie swallowed in compulsion, and the smoke clung to the inside of his throat.
Was he prepared to do this?
Kanda was becoming broodier and broodier the closer they came to their destination, and Marie couldn't blame him-he himself was getting antsier with each second he thought about what was to come.
Marie catalogued everything he knew and tried to fit himself back into the mission routine-right, he could do this, he'd done this since he was a wide-eyed barely-teen. Marie wasn't in uniform-he and Bak had both decided it was too unsafe in their situation to advertise their own colors. Getting attacked by Akuma could be disastrous with an Exorcist fresh back into the field and an Exorcist who had never even used refined Innocence before.
Kanda's Mugen was sheathed and out of sight in his travel bag and Kanda didn't seem to have any other idea of what to do with it. Marie wondered if they should stop one more time, but a restless instinct made him press them on further-something told him the journey was almost done with. It was just that Marie wasn't sure what would be waiting for him at the end of it.
The exact moment the city appeared on the horizon, Marie knew, and almost wished he didn't. Here would be the test.
Marie was afraid of failing. He was afraid of failing himself, failing his General, failing this Second Exorcist. He wasn't ready for this, for being the only one to turn to, for having enough strength for Kanda and for himself and for himself for Kanda. The world was confusing and full of monsters, and how could he know where to go without his eyes anymore-
But now they were at the city.
It started to rise from the ground around them and Marie listened to the filtering of the air, first through little, squat houses that slowly became closer together, and then through denser, higher-reaching architecture that built towards its heart.
The threshold of Order territory to unaffiliated territory had needed an emotional steeling and a mustering of courage to cross, and marked a mental transition more than a physical one. A patch of dirt was only so different from another patch of dirt, after all. But the threshold from unaffiliated land to industrialized land was like a physical barrier hitting them.
It baffled Marie, who had heard the sound creeping up on them before it had suddenly roared up and swallowed them between one step and the next. The air came in hot on his next breath, Kanda coiled low into himself, and static blazed in Marie's ears. People swarmed around them, each one ringing painfully in his ears.
Wait, Marie thought, wait, I'm not ready-
But deep down, Marie knew that the issue was not really that he was afraid he hadn't recovered from losing his vision-if Marie was afraid of that, he would have never have left the Order, and certainly Bak would not have let him. Marie's doubt in himself was the issue in and of itself-he was not so assured, anymore, after losing a team and then losing his faith in the Order and then almost losing his life all so close together.
Marie took responsibility harder than most, and now this city, this rush around him, all the clamor seemed to laugh at him. Here would be such an easy place to lose a child. They'd gotten this far-it was high time something went wrong. Marie's high-running anxiety told him to act to somehow combat the intangible threat of failure, to grab Kanda and get out of sight.
Marie actually started to reach for him, but thought and stopped himself-Kanda clearly was not ready to be shepherded by the hand. He already had his hackles up like a wild hyena that had nearly torn Marie's throat out once when he was with his old team-Kanda's space was not to be trespassed, or it would be teeth for the trespasser. This was even more jarringly unfamiliar to Kanda than to Marie, after all. Marie already knew the steps, if not the method.
"Kanda, stay close to me," Marie murmured, pitching his voice deep for Kanda to hear. "We shouldn't be attacked in a town so close to the Order, and the trains running out of here are probably Order-monitored, but even though we're not wearing uniforms Akuma can sometimes sense Innocence when it's close to them. So make sure you keep Mugen with you all the time."
"I know that," he thought Kanda's small, sulky voice said under the noise, but Marie felt him draw his arms tight to his chest with his Innocence and draw closer beside him.
Marie realized he sympathized with that edgy watchfulness. After the muted, resonating quality of Asian Headquarters, a place of reverence and respect despite a population even larger than the European Branch, the station didn't sound like it was packed full of people at all-it sounded like flocks and herds of high, chattering creatures, indecipherable except that they seemed to be bellowing, shrieking, and stampeding all around. It was…well, "disoriented" wasn't the word for it.
But now Marie found himself able to move on.
He still paid close attention to Kanda-to the way he shrunk into himself more at every piercing noise, locking into himself with a violent tension Marie could feel in the air, all fight and readiness to lash out at the first stranger who approached him.
