Chapter 20, because I was unable to resist the temptation. Cheers.

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Outside, the rain continued to pour. Inside or rather beneath the ground, Allen inwardly cursed those responsible for him being in this particular situation to Hell and back where he now stood, facing the poor excuse of a man who was his former master in a meeting concocted by the man himself along with the very individual that had been calling for Allen to be tried as a heretic; the Inspector who had by all means agreed to arrange the meeting on some vile condition that lay well beyond him and his subordinates ‒ the CROW unit ‒ listening in on their conversation.

Soon after his arrival and him setting up the gates necessary for people to begin moving in, the vile Inspector had chosen to reappear before him, accompanied by the aforementioned CROW unit and wearing the look of a man with little good on his mind.

Link ‒ whether it was due to being faced with his superior or with the aforementioned unit ‒ had immediately straightened up, clearly awaiting further instructions.

Despite not being particularly fond of the direction in which things appeared to be heading, Allen had known better than to offer up anything but his mute consent when he was approached about the whole meeting, even if it did include having his hands restrained before he was had escorted away.

Truth to be told, he had felt very watched then; what had surprised him however was the fact that he had not only felt the weight of the stabbing looks of suspicion but also the weight of ones heavily saturated in concern, presumably for his continued well-being. Then again, in a way he did suppose that it made sense for people to be concerned; he too had likened the whole thing to a prisoner being brought to their execution, a comparison that had seemed very appropriate at the time even though it had ended up a bit anticlimactically with him basically being told to put on some outfit before finally being escorted to his meeting with Cross, something which had been decidedly troublesome but had still managed to put him a bit more at ease, strangely enough.

However, any ease that might have seeped into him in the meantime quickly left him as he was ushered into the room which Cross occupied, seated on the room's couch in the man's usual manner which gave the inevitable impression that the other thought the world of himself and that he basically owned whichever place he entered, and with a half-filled wineglass in his grasp at that.

Really, the type of scenery was so familiar to him that Allen actually found himself smiling inwardly, strangely relieved despite it all, simply because that thing alone hadn't changed and was unlikely to ever change, unlike so much else.

Seeing that Allen had no question to ask and no indignant demands to put forth, Cross spoke up first. He spoke of Mana and the man's madness, and then gradually shifted the focus onto what was the actual purpose of this particular meeting, pronouncing Allen to be the host of the Fourteenth soon thereafter.

Obviously, the man's words did hurt and did hurt a great deal, even if they only concerned prospects with which he had since long guessed and begun to reconcile himself. Thus, Allen himself had no reason to be surprised. However, he figured that at least a few of those listening in on them had not known about this fact prior to this event. "And?" he finally deadpanned, tilting his head slightly to the side as he allowed some of his emotions to seep through the stony mask that had up until concealed them.

Perhaps he ought to have acted shocked; ought to have pleaded his Innocence; ought to have thrown an angry fit. Allen did none of those though, but he did level his eyes upon the other; they were after all only being watched and audibly recorded, seeing that Timcanpy alone ‒ perched upon the backrest of the couch in which Cross still lounged ‒ could possibly be recording the visuals, allowing Allen the chance to convey his sentiments perfectly through a means that none but Cross and Timcanpy could possibly see, seeing that he stood with his back facing those guarding the room's exit.

So, Cross had revealed him to be the Fourteenth's host and that he would eventually lose control and be consumed by the aforementioned, facts to which Allen himself had since long been made aware. Now, little needed to be added, lest the man opted to spread the news of Allen having worked for the Earl too whilst he was at it.

Truth to be told, Allen longed for little else than to turn on his heel and to leave the man and all that he stood for behind. Instead he shook his head; trying to clear it. Somehow, there was a strange sense of finality to their whole meeting, as if there was something hanging about in the air; looming over and beside them both. It was all rather strange really, a bit like a premonition almost; an omen of ill things yet to come. And, even though Allen knew well the man that was before him and even though he had spent years yearning for the other's demise, he did feel a tinge of something just then ‒ regret perhaps? ‒ that ultimately kept him from turning away.

"I knew," he finally offered, his voice low but breaking ever so slightly. "I figured it out a long time ago."

