One-hundred and twenty-nine. One-hundred and thirty. One-hundred and thirty-one.
Sweat. Grass itching under his palms. Dry lips. He scrunched his nose in an effort to dislodge a lock of hair that had stuck to his sweaty forehead, in his eyes.
The muscles in his chest and shoulders strained with every push against the ground. Sweat glided slowly down the sides of his face and dripped from the tip of his nose. Allen paused, panting slightly, and loosened the tie around his throat before resuming his push-ups.
The sun was almost directly overhead, and with his darker skin Allen was beginning to feel the heat. He reached a count of two-hundred push-ups. Pausing for a moment, he sucked in a few harsh breaths and shed his jacket and button-up shirt. He then kicked his legs up into a handstand and then did standing push-ups, bending one arm behind his back after a second of getting his balance.
One. Two. Three. Four—
He was in the middle of nowhere, in the Plains. Well, actually he was exactly ten miles from the village, but there was absolutely nothing in the landscape to mark any stretch of distance, and last night's mist still lurked, obscuring, on the horizon. He was in a grassy desert, cut off from golem communication and modern modes of transportation.
Figures the Heart would be in a place like this.
Elbow bent, he heaved his weight up and down, up and down. Kanda had said that the other exorcists would be patrolling in and around the village, venturing out as far as it stayed in sight, a few miles perhaps. If he wanted to stay out of sight, he would need to move even further out from the general sphere of the village, but not so far that he was out of signal range. Communication was pivotal, and the earring Kanda had given him could transmit at the most across ten miles with no interference. Allen knew he was stretching it thin, but he wanted to be sure that if anything was headed towards the village he would be the first to know.
But nothing should be headed towards the village. You made sure of that—
"—Oof!" Allen's chest bore the brunt of the impact as his hand spasmed and he lost his balance. Down came his legs, knees hitting the ground with a jarring thud. His chin knocked against the ground, making his teeth click. He sprawled, groaning, in the grass. Above him the sky was blue and cloudless. The sun was directly overhead. Allen used a hand to shield his eyes against the sun, the right one, the one that had failed him.
He squinted up at the dark skin.
A dark flower was inked across the surface of his palm, the color of curdled blood. His contract...
He shivered, despite the burn of noon-high and heat of exercise.
"How about we make a deal, Allen?"
Intense guilt filled him, stirring awfully with anxiety. He had a feeling that he had made a very big mistake, and that many lives was its penalty.
He had, he was sure, made a deal with the devil.
—A Deal with Road—
A night filled with demons. A rapidly dissipating mist.
A climactic showdown.
A penultimate deal.
"I will take these demons away from here, I will distract the Noah, I will make sure that you complete your mission and save the Heart. If you swear, under oath of whatever God or creed you serve, that you will never kill a Noah Clansman again."
Allen's eyes narrowed, shrewd. "Kill, as in destroy...?"
Road smiled. "You will never use the sword of exorcism on a Noah again."
Never again? He realized that he couldn't exactly use his Innocence at all right now, let alone the invaluable sword of exorcism—the strongest form of Crown Clown. But he had figured that he would regain his white form and all his exorcist powers at some point. To seal away his deadliest asset for fighting against Noah...
He began to protest. "That's—"
She cut him off. "Do we have a deal?"
He looked at her for a long while. Her earlier levity was gone, replaced by that frighteningly perceptive yellow gaze. For all her unpredictability when she was in one of her jolly, killing moods, Allen had learned Road was most dangerous when she was like this-quiet and patient, completely lacking the oh-so-human trait of anxiety and haste. Road was, what, over one-thousand years old? At least.
He had to wonder at how many years Road had been in a situation mirroring this one: advancing, surrounding, and cornering her prey until at last she proposed a deal. A deal which one would be truly idiotic to believe would in no way benefit her. Allen mulled over this fact. He was in the middle of sorting through his thoughts when his mouth moved on its own, vocal chords working and lips uttering a word, an answer, which perhaps stunned him more than it did Road in its simplicity.
It would not be until much later on that Allen would wonder why he hadn't spent more time questioning her words, taking into account exactly how weighty the decision he was making was. She smiled at his answer, long and slow. With a tiny kick to her flying perch (and an irritable shriek from Lero), she drifted closer and bent towards him. Road stuck out her hand.