Marie didn't think Kanda noticed him doing it-he was obviously familiar with the tongues being spoken around them, though he had only ever spoken to Marie in English. Kanda's English, it had to be said, was already much, much better than Marie's Chinese.
This didn't surprise Marie-the Order taught all of its members vigorous English for the sake of a common language, since such things were vital for the instant communication that could determine whether a mission succeeded or failed. They were often less vigorous with the Finders, as they were a lower priority and had a much higher turnover rate, and Marie found he occasionally liked to converse with the ones who spoke his native German. He hoped sometimes that he might meet another Exorcist who was naturally fluent, one day-sometimes, Marie forgot his own nationality.
Marie was mindful of how others reacted to Kanda, too-compared to Marie, Kanda didn't stand out half as much. Bak had said he was biologically Japanese, and Marie might have told as much anyway-he could have been deaf as well as blind and still noticed the attention he attracted with his hulking, muscled frame and his dark, earth-and-sun skin, or how that attention for the most part slid right over Kanda.
As an Exorcist, Marie was used to this sort of thing. The fact that he wasn't wearing his uniform in this country didn't make so much of a difference when he was already so out of place. At the very least, it afforded him more walking space, which he was sure Kanda appreciated.
It gave Marie the freedom to step less carefully, and be less wary of misstepping in the unpredictable human rapids around him. It also gave him the freedom to keep his head down and listen with his feet when the ground began to thrum with the very first vibrations of noise.
Marie beckoned Kanda subtly around and started weaving to where the sound was coming to before others who might be waiting began to notice. Hopefully, they could both get boarded before there was too much of a crowd inside-while the Exorcists were guaranteed seats and access, the affair of getting it tended to draw attention. Lots of people meant lots of eyes, and a strange passenger getting priority treatment in the Order's flavors drew many of them-and many eyes meant many mouths.
Kanda followed him step for step, determinedly avoiding the feet of taller passerby who didn't think to glance down, and pulled in close to the cover of a grungy building overhang facing the central train platform when Marie did, ducking inwards and waiting attentively. The thrum became a rumble became a screech heralding the engine as it came pulling heavily into the station, and Kanda straightened up in heart-pounding alertness to watch it.
He flinched into Marie when the whistle shrieked a mouthful of steam and the metal rails creaked with force, but for Marie these were all cues-the train stopping, the doors opening, the conductor's shout, and then the breath of collective impatience before people began pouring off the train.
Marie braced himself, brushed a hand by Kanda's shoulder to warn him, and then pressed shoulders-first into the one-way force of those disembarking. It was a short distance-Marie had picked his spot well-but an arduous one full of direct disruption.
Marie tried to hide Kanda in his shadow as they shoved out of it to the flank of the train-the conductor was still shouting at the front, and he didn't think Kanda would take to well to being shouted at. Marie already could see that anger was not going to be the right way to deal with Kanda, just like he could tell already that too many people were going to try it anyway.
Nervous as a rookie Exorcist, Marie felt his way along the side and clambered aboard the train, which he did his best not to give away either to the suddenly flustered and overly-welcoming conductor who had been told to expect them or to anyone else looking. The last think Marie wanted was to put Kanda on edge any more then he was already-at this point, if Kanda wound any tighter he was going to snap. And anyway, Marie had learned by now that there was nothing more likely to make people flock to you than acting like you had something to hide.
Moving into the stifled-smelling containment of the passenger compartment, Marie was hyper-aware of everything going on around him-his combat paranoia was kicking into gear just like normal, and his hearing, his best available asset, was compensating for the constant surveying he couldn't do. He hadn't even known he could listen at this level-wind, metal fixings, and human heartbeats, all percussive and arrhythmic.
But Marie was amused and quietly warmed in his heart to discover that, for all the world felt new to him when he was experiencing it through his other senses, he was so used to train travel that maneuvering through the seats and the aisle and the overhead was instinct more than even muscle memory. Kanda, thankfully, ghosted right at his heels, never looking at anyone for too long.
There were some eyes averted politely as they passed, appraising them peripherally, and there were some averted in discomfort and anxiety, maybe even distaste, of their foreign strangeness. But of course there were those eyes that stayed on them and burned like chips of ice melting on his skin, and it was those that Marie was cautious of.