Cross actually lifted his gaze somewhat then, finally awarding him more attention than the wineglass that was now nearly devoid of its earlier liquid contents. "Is that so?" the man finally offered, indulging him, which was mildly encouraging seeing that he was ultimately playing the game for the sake of his continued livelihood.

"After I was captured… I began seeing him," he whispered harshly, making up the scenario as he went along whilst still keeping it very much compatible with the stories that he had already told. "I thought that I was going crazy," he went on to say, his voice barely rising above a whisper. "That they'd done something to me. I tried to rationalise it away but it just wouldn't go… and you weren't around…"

Cross actually scoffed at this, swiping the last that remained of the wine before putting away the glass; rising to his feet. "You're the one who ran away."

"Of course I bloody ran away with the bloody way that you were treating me!" Allen snarled right back at him, his sentiments very real as far as this particular matter was concerned. "Staying with you, I was bound to-… I-…"

Earlier, the guards by the door had seemed on the verge of launching into action, presumably in order to restrain him in case he actually decided to act upon his aggressions. However, they quickly stilled again at the sound of a choked sob and quickly resumed their positions.

His throat felt thick now; constricted, which in turn made it so much harder to breathe, a condition which was by no means alleviated by the hot tears that began to well up in his eyes, overflowing all too soon and rolling down his cheeks as he drew another constricted breath. He wished to have his hands free then, because it would have allowed him to shield his no doubt pathetic facial expression.

There was the muted sound of approaching footsteps on the floor mat. Knowing to whom they with all due likelihood belonged, Allen had figured that they would be heading past and as such found himself startled as an all too familiar hand grabbed him by the back of the head and soon thereafter had it resting against the other's shoulder. Cross hugging him, albeit awkwardly and reluctantly? The world really had to be coming to an end, and there he was, probably getting at least a slighter amount of snot on the front of the other's prized coat. Really, if Tyki and the others could see him now…

Again, he felt his throat constrict, at which point the hand on the back of his head began making soothing motions, smoothening his hair. Had the same thing occurred on any other occasion then Allen supposed that the hair on the back of his neck would be standing on end. Now however, he grudgingly admitted that it did have a mildly pleasant ‒ albeit still forced ‒ vibe to it. Still, he did appreciate the gesture nonetheless though it hardly lasted more than a couple of seconds before the approach of the CROW members told them to finish things quickly.

"You're still such a dirty brat," Cross commented as Allen ‒ no longer intensely afflicted by long suppressed emotions ‒ backed away with a wry smile spreading across his features.

"Having suffered your company, how could I ever get clean again?" Allen cheekily retorted, earning a semi-amused and semi-annoyed scoff in return as Cross reached into his pocket, obviously intent on having a smoke now that Allen was not having emotional breakdowns on him.

"What now then?" Allen finally asked, his eyes now drying up but stinging a fair bit; all things considered, they were probably a tad red too, but that would be a later matter to address. "Got any more pieces of useful info or tips to share with the rest of us?" he opted to ask instead, tilting his head mildly to the side, completely disregarding the CROW operatives that were still hovering about in the relative vicinity, seemingly uncertain as to what to do.

"When you turn into the Fourteenth, you'll have to kill someone you care about," Cross offered up after a brief pause, laying it out all clean and simple for once.

Frowning inwardly, Allen inclined his head slightly in response.

"In addition…" Cross began anew, sauntering over to the door. "There is another side to this war."

This time around, Allen did blink in genuine surprise at this sudden and somewhat unexpected revelation. "A third party?" he wondered out loud even though he inwardly did wonder whether or not Cross and his allies did not already count as a third party, seeing that they had apparently been more into doing the bidding of the Fourteenth than that of the Order. In other words, either Cross sought to remind him of this fact or… to draw his attention to the existence of a fourth one?

"Ask the Fourteenth," Cross responded, already halfway out the door. "And try not to get killed halfway through this time around."

Allen had to admit that he had found himself just a tad dumbfounded at that, even if the feeling was quick to pass. Soon but by no means soon enough, he was liberated from his restraints and reunited with his usual guard dog and soon thereafter a few of those who had apparently been very concerned for his welfare. As a matter of fact, he had nearly found himself smothered by a hug from Johnny and Lenalee but had managed to avert it at the last minute, holding his hands up slightly and warding them off further with the words that he felt very unclean and violated and would not bear the touch of any human being before having washed his face and hands at the very least.

