First, I really need to apologize for the long delay between the last chapter and this one. I hit a rather nasty bit of writer's block second semester of school, and by the time I'd gotten over it I had too much to do. Alright, so now for the conclusion of the Naples arc! I'm getting as bad as Hoshino at sticking arcs within arcs within arcs… XD Anyhow, thanks to Kaite1211 and SmileRen for the for the reviews! Thanks also go to LadyMimi101 for adding the story to her favorites and alert list! It's really encouraging hearing back from you guys!

Part Twenty-Five: Salve Regina

"To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;

To thee do we send up our sighs,

Mourning and weeping in this vale of tears."

Hermann of Reichenau

He kept his distance from everyone else after knocking out Pietro and Giuseppe. Ricci knew there would be no going back now that they knew he was a spy for the Camorra. Now if he didn't want his real boss angry with him then it would be best to give him the location of the Cosa Nostra's headquarters in the city before the shift let out so that they could prepare an ambush in the hideout. It wasn't the ideal plan, but everything had gone to hell already. Not only the plan, but everything else about the day had been shitty, too. His mind still wandered to the pair from earlier: the tall boy and the other one. He still couldn't fathom what bothered him about the other one. The tall boy had been by sight and action far weirder than the other. It was just that he was so… pretty? It was the only word for it. He was almost too pretty to be a boy-

Ricci stopped walking and smiled at himself. So that was it. No wonder they'd been so anxious to leave after his outburst. Well, he'd have to confront this Sophocles later and find out what the hell was really up with him and his friend.

Before he could plot this confrontation, though, Ricci heard a noise coming from the wall behind him. He turned just in time to see two very tan men step through the wall. They didn't make any holes doing this; they just went through the wall. He blinked several times trying to clear his head. It wasn't possible to just walk through a wall. They'd have to be ghosts or spirits, and he was sure that none of those things were damn real.

"I told you, Fiidora, that there wasn't anyone there," muttered the first one in some language that Ricci couldn't understand (although he was pretty certain that it was English). His dark curly hair fell into his eyes almost completely hiding the golden irises. "Now that you're done wasting our time, let's close this damn deal. Lady Rose's daughter Miss Emmeline is waiting for me in a lovely restaurant in London with a bottle of champagne."

"I don't care what the fuck you have to do this evening," snarled the second man who was obviously Fiidora. He appeared far more menacing than his compatriot and- in Ricci's personal opinion- looked completely ridiculous in his fine clothing. He looked more like some of the thugs the boy worked with in the mafia. Ricci tried to duck into the shadows, but found it was too late. The angry faces of the men briefly turned to a look of surprise before settling into a more neutral expression.

"Nice going, Tykki," grumbled Fiidora. He placed a hand on his hip. "What the hell do we do now?"

Tykki scowled and looked Ricci up and down. "Who the hell are you, boy?" he asked in a nonchalant manner.

Something about the two men bothered Ricci. He honestly didn't care that they were business associates of his boss or that they appeared to be influential in their homeland. If he'd known that he'd have to work with such freaks in the Camorra, he would never have joined. Since he couldn't understand what the freaks were saying, he said exactly what was on his mind. "Va a farti fottere!"

He hadn't expected them to understand. Tykki glowered darkly at Ricci. "What was that, boy?" he seethed, this time in Italian. Ricci suddenly understood he'd crossed into dangerous territory with these two.

"He told us to fuck off," huffed Fiidora. He began cracking his knuckles- one at a time for emphasis.

Tykki started circling the boy. Ricci would have run away at this point, but something told him it was moot point. "Do you have any manners, boy?" he asked. "You've probably noticed by now that we're Englishmen, and an Englishman prides himself in two things: her majesty Queen Victoria and manners. You seem to be sorely lacking in the latter of those two, so I think we should teach him a lesson. What do you think, Fiidora?"

Fiidora yawned. "We don't have that much time," he said. "Plus, he's a boring catch. You do it, Tykki."

"Fine," he stated, his face suddenly changing into a manic grin. Ricci found that he couldn't look away as the man plunged his hand into his chest, grabbing onto something inside: his heart. He began hyperventilating, for certainly this should not have been possible. Tykki leaned in closer and whispered one phrase into Ricci's ear. "Va a farti fottere."

He felt pain shoot through his body as the man squeezed his heart. When the man let go Ricci felt to the floor. He watched as the two men walked away, the one with his blood all over his left hand and the other snickering and snorting at the predicament. As death pulled upon all of his senses, Ricci wondered if the tall boy and Sophocles had been running from these two.

He would never have the chance to ask them.

oOo

He felt a lot better out here on the edge of the city. It was far away from the smog, the noise, the people… His head was hurting a lot less without all the people around, and he was glad to be able to think. Of course, Allen tried not to think too often or too hard, for it always led to him focusing on the voices he did not want to hear that told him to kill, kill, kill…

A bird sat on a rock nearby whistling to itself merrily. If he were alive, then he would have stood up and tried to catch it. However, he was not technically alive and knew perfectly well that he'd be able to catch the bird and wring the pretty little tune out of his neck, which was really a shame. He did like birds and music, but the other him- the akuma part- didn't like music at all. Music made him think about Sophia and how her beautiful, sweet voice made his limbs freeze and drove daggers into his burning heart (that was the state of an akuma heart: a fiery mass caught in metal tubing).

Allen sighed and leaned back in the grass. It was very frustrating waiting here for the others, knowing that at least one of them was in danger if not more by now. He wouldn't have though it to be possible at the start, but he cared now about all of them. The akuma wasn't sure whether it was something that Cross had done to him or if it had just always been part of his limited range of instincts. It truly should not have been possible. But things were what they were, so instead of running away like any logical akuma would have done he remained there waiting. And also unlike any good akuma he was having his doubts.

He didn't hate them, the humans. It was written in his programming that he should, but he didn't. Allen couldn't figure out why that was. Everything had been so mixed up since he'd been caught by Neah and Sophia in Paris. And despite the fact that these humans were his captors, he was starting to think that they didn't hate him either. They didn't glare at him whenever he came to speak with them, and they didn't disregard his existence either. The Earl had only ever seen him as another one of his creations. Even though he was an akuma, Allen knew that he had a personality. Damn it, he was a soul bound to a metal body. It was his soul that made the entire mechanized part of his body work. His soul was important!

Allen slammed a fist down on the ground, scaring the bird away. He didn't much care at this point, for his mood had soured considerably now. All he wanted, what his soul wanted, was to help his friends, but he couldn't do that in his current state. He would just add fuel to the fire. It figured that even as an extremely deadly being that was practically indestructible he wouldn't be able to do anything…

That was when he felt something sting him on his ear. Well, rather it bit him according to his senses. Allen jumped up from his position on the ground, shaking his head to get rid of whatever had bitten him. Nothing fell off of his hear, but he felt the teeth release him. He turned on the spot looking for whatever it was, finally coming face to face with the Thing.

He almost dismissed it, but then realized he couldn't remember how it had even gotten there. Allen was pretty certain that Cross had left it back in one of the hotel rooms. "Where the hell did you come from?" he asked. The Thing flew around his head and then settled in his hair. "Don't get too comfortable up there. You almost bit my ear off! I have half the mind to bite you back!" He rubbed his head, muttering bitterly while the Thing's tail swung like a pendulum in front of his face.

It was then that a thought struck him. He grabbed the tail swinging in front of his face and pulled the Thing off of his head. The Thing panicked and flapped its wings in a futile effort to escape what he obviously thought was an attempt at revenge. However, Allen only grabbed its main body with his free hand to prevent any future biting incidents.

"Oh, you… Thing! Damn, I really do need to come up with a bloody name for you!" exclaimed the boy. He pulled the Thing closer and began to whisper to it conspiringly. "I could almost kiss the daylights out of you, but not really. Kissing is gross. But anyhow, it's good that you're here because I have a job for you. You better not damn well mess it up!"

oOo

Doriano Bianchi glared at Cross from his spot across the desk. He didn't say anything for the first several minutes, which gave Cross the time to look around the office. It was far nicer than any other room in the factory. Glossy hardwood panels poked out from under an expensive looking Persian rug whose colors matched perfectly with the drapes framing the one large picture window. He would hazard to say that the entire room must have been furnished by Doriano's mother or even his grandmother, for even a young man of Doriano's standing wouldn't have paid so much attention to the type of wood used for the paneling or the subtle color accents in the rug. Near the window stood an incomplete landscape painting of the skyline of Naples upon an easel, which was probably the only contribution Doriano had added to the room.