They found their seats-there were no single compartments on this train, but there were sets that faced each other-and Marie counted back the number they had passed, just to be sure. Kanda's sure stop confirmed his count, and he made sure Kanda slid into his own seat with a firm grip on his satchel before Marie slid in opposite him, trying to stretch the little thrills of danger out of his limbs.
But he should have paid more attention to the eyes. A titter came from somewhere nearby-female, soft vocals-and Marie twisted his head, straining to keep up when foreign words began to be spoken in their direction.
A woman seemed to be speaking-to him? No, to Kanda now, greeting him with coy hands and draping sleeves, because Marie could hear her hidden fingers rustling like snakes in the fabric and there was a soft sweeping sound whenever she gestured or spoke.
Who was she? Marie was off his balance, unable to read her face for intent, or for an unnatural elasticity at the corner of her smile that sometimes characterized skin stretched over a metal puppet.
But that was the surface, he reminded himself. He needed to stop listening on the surface-he had to listen deeper, deep to the heart. Marie tried refocusing on her to find that she had not turned her attention from Kanda, who was mute in the face of her admiring. The sound of her seemed to smile and beckon from all directions, and Kanda was caught at Marie's side like a caged dog, frozen between shrinking back and springing at her. Marie let his humming, stressing fury fade out, and listened hard to the woman.
Her voice, her metronome heart. Human. Marie breathed.
And her words: the day. The weather. Beautiful child. Blue eyes-
Marie didn't realize the woman was reaching for Kanda until he heard the sharp rebuke-"Don't touch me!"-and her shocked gasp.
Marie shifted closer to the inner aisle, already with a placating hand towards her and a calm voice-"Please, I'm sorry, he's shy"-and Kanda shifted fiercely away until his shoulder was to the window, and Marie understood as the train began to move beneath them like a waking beast that it was going to be this way with Kanda for a long time. Marie wondered with a certain detached acceptance if he would ever meet Bak and the Asia Branch again-Exorcists almost never visited the same place twice.
But now they were moving on.
They found the Finders on their last transit into Europe.
Disembarking was just as chaotic as boarding, except that this time Kanda was even more sour about it. He kept his nose wrinkled firmly against the smoky, oily smells of the city, not in the least accustomed to the reek of non-sterility, but Marie himself was in much higher spirits after making it this far.
There. That could be no one but one of the Finders-Akuma usually didn't bother with honorifics once their blood rage zeroed in on an Accommodator.
Marie pushed the reluctant Kanda ahead of him towards the thinner edge of the crowd, and listened for them again. He had checked in with Bak beforehand, so he knew there were two waiting for them. They had either been given their descriptions or Marie and Kanda were just that distinct because the pair immediately approached them.
They wove their way to each other through the tides of people towards each other with discreet difficulty. Marie focused on where the sound had come from and where Kanda had turned when he heard it, trusting them to intercept him as he moved.
"Here, Master Exorcist!"
The trust was not misplaced. Two breathing figures found them, stopping in front of them and dropping into brief bows that had Kanda leaning back like a threatened cobra.
"Please, follow us," said one of the two, a little breathlessly. "We'll be guiding you back to Headquarters."
It was a man who had called them first, Marie believed, and the smaller presence that had spoken after Marie deduced to be a woman. It wasn't unusual for a woman to be a Finder-the Order allowed in anyone who was willing to swear to their cause. Kanda, Marie noted with some interest, seemed slightly less ill-disposed to her. He had a feeling she reminded Kanda of someone, but Marie had no way to identify how.
They began to follow in the wake of the Finders, but the Finders were escorts rather than leaders-all those in the Black Order deferred automatically to Exorcists, and were reliant on them entirely to defeat any Akuma who appeared. All they could do for themselves was defend and contain, which was a good deal more than the average person, but, Marie surmised, a degree more aggravating-he could imagine nothing more frustrating than knowing exactly how to defeat an enemy but being incapable of actually doing it.
These two were obviously experienced in the field, and wise to the power of the Exorcists. They both had flighty stares and tense, steeled shoulders, the kind that said they would step between an Exorcist and a blood bullet if it meant the Exorcist could survive to do his job.
The man in particular, some years older than his female companion, seemed especially keen. Marie picked up on him sending curious backward glances at Kanda along the way, different from the woman's troubled, regretful ones.