It occurred to him that a handshake wasn't exactly the most reliable way to ensure Road's loyalty, but he was so tired of fighting. He extended his hand upward and looked into Road's eyes.
They were clear and untroubled, resoundingly indigo. He reached through the night air. When the pads of their fingers brushed, he couldn't help but flinch. She was warm. Like a human, just like he was. Road lifted her brow slightly and her fingertips slid down his, hand curving around his own, his fingers wrapped around her palm. Her fingers were so dainty, with black, rounded-off nails, and bare of any scars or blemishes. Their thumbs gently locked, palms touching.
Allen looked up into Road's eyes again. She met his gaze and gave him a reassuring smile. And then she pressed forward slightly, gripped his hand in a tight grasp, and squeezed both of their hands until their palms were flush against each other.
He hissed. Something had just stabbed his hand. He tried to pull away, but Road held on, her grip surprisingly strong. Allen struggled uncomfortably—God, it stung—but just as he was about to forcefully shove her away, Road let go.
He wrenched his arm away. "What the hell was that?"
Road gave him a sad smile. "To make you trust me."
Trust her? Allen gave her an incredulous look, but before he could say anything Road gestured to his hand. He looked at his palm.
A shape was blooming in the center of his hand, dark, like blood, but under the skin. It spread like ink, growing larger and larger, and eventually a shape was discernible.
It was a star. Or a flower, with five wavy petals, blooming, taking over his whole palm.
"What is this?"
"A mark of loyalty. It binds me to my deal, and you to yours. Just say your name and it's sealed."
"...'Allen'?" He felt no change in his palm, but Road looked satisfied and leaned back on her perch. He flexed his hand experimentally, but his dexterity seemed unaltered and the pain was already receding. Just a pinch. A sting.
He looked at the flower on his hand suspiciously, and then back up at Road, but she was already ascending rapidly on Lero. Kicking her feet and calling in a loud, bored voice, Road shouted "Alright, let's go! Everyone up!"
The demons around them came to life. Allen felt panic rise up in him briefly; he'd completely forgotten about them. But the demons ignored him, rising and following Road without complaint.
As they began to move—west, in the opposite direction they had been traveling—as promised, Road looked over her shoulder and caught his gaze. The tiny figure in the sky gave him an exaggerated salute. A bubble of laughter escaped his lips and he found himself saluting back.
And caught sight of the dark floral pattern on his palm.
He stared at the unidentified flower, noticed that its deep hue was the exact shade as Road's hair at the nape of her neck, and thought:
What have I done?
Road had to keep her end of the deal. She had to. But what was stopping her from simply going back on her word?
"A mark of loyalty. It binds me to my deal, and you to yours. Just say your name and it's sealed."
A mark of loyalty. Or a sham.
The dark flower on his hand could be any Dark Matter-hocus pocus, requiring he only speak his name. Hell, Road could have just thrown the name-stating in there for kicks, and he was none the wiser. Whatever the case, he now had a magical Dark Matter tattoo that could be anything from a ticking time bomb to just an ethical illusion to keep him from exorcising a Noah. He knew nothing.
Even though Road herself had trained him in the art and science of Dark Matter, he had only been her student for a few weeks. Or had it been mere days?
Every day in the beginning—when he had first been taken and converted—had felt like an eternity. No sun, no clock. Nothing but swirling alter-dimensions filled with demons and Noah. He could have spent years in the House of the Earl and wouldn't have known otherwise if not for the War.
Shut up, he told himself. She's dead. Whoever you blame, yourself, or Road, or the Level Four, or the fall from thousands of feet in the air, her long, Innocenced legs brutally severed at the hips—
She was dead.
End of story.
Allen drew his eyes away from his hands, and then steadied himself once more before kicking up into a handstand.
It didn't matter if Road was telling the truth.
"And what makes you think I would ever trust you?"
Even if Road had taken the demons away and hidden them a stone's throw from the village, all he had to do was keep delaying them until they got Rebecca and her Innocence safely to the nearest Order outpost, or until the army collapsed. He could do that.
Allen resumed his count, heaving up against the ground and lifting his body weight with just the pads of his fingers. Purely focusing on the exercise, his mental guard began to drop, welcoming the Fourteenth to surface—which he did, coming first as a headache and then fading again as Allen's irritation spiked. He barely noticed his inner resident anymore, his mind wonderfully peaceful, and damn if he was going to go back to searing headaches every day just as a reminder. He saw the charcoal of his skin often enough.