Cross fidgeted a bit on the short wooden chair that he now sat upon. His knees were practically hitting his chest due to the size of the chair, although he could see why the young factory owner had chosen this chair. Doriano Bianchi was remarkably short, even shorter than Neah. It really undermined any attempts that he could make to assert his authority, so Cross perfectly understood why his chair was so short while a ten centimeter tall box raised Doriano's chair high enough so that the young man could glower down at whoever should be unfortunate enough to be summoned here. He wanted to congratulate whoever had thought of this orientation of seating and then ask for the damn paperwork he would most likely have to sign for starting this whole mess. At this point he would sign almost anything that would keep him out of the legal system because he had hundreds of other things that he needed to do.

Finally Doriano spoke. "Please state your name," he began.

"Tomas Gerardo," replied Cross without hesitating. He was glad he'd read over the fake work papers earlier.

Doriano opened a drawer at his desk and pulled out a folder. He leafed through its contents once, twice, and then a third time. After the third time his frown deepened, and he returned his gaze to Cross. "I don't have you in my personnel files, Signor Gerardo," he said.

"It's because I just started today," countered Cross.

"Prove it," sneered Doriano.

He pulled out his fake papers and handed them to Doriano Bianchi. He looked over them once and then pulled out a pair of reading glasses to go over them a second time. The boy squinted as he looked at the papers through his glasses, making Cross presume that Doraino, in fact, did not need glasses but used them to put on a pretense of authority. Cross rolled his eyes. This boy was even more pretentious than some of the upper members of the Order he'd seen around Headquarters.

"You didn't supply any references," commented Doriano, still looking over the papers.

"I'm a bit young for that," responded Cross. "You have to get a first job somewhere."

"Well then, how did you hear about my factory?" inquired the boy. He stood up and put his hands on the table. "And how come I don't remember signing these papers? They're pretty good, but I can tell all of those signatures on your forms are fake."

Well, that excuse had lasted all of five minutes. Next time- that is if he let there be a next time- he'd make sure that Neah picked a factory where the head wasn't an artist. Since he was caught on the forgery, Cross began constructing a story of why he lied in his head, one that he hoped would just get him kicked out of the factory and blacklisted from the industry. He could care less whether he stepped into another steel factory again.

"Now, what are you doing in my factory?" asked Doriano, his hands clenched into tight fists.

"I'm from the local Worker's Union," Cross stated, kicking his feet up onto the desk. Doriano looked down at his feet in displeasure, causing him to smirk. At least he'd be entertained for a little while during this entire fiasco. "I snuck in to organize a strike on your premises. Went a bit better than I expected, I might add. Perhaps while all your workers' panties are in a knot you'd like to negotiate employee payment with me."

"This is a load of rubbish," muttered Doriano. He attempted to push Cross' feet of his desk, but he failed. Doriano stepped of the block and came around to the other side and continued his efforts to remove Cross' offending auxiliaries. "First you're trying to pass off as an employee and now you want me to believe you're a union organizer. Am I supposed to believe you? Give me some actual identification and your union card! Then we can discuss the consequences of trying to organize employees in my steel mill."

The boy walked over to the picture window and looked out while extending an open palm to Cross, waiting for the information. Cross had been prepared with fake papers and an entire back story, but he hadn't gone so far as to make a fake ID. Today just wasn't his day. He could see Doriano smirking in the ghostly reflection he cast in the glass panes. "No ID, huh?" questioned the boy. "Now I'm really intrigued, Mr. Gerardo, if I can even call you that. You've gotten farther than any other union worker, anarchist, or journalist who has tried to talk their way out of trouble, but it still won't be enough. Just tell me who you are before the police try to beat it out of you down at the station during your arraignment."

He really hadn't wanted to hear the word arraignment, but it was probably the best deal he'd be able to cut with the son of a bitch. Cross frowned while he began tossing together a stupid sob story of searching for his long-lost father, all the while hoping Doriano Bianchi would just call the police now so that he could get the whole jail thing over with. He'd have to call someone to write to someone in order to post bail, which wasn't a very good thing considering that the only people he could write to would be his friends, Mother, or- God forbid- Khanna. The bad tempered exorcist would probably never let him live this one down and start pressuring him even more about what the hell he and his 'little friends' were planning. Cross was pulled out of his thoughts, however, when he heard glass shatter.

Doriano had backed up several steps and now stood looking agape at a tiny golden object that was currently forcing its way through the hole in the window. Cross was honestly just as surprised as the young factory owner to see the Thing finally fall into the room and begin flying around in circles.

"W-what is that?" asked Doriano. The Thing didn't seem to appreciate this comment and blew a raspberry at the factory owner. He then proceeded to fly over to Cross and land on his head, curling his tail around his round body like a serpent.

Cross began contemplating how the Thing even arrived here. He didn't have a honing device- although that certainly was a good idea for an addition if he could make it work- so he couldn't have flown all the way from Rome. The only way the Thing could be here was… He could feel color start building up in his cheeks, for he now understood that the Thing must have stowed away in his bag the other day and decided to find him now. Cross knew that this was definitely not good for his part. If Doriano Bianchi hadn't believed his story about being a union organizer earlier, then he surely wouldn't now. The police would probably also find him very dangerous and deranged, especially with the Thing riding on top of his head like some weird hat.

The Thing smiled a very toothy smile at the factory owner. Cross wondered if he could get away with pretending he didn't know the Thing and then apologize to his invention later. "I don't know…" trailed Cross.

Before he could continue, though, he realized that Doriano had become extremely pale as his eyes fixated on something. "Y-you're with the B-b-b-b-black O-o-order," he stammered, leaning back on a nearby bookcase. Now even Cross could feel himself paling. How the hell had Doriano Bianchi figured that out? He didn't recall having read about the boy being able to read minds. Cross wasn't even wearing a single piece of his work uniform.

He was about to deny it, when he finally figured out what had lead Doriano to this conclusion. It truly was a stupid conclusion to come to, considering that almost every person in the entire city of Naples wore a cross or some other religious symbol on a daily basis. Cross had really only meant it to be a statement to Neah, but he supposed that to people who didn't know much about the Black Order's symbols a big cross across the face of some foreign piece of technology would seem like a sure sign. Still, it would be a risk to admit any affiliation with the Order in this place, but with this new found weakness in Doriano's front he could maybe weasel his way out of this situation.

"No?" denied Cross carefully. He didn't want to sound too sure in case the factory owner went to find some of his goons to fetch Tykki Mikk and Fiidora. This conversation would have to stay between the two of them.

"You must be!" blurted Doriano. He began pacing back and forth in front of his painting. "Why else would you be here? You probably followed those two in this morning. And now that little… thing is here! I don't know what is does, but I've been told you have technology that's so advanced that we can't even imagine it… Are you an exorcist? What the hell do you want?!"

"Uh, no I'm not an exorcist…" mumbled Cross, although he was pretty certain Doriano Bianchi wasn't listening to him anymore.

"They cannot discover that the Black Order got a man in here," the factory owner muttered. "They'll kill me just like how they did that other guy in last year in France… What do I do? What do I do?! I can't just kill you because then I'd have to explain that to my business associates…"

Doriano kept mumbling to himself, pacing, and fidgeting in a very agitated manner. Cross remained silent, biding his time. It would be best not to agitate the factory owner now and let him mull the facts over. Then perhaps he could suggest subtly to let him go.

The factory owner, though, beat him to the chase in the end. All of a sudden Doriano stopped pacing and replaced the mask he'd worn earlier in their meeting. Without a word he walked over to the door and opened it. "Get out," he said.

"What?" inquired Cross. He really couldn't believe his luck at the moment.

"Get the hell out of my office!" hissed the factory owner. "Leave my factory and never say a word to anyone about this. It wouldn't be hard for my people to track you and whatever family you may have down, so think again before you even approach your superiors! Now go!"

The Thing seemed happy enough with the result and flew out ahead of Cross. He shrugged and walked out of the office. Doriano Bianchi wasted no time in slamming the door behind him, and Cross couldn't say he actually minded. It was probably best that they pretended that they'd never met.

The halls outside were empty of all guards, making him assume that the factory owner must have sent them away when they'd started their meeting. Cross began to make his way towards the entrance. Hopefully the chaos he'd started earlier had subsided and Sophia had gotten away. He reached into his shirt to grab his transmitter. However, his hand came back empty. Cross stopped in his tracks and began feeling around his neck. The round wooden beads of the rosary were nowhere to be found. "Shit!" he hissed. He tried to think back to when he'd probably lost them. The only time that came to his mind was during the riot downstairs. He scratched the back of his neck as he contemplated attempting to recover the rosary. In all likelihood it had been trampled upon and broken in his absence. It would be in vain to search for it now.

The Thing flew down closer to him and then off down the corridor. When Cross didn't follow him, his invention bore its teeth. After growing a bit in size he flew around Cross and began attempting to push the exorcist down the corridor. "Fine, fine!" snapped the scientist. "We'll keep going if that's what you want."