Kanda himself was rigid but not locked anymore, each muscle sliding smooth and deliberate in a danger-ready prowl. His fingers didn't twitch, but Marie heard them brush just over his sword in an instinct communicated automatically from Innocence to wielder.
The man acknowledged this by nodding to himself. "That's good," he said. "He'll be ready to fight."
Kanda regarded him from the corner of his eye, raptly scrutinizing a disturbance across the way, but said nothing. The female did in his stead, scoffing sideways at her companion.
"Good?" she said scornfully. "When the Order says something is 'good', they never mean for the person it concerns."
"Careful," the man cautioned her, and Marie sensed him looking in his direction.
The woman dropped the subject, though she fell to muttering some things that Marie wasn't used to hearing from many ladies of the time. Marie made no comment, but her words set him to wondering-did even the base ranks of the Order mistrust their superiors so much?
If Kanda had any input on the subject, he didn't share it either. At a street-crossing, the woman female Finder took the opportunity to fall into pace with Kanda, which Marie, remembering the woman on the train, heeded conscientiously. He needn't have worried, though-the woman kept trying to prod Kanda into conversation, but he refused to speak to her. At the very least Kanda kept his eyes on her, unwavering but guarded, which he hadn't done with the man.
Marie wasn't sure whether he should step in or not, and on whose behalf, so he kept one ear open to the pair while he himself exchanged occasional words with the male Finder on the way to their destination.
"Did you have to leave home to come here?" she was asking Kanda. Her tone was somewhere between empathy, anger and hurt-someone must have been taken from her.
Marie heard the long no in Kanda's lasting stillness, but didn't know if the woman did.
"Ruth," the male Finder said, this time with the authority of his years. "Leave it alone."
"We're going to make children give up their lives for us to feel protected, so of course everyone is going to leave it alone," the woman fired back, and Marie didn't imagine the extra force under her sole when she halted fiercely in place.
Before Marie could check back to her, there was a snapping sound that Marie at first couldn't figure out. After a moment's thought he identified it: the woman had just agitatedly remade a ponytail for herself. She let a breath go and did her best to let the grudge go.
"I'm sorry," she said, but the apology was only meant for Kanda. Marie thought he heard something like a smile come into her voice, like sun over a clearing, but by then she had turned back to Kanda. "Even if you have to leave, I'm sure someone will wait for you."
And then she yanked the straps of her pack forward, put her hood over her hair, and fell smartly back into step with the other Finder, who grumbled a few words at her before leaving her alone.
Marie knew Kanda watched her after that with a cloudy scrutiny, but could not have told you why.
He didn't get to dwell on it-the male Finder ushered him on toward an early train with open seats, and then they were on the rails again and everything fell away into travel once more.
For Marie. Not for Kanda.
For Kanda, this train ride was not like the rest. For the first time on their journey, Kanda was holding his Innocence in his seat. A bit gingerly-it had been packed away for the whole trip, but with the Finders taking charge of their bags, Marie had told him that it was important for an Exorcist to always have his Innocence within reach.
The sword still felt strange in his hands, and its name still strange on his tongue-Mugen. Zhu had been responsible for naming it, just like he had been for him. He had put the word into his mouth, gen, for illusion, and mu, for six, and Kanda had repeated it back to him so naturally that it was as though he had known it all his life.
Kanda saw no reason for why he should feel any affinity for the language of the country Zhu told him he came from, when he had been raised Chinese in the Order, but he loved the name of his Innocence in a way he couldn't explain-a sort of kinship to a weapon forged by the same smith.
He kept dragging his nails one after the other over the white seams in the black leather hilt, his fingers odd and nimble without bandages from testing binding them, still half-expecting the blade to become the sentient, writhing thing that pierced crystal wings through his hands again. He didn't want to look at it and remember, and the sound of it rattling in his lap with the rocking rhythm of the train was irritating, yet he couldn't put it away.
Because if he put it away, then he would look out the window and see the Western towns and Western skies, so many people and so much space, brown roofs and black smoke and red stones in colors that spread outside his possible perception in a completely overwhelming reminder of this terrifying new world he was in.
Kanda held onto the sword, because if he looked out the window, Kanda knew that he would begin to weep and not be able to stop.