Still, Allen opened his mind once more, allowing the Fourteenth to rise. It would do no good to over-suppress his Noah. All that would do would make him lose control during some explosion of emotion, like he had during the war or as Tyki had in the Arc.
'You will not lose control.'
Allen's balance slipped and he almost crumpled to the ground again. His head was pounding, not altogether unpleasantly, but way too strange for his liking. He put a hand to his forehead; his mind was vibrating.
'We are stronger than that.' the voice continued.
His ears filled with a strange non-noise, like a void in his hearing. Tingling, dizzying, like all the blood was rushing to his head.
'We are much stronger than the rest of the Clan. We will wrest control of the Arc entirely.'
He had never had a vocal connection to the Fourteenth, or mental, or whatever. Just sort of a mutual understanding of each other's feelings, impulses, and then after awhile, the slow domination of Allen's own over the Fourteenth's. He had feared that he was over-suppressing his Noah, but somehow the Fourteenth's voice was stronger than ever, no longer saying monotonously, mantrically, helplessly over and over: Allen, Allen.
No. Now he was speaking, and Allen could understand, absorb, and react to the Fourteenth's words the moment he said them in his mind.
He had a moment in which he attempted to comprehend what it meant for the Fourteenth to be so dominant a presence in his mind after remaining seemingly dormant and submissive for so long when a voice crackled in his ear.
The communicator became slightly warm from usage and Allen struggled as he tried to find a clearer frequency. He might have gone too far from the village...
No, there was Kanda's voice, gritty with electricity and distance, shouting something. Was there danger? Allen strained his Noah hearing as far as he dared, knowing a too-loud radio crack could very well deafen him. But he had to hear what the exorcist was saying...
"—damn it! Fuck, fuck, FUCK—"
Well. At least he understood the other's words now. It was clear that Kanda wasn't addressing Allen specifically—unless the irascible man had developed some sort of fast-acting Tourette's—because the frequency was shared by the entire exorcist platoon. And, Allen remembered, the other exorcists weren't aware that he had a communicator and was thus privy to all plans and conversations. They also thought that he was a traitor, so he wasn't going to announce himself to any of them via communicator. Not yet anyway.
But Kanda's cursing could still mean something bad had happened, and he willed the bastard to say something of communicative value instead of every dirty word he knew.
Come on, Ba-Kanda. Use your words. There's too much at stake here.
Finally, some words that were non-expletives. Allen had to listen for several times before he understood exactly what he was saying, and another several to believe him. For the third time, Allen struggled to keep his balance. Half-succeeded. Pondered whether this turn of events left them screwed, very screwed, or absolutely, 100% fucked.
"Fuck yourselves in the ass, what do you mean you can't find her? WHERE IS SHE? She said she fucking AGREED and now you're saying that you can't find Rebecca OR the Innocence, that you can't find A SINGLE FUCKING TRACE!"
Fucked. They were absolutely, one-hundred percent fucked.
A/N: Two years. Does anyone still read this? If not, I wouldn't have posted this chapter. But even if just one person gets that giddy feeling upon seeing a new chapter, I consider it worth it. And according to the most recent reviewer, I know that there is at least one.
Not to discount all other reviews. I was just busy, and yeah, lost a bit of interest. I forgot this site. I graduated. But I still got nostalgic when I saw in my inbox that someone had reviewed, or added one of my stories on alert or their favorites list. It sparked something in me.
This past review, in all its length and impressive insight, rekindled something. I thought, "I want to get reviews like this again, every day. I want to know that people are enjoying reading something that I created, that it's providing needed escapism and excitement within day-to-day ennui. I want that again."
So I sat down and reread my whole damn story. It was kind of interesting; I'd forgotten exactly what I'd had in mind for the end of it, and had to rediscover where I was going with the plot. But I'm a fucking genius and had written down notes and entire chunks of prose for the future chapters of this story, so all I had to do was read those, edit this, edit that, and churn out this Chapter 20, and BAM! Back in the game. Sort of.
Tell me how I did? Regardless, it was a lot of fun. Stay tuned for the next update. I'm going to finish this one.