He ultimately had his wish but was then forced to endure their company for the rest of the evening, or at least up until the point when he opted to curl up on his side on one of the couches available, tuning out at least partially. He willed his sleep to remain shallow though, figuring that it simply would not to do lower his guard any further. Then again, once again devoid of the presence of his superior, Link was hopefully there to ensure that he did not come to any further harm; for now, at any rate. Naturally, Allen did know better than to assume that this would continue on for very long, but for now, it was something in which he took even a miniscule amount of comfort.

It was only later, in the morning, that he came to fully appreciate this when it was discovered that at some point during the night, Cross had apparently gone AWOL again, leaving his trusted Judgement and quite a bit of blood in his wake, both of which were discovered by the man's guards as they awoke from a spontaneous nap that none of them could remember having taken.

Naturally, there had been quite a bit of uproar, though the latter had definitely been on a limited scale seeing to the fact that so few had been made privy to it, at least initially. Then the information had gradually begun to trickle down the chain of command before rapidly escalating into a cascade of shocked disbelief. Naturally though, most hadn't been made privy to the more graphic details of the case, along with the fact that ‒ through Judgement ‒ it had been revealed that Cross was no longer its accommodator, making it fair to assume that the man's status had changed from dodgy to deceased.

Admittedly, Cross Marian had pulled off the faking his death routine before but this time around, Allen highly doubted that the man would be turning up as anything but a corpse, if that.

In either case, the damage had already been done as far as Allen himself was concerned, and if anything, then Timcanpy's behaviour severed as the ultimate confirmation. After all, the golem kept on returning to the room where it had all taken place to cuddle with the blood where it had been absorbed into the mahogany, forcing Allen to venture into the still very much restricted area to retrieve him time and again.

At one point in time, Allen even found the Inspector there, eating cake of all things. Really, and there Allen had thought that he had seen everything, and that he had heard everything when the latter offered him to take part, or in the man's own words, if he would "care to sample" the man's newest creation.

Instead of responding to this surprisingly almost gracious proposal, Allen asked the man outright what he was doing there.

"And you? This room should be off limits," the Inspector proceeded to muse, giving rise to a sudden desire within Allen to say something very unpleasant. He resisted it however, nodding in direction of Timcanpy where the latter continued with the rather creepy act of cuddling with the dried blood next to the recently repaired window.

"I'm here for him. That's all," Allen said, taking a step in direction of the aforementioned as Link entered quietly, having lingered outside to speak with those guarding the doors.

Soon, Allen decided that he was close enough and extended his hand towards his objective. "Let's go, Tim."

His voice came out much softer this time around, but he cared little for it; Timcanpy was grieving, and regardless of Allen's own feelings in the matter and about the situation in general and the company it included, the golem hardly deserved to suffer for either of them.

Thankfully, though reluctant, Tim did not make a fuss and flew to settle in his upturned palm and was from there soon lifted to his usual perch on top of Allen's messy snow-white head.

"Are you sure that you don't want any cake?" the Inspector proceeded to ask as Allen headed for the exit.

"No thanks," Allen responded, coldly.

"Allen Walker…"

He did pause, already at the door, because had he not, then he would have been running away. Running away; he was getting sick and tired of it now. The Inspector was a presence that would have to be confronted at some point in time, and with recent events, that point in time might as well be now.

"Did you, as the Fourteenth, kill your master?"

"Still looking to add to my charges, are you?" he offered up wryly in response, turning partially to level his eyes upon his opponent. "Besides…" he went on to say, voice chilled. "Had it been me, then why stop at one?"

In hindsight, the latter probably hadn't been the wisest thing to say, but then again, Allen supposed that he could instead have asked the rhetorical question as to why he hadn't gone after the Inspector instead of Cross. However, he did remedy his somewhat careless wording with further elaboration.

"Since you seem so intent on convincing everyone that I'm a threat to you all, why not let me demonstrate for you all just how much of a threat I really am?" he went on to say, pausing mostly for dramatic effect.

"Link," the Inspector uttered and the other's tense posture relaxed slightly; the other was on edge, more so than the Inspector himself who for whichever reason seemed oddly pleased with recent developments.