Kanda glared at a curious child who looked at him hopefully from across the aisle, but just doing something outside of his own head made his mind ache with exhaustion. The world had been getting duller with every day, and there was pressure on the edge of his vision, a pressure that been there since after Alma, but that had begun to close in after he'd seen the ponytailed silhouette of the talkative female Finder. The one that had said-(don't think about it).
The more Kanda tried not to think of her, the more the pressure closed. Kanda shook his head and pressed a hand into his eyes for a short inhale-exhale into his other hand-forgetforgetforget.
Everything was so much. Everything was so, so much to take in-if he let even a bit of it slip through his indifference, then it would tear away his armor from inside like a hurricane gale and he would never be able to put himself together again.
He tried to mimic Marie and practice focusing on just one sense at a time, closing his eyes to make himself only hear the voices of the people in the other car, covering his ears so that he could only see the outside landscape wavering past without the constant drumroll of train tracks, or sometimes both at once so could just feel himself breathe and remember how he did it.
Sometimes, though, that only made it harder to bear, because a relentless voice in Kanda's head-or maybe from outside of his head, like the lady and the lotuses and sometimes Alma-would shout at him louder and louder that he was an idiot and a fool, and that no matter how jarring the unceasing flood of unfamiliar input was, if he stopped monitoring it all for even a second, something would happen. Something would get him. Something would find him.
And even worse, Kanda knew like he knew water was wet that the lotuses were moving even where he wasn't looking. If he stopped thinking about them for too long, or sometimes just when he blinked, he would open his eyes to find them scattered into new nooks and crannies around the coach. Kanda tried not to let Marie catch him looking for them when he was staring around at the hint of pink petals sticking out from the doorframe, or fluttering against the outside of the window like something had trapped them there.
Keep it secret, Zhu had said, and Kanda would. He'd learned his lesson after he'd come screaming back to life on an altar surrounded by sealing marks, the life-sealing marks, meant to kill. He knew the difference; he'd faced both. For the rest of his life, Kanda would remember that the people who had created him had also created a means to destroy him, and because of it he would never quite be able to stop regarding Crows with a degree of unease greater than was probably warranted.
And for the rest of his life, the lotuses would be there-but from today on, Kanda would not say a word. He vowed it, and when it made him miserable, he vowed not to be miserable. Marie couldn't know.
Pressure. The lotuses got closer.
Marie awoke to the sound of someone breathing.
For half a second, his own heart sped up to outrace the other breathing tempo, his Exorcist instincts ready to spring him up from his bed and crush the stranger-the enemy-with his strings, but a deep breath and a clearer mind later he was reminded him: Kanda is here.
He let himself slowly reorient to the room from his bed-this was the first hotel they were staying in for more than a shower and a meal between trains, and the first time Marie had slept not sitting up.
He knew Kanda wasn't asleep-the boy, like before, now rarely ever slept. He would spend hours of the nighttime motionless, always with his face away from him, seeming to watch something or many somethings that Marie could hear no trace of. Marie did not know what to make of him-he would say the stress of constantly switching from here to there was beginning to weigh on him, but the weight on Kanda seemed greater even then that.
Today would be the last leg of their long, long trip. Today was time to rest, and then tomorrow was the Order. Marie hadn't heard back from Tiedoll, so he was in the dark about what to expect-he prayed that the General would return at the same time they did.
Gradually remembering the layout of the room, and finding his headphones right on the bedside table, Marie got up, remade the bed, and then sat on the edge of it again to put on his boots while his hearing adjusted itself to the raised sensitivity-separating the tangles of muffled voices into the "outside" snatches of words on the street, and into the "inside" humdrum of people waking themselves up in their own hotel rooms. He was aware, too, of Kanda whispering out of the sheets and into his own clothes, and then dropping onto the floor idly to wait for him.
This was all becoming normal to Marie, now, that it was hard to remember the world without it. But that normalness made Marie frown, because there was something about this morning that wasn't as normal as the others.
The morning was…sour.
Yes, that was it-there was a sourness in the sound of it, somehow, a sort of sensation Marie couldn't place, nor whose cause he could place.
The room was undisturbed, and the night had transitioned as smoothly to day as a fish through the river of time. Kanda was where he had been waiting before, listless and strange, his face turning and twitching in tiny, watchful circles around the blank walls. It was strange, yes, in the way that Kanda's ordinary motions could sometimes brush Marie's nerves like running fingers over piano keys, but he had been like that the last night, too.