Shrinking again the Thing flew in front of him again to lead the way. Cross knew that they'd only be able to look for one person at a time, and from the path the Thing was taking he was pretty certain that it wanted to look for Neah first. The Noah probably needed his aid more now, for he'd probably found the warehouse with the Akuma since they were obviously not in either the first or the second warehouse. Still, he'd wanted to make certain that Sophia was alright. He supposed that he would have to wait longer to find out. Feeling a bit uneasy he picked up his pace and continued following the Thing down the corridor.

oOo

"Which way now?" asked Mana. They'd reached yet another fork in the road in their search for Doriano Bianchi's office. He still wasn't certain what they would do once they reached it, but that was the least of Mana's concerns. Smooth talking was one of his many talents, as well as improvisation. Directions, though, were definitely not his strong suit. It didn't help that every corridor looked the same.

"Um…" trailed Sophia looking at both corridors. She pointed at the one on the right. "Let's try this one. I'm pretty sure we've been to this intersection once before, and we went left last time."

"Alright," he agreed. He was glad at least one of them was paying attention to which way they were going. Mana was too preoccupied with all the thoughts flying through his head. Cross was trapped, Neah was on his own somewhere in this factory, the Clan of Noah was on the prowl… It was almost suicidal being in that factory. Still he remained there glancing furtively around them, shaking limbs and all. Despite all the misgivings about this place and this mission he could not leave his friends or his brother now. Mana had decided on that last Christmas in Liverpool, and he would stick to his word. It was funny, though, for a year ago he probably wouldn't have cared so much if Neah were in this position. Now he was willing to search this place from top to bottom to find him. First, however, they would have to find Cross.

"Mana?" inquired Sophia. She stopped dead in her tracks. He skidded to a halt behind her. "Is it just me, or do you feel like someone is watching us?"

Mana looked around the corridor, his eyes taking extra time to examine the shadowy corridors. One never quite knew what could pop out of a corner. Fortunately they all appeared to be empty. Still now that Sophia had mentioned it he did feel like a pair of eyes was slowly boring into his back. It could have been entirely in his imagination. All this creeping about was making him rather paranoid, so even the slightest suggestion had him on edge. "Well, we'll just have to look out for them , as well," replied Mana. He grabbed Sophia's closest hand and started off again, this time paying more attention to their surroundings.

For a while it seemed like everything was alright. They still couldn't find the office, but at least nothing popped out of the darkness to attack them. He began to feel a bit better. Mana was about to turn another corner when he came face to, well, pointy face with a spear. Sophia bumped into him from behind, bringing him slightly closer to the spear. Thankfully, it didn't move him too far forward. He wasn't completely vain, but he still would prefer not to have his face run through with a spear.

Mana looked at the person holding the spear for the first time, hoping they didn't look intent on skewering him and Sophia. To his surprise it was a young blonde woman holding the weapon, standing in a rather authoritative manner. The long black coat she wore helped give this impression, as well as- good gracious- the black pants she wore. He'd never seen a woman, barring Sophia, wear pants before. It almost scared him more than the silver spear in his face. Obviously the woman meant business.

"What are you doing here?" she asked quickly. Mana noted she was fairly pretty, even when glaring at them with her brown eyes.

"Um…" was all he could manage as a response.

The woman moved the spear a hair closer, causing him to lean back. He could feel his knees shaking. "Who are you?" she demanded.

oOo

He crept amongst the silent akuma on the floor. It wouldn't do well to disturb them all at once, for he'd need Cross' help should they need to make any immediate modifications. Still, he could start by figuring out how best to get any akuma that were modified- by force or willingly- out of the warehouse.

Neah noticed that one section of the floor sounded hollow compared to the others. Upon examining it closer he realized that it was a trap door. With a little bit of effort he forced it open to reveal water below. He knew the warehouse was built on a platform above the sea thanks to Sanjiv, so there was a good chance that any of the smaller akuma should be able to make their way out through the trapdoor. That solved one problem. Now all that was left was to wait.

"What's taking that idiot so long?" groaned his Inner Noah. "We've found the akuma, so we're ready to start."

Cross and Sophia were taking a rather long time. By now they should have been able to examine both the first and second warehouses. They should have joined him here at this point, even without instructions. Plus there had been that incident with Sanjiv cutting the line earlier. "Something isn't right," he mumbled to himself.

"Of course it isn't!" snapped his Inner Noah. "Everyone is late and not following the plan! If I was in control and they were this insolent-"

Neah began tuning out his Inner Noah as it began to rant. "Some help he was," he grumbled softly. It was annoying that things didn't appear to be going as planned, but he was certain that there had to be a reason. Perhaps he shouldn't have dismissed all those signs of impending danger. That was past, though, and there was no changing what he'd done so far today. All he could do is try to make progress on his end, which meant that he'd have to risk talking to some of the akuma without any backup.

He looked around at all of the akuma. Talking to the newer ones right now wouldn't do any good. They were the most volatile, and the last thing he wanted was for the entire warehouse to wake up and start a swarm. Any higher level akuma would also be a bad choice. It had been a serious risk trying to convert the kid… Allen… whatever he liked being called… considering he was a Level Two. From his interactions with akuma over the years he knew that higher level ones were more loyal to the Earl on average. He needed to find a Level One Akuma who'd been beaten around a lot, one not too unstable yet flexible enough to change. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted one in the corner whose outer dented metallic shell appeared worn from battles and weather. This one would be perfect.

Neah approached it cautiously from the front. He placed a hand on its metal placing and put on his most sympathetic expression. All those years of pretending to sympathize with his wealthy peers and crazy family were finally coming to some use. The akuma opened its eyes slightly to look at him. "Not doing so well, my friend?" he asked.

The Level One Akuma made ready to use its guns, but then relaxed. Neah knew it had probably identified him as a Noah. Still, it looked suspiciously at him. It was definitely the right choice. The akuma stared back at him blankly, as per usual. That fact would be his only difficulty, for it would make it near impossible to read the akuma's thoughts.

"It really does show, if you don't mind me saying," said Neah. "Don't get me wrong. I don't think it's entirely a bad thing, for it only proves that you are strong, far stronger than your average Level One Akuma."

The akuma seemed to appreciate this flattery. Its eyes now paid close attention to Neah. Good, sweet talking was working. Now he'd have to move on to distancing it mentally from its fellow akuma.

"Yet I still see that times are tough for you," continued Neah. He could practically picture Cross scoffing at the amount of silk in his voice. The magician turned scientist, though, wasn't much better than him at times. He'd seen Cross turn on copious amounts of charm when needed, although it didn't always work for him. "Here you are, relatively new to this life of warfare… practically thrown to the dogs! You do as your nature tells you, but you are met by countless adversaries that can destroy you. No one ever told you that in the start, did they? Others see you as just another machine, another cog in this great machine of warfare."

If a Level One Akuma could glower at all, then it did so now at its fellow akuma. Neah was very fortunate. He wondered if this one's soul had been as much of a sucker in its first life.

"But you know better. For inside all this machinery is the soul that powers you. A soul trapped in eternal torment, and why? All to wage this war that you probably didn't care about in your former life!" exclaimed Neah. He paced back and forth in front of the akuma. "And do your fellow soldiers care? Not one damn bit. Those who proclaim to see you as something precious, who say that you're working for the greater good, lied to you. To you, life is meaningless. Now ask yourself, whose fault is that? Who is really to blame for making you a despised puppet of what the world sees as evil? You know the answer. I don't even need to tell you."

The akuma had floated a bit further away from its fellows. Neah knew that he had it now.

"What if I told you, though, that I could make you singular?" inquired the young Noah. "I can make you unique. I can make the voices ordering you to be just a part of the whole disappear. All it would take is for you to leave this herd here and come follow me. It's very easy. There's a door right over there in the floor. Just float out and convene with me at the outskirts of the city. Of course, you could just stay here and keep drudging away until you die…"

It looked from Neah to the trapdoor and back to Neah again. Neah smirked for he knew exactly what it would do. He patted it on the side. "I'll see you on the first hill outside the city, my friend," he stated. The akuma looked around to make certain its fellows were sleeping and then quietly floated through the trapdoor and away from the factory. That was one down. Now he'd have to work on more of them.

He was surprised at how easy it was to convince some of these akuma. Four more went outside to join the first on the hillside without any show of resistance. Another five needed a bit more convincing, so he fed them some lines about how it would cause their souls less torment. He had no idea if it was totally true, but from his observations of the kid it seemed that the akuma child was more cheerful now having been converted. Neah felt he probably could have converted most of the warehouse by himself if it hadn't been for the accident.

He was working his charms on a slightly larger Level One Akuma, which he believed was close to the point of becoming a Level Two, when the door opened. At first he feared that a worker had come in, but then he recognized the auburn hair. "Neah?" inquired Cross. The Thing floated idly beside him, which gave Neah a start. He hadn't remembered seeing Cross bring it into the factory.