Really, Allen ought to give the man something to look smug about, and seeing that his own sanity seemed to be fracturing at a positively alarming rate. Then again, desperate times called for unusual measures and a normally questionable approach on his part. After all, for better or worse, Cross had been removed from the picture; been taken out of the equation, and there was little that Allen could do but adapt to his new situation lest he too wished to perish. After all…

"It's because you lot are so bloody focused on me that these kinds of things happen," he snorted. "After all," he went on to say, shifting his posture as a wry smile settled onto his features. "Since you're all watching me so intently, it isn't like you have very much attention to spare for any real enemies of the Order now, is it?"

Not long ago, he would have counted himself as one of the aforementioned. Since then, Allen had gradually come to the realisation that he had actually helped them out far more than he had sabotaged them, all things considered. Yet here they were, accusing him of murder; of treason. Admittedly, the latter was technically true, but the former?

Really, seeing that Link had been guarding him at the time, one couldn't possibly label him the perpetrator lest one wished to implicate Link in some way as well, and this ought to be a fact well known to the Inspector, and it probably was, but the vile man opted to accuse him merely in order to rile him up in an attempt to make him show his hand; applying pressure until he made a mistake and a damning one at that.

It was a decent try; Allen was willing to admit as much to himself, but he knew better than to call the other out on it. After all, there were other means…

"Then who are they," the Inspector began, smug and making no great secret of it. "These supposedly real enemies of the Order?"

Allen snorted at that. Then, he turned, his hand already on the doorknob. "If you're looking for enemies of the Order, Mr. Lvellie… then you should look to your own ranks," he uttered softly, opening the door. "Or, better yet," he went on to say, turning his head around slightly as he spoke. "You ought to look into a mirror, because that's precisely where they are…" Sneaking up behind you, holding a knife…

He slammed the door for good measure, and stalked past the guards that in turn made sure to stay out of his path. Whether or not they knew him for what he was or did so merely because of the atmosphere surrounding him was not yet known to him. In either case however, he found that he cared little as long as they stayed out of his way as a matter of principle.

When he finally came to a stop, Allen found himself standing before a gate which he knew would lead to the outside; to rocky desert area in Jordan. Surprisingly, none of the people bustling about appeared to have noticed him yet, which was to say the very least something to marvel at if one considered the fact that people had been looking at him sideways for a while now and would no doubt start glaring outright once the Inspector opted to reveal just how much of a heretic that he truly was.

Honestly, had he not diverged so early from the path seemingly intended, then Allen supposed that there would have been a time when he would have been brought to face similar charges, even if he had entered the Order with pure intentions and little knowledge of the one that still slept within him. Had he been left completely ignorant ‒ as Cross would no doubt have intended ‒ then Allen figured that he would have been in an even sorrier state; crushed and no doubt a bit disillusioned, yet in vehement denial of it all.

If so, then he would probably have been able to stay more true to whatever ideals that he might have held high. As for Allen himself at the present, he did wonder whether or not he still had anything left that was even remotely worth holding onto. Still, he by no means found himself longing for ignorance, even whilst knowing the price that was to pay for those who simply knew too much for their own good.

"There is another side to this war."

He turned on his heel and left the premises, headed for the unknown.

"Ask the Fourteenth."

Allen did not pause; did not speak. He walked.

"Try not to get killed halfway through this time around."

He finally came to a stop and looked to the side and out of the large bay window at the dreary night. It very much reflected his mood with its intense showers of rain; with the occasional flash of lightning tearing across the darkened skies accompanied by a thunderclap that on occasion seemed to rattle his very insides, though certainly more in a figurative sense than in a literal one. Terrible weather; some would no doubt call it that. Allen himself on the other hand found it strangely appealing; reflective of the war that would soon swallow them all up and tear them apart just as mercilessly.

"You really ought to have taken a piece of your own advice, old man."

Another flash of lightning tore up the darkness nearby and a harsh thunderclap resounded as it went along. As it faded, Allen found his attention redirected; torn from the outside and guided towards the aligned panes of glass and the reflection that they presented. The shadow of the Fourteenth stared, grinning, and Allen stared right back, unsmiling, and then took a step towards the window in which it was displayed, all whilst its grin widened ever so slightly; however that was even made possible.

Allen slowly extended his hand, reaching out and planting it flat against the glass whilst the spectre mirrored the action.

