Beyond the Breaking Point
Chapter 7: Steps
Allen woke up hungry. It was one of his least favorite sensations, becoming conscious only to be attacked by the feeling of something trying to gnaw its way through his stomach. He rolled onto his side with a light groan, closing his eyes against the too-bright room. To top it off, they barely had any food left. And he had known that eating through the vast majority of their reserves was a bad idea, but he had been very hungry. Lenalee hadn't helped, encouraging him to eat every edible thing they came across, not claiming anything for herself unless he prompted her to. Allen opened his eyes despite the light, wincing a moment as his pupils contracted. The left seemed to take longer than the right.
"Ah," someone started to say something, but stopped. Allen glanced at the door. It was open. "Good morning."
Allen turned to look over his shoulder and saw Lenalee standing by the window, hands clasped in front of her in an uncertain position he was seeing more often now. "Good morning," he replied automatically. Lenalee shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
"Did you sleep alright?"
"Yes." It was easy to answer her, but Allen wished that she would stop. It was a sad attempt at normality. Maybe it helped her, but Allen felt that much worse from her attempts to make him feel like nothing had happened. He could understand a little why Lenalee hated it when he smiled to reassure her.
But that had been different.
"We should get going," Allen said abruptly, getting to his feet. Lenalee nodded enthusiastically, moving away from the wall.
"Are you hungry?"
"No," Allen answered curtly. He sighed, before turning back to face her. "I'm not, I'd rather just get moving," he added in a softer tone. Lenalee seemed to understand, attributing his behavior to their surroundings.
"Yeah, me too," she agreed. "There isn't much left anyway, we should probably save it."
Lenalee was really starting to hate the silence that descended over them after every minute or so of conversation. "Oh, here," Lenalee said, offering Allen one of the toothbrushes she'd taken from the Order. Allen accepted it with something resembling amusement before wandering off to find the bathroom.
Lenalee returned her attention to the window, catching her reflection in it as she ran her hands through her hair with a grimace. Not only was it tangled, but having fallen asleep with it still up the night before, her head was sore enough to keep her from wanting to redo it. It looked pretty silly down though, given her lack of a hairbrush, and she was glad that Allen had not seemed to notice (or was at least too polite to say anything). Experimenting, Lenalee gathered up her hair at the back of her head and twisted a hair band around it, securing it in a regular ponytail. Tucking the majority of her bangs behind her ears, she was a little surprised by how different she looked. If anyone got a good look at her it would be clear who she was, but the hair style did alter her appearance perceptibly.
Lenalee's thoughts drifted to Allen's hair. They would have to do something about that, if they were to enter a populated area. She could blend in effortlessly with the millions of other people in China, but Allen had far too many distinguishing features besides being a foreigner. She wondered vaguely if he would object to dyeing it, and where she could get the supplies to do so. Whatever color they chose would certainly hold well.
Lenalee considered what she could do to alter her appearance. The idea of wearing a disguise seemed silly, but anything to prevent them from being easily recognized couldn't hurt. Coloring her hair would only make her stand out more, but something else, maybe? She dismissed the idea of cutting it as soon as the thought appeared. Everyone was used to her having short hair, it wouldn't help much, and most women here would have long hair anyway. But those were just justification for heeding Anita's request as it flared in her mind; unless forced to do otherwise by unforeseeable circumstances, Lenalee fully planned to grow her hair back out.
"You have beautiful black hair. Don't ever lose it to the war, okay?"
Lenalee hurried away from the window, busying her hands with gathering their feeble store of supplies together. Anita and everyone on that ship were things that she really did not need to be thinking about right now. She had to focus on the person who she was still able to save.
When the 14th had first begun following him, Allen has subconsciously avoided looking at mirrors, or any reflective surface really. He hadn't known what it was yet, and when nothing seemed to happen, he had gotten used to it and started looking at them again. Since the attack he had fallen back on that old habit. Seeing the Musician over his shoulder was a constant reminder of what already weighed heavily on his mind, but beyond that he was scared. As if acknowledging his presence would give him another chance to strike. The worst part was not knowing what, if anything, had triggered it.
They had just been talking. It was not an especially good time to strike— there were other trained fighters around. He had just looked at her, and then… what? Allen had run over the memories a hundred times, and each time was painful, but he had to know. There had to be something there. It was as if a stretch of his memory was simply missing. He was looking at her, and maybe blushing a little because she so rarely smiled like that these days and he couldn't find quite the right word to describe how it looked, but idea of the word was something he really shouldn't be thinking about. Then he was in a dark room, and everyone was moving and someone was yelling at him but he didn't know what about. It took him a moment to realize that he was tied to a chair, and longer to realize why. And no one would tell him what had happened. He caught a glimpse of Lavi and tried to ask him, but Lavi's expression silenced him faster than the Crow official's blow. Lavi had never looked at him like that. Allen had never seen Lavi look at anyone like that, through every battle they had been through together. Abruptly, Allen was no longer indignant, and did not attempt to ask what had happened again. A hundred possibilities swirled around his head as he waited for whatever was coming.