The akuma's red eyes narrowed, seeing fresh blood. It adjusted its cannons aiming directly at the scientist. The Thing began shaking and then hastily flew behind the scientist for cover. Cross looked disturbed and began to back away, obviously regretting speaking in the first place.

"Of course now he shows up!" griped the Inner Noah. "Just let the idiot die." It would be so easy to do that. And for a moment he was almost frustrated enough to give into this suggestion. Maybe he would have a year ago. Something inside of him stirred, though. His mouth felt dry, and his eyes widened slightly. He'd never seen an akuma kill anyone he knew, and suddenly he knew that he never wanted that to be the case.

Neah knew he would regret it immediately, but there was only one thing to do. "Self-destruct!" he ordered the akuma. He dove away as the akuma cringed at the command but followed it, knowing that it could not refuse a Noah. That action, logically, resulted in several neighboring akuma to explode in reaction. Unlike in Paris the akuma were not packed tightly enough to destroy all of them. The remaining ones woke up and began looking around in a way that almost mimicked panic. There seemed to be some silent communication in the group, and before he could bat an eyelid the herd swarmed towards the door. It broke down and they flew off into the factory.

Cross had ducked behind a crate at the initial explosion and now army crawled over to where Neah lay on the floor. The Thing had shrunk down small enough to ride on Cross' head, and it flitted over to the Noah once they reached him. "What the hell were you doing?" questioned the scientist angrily, the Thing reflecting his mood by biting Neah on the ear. "I come looking for you to warn you about your crazy fucked up uncles being here, and all this time you've just been continuing like nothing is wrong! Now what the hell do we do about all of those akuma?!"

Neah stood up. This situation was pretty bad. Many of them had seen him, and he couldn't be certain how many of them noticed Cross. Any of them could lead his uncles back here, and they'd be discovered. "We can't let them get out of the factory," determined Neah. "I'll have to head off the swarm and get them to self-destruct before they can attempt to communicate with my uncles."

"Right," agreed the scientist. "I'll look for Sophia-"

"That's suicidal," interrupted Neah. He wasn't just going to let Cross walk back out there to potentially get shot for no reason again. "Send the Thing with a message telling her to get out. I need you to get out of the factory now and start working on the group of akuma I sent to the meeting place outside of Naples. We don't need them coming back to join this swarm."

Cross did not seem pleased by this order. The scientist scowled at him. "Still with your plan!" yelled Cross, his nostrils flaring. "If you weren't so focused on this then maybe you would have noticed the transmissions earlier about Sophia getting trapped in the warehouse when your damn uncles came waltzing in! I thought we'd agreed to abandon this plan and try something else should problems arise!"

That bit of news was pretty concerning. Neah wasn't quite certain what to say to Cross. Obviously he was very worried about Sophia's safety, and Neah himself wouldn't be able to reassure the scientist that she was okay. He might have special powers from being a Noah, but there wasn't anything he could do to ascertain her safety.

"Then at least go through the trapdoor and wait outside in the front," snapped Neah. "I don't have time to discuss this further now." With that said, the young Noah ran off, desperately trying to reach the front of the factory before the akuma did.

oOo

Mana could only stammer from his position next to her. "Well… um, I'm Manuel.." he began. Sophia resisted the urge to role her eyes. Of course now Mana could hardly speak. Usually he could talk anyone's ear off, but now faced with this petite woman- he had to look down to look her in the eyes- he was tongue-tied.

She decided to take care of this herself. Sure, the woman had a spear, but Sophia doubted for some reason that the woman would actually kill them. She took a step forward to stand beside Mana. "Sorry, ma'am," she lied, trying her best to keep her voice in a lower register, "we got lost up here escaping the riot downstairs. Didn't mean to disturb you, although I don't know how you got in here."

"What is a nice, young lady like you doing here?" asked Mana, forcing a nervous smile on his face. Sophia elbowed him in his side. "Ow!"

The woman stared icily at them, which seemed really impressive to Sophia considering the warm color of the woman's brown eyes. "Don't think that you're so clever," she replied, gripping the silver spear even tighter. "If you wanted to escape so badly you'd have gone to the front door. Now tell me what you're doing here."

Alright, so that strategy wasn't working. They'd have to take some sort of stance now if the woman was looking for a fight. They still had Mana's juggling equipment, but she doubted that any of that would help them much against a spear. "Please, just let us pass!" pleaded Sophia. "We're just looking for our friends!"

"Honest!" agreed Mana, nodding his head enthusiastically. He was reaching in his bag, looking for some kind of weapon. Sophia decided that should they ever try something like this again they were going to have to stick more than juggling equipment in Mana's bag. She could probably fend off akuma for a little while, but singing wasn't going to help them out of this situation.

"I've been watching this factory all day," retorted the woman. She walked purposefully towards them, causing Mana and Sophia to back up into the wall behind them. "And I can say with certainty that all of you will be facing the law very shortly. Now let's cut to the quick. Are you in league with the Millennium Earl?"

"What?" asked Sophia. Now this conversation had escalated very quickly. She didn't know how this woman knew anything about the Earl, or exactly how much she did know about his associates like akuma and the Noah.

"W-who's that?" inquired Mana. Little beads of sweat began forming on his forehead. Sophia also felt as if the room had become warmer. She started playing with the collar of her shirt, wishing it didn't have to be so tight to hide the green cross on her neck.

"Tell me what you know," demanded the woman. Once again she moved her spear closer to them.

But then they were interrupted by something quite unexpected. At first it just seemed like a ray of light passing through the hallway. However, it didn't move in a straight path, choosing instead to fly circles around each of them. Mana pulled another juggling pin from his bag, getting ready to take a swing at whatever this light was. The light, though, stopped and then latched a very familiar set of razor sharp teeth on the pin.

"Hey!" cried out Mana, looking a bit indignant but still relieved it was only the Thing. Sophia relaxed a bit herself. Somehow the Thing must have escaped Cross' hotel room and came to find them. "Let go!"

The Thing did as requested, and still showed its displeasure with the older Walker boy by blowing a raspberry at him. It appeared that the Thing would never quite get along with Mana. She saw the woman back up a step in surprise, probably because she'd never seen something like it before. Sophia could have sworn that the Thing had grown eyes for it seemed to sense her presence and stop specifically a few centimeters in front of her face.

Suddenly she heard the noise of static fill the air, loud enough to make her want to cover her ears briefly. It cleared away, fortunately, after a few seconds to be replaced with the sound of a familiar voice. "Sophia," said Cross' voice, "you need to get out right now. Don't worry about Neah. He's already on his way out. Come find me outside of the factory. Hurry!"

With that the voice cut out. She glanced at Mana, knowing that he could see the worry in her eyes. While it was good that Cross had gotten away from Doriano Bianchi, for him and Neah to be abandoning the factory so quickly… something had gone seriously wrong. Even without seeing his face she could tell that Cross was attempting to warn them of some kind of emergency. Mana seemed to be just as concerned as she was, although visibly relieved due to the news of his younger brother.

The woman in front of them also seemed to have gone through a physical change. No longer did she point the spear in their faces, and her eyes ceased to stare at them in suspicion. In fact, Sophia felt it was some kind of, well, recognition.

"Neah… and Sophia" muttered the woman under her breath. She looked at the juggling pin in Mana's hands. Her brown eyes widened. "Are you Mana?"

The juggler didn't get the chance to express his shock, and Sophia doubted that either herself or the woman would have been able to hear him should the boy have deigned them with an answer. A loud buzzing noise began to fill the hallway, almost making the static from earlier seem pleasant. It crescendoed to a point where she could feel the noise vibrating in her chest. That wasn't the part that disturbed her the most, though. She suddenly felt light-headed and clutched the wall behind her. Her eyes zoned in on the far end of the hallway, and her throat began to burn. Sophia had felt this way once before earlier in the spring on the day that Sanjiv had first attempted to teach them some self defense.

The woman also seemed to sense this danger for she once again raised her spear, although this time it was in the direction that Sophia was looking. "You two need to get out of here now!" ordered the blonde woman.

"What's going on?" cried Mana. He was shaking and pale, obviously quite aware of exactly what was happening but not wanting to admit it. Sophia remembered Cross telling her about an akuma attack that Mana and he had witnessed in Austria, and how the elder Walker feared the metallic demons.

Their worst fears were realized as the first akuma rounded the bend in the hallway. The Thing flew in frantic circles above them as if unsure what to do. "We need to move now!" shouted the woman. "Go!"

Sophia didn't need telling twice. She grabbed Mana by the hand once more and began to run, pulling him along behind her. It didn't take long for him to take the lead, his long legs giving him an advantage.

Mana was about to lead her down a passage to the left when the woman behind them bellowed, "Right! Turn right!"