The sourness, though, was impossible to ignore, and Marie didn't try-one of the first steps to surviving as an Exorcist was to always assume he was being targeted. The world was against the Exorcists, and it was safer to say all of it was than to spend time being selective. But, also as an Exorcist, there was nothing he could do-danger would come to him, not the other way around, and he wouldn't know it until the disguise came off. He moved about the room with a mechanical efficiency, gathering their items by memory and packing them away, preparing to move.
Kanda stayed still, limbs curled in on the carpet like a dead spider. He was worse, somehow, than he'd been when they were leaving the Asia Branch, the time to his storm breaking counting down in tandem with the vague, gray reckoning Marie was listening for.
Which would break first, Marie was wondering. He stood and was about to rouse Kanda to go collect the Finders, when his teeth suddenly went on edge.
There was a low sound in the air, one that was made his teeth ache at the roots when he clenched them together. It flirted with his awareness, like wind did in the moment just before it picked up.
Marie crossed the room in a huge stride and threw the window open, angling toward the sound with his battle sense sparking at his adrenaline. He'd never heard anything quite like it, but the monotonous, black note of it, carrying from somewhere neither near but far (but getting closer), told him that whatever it was, he would have to be stupid to put his head outside for a better listen. After a certain time spent as an Exorcist, Marie knew when danger was coming to call.
And he knew that danger's name.
They must have recognized the Finder's uniforms, or heard them say "Exorcist", or perhaps (and more unnervingly) one of them had gotten close enough for the presence of their Innocence to trigger their bloodlust. Regardless, they were coming for them.
Marie spun back to the inside of the room, mentally calculating how close their traveling possessions were from the window, and Kanda slid fluidly from a resting stance to a lunging one. The action was graceful-the drag of his Innocence's scabbard was not.
Kanda was dangerous. Kanda had killed Alma. But Kanda was not finessed, and he had never seen an Exorcist fight before or seen an Akuma. Marie couldn't let him fight, either an Akuma had found them or it was looking for them, and-
"Kanda," Marie said, his voice adopting the weight of command he reserved for getting people out of danger. "Take the bags and go with the Finders. Get out of range-keep heading for the Order if you have to. Tell them what I'm saying to you."
"No." Kanda's response was both expected and instantaneous. "I won't leave. I'll fight-"
Marie dismissed him sternly. "Not now. Wait until you've learned how. I'll do this alone."
There was no doubt Kanda still planned to argue with him, but Marie turned away from him and trusted him to act, running his thumbs over his knuckles so the threads of his Innocence started to come alive from their spools on each finger.
"Kanda, go now."
The hesitation from Kanda was palpable and fuming, and he gazed for a worrying moment at nothing over Marie's shoulder, but then his feet pounded at a run out of the room and to Marie's relief there was no question in his footfalls.
His sharp, ever-angry voice goaded the Finders in the next room, and the sound of urgent movement began. They were moving out-Marie almost found it humorous to hear the female Finder Ruth swearing on her way out. But if they were escaping, then it was up to Marie to make sure they wouldn't be chased.
He took a deep, fortifying breath. The first fight, Akuma in the air and all his worst fears. But Marie's razor strings sang death and return as they unwound-a welcome back to the battlefield.
The hotel was a tiered building, so Marie swung himself out the still-open window onto the overhang of the floor below. There was a cutting scream raising from somewhere further down the street and Marie could just make out the syllables through the machinal hiss on them-"Exorcisssst!" His feet barely had time to touch onto the roof tiles before he was hurling himself over the road and blood bullets were eating up the surface he'd been standing on.
There hadn't been time to think about the jump, but Marie's subconscious mind had filled in most of the information for him-he used Noel Organon to capture a support on a building across the street and he could tell from the tension of the strings when he was about to hit it. He skidded into a landing on the slope of another roof and filled in as his strings unraveled that his Innocence had tethered him to a chimney-and Marie did suspect that it had been his Innocence that did it more than Marie himself.
He had only lost his balance slightly in the uncertainty of the action but he regained it as he started sprinting along the top of the building, intuitively anticipating what was ahead while listening, listening, listening for the Akuma that had attacked him, and for any more that might be around-where one was, others were sure to appear over time, and there was no saying how long this one had been here.