Link was not among his guards, which worried him more than he had expected it to. Allen wondered if he had hurt the shadow; why else wouldn't he be there? Link was always there, a permanent fixture wherever Allen was. But that wouldn't be enough to make Lavi look at him like that, unless… he felt like he might throw up. Had he killed Link? He tried to remember, and his thoughts drifted back to Lenalee. She had been smiling. Allen abruptly pitched over and vomited on the floor.
It was Leverrier that finally told him. That was somehow fitting. He didn't sound smug when he said it, though the attack proved all of his accusations right. It was hard to tell how he felt about it, though he seemed to tense when Allen asked about Link. His speech became even more clipped after that. The words "council" and "execution" were mentioned, but Allen barely heard them. Going over Leverrier's account of what had happened in his mind, Allen didn't realize that the man had stopped talking until he had already left the room. It seemed inconsequential.
Things passed in a daze, after that. More talking that he didn't care enough to listen to, people he didn't recognize and didn't care to recognize making their way in and out of the room. A steadily growing accumulation of pain, first where he had been physically harmed but then coming from inside. He was tired a lot, things were fuzzy a lot, and Allen wasn't sure if they had drugged him or not but there wasn't really much to be done about it either way. Looking back, if that was the case then it certainly wasn't helping his endeavor to remember.
Allen now looked directly into the bathroom mirror, hands clenching around either side of the sink, and faced the phantom Noah with a determined glare.
"We need to talk."
The 14th looked different than he had the first time Allen saw him. A bit less cartoonish, more… solidified, somehow. His smile, far more subdued than his usual wolfish grin, was smug, amused, and no less alarming.
"Do we now?" The voice emanated from within Allen's head, resembling his own enough to make him frown, but it was clearly different all the same. For some reason, Allen wondered briefly if the Musician could read his thoughts, and made a point of speaking his response out loud.
"What is it that you want?"
It was weird, very weird, to address the thing so directly. But it had to be done. Allen was very aware of the fact that he was out of options. Maybe it should have been done before everything came to this point, perhaps it could have changed something. Somehow, it had seemed like acknowledging the Noah would make him more real.
"Would you give it to me if I told you?" the voice asked, far too amicably. What was it about the Noah? Attempting to kill you and your loved ones one moment before sitting you down for tea the next.
"Probably not," Allen answered honestly, attempting to gauge the reflection's expression. It was not an easy task. "Not if your answer is any of the things that I think it might be."
"Then why ask?" Though the voice was devoid of any curiosity, it did sound like a question that expected an answer.
"You wanted to kill her." Allen's hands were shaking with the force of his grip on the sink. But it was time to be perfectly blunt, as Allen had a feeling that this Noah did not feel like sharing much of his time.
A wry smile (or at least what Allen took for one). "I certainly tried."
"Then why haven't you tried again?" There had been so many opportunities, and Allen's heart had skipped a beat with each of them, wondering if he would even know that the 14th had acted before it was far too late.
"Did you want me to?"
Allen was not even going to dignify that with a response.
"Your sense of humour is lacking, boy."
"I'd say the same to you," Allen all but growled. This was going nowhere, and the Noah calling him 'boy' bothered Allen on several levels that he did not want to think about. "Answer my question."
"Say please." Allen gave the mirror a very, very blank look. The Noah sighed, and the way the sound bounced around his dead made Allen grimace. "And you used to be such a polite boy."
He was really deriving enjoyment— amusement, even— from this conversation. The thought made Allen angrier than he would have expected, and he reminded himself that breaking the mirror would not only ruin his chances of getting anything out of this conversation, but alarm Lenalee. Allen didn't think that he would be able to stand her knowing how easy it was to converse with the 14th, it was bad enough having to acknowledge it himself. Besides, the last thing they needed was additional bad luck.
"Just tell me." It came out more tired than exasperated. It was hard to sustain anger at the phantom; everything Allen felt towards him he felt towards himself tenfold. He was the one that allowed this thing to take control, and Allen couldn't have forgotten that fact for a moment even if he had wanted to.
"Very well." The Noah spoke as if he was doing Allen a great favor. "If you must question my motives, I have not attacked her again because doing so has not yet suited my interests."
Allen could not even begin to fathom the meaning behind that, but one thing was clear. "You do plan to try again."