They did as she said, and continued running. The Thing now took the lead, zooming along in a golden blur. Sophia could hear the akuma firing bullets behind them, but the poisonous objects failed to hit them. It seemed a bit strange to her. After all, Neah had spent an entire evening lecturing all of them about how deadly the aim of an akuma was. Either he'd been over exaggerating that point, or the akuma were not in the right mindset. She wondered if Cross or Neah had something to do with this. Considering Cross' message, she thought it to be the most likely reason. Not that the reason really mattered, though. She was just glad that the growing swarm of akuma now following them was not hitting them.

They were hitting everything else around them, though. Parts of the walls, the floor, and the ceiling rained down around them. She did her best to follow Mana's lead for he seemed to weave easily through the falling debris. Sophia was surprised that they didn't try to make any of the holes around them bigger and try to escape. The akuma were probably more intent on their current warpath, which unfortunately they happened to be in.

Despite Mana almost taking several long turns, the woman was able to steer them in the right direction. Soon they were thundering down a flight of steel stairs to the ground floor of the factory. They ducked under the stairwell once they reached the bottom. The akuma overshot them and flew off down the hall and into the main corridor.

From that direction Sophia could hear more akuma firing shots along with many men screaming. She was about to run towards the fight to see what she could do when she felt a firm hand grab her arm. Her grey eyes met a pair of brown ones. "The front door is in the other direction," stated the woman. "Take a left at the end of this hall and the door will be right there."

"There are people that need help!" she argued back. Mana looked shocked to hear her say this, probably thinking it was a better idea to follow the woman's orders. It really was the smart thing to do, but Sophia did not feel that it would be the right thing in her case. While she wouldn't be able to stop this swarm of akuma, she could at least help a few people escape.

"And they will kill you if you try," retorted the woman. "Right now there's nothing that you two can do, so please leave now while you can."

Sophia wanted to argue her point, but then she remembered: only her friends knew that she possessed the Innocence. To anyone else, including this woman, she was just a child. She wanted to say something so badly, to make the woman understand that she could help, but she'd been told to keep her ability a secret. Sophia didn't even know the woman's name, so how could she possibly trust her with one of her most sensitive secrets? Her body wanted to rebel and just let its actions speak the truth, but her mind told her to play it safe. "What about you?" she inquired.

"Someone has to clear a path for you two," replied the woman. She smiled warmly at Sophia. "It might as well be me."

Mana's eyes widened in fright. "That's mental!" exclaimed the juggler. "You'll get shot for sure, ma'am!"

"I'll be fine," said the woman. Without another word she ran towards the end of the hallway towards the growing swarm of akuma. The Thing tried to bury itself in the fabric of her coat as if it couldn't bear to watch.

Sophia wanted to reach out and stop the woman, but Mana grabbed her arm. "Sophia, look," he breathed, his eyes not meeting her. She turned to look at whatever had caught Mana's attention. The spear that the woman held now with only her right hand began to glow a brilliant shade of white at the point. A single slash caused the first akuma the woman met to explode into hundreds of tiny pieces.

The woman was an exorcist.

Sophia stood captivated for a moment. She'd never seen an exorcist in action although she'd heard stories about them sometimes when she was out on the streets of Rome. Just like people had said it really didn't matter what an exorcist looked like, for the woman seemed capable of moving with agility comparable to someone much larger. She jumped easily from one akuma to the next, slashing and stabbing at them effortlessly. Even when one threw her against the wall the woman stood back up and started fighting again. If Mana hadn't started pulling her away she probably would have stood there much longer just watching the woman fight. However, she remembered the woman's words and reluctantly began following Mana to the front door.

Again they had to dart around falling debris and bullets, making their way slowly towards the door. There was nowhere to duck for temporary cover, so Sophia knew they'd have to make it to the door in one try. It seemed to take forever, but finally her hands grasped one of the steel handles.

The door didn't open. Mana pulled and pushed with all of his might on the door next to her. "Come on, come on!" shouted the juggler. His golden eyes looked back at the fight frantically. The Thing even tried biting the handles, but it could only leave tiny puncture marks.

"It's locked, Mana," she yelled over the noise of the battle. One of the foremen had probably bolted it during the riot to keep people like them from escaping. That strategy appeared to work too well. "We're going to have to find another way."

"But the only other doors are at the other ends of the factory!" bellowed Mana. He ran a hand through his bangs to push them off his sweaty forehead. "We don't have time!"

The woman jumped down closer to them to deflect a bullet with her spear. "Hurry it up!" she ordered. She panted heavily between her words. Sophia noticed that the woman seemed to be favoring her left leg instead of balancing her weight on both feet. "There are more of them coming. I'd like to attempt and clear a path for any surviving workers."

"Are you hurt?" Sophia asked the woman.

"I might have sprained it when I rebounded off of the wall," admitted the woman. "I don't have time to deal with it right now. Why haven't you two left yet?"

"We have to find a different way out," explained Mana, his expression very downcast. "The door is bolted."

"How about windows?" asked the woman. She turned her back to them as the drone of approaching akuma grew louder.

"There's a large one not too far from here in a coatroom," remembered Mana, his eyes turning brighter. At least he had some hope now.

"Then try going through there," stated the woman.

"Come with us!" pleaded Sophia. "You can't keep fighting on a sprained ankle."

"I'll clear out of the factory once you two have left," responded the woman. "The Order should have arrived by then."

"But-"

"Just go!" interrupted the woman.

"Come on, Sophia," said Mana, pulling her arm.

He started off towards a passageway on the other side of the corridor. She and the Thing both followed close behind while the woman continued to block bullets from oncoming akuma. When the newest group arrived in the hall she again leaped toward them.. It was just enough of a distraction to allow them to cross into the passageway. They only passed a couple doors before Mana opened one on the left side of the passage. She spied the window that Mana mentioned. It was rather big, but not so big as to be easily accessible to akuma.

The only problem with the window was that it was a single pane. There appeared to be no way to simply open it. "Hold on a minute," Mana said to her. He pulled his trusty juggling pin out of his bag once more. "I'm going to have to break the glass." The Thing, though, didn't wait for Mana to act. It flew back a few feet and then smashed through the window, causing a good portion of the pane to shatter.

"You're brilliant!" she called out to the invention, which almost appeared to blush in response. She climbed up on the ledge and waited for Mana to join her.

The juggler, however, first ran back to the door of the room and shut it. "Safety first," he stated. He ran over to the window. "Go on! I'm right behind you."

It wasn't a far drop, but something still made her hesitate. Sophia tried to figure out exactly what it was, but between Mana's worried look, and the Thing flying around in circles waiting for her she decided to go ahead and jump. Still she couldn't help but notice that the throbbing pain in her body only grew worse the farther away she got from the fight.

oOo

Cross waited at a spot thirty meters away from the factory very close to where they'd began this disastrous mission earlier this morning. A crowd had grown in front of the locked gate over the past ten minutes, most of them anxious family members or friends of the workers inside. They'd seen the smoke from the center of town and apparently thought there was some kind of fire. He thought that was a pretty dumbass assumption considering if you listened you could hear gunfire coming from inside the factory.

The only good thing was that no one had asked why he was standing there dripping in his wet clothes. Any other day he would have been furious with Neah for suggesting that he just swim to shore, but today he'd let it pass. He was more concerned that Sophia and Neah get out of the factory.

It was taking them much too long in his opinion. He'd parted with Neah almost ten minutes ago, and Cross knew how much damage one akuma could create alone in that time. A hundred of them loose in a factory… there was little to no chance that most of the people inside would make it out alive. And it wouldn't stop there. At any moment akuma could break through the walls and set out to destroy the city. All of these people were in far greater danger than they could possibly imagine, and here they stood thinking it was a fire. He would have thought that the Black Order would make people more aware about akuma and the danger they caused to society. It seemed the whole 'secret war' aspect trumped security for the community. Somehow he wasn't surprised.

A window on the first floor suddenly shattered. Cross made ready to run, thinking that the akuma had finally found a way out. Instead two people climbed out. The first one appeared to be a little boy. He was followed soon after by what many people in the crowd thought was a freak in colorful clothing. Cross, however, recognized both of them, although he was very shocked to see the older Walker running across the grounds with Sophia.

People began to shout and point at them through the bars of the gate. Some individuals even tried to break open the lock to let them out, but the gate didn't yield. Finally someone shouted to them, "Climb over the gate! We'll catch you!"

At this point Cross joined the crowd and began forcing his way to the front. By the time he reached the gate Mana and Sophia were just a few feet away. The Thing immediately slipped through the gate and nestled itself on top of Cross' head. "Cross!" cried out Sophia, running up to the gate. "You're alright!"

It appeared as if they were fine as well, so he decided to cut to the chase. "We can talk about that later," he said. "What the hell are you doing here, Mana?"

Mana had been looking over the crowd and didn't register his question. "Where's Neah?" he asked, looking very panicked.