Marie cocked his ear to the left-there was a catching-clicking of gears inside a shell, ticking, ticking, ticking their teeth around as the Akuma which had fired at him rotated eerily in place-Level 1, Marie's memory supplied to the sound. He hadn't even realized he could distinguish the sounds of Akuma before, but as soon as he heard them through his headphones he realized he'd been hearing them every time he fought a battle and just had been too distracted by other senses to fully comprehend them.
This…really wasn't so different, was it? From one of those battles?
A bizarre happiness ran through Marie. This danger was one he knew intimately, whether or not he could see it or it had killed his teammates. Akuma still needed to be hunted, and Marie was still meant to hunt them.
Marie swept out his hand and the strings danced away from his fingers towards the screaming metallic sphere, entangling it, crushing it, cleaving it. The scream died sharply into vibrations through his Innocence, the flesh-metal chunks igniting into explosions as they fell away from their solid form, piece by piece. Marie's Innocence whipped back to him like hornets, and he could feel hot energy all through them-a buzz at the base of his skull told him about the second Akuma locking its bristling guns onto him from behind before it even got the chance to fire, and he closed his other hand into a fist that slit unseen lines cleanly through it.
Its internal heat blasted outwards and Marie felt ashes singe through the back of his shirt, but it was a good feeling. His ears rang, but they rang with silence.
Two Akuma, no more. Marie had done his duty. More importantly, he had proved to himself that he could.
He leapt down from the roof, hearing nothing below him, and he was confident when he came to the earth. The world was steady when he walked, and the others were waiting, so Marie dared to pick up into a jog, a striding run-and around the corner, not even quite that far out the back of the hotel yet, were the two Finders and Kanda.
Kanda noticed him first, but it was a jubilant "Master Exorcist!" from the outspoken female Finder that had them all turning to him.
They circled in, Kanda not quite as close as the rest, and Marie observed that the Finders were both standing almost too close to Marie, presumably so that they did not have to be close to Kanda-Marie wondered what Kanda had managed to do in such a short time to make them afraid of him.
"How many were there?" the male Finder asked seriously. "Were they after you?" the other woman pressed.
"Only two," Marie told them. He thought back. "And no, their appearance was a coincidence. I'm sure of it."
The two Finders exchanged looks between themselves and reached a conclusion beyond Marie. "We'll trust your judgment, Exorcist," the elder of the pair said. "Should we continue as planned?"
"We'll stay one night over," Marie decided. "Just to make sure nothing is following us."
Nothing would draw attention to Kanda's arrival at the Order like a horde of Akuma showing up out of nowhere with him, and Marie wanted to avoid attention-especially that kind of attention-at all costs.
"Right," the Finder affirmed. "I understand. Ruth and I will go call in to Headquarters to let them know we'll be a day behind schedule."
"Thank you," Marie told them, making sure to address the both of them. "We'll meet you again at the train station."
The Finders nodded each, and then left with brisk purpose, leaving Marie to turn to the unspeaking Kanda. He was still, Marie judged from the sound of squeaking leather in his arms, holding the bags. He would have expected the Finders to try and take them from him, but given the pure obstinance radiating from Kanda they might have tried and simply failed.
Marie could sense Kanda instinctively trying to avoid his eyes in the stretching pause that followed. "Don't…try to protect me," he gritted out eventually, fighting with the words. Marie couldn't tell if he was fighting just to express the emotion, or simply to marshal his violent impulses into emotion in the first place. He let him say it, though-no good would come from silencing someone already so reticent.
"You're not an Exorcist yet," Marie said in his most neutral tone. If Kanda thought he was being treated like a child in any way, this confrontation would lose all semblance of reason. "That skirmish wasn't challenging, but it could have been. I'll let you fight with me once you've been trained."
Kanda scowled fearsomely. "You don't understand!" he burst out. "I…you shouldn't get hurt because of me. I was made to get better. It takes you too long, and…it just doesn't make sense!"
Just for a second, at the end of his voice, there was a strange drifting quality to what Kanda was saying, like he had forgotten why he was saying the words. Something was definitely going wrong with Kanda, and Marie had no clue what to anticipate.
But he still needed to respond to this situation first. He chose his words with care. "Sometimes, I won't be able to protect you," Marie said, very deliberately. "So when I can, I will."