It was not a question. The Noah shrugged.
"When it suits me."
Allen grit his teeth and wished, wished so much, that he could say "I won't let you" and be taken seriously, or at least be able to take himself seriously.
"Isn't there any other way?" he asked in a measured tone. The Musician was silent for a moment.
"What an odd question," he mused. "There is always an infinite amount of 'other ways.' But for me to get what I want, I doubt that you would like any of them."
"What are they?" Allen demanded. The Musician went silent again, for a long enough time to make Allen wonder whether or not he was going to reply at all.
"They are not things that I am willing to negotiate."
Allen's head was throbbing, pain fueled by the voice like a vicious migraine. "I won't accept that."
"There are a good deal of things that I imagine you are incapable of accepting, boy; that does not keep them from happening."
Now Allen was silent. What could he possibly say to that? Every denial in the world would not change the fact that the Noah was right, and that deep down Allen knew he was right. There were a lot of things that some part of him knew, deep down, but the rest of him refused to examine. Now they all seemed to be bubbling to the surface (you can't save everyone, sometimes sacrifices have to be made, I'm not going to win this).
Lenalee was waiting for him. Allen suppressed the thoughts, turning away from the mirror; despondent, but unsurprised. Attempting to strike a deal with the Noah was a last resort that he had never expected to work. He would have tried it sooner if he'd had the slightest hope of success.
"By the by," the voice began. Allen whipped his head around to look in the mirror, eyes wide. The Noah smiled in an almost friendly manner. "You don't need this anymore, to talk to me. I can hear and speak to you perfectly well without it, though I doubt you'll give me much reason to."
Allen left the room without another word.
Lenalee looked up when Allen entered the room, a little relieved in spite of how silly that was. He had been gone for five minutes at the most.
"I've got everything ready," she informed him, gesturing towards a small pack of what Allen guessed to be food tied up with a towel. He was about to inform her that she had forgotten to pack in a container of crackers, when he caught her expectant gaze and realized that she had done so on purpose. "I know that you weren't hungry before, but I thought you might be now."
Allen half expected his stomach to growl, tattling on him, but even when it didn't it seemed like a silly thing to deny. He smiled a bit, accepting the package. "Thanks, I am."
It didn't come out as carefree as he had intended, but it seemed to do the trick. Lenalee darted a glance at the bathroom before turning back to him.
"I'm going to go see if the shower works," she informed him, making her way to the door but pausing before going through it. "Make sure to drink a lot of water, okay?"
Allen nodded, mouth already dry from the very salty "breakfast." Lenalee flashed him a smile, and then disappeared around the doorway.
What on earth was he going to do?
There never seemed to be any good option. He couldn't leave her now, alone in a largely unfamiliar country after giving up everything for him (though a small part of him pointed out that she would be better off that he in that situation). But he couldn't stay with her either, a ticking time bomb until the 14th decided that killing her "suited his interests." Damned if he did, damned if he didn't. Wasn't that always the way it went?
Allen started a bit at the sound of water rushing through the walls of the house, followed by a squeal from the direction of the bathroom; he had to actually grab onto the counter to keep himself from running in on impulse. He was right here, so she was fine. The water was probably cold, and the absolute last thing their relationship needed at the moment was him running in on her unclothed. Allen was fairly sure that his brain would simply explode at that point.
Perhaps he was more than a little edgy. And that was not going to help anything. Allen forced himself to take a deep breath, chewing the crackers slowly and feeling the scratchy way they went down his throat before heeding Lenalee's advice and finding a cup. One day at a time. They were going to take this one day at a time. It was the only way to do it; even thinking where they might be tomorrow night incorporated too many uncertainties to be known. When Lenalee got out, they would pick a direction and start walking. That was it. For now, that had to be enough.
A sip of water made Allen aware of the fact that he was parched, and by the time he stopped drinking his stomach almost felt full.
Lenalee walked into the room a couple minutes later, and Allen literally did a double-take, nearly giving himself whiplash craning his head to look at her again. Her hair was down, still damp from the shower, but what caught his attention were her clothes. Her uniform was folded over her arm, and she was wearing what looked like a long-sleeved robe, light pink with red trimmings that matched the tie (belt? sash?) holding it all together. It wasn't a color combination he had ever seen her in, seeming almost hyper-feminine; the fact that the robe was clearly too big, making her look more petite than she actually was, added to the effect.
"There's a drawer full of clothes in the room to the right of the bathroom, if you want to look. I think I saw some men's clothes, but they all look very similar," she stated, placing her crumpled uniform with their other supplies. Allen studied her expression carefully. There was something there, but he couldn't quite tell what; she looked somber, above all else.