"Stop worrying," berated Cross. He dropped his voice low enough so that only they could hear him. "You know damn well he can take care of himself. I just saw him ten minutes ago. He's taking care of the escaped akuma and said he'd catch up with us at the meeting point outside the city. Now we need to get out of here."

Mana seemed to relax a bit at this comment. It surprised Cross, for while the brothers were closer now than during their early childhood Mana had never been so worried as to actively seek out his younger sibling. He wondered whether Neah would have done the same thing if it had been Mana inside the factory.

The juggler turned to Sophia and linked his hands together. "Put your foot here," he stated. "You don't need to wait for me at the top. I can swing myself up there."

Sophia didn't pay him any attention, though. Almost as in a trance she turned her head back towards the factory. She didn't walk off, but only stared at it. A second later Sophia snapped out of it and turned back to Mana. "Get down!" she ordered, pushing him to the ground.

In the blink of an eye a hole appeared in the roof, and out of it flew about a dozen akuma. The frustrated protests of the crowd around Cross turned to screams as they spied the demons. He did as Sophia said and hit the ground just before bullets started raining down on them. People around him shoved each other as they attempted to get away, causing the akuma to give chase. He heard some of them zoom overhead as others of them smashed through the front gate. Soon it was only him and a handful of other people who had remained there, judging it best not to entice the rampaging akumas' attention. Cross looked up from his new spot on the ground. Fortunately both he and the Thing were unscathed, although a few bullets had struck the ground around them. Others in the crowd hadn't been so lucky. He saw several people break out into the tell-tale pentacles.

Then he heard Mana give out a scream. He whirled around to look at the juggler, afraid that he'd been hit. Mana Walker was alright, though.

Sophia wasn't.

She'd also hit the ground when pushing down Mana, but she'd been between the older Walker and the factory. In the initial onslaught an akuma bullet had lodged itself into her right leg. She was propping herself up with one arm next to Mana, staring silently at the bloody wound.

It felt as if the air had been knocked out of him. While Mana screamed her name over and over again, his voice mixing with the wails of the unhurt people in front of the gate, Cross found that all he could do was sit there and watch as the pentacles started forming very slowly in the blood on her leg. He wanted to climb over to fence and try and dig the bullet out of her leg, but he knew it would be a wasted effort. Nothing that he knew of could stop the poison. The Thing began to cry, and while that was a new development he could have really cared less about it. Right now he'd have to sit here and watch the virus take Sophia away from them.

His mind swirled with thoughts of all the things he should have done, all the things he could have done. Images of days past in the house in Rome, in Liverpool, at golden fields of Walker Manor… It was only a few seconds of reverie, and he broke out of it suddenly as he heard something. She was barely audible, but he could tell that Sophia was singing.

"Salve, Regina. Mater misercordiae.

Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve."

Her hand grasped the exposed part of the bullet, and before he could say anything Sophia pulled the large bullet out of her leg and tossed it to the side. She winced a bit and tears formed in her eyes, but she continued singing, her voice slowly becoming louder.

"Ad te clamamus exules filii Hevea,

Ad te suspriamus, gementes et flentes

In hac lacrimarum valle."

To his astonishment Cross watched as the pentacles that had been spreading in Sophia's blood and on her skin began to disappear one by one. Mana ceased his hoarse yelling of her name and sat there stunned, tears forming in his eyes. The Thing flew frantic circles above their heads. Cross felt himself let out the breath he didn't realize he was holding and felt a slight grin form on his face. Somehow Sophia was alright. It seemed like some sort of a miracle, yet Cross knew there had to be some kind of an explanation. He wracked his brain for any information that he'd overheard or read since he'd joined the Black Order. Cross couldn't think of any finder or exorcist that had survived the akuma virus. The only incident that came to mind was that Khanna had recently cut off the hand of a Finder who'd been infected with the virus to stop its spread. It had earned the exorcist another earful from the higher ups, but the Finder didn't seem upset at all and even thanked Khanna. However, this case definitely didn't apply to the current situation.

All he could think of was that it must have something to do with the Innocence embedded in her body. Innocence supposedly 'cleansed the soul of an akuma.' It seemed logical to Cross that Innocence could also disinfect akuma wounds. He'd have to look into this more later.

Another akuma flew out of the hole made in the factory's ceiling. Shakily Sophia stood up from her spot on the ground, still singing. The few unharmed people who'd remained at the gate bolted away, scattering the ashes of those who'd been unlucky. Mana looked around desperately for some place to hide. He finally stood up next to Sophia and started pulling her arm as if to pull her away from the demon. The demon, though, remained hovering over the factory, appearing as if it were stuck. Its wide eyes darted around looking for some kind of aid while pushing against the invisible power that the young girl appeared to hold over him. Unwillingly it started to sink back into the hole from whence it had emerged moments prior. The strain caused the akuma to blow steam and leak oil from the seams in its body. It became too much in the end for the akuma, so it gave up and let Sophia force it back inside. When she finished her song the akuma did not reemerge.

She began to wobble on her feet, so Mana moved closer to support her. Cross took this moment of peace to run to the closest hole in the fence and run inside to help them, the Thing following close behind him. "How did you do that?" Mana was asking in disbelief as the scientist finally joined them. "You were shot, but you're still here! I'm glad, but I still don't understand how you did it."

"I really don't know," responded Sophia, smiling wearily at him. "I suddenly felt the urge to sing something, and I sort of just did what I did. It was like my body was on autopilot."

Cross untucked his shirt and tore a strip off the bottom. He began compressing the wound on her leg. While it was free of pentacles it was still bleeding profusely. "We need to stop the bleeding," he said. He glanced up at her tired looking face. "Are you sure that you're alright now."

"I'm just worn out," she commented. Sophia looked back at the factory. "I don't think I can take another hit like that."

"You shouldn't," both Mana and he stated at the same time.

Cross moved to her other side and wrapped an arm around her. "Let's get out of here," he said. The Thing flew ahead of them, leading the way. "We need to get as far away as we can before any more akuma try to escape."

"I wouldn't worry about that," replied Mana as they began walking away, holding up Sophia. "There's an exorcist inside."

"Really?" inquired Cross. He felt his stomach drop. "Shit! Tell me it wasn't Khanna. He'll murder me if he sees me."

"No," answered Sophia wearily. "It was a woman. She never told us her name, though."

"A woman?" questioned Cross. Now he was really curious, for he had yet to meet a female exorcist at the Black Order. "What did she look like?"

Mana scrunched his nose up as he thought. "She was petite, not much taller than Sophia here," he recalled. "She had blonde hair and these brown eyes. I would have said she was fairly pretty, except that she seemed very intent on running me through with a spear."

"She also seemed to know who we were," added Sophia. "Does she sound like anyone you know in the Order?"

The woman did, in fact, sound very much like a woman that Cross knew: a certain blonde who worked for communications in the Black Order. "Maybe," he responded. He would think about it more later. Right now all he could focus on was getting as far away from the factory as possible.

oOo

He shouldn't have expected to be able to run faster than all the akuma. Still, Neah Walker was very disappointed when he saw a large hole in the ceiling close to the front of the factory. There were many akuma still inside the factory, much to his relief. All he needed to do was somehow get the remaining akuma all in one place.

Suddenly all of the akuma stopped. Neah blinked his eyes to make certain that what he was seeing was real. All of them turned and began flying slowly down the corridors to the main room. Their movement could only mean one thing. Either Uncle Tikki or Uncle Fiidora had called all of them back. In any normal situation he would have been glad for the unintended help. Right now, though, it was one of the last things he wanted. If any of the akuma attempted to speak with his uncles, then they could find out what he'd been doing in the warehouse. It would be the end of all of his plans and most likely his life.

Neah ran through some of the back corridors. He was so busy trying to come up with some sort of plan that he almost slipped on some kind of liquid. When he looked down he reeled away towards the other wall. Some boy who looked to be around his own age, maybe a bit older, was lying there listlessly. His eyes were unseeing, his olive skin livid, and some dried blood trickled down from his slightly open mouth. Neah knew exactly what had happened to the boy, having heard Uncle Tykki brag about his skills on numerous occasions. Today was the first time, though, that he'd seen those skills implemented.

He ripped his eyes away from the body and renewed his pursuit of the akuma. Neah slowed his pace once he reached the main room. From the look of it only about half of the workers remained, the others most likely were now little piles of ashes on the factory floor. It was almost humorous seeing all of these large men sitting on the floor like scared little school children. The men had formed subgroups, diving themselves by allegiance. By far the largest group was the one belonging to no organization, the second was the Camorra, and the smallest group was made up by members of the Cosa Nostra. Uncles Tykki and Fiidora stood in front of them, gazing down at the workers like they were street rats, making no exceptions based on allegiance.

A couple of large men stood on either side of a boy that Neah recognized from the file Sanjiv and Bookman had put together for him. Doriano Bianchi looked around the room desperately looking for either a friendly face or a route of escape. It didn't appear as if he'd find either. Everyone else besides his uncles looked as scared as the factory owner.