Marie heard a question and saw a chance to answer it. "Because I want you to live," Marie said firmly, and Kanda's nails scraped against one of their parcels, but the Finders came trotting back before he could think of anything to say and Marie thought that was for the best.
The new hotel was just far enough to be outside the range of the commotion caused by the attack of the Akuma, but close enough to spare them too much of a walk. One of the Finders had detoured ahead of time to get room keys, so Marie let them in to the room to put their bags down (which he had not yet gotten Kanda to let go of). It was barely daytime, and there wasn't much to do in the room other than sleep, but Kanda didn't seem up to going out again.
The walls seemed to bring Kanda a sense of safety, just as it put Kanda at ease to be behind a closed door, despite how he came across to Marie as a little claustrophobic most of the time. There was a small offset room attached to the bedroom with a table facing the wall and a square window over it that could be opened, so Marie left Kanda to his own odd devices and propped the window open to hear the morning birds outside.
Eventually, he took a seat at the table, and out of habit began to pluck at the strings of his Innocence, thinking over everything that had changed today and how little actually had. Marie's song wandered, at times repeating into the cries of the birds, but the sound lingered often on that unsettling vacancy in Kanda's voice earlier.
As he mulled it over, thoughtful, barefoot steps wove into the melody, and Marie felt Kanda's stare from the doorway. Marie stopped playing and turned in his chair, listening apprehensively to Kanda's smooth little-boy nails biting in and out of the wooden frame. If staring had a sound, Kanda's was black and hollow. Things were not the way they had been before. The storm was here.
"Marie," Kanda said cautiously, and maybe it was just in Marie's head but he didn't sound all there, "do you ever hear-"
Marie could tell Kanda was struggling to articulate, and when he failed he became frustrated and demanding.
"Do you ever hear her?"
Marie stiffened. He didn't know the right answer.
"No, Kanda," he said carefully. "I only hear you."
That was no the answer Kanda wanted. "I know!" he exploded out of nowhere, slamming his fist into his thigh, and there was so much helpless anguish there that Marie was truly afraid. "But I can still hear her! I heard her before and when I was waiting for you and now I still hear her!"
Marie got to his feet, trying not to move suddenly. "Kanda-"
There was the sound of skin against hair as Kanda's hands clenched into it and the boy stumbled three, four, five-six eight steps backwards, his corpse-stiff spine hitting the wall behind him. Marie followed with him this time, dropping hurriedly down in front of him.
"Go away, go away," Kanda chanted like some terrible nursery rhyme, gaining volume and pitch as he stared around a room of things Marie couldn't have seen even with good eyes. "Go away, why won't they go away?!"
Marie wanted to grab him or soothe him, but he wasn't sure he should touch him, so he stayed kneeling on the coarse hardwood with splinters digging into his knees.
"Go away!" Kanda thrashed and half-sobbed, before suddenly his head dropped to one side and he was quiet. His heartbeat pounded wildly around the boards of the room, but not a murmur came out of him. He stayed still and fixed, staring into empty space over Marie's shoulder.
And then, with an eerie, slow clarity, he spoke. "I hate you," he said. "I want to kill you. I want you to leave me alone."
It was not Marie that he was speaking to. Marie heard no tremors in his voice. The boy listened, listened and waited, and apparently heard something, because like the snuffing of a candle that focus was gone.
"I hate you!"
Kanda threw his head back furiously against the wall and screamed, thudding his skull into the wood like he wanted to crush something out.
"Kanda, stop!" Marie shouted, lunging for him. "You'll hurt yourself, stop!"
He rocked violently forward into Marie, who quickly locked him against his body with one arm and searched his free hand over the back of his head for injuries. He blew out a sigh when there was nothing, or at least nothing that hadn't already healed, and realized that Kanda wasn't trying to fight him at all.
Instead he leaned listless and dead against him, muttering into the front of his shirt. "Hate you, hate…"
Marie heard the thin scratching of his eyelashes against the fabric as they fell low over Kanda's eyes.
"Please," Kanda quietly begged his ghost, all of his storm spent. "Please don't go."
And, abruptly, Kanda was senseless in his arms, leaving Marie to sit there with him in the surreal after-hush, shaken by the things he couldn't see.