"Thanks," Allen said, moving to explore the room she had mentioned. It started as a reflex not to make her be the only one walking out of the house wearing the dead's stolen clothing, but as soon as he had wriggled his way out of his prison garb, Allen was aware of how completely disgusting he felt. The outfit needed to be burned, not washed. Allen made do with hurrying to the shower, a little put off that there was no hot water but feeling more than a little stupid for expecting there to be. He was incredibly thankful for the bar of soap present, scrubbing off residue from days of confinement and ill health.
Upon stepping out of the stream of water and into reasonably clean clothes, Allen felt better than he had any right to, despite himself. The robe and matching pants fit loosely, far different than the tight material of the Exorcist uniform he'd become accustomed to, but not much unlike the prison uniform had been when he first wore it (or so he imagined, anyway, not quite remembering ever changing into the thing). Returning to the front room, Allen was a little surprised to see Lenalee standing right by the door, waiting for him. She smiled a little apprehensively when he entered.
"Do you mind if I try something?" she asked, taking his hand and tugging him towards the counter. Allen's mind blanked completely and he nodded with absolutely no idea of what she had in mind. "It's not a very good solution, but since your scar is so distinctive, I thought for now we could just put this over it," she explained, holding up a roll of gauze and medical tape. Allen blinked. Lenalee's expression turned concerned. "Is that okay?"
"That's, ah, fine," he assured her, still slightly bewildered. Lenalee made quick work of tearing the tape into roughly even pieces, holding the roll up to his face several times to gauge the lengths required.
"I know it sounds silly," she spoke up when he said nothing, still preparing the dressings. "And of course to anyone who knows what to look for it will be really obvious, but it's better if other people don't remember seeing it, right?"
"Right," Allen agreed, staying very still as she placed the gauze against his face with a look of concentration, and a tenderness that almost hurt. They were both silent until she stepped away, paused a moment, then took a step forward again to brush his bangs in front of his face. "Lenalee…?"
Perturbed really was not quite strong enough a word to explain Allen's confusion at the action, but as she began brushing them out of his eyes a moment later it clicked that she was attempting to cover the pentagram above his eye. Yes, that certainly was distinctive. All this was a very good plan, except for the fact that…
"Um, Lenalee," Allen began hesitantly, smiling at her a bit apprehensively. "I think that my hair is going to draw attention to us anyway."
"I know," Lenalee replied, not the least bit crushed by the ruination of her scheme. "I was thinking that at the next town we come across, I could get you some hair dye, if that's okay?"
Allen just looked at her for a moment. Since when had Lenalee become a specialist in espionage? Or maybe that was just the obvious answer to the issue and he was an idiot to have never thought of it.
"That's fine. That's a really good idea, actually." Lenalee smiled, clearly pleased, and Allen couldn't help but smile back. Wasn't it supposed to be the other way around? He smiled for her. But then, she had never liked that. No, that wasn't true, she just saw past the fake ones.
"What color do you want?" she asked conversationally, adding what looked to be a small medical kit (ah, that's where the tape and gauze came from) to their pile of supplies, which seemed to have grown a little. Allen considered the question a moment, trying to wrap his mind around the idea of changing his hair color to… well, any color. It was weird to think about. "Allen?"
"Brown," he answered automatically. Lenalee nodded, retying their things together. She glanced up at him, as if trying to picture it.
"I think that that will look nice." The little contemplative smile when she said it made something in Allen's chest clench, and he hurriedly looked away.
It was going to get one, or maybe both of them killed.
"What would you say if I told you—"
Don't tell me.
"That you're going to kill someone you love?"
He loved a lot of someones. Every human and every akuma, for starters. Mana, perhaps even grudgingly Master, everyone at the Order from the Science Department to the Finders, to the Exorcists. That was love, wasn't it?
But this was different, in a way he couldn't or doesn't dare to place. He had known that it was a bad idea. And that was why it was impossible to concentrate his anger on the Noah lurking in his mind; he had known that it was a bad idea.
But just knowing wasn't enough. And somehow, here he was, with her, about to embark on a dual journey. And he knew that it was a bad idea, but she beckoned him, and he followed her anyway.
AN: Hey guys, sorry for the major slowatus. I can't promise that it's over yet, but I will try to post more frequently and be sidetracked by other things less often. I do want to assure you that I am not going to abandon this fic at any point; it may take forever, but I will finish it. Eventually. Thanks to the awesome reviewers who guilted me into writing, this chapter especially goes to Unsawr for making me feel like an awful person for not updating and basically forcing me to churn out the majority of this chapter through sheer over-the-top flattery. My ego is easily stroked, my guilt easily incurred.
Lord, it took me over 4000 words to get them out of the house. Settle in for a loooong fic.