"Now," began Uncle Tykki, starting to pace in front of the workers, "my brother and I had just finished up a transaction with this facility. We know it to be a good, quiet factory where workers tend to keep out of each others' business. I want to know why today is different from any other day."

All of the workers remained silent. Uncle Fiidora started cracking his knuckles, but it didn't appear to cause any sense of intimidation in the workers. Of course, they really didn't need to apply any methods of intimidation considering the sixty-some akuma hovering in the room, blocking out the little sunlight that came through the tiny, sooty windows.

"Well?" inquired Uncle Tykki. The twitching in his fingers gave away just how agitated the Noah of Pleasure really was at the moment. "One of you bastards answer my question!"

The men looked at each other, at the akuma, and basically anywhere that wasn't directly at Uncle Tykki. Finally, the factory owner spoke up, albeit very quietly. "I-I-I really don't know, sir," stammered Doriano Bianchi, his eyes darting between the two thugs on either side of him. "Perhaps it's just the weather. It is rather warm around this t-t-t-time of year."

Uncle Tykki didn't pay the factory owner any mind. He began to walk closer to where a group of akuma were positioned. Neah knew that he'd have to make his move before his uncle came too close to the group and engaged in conversation.

"My brother's creations here have never bothered any of you before," continued Uncle Tykki. "They don't make noise, they don't need any maintenance from you lot, and they don't leave any mess when they choose to leave. Now I want to know who woke them."

"They don't leave any messes…" mused his Inner Noah. Neah knew exactly what it was implying. Yes, it wasn't exactly the cleanest way to go about it, but it would have to do. He half-wondered if his Inner Noah had always meant for this plan to come to this.

Neah stepped out of his place in the shadows. "It was probably the racket they were all making earlier with their riot," he said.

Some of the workers began muttering amongst themselves, wondering who he was, but his uncles looked plain shocked to see him there.

"Neah?" asked Uncle Tykki, walking away from the akuma. "What are you doing here?"

"Did the Earl send you?" questioned Uncle Fiidora.

Neah shrugged. "I'm here on personal business," he replied. He motioned for his uncles to move in closer. "Do you remember how I asked the Earl for his permission to pursue the organization that torched my manor?"

"Yes, you said that it was a group of anarchists," responded Uncle Tykki.

"Well, I found the group that destroyed it, and I traced their organization back to Naples," he lied. Neah honestly had no idea whether the dead man he'd left in the manor in Sophia's place was from the city or not. Considering that his family knew practically nothing about the case he was certain that he could get by with this small fabrication. "Turns out they were a small offshoot of the Camorra in London."

Both of his uncles looked over at the second largest of the three subgroups in the room. "Really?" inquired Uncle Tykki. "Trying to double cross us, then?"

Good, they had bought that part. Now he just had to take control of the situation. "Perhaps," he drawled. "Of course, it's a long way from London. They might not know anything about it."

"That's true," mused Uncle Tykki.

"And let them make fools out of us?" asked Uncle Fiidora furiously. He scowled at the group of Camorra men. He was playing to his uncles' weak sides. If there was one thing that the entire Clan shared, then it was a sense of superiority. No one would get away with damaging his family's prestige. "Let's just kill them."

"Yes, yes," said Neah. He gestured to the other two groups. "What do we do about the rest of them? They could report us to the authorities."

"Kill them as well?" suggested Uncle Tykki.

"But we need someone to run this factory," argued Uncle Fiidora. "It would be much easier to just implant them all with parasites and then keep an eye on them that way."

Neah really wanted to hurry this conversation up. Both the men and the akuma were beginning to look restless. Still, in order for this improvised scheme to work, he needed Uncle Tykki and Uncle Fiidora to think that all three of them had come up with the idea. He just needed a bigger spark.

It came in a rather unexpected manner. Before he could say anything else to his uncles the door swung open, letting in several burly workers. One of them who appeared better dressed than the rest -although his clothing didn't quite fit him right- led the way into the room. He seemed to be the only one who didn't mind the presence of the akuma. The man strode purposefully forward towards his uncles.

"We've finished loading the oil onto your boat, signori," stated the man. "Now where are our 500 ducats?"

"We'll pay you after we're finished here, Signor Bonaducci," snarled Uncle Tykki, clearly annoyed that their little chat was being interrupted. "Couldn't you tell that we're busy here?"

"I happen to be busy myself," retorted Signor Bonaducci. "Between the riot and loading your blasted boat I've had no time to do my job. Now how about you clear out so that I can clean up the mess your visit created."

"You've got some nerve," growled Uncle Fiidora. He clenched his fists, but refrained himself from causing any physical damage.

Uncle Tykki took a step towards Signor Bonaducci. "I actually have a question for you before we go," declared the Noah of Pleasure.

"I'm sure you pretty boys have enough questions to put me to sleep," snapped Signor Bonaducci. "If you don't mind I need to address an issue from this morning, so beat it."

"I should just rip that man's heart out," muttered Uncle Tykki furiously. Neah would have agreed with him, but he became distracted by something in the foreman's hand.

"I've told you hundreds of times, Signor Bianchi, that these rosaries are a damn menace," ranted Signor Bonaducci. Neah felt all the color drain from his face. He recognized that rosary quite well. It was the one Cross had stolen from the Black Order and turned into a transceiver. Now he knew who the stranger was he'd overheard over his transceiver earlier. The young Noah tried to regain his composure, for he didn't want his uncles to see him this way and suspect he was somehow involved.

That proved to be unnecessary, though, for both of his uncles were just as pale as he was. "Where did you get that?" inquired Uncle Tykki.

"It was on the floor of the factory," replied the foreman. "I don't see how this involved you lot-"

"Who the hell brought this in here?" bellowed Uncle Fiidora. The men looked at each other questioningly, but no one claimed Cross' rosary.

Neah decided he would play along with this newfound panic in his uncles. "Have you seen this before?" he questioned.

"They're standard issue from the Black Order," responded Uncle Tykki. "I've found them on every Exorcist and Finder I've dispatched."

"If you find one of those," mumbled Uncle Fiidora as he looked around the room with eyes full of suspicion, "then you can be sure that someone from the Black Order has been around."

"Whose is it then?" Neah asked, also looking around the room. He was pretty certain there were no members of the Black Order in the room, but the situation was one he wished to hype up. Neah was finally gaining a strong upper hand over his older and more experienced uncles.

Uncle Tykki and Uncle Fiidora observed all of the men. They were probably looking for someone who stuck out. "Tell us who the traitor is!" demanded Uncle Fiidora. "Are one of you in allegiance with the Black Order?!"

Again they were met by confused looks from the workers. There was one man, however, who did not appear confused. In fact, he was probably paler in the face than either of his uncles had been upon seeing the rosary. Uncle Tykki noticed Doriano Bianchi quaking in his spot between the two thugs. He advanced menacingly towards the factory owner. "What is it, Bianchi?" he inquired. "Tell us who it is."

"I-I-I-I," stuttered Doriano Bianchi. He looked like he wanted to dig a hole in the ground and hide.

In a blur Uncle Tykki grabbed the factory owner and slammed him against a wall. "Tell us," he seethed.

"I-I don't see him here," admitted Doriano Bianchi. "I forced him to leave. I don't think he saw the akuma-"

"Shit!" cursed Uncle Tykki. He let go of the factory owner and began pacing frantically around the room. "You can't even do the simple things right, and now you've been infiltrated by the Black Order! What am I supposed to tell the Lord Millennium?"

"Tykki," interrupted Uncle Fiidora, "we need to get going before they send any exorcists here. We have to fix this, but it's going to have to be damn quick."

Uncle Tykki ground his teeth. He stopped pacing and rubbed his temples. "Neah," stated his uncle, "you've always been the one with the ideas in the family. What do you think we should do?"

Finally, he was home free. Neah looked around the room at how the akuma were packed in. It looked like all of them had returned now, minus the ones he'd sent to the edge of town. The arrangement appeared to suffice for his current needs. He turned to the closest akuma. "Self-destruct," he ordered it. Of course it looked at him pleadingly, but even so he saw it begin the quake as its systems became volatile.

"How is that going to help?" questioned Uncle Fiidora. "I mean, we still have-"

"I meant all of you," he addressed the akuma. Neah wasn't certain who looked more shocked: the akuma, the workers, or his uncles.

"Hey!" shouted one of the men. "Send them somewhere else to blow up!"

"We're right next to the blasters," added another. "You could kill someone setting off so many explosions."

"That's the point," replied Neah. He bowed mockingly at Doriano Bianchi and the workers. "Your services are no longer required. It's been a pleasure doing business with you all."

His uncles were backing away from the akuma, their expressions slightly nervous as the akuma all began to shake. The workers were now standing up advancing on the three Noah. "You can't just do that!" bellowed one.