The glass felt very cool to his skin; it was no doubt fairly cold outside as well. Gradually, it seeped into him, and along with it came the strong impulse to just throw it all away; to just discard the charades built upon a potent mixture of half-truths and outright lies and to just wreak havoc amongst whoever dared to oppose him.

The impulse was strong but brief; it felt oddly compelling yet not, seeing that whilst it certainly called out to the more destructive side of him, it positively repulsed another that only reinforced his decision not to act upon it. Even so, it proved a strong temptation indeed; telling him to put an end to things then and there; to strike when they expected that he had finally succumbed and to end one organisation and then the other; to put an end to everything.

Yes, he would end it, but he would end it on his own terms; by his own hand, unguided by any additional madness. He had after all received warning and he would heed it to the best of his ability, even if his accursed luck usually did make sure that things generally did not go according to plan.

He wouldn't run. Neither would he turn and succumb fully to madness, taking his place as a mad puppet of destruction. Neither would he bow his head in servitude; he would persevere, just not at the cost of his life or mind.

Allen slowly withdrew his hand from the glass and the spectre once more mimicked the motion.

Between them, the vague impression of a handprint remained briefly before beginning to fade. At the same time, the person behind the steps that had been echoing at the back of his mind turned the corner. Even without looking, Allen knew it to be Link; the other's footsteps were swift and measured and without hesitation. It was a soldier's walk.

Then again, perhaps they were all soldiers, either willing or drafted to fight on the behalf of others and a range of ideals not always agreeable.

There was another flash of lightning, followed by yet another thunderclap that was soon accompanied by the sound of rain beating against the window as the wind temporarily switched direction, slamming the swollen drops against the outer side of the panes before either dying down or changing direction just as abruptly as it had been brought about.

"How long?" he asked quietly, lifting his gaze to look beyond the reflection and the water still running down the outside of the window. "How long until we can get out of here?"

"Tomorrow," Link informed him, once again taking down notes.

Tomorrow? As bright a word at it might have seemed, Allen sincerely doubted that it would be holding all that much sunshine for him in the end and neither did it, if one disregarded the fact that he was actually able to leave the building if only for a brief excursion. Admittedly though, the aforementioned excursion only took place after the good Inspector had revealed the so called truth about Allen to those stationed in the field along with those working behind the scenes.

As expected, the announcement had received mixed reactions along with mixed reviews, ranging everywhere from utter horrification and shocked disbelief to bewildered anger and pretty much everything in-between. As expected though, the various extremes proved the norm in this case, unlike in so many other cases, but Allen took the distrusting looks and raging whispers in stride; he had already prepared himself after all, mentally.

In revealing Allen as the host to the Fourteenth Noah, the good Inspector might have succeeded in his objective to alienate Allen from any potential allies in the Order. In doing so however, the other had foolishly overlooked something that was of essence to say the very least; restraints and alienation might be able to keep him relatively isolated, but in turn, it would ensure that no one else could be used against him. Even without any direct allies, he had his own abilities and the Ark if he so wished, and if the good Inspector had actually had any other strategies besides divide and conquer on his mind, then the other might actually have realised this very essential flaw to his seeming master plan.

After all, with Cross no longer around to possibly betray his secrets, there was little that bound him to the Order itself besides a few fleeting attachment to a few individuals, most of whom ‒ if not all ‒ would now distance themselves from him.

As such, Allen genuinely acknowledged the possibility of just leaving altogether, with or without taking the Ark and all its possibilities with him, something that would no doubt cripple the Order to such an extent that even a slighter amount of Level Fours would no doubt be able to sweep in and deal with the rest at a time when the exorcists themselves were out fighting the Noah.

In addition, to top it all off, they ‒ that is, the higher ups in general ‒ opted to have him partner with Kanda ‒ among others ‒ for missions which in turn did bring him to the general conclusion that they were asking for trouble or merely really intent on having him work closely with whichever operative was the least likely to sympathise with his cause.

However, had their primary objective truly been to torment him, then they would have added Lenalee into the mix. Because obviously, even if the woman was most certainly emphatically inclined, her chatter and evident concern for him would no doubt have driven him to his breaking point before the end of the week.

Ah, the sheer irony of it all.

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