"Who the hell is going to take care of my kids?" protested another.

"Let us out of here!" cried out a third.

"I don't want to die!" shouted Doriano Bianchi. He tried to grab Neah's sleeve but he stepped out of the factory owner's path. "Please! Please!"

His uncles and he made a beeline for the only unlocked door in the room. As soon as they passed through Uncles Tykki and Fiidora threw their weight into the door, causing it to slam with a resolute bang. Neah used his strength to push a crate in front of the door, effectively blocking the last escape route. The door shook as the workers tried to force it open, countless angry voices lobbying threats at them. He could hear his Inner Noah laughing at them, mocking their voices. The laughing only increased as the first explosions went off. As the men inside began to scream in terror, Neah turned to his uncles and said, "Let's go!"

They immediately responded, taking flight from the main room. They headed deeper into the factory towards the warehouse Neah had recently left. The building shuddered as a deafening bang sounded from somewhere behind them. As he'd expected the blasters were exploding. Neah felt a rush of heat coming up from behind him. Uncle Tykki grabbed both Uncle Fiidora and him and phased through a wall just before a ball of fire engulfed it. They fell a couple meters and landed with a splash in the water below.

For a little bit they just remained there treading water as the factory continued to explode and burn above them. He was afraid for a moment his uncles would start yelling at him for almost getting them killed. Uncle Tykki's face then broke out into a manic grin as he began to first snort and then guffaw, the light of the fire dancing merrily in his golden eyes. Uncle Fiidora's high-pitched hyena laughter joined the Noah of Pleasure's lower one. It seemed to be contagious, for even though he really didn't want to laugh at this, he couldn't help but join them. Everything that day had unfolded in such a ridiculous fashion, and now here he was floating under the docks of the factory with two members of the family he was trying to take down having once again done their dirty work. And they didn't suspect anything.

They had to resort to floating on their backs to avoid sinking. It would have been much easier to go find their boat, but they remained in the water. For some reason Neah felt a vague sense of satisfaction just watching the factory burn. It didn't matter to him what happened to the factory now. Neah had gotten what he'd come for, and his family was still none the wiser.

oOo

He felt a bit better when Sanjiv joined him at the top of the hill. Allen no longer felt the drive to kill anything, so he moved to sit closer to the young Bookman. For once the older boy didn't lean away. He spoke a bit about what he'd seen in the town and even apologized about not finding Mana or any of the others.

Allen saw the smoke from the attack Sanjiv had mentioned begin rising higher above the city. He glanced down the dirt road leading to the paved city streets, willing the Walker brothers, Sophia, and Cross to appear. It didn't happen, though. Instead there was a loud boom, followed by a larger cloud of fire and smoke appearing where he knew the factory was located. Something had gone terribly wrong.

"What was that?!" he asked Sanjiv

The young Bookman looked just as tense as Allen felt. "I believe it was one of the blasters," he replied. "The whole factory is probably on fire now."

"Where are the akuma, then?" he questioned. Allen tore at some of the grass beneath him, trying his best to stay calm.

"They were most likely consumed in the blast," answered Sanjiv. He didn't write anything down, choosing instead to watch the flames spread.

"Do you think the others are okay?" inquired Allen, his voice wavering slightly. He didn't want the young Bookman to think of him as weak.

Sanjive remained silent, obviously choosing his words carefully. "We'll have to wait and see," he finally responded.

And so they waited in complete silence. Allen watched as teams of horses pulled fire wagons through the crowded streets to combat the fire. He knew it wouldn't do any good. Any akuma oil that hadn't already been vaporized upon the explosion of so many akuma would definitely have caught fire. There was really very little they could do about oil fires. Allen wanted so badly to be like the other people thronging the street, searching for their friends and family.

But he was an akuma. He was like the monsters that had shot up the town and now caused a fire in a factory, causing an unknown number of deaths. Allen had never felt so cursed before. He could've done so much to help his friends and this city if he wasn't an akuma. It made him wonder what other things he could have done if he hadn't been turned into a demon. His life could've had so much potential, but instead it had been wasted with the flick of a knife. No, it was more than that. He was a whole bundle of could-have-been and should-have-happened. Being an akuma was the combination of two wasted lives. All of two lives wasted on the vendetta of an ancient being that no one quite understood.

Maybe this hatred was what Neah felt when he saw his family go about destroying the world. He hadn't thought he would ever understand the younger Walker's motivation, but now he did.

While he mused on this several akuma landed on the hillside and transformed into their human disguises. Apparently Neah had met some success in regards to his mission. Allen sat closer to Sanjiv, afraid for once of his own kind. If they had to wait too long, then there was nothing to stop them from going berserk. Sanjiv and other people in the near vicinity could be killed by these candidates.

Then he was distracted by something coming up the dirt road. It took a few minutes, but he soon saw that there were three people coming towards them. Allen grew nervous and moved to stand up and shout at them to leave, but Sanjiv stopped him. Finally Allen recognized them himself. Sophia walked slowly between Cross and Mana, their arms holding her up while the Thing flew in front of them. Allen couldn't contain himself and broke free of Sanjiv's hold on him. He ran right up to them.

"You all are alive!" he exclaimed. The Thing flew merrily around his head and then settled on his shoulder.

"Just barely," Mana attempted to joke, although there was a slight serious edge to his voice. "Thanks for sending the Thing along. We would've been in big trouble without his help. What's with all the tears? Did you miss us that much?"

He hadn't noticed that he was crying. Allen turned away and wiped his tears. When he turned back he attempted to recover his hard edge. "No," he snapped. "All this damn smoke is choking my ventilation system."

"Sure it is," said Mana. The juggler reached out and ruffled Allen's hair with his free hand.

"Stop griping, kid," grumbled Cross. "I can't take a look at your problems until I fix up Sophia's leg. Can I have my bag, Sanjiv?"

The young Bookman handed over Cross' bag. Carefully Cross and Mana lowered Sophia to the ground until she was sitting. Allen could now see that she had a rather nasty gash on her leg.

"What happened?" asked Sanjiv before Allen could inquire about the wound himself.

"I was hit by an akuma bullet," explained Sophia. Allen gasped. In all likelihood Sophia should have been dust by now. Even Sanjiv rose his eyebrows at this revelation. "I started developing all the symptoms of a victim, but then they went away when I began fighting off akuma. I don't know why."

Sanjiv appeared to wrack his brain for a moment and then seemed to remember something. "Bookman once mentioned that exorcists with parasitic Innocence are able to neutralize small amounts of the akuma virus," stated the young Bookman. "You most likely activated your Innocence after being shot and it took care of the virus."

"That's incredible!" exclaimed Mana. "Parasitic Innocence almost sounds invincible."

"It has its pros and cons," said the young Bookman. He looked like he was about to say something, but then his face became drawn. Sanjiv shook his head and then continued speaking. "You all were very lucky."

"We were," agreed Cross as he finished bandaging up Sophia's leg. "Keep an eye on the wrappings and let me know if it is still bleeding profusely. I may need to stitch it closed or try some healing magic then."

"Okay," replied Sophia. Allen noted that she sounded very tired. "Where's Neah?"

"We haven't seen him yet," Allen admitted. "Did he say whether he was coming?"

"He said to meet him here," responded Cross. "I'll have to start working on the akuma without him at this rate."

Mana paid Cross no attention as he sat on the ground staring at the burning factory in the distance. Allen sat down next to him. "He'll be alright," he said to the older Walker boy.

"Then why isn't he here with us?" asked Mana.

"Neah is a Noah," scoffed Allen. "They don't tend to run by anyone's schedule besides their own. He'll turn up eventually."

Eventually turned out to be several hours later. It was dark by the time Neah joined them, but the city was still brightly lit from the still raging factory fire. Neah gave them a short explanation involving tidying up loose ends and having to wait until he could get away from his uncles to come see them. Cross turned away in disgust while Mana and Sophia merely looked uncomfortable with the idea of Neah cleaning up the factory mess. There was no question about what exactly the Noah of Destruction had done. Talk like this usually didn't upset him, but Allen felt himself tear up again as he thought about all those people who'd died, people who would never see their families and friends again. They'd meant to do something good by sneaking into the factory. Allen really wondered, though, whether their presence had really meant doom for the factory of Doriano Bianchi.

What angered him the most was that he knew somewhere in the world there were at least two Noah laughing about the demise of so many people in Naples. Some day Allen would personally wipe those smiles off their faces. He might be one of the creations of the Clan of Noah, but that didn't mean he shared their sense of amusement. Allen was now more determined than ever to fight against his instincts. He'd show the Millennium Earl that at least one akuma out there had a moral fiber left in his soul.

Alright that is the end of the Naples mini-arc! How will events unfold once they return to Rome? And what will Cross do about the rather familiar mysterious woman? Please review!