The desert stretched out as far as he could see, heat rising in visible shimmering waves off the sand. It made him dizzy to look at for very long. He stuck to walking in the shade whenever possible and complaining if his master attempted to send him out during the day. Night wasn’t much better, but the chill felt more normal to him, like a fragment of his faraway homeland.
On the third day he saw an Akuma in the marketplace.
Cross had disappeared into a merchant’s tent with curt instructions for Allen to remain in place. Nearly an hour later, bored and hungry, Allen looked up from tracing loose patterns in the sand to see a face leering above his. The shell belong to an older man, with streaks of white in his beard and eyebrows, but the soul chained in place belonged to a girl who seemed his own age. Startled, Allen fell back with a yelp. The man’s mouth twisted up into a wide, distorted smile.
“Hungry,” he–she?–it said. “I’m so hungry. It’s been so long. Please, sir, won’t you give me something to eat … ?”
Allen grabbed a handful of sand and flung it into the Akuma’s eyes. It gurgled and fell back for a moment to claw at its face. Others in the market were beginning to notice, stopping and staring. Allen heard a deep ripping noise and watched as the human skin shredded and split, the metal skeleton inside blooming outwards into a great round monstrosity. Someone in the crowd screamed, and that seemed to be the catalyst for panic, with people fleeing in droves. Allen stared past them, up at the girl still tethered in place by her chains.
Was it your father? he wondered. Or your grandfather, or–
He heard the shots a moment before he saw large black holes open up in the Akuma’s metal body. It jittered in place a few moments, and Allen had a moment longer to watch the progression of hairline fractures spiderwebbed out from those holes before a large hand snagged him by the scruff of the neck and hauled him back, into a dark tent that smelled strongly of incense.
The following explosion was loud enough to rattle his teeth, and the shock waves knocked him into a sprawl. A moment later he pushed himself back up to his hands and knees, spitting sand as he did. He looked at his master, standing rock-steady with his smoking gun in hand. In the dim light of the tent his face was difficult to see, but the flat line of his mouth wasn’t difficult to read.
Cross reholstered his gun and turned. He opened the curtains of the tent, revealing the small burned crater where the Akuma had been and the empty marketplace beyond that. “We start training you today.” There was a firmly final note in his voice.
It rained hard and steady for the first two days straight after they returned from Egypt. On the third day, though it showed no signs of stopping, Cross went out.
Allen, who had nearly convinced himself he’d missed everything about his native country, enjoyed maybe the first five minutes of cold before he went scurrying for the relative shelter of his master’s side. Everything was gray and fuzzy from the damp rather than the heat and there was a chill in the air that sank to the bone.
Cross walked with a deceptively easy-looking long-legged gait, and Allen broke into a trot just to keep up. Water sluiced off the wide brim of his hat in broken ribbons, almost like a veil. The first place he visited was an apothecary that smelled like incense and whose ceiling was hazy with smoke. Allen waited just by the door with his mouth and nose covered by a hand and watched his master speak with the shopkeeper, who was a tiny stooped old woman with a snub nose and eyes nearly lost in her sea of wrinkles. Her accent was heavy and naggingly familiar in a way that was impossible to place, though it came flavored with a disapproval that was starting to become unmistakably familiar. In the end she gave Cross a small box without receiving any money in turn. This Cross turned and handed immediately to Allen.
“Don’t lose this,” he said, and then they headed out into the rain again.
The second stop was another apothecary, smaller than the first, this one with a stern-faced dark-skinned man behind the counter. He squinted suspiciously at the rose cross on Cross’s breast, then reluctantly pushed a hidden door in the back wall open and beckoned Cross along. He shot an equally judgmental look at Allen and said, “Touch nothing.”
Allen met his eyes and held them, deliberately jamming his hands into his pockets and rocking on his heels. Cross snorted something in a language he didn’t recognize, and the shopkeeper spits something back in the same tongue before the two of them disappear into the hidden back room. The door slammed hard enough to make the merchandise on the walls rattle. Allen turned his attention to the window instead, leaning close enough that his breath left a soft circle of steam, watching the huddled people scurry past outside. There went a woman with two fat children; there went a man with a high upturned collar and bowler hat; there went a woman in flared petticoats, hanging off the arm of a swaggering young man. The buttons on his coat and the buckles of his shoes were so bright that they seemed to glow.
Then a portly man in a battered black coat walked past, hand-in-hand with a small child who took two steps for his every one, both hooded against the rain. A dog gamboled around their heels, kept close by a leash looped in the child’s hand. Allen pulled away from the window at that, stuck his hands in his sleeves, and did not move until Cross re-emerged over an hour later, a half-smoked cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, and together they headed back out into the rain.
Their last stop was a candy shop run by an apple-cheeked woman who cooed over Allen’s thin face and white hair and tucked in a few extra toffees with a wink.
“You’ll make yourself sick,” Cross told him, but let Allen carry the bag anyway.
He didn’t make himself sick, nor did he cry: he ate the toffees one by one, letting them melt slowly on his tongue. He did not think about families or dogs or anything but pieces of candy, and the fullness of his belly afterward.
On the fifth day alone, Allen went looking for his master. He stole some paper from a little corner market and drew a picture, then took to the streets. Avez-vous vu cet homme?
After two days of persistent searching, he found Cross Marian in a tiny brothel–so small that it had no proper name or sign–lounging on a bed with a lady curled up on either side. He had on both shirt and trousers still, but his feet were bare. Allen turned his head after a moment, more embarrassed by that than the nudity of the women.
“I thought you were going to come back after dinner,” Allen said.
Cross squinted at him. “Any time after dinner is after dinner,” he said. “What more do you want, foolish apprentice?”
“I would’ve liked at least knowing where you were!” Allen squawked. “It’s been a week! You didn’t say anything! How was I supposed to know when you were coming back! Or if you were!”
Cross sat up. One of his women murmured something low to him, but neither of them moved; both watched Allen with dark interested eyes. “Were you going to cry?”
“I’M TOO ANGRY FOR THAT,” Allen bellowed. “What sort of master are you, leaving your apprentice behind?! Without even saying where you were going! What if you were in trouble? What if I was in trouble? Show a little more responsibility, aren’t you supposed to be the adult here?!”
“If you want to learn, the madam will give you a discount for being a first-timer.”
“THAT IS NOT THE POINT.”
Cross sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He leaned forward, bending his legs up. “You know, my idiot of an apprentice,” he said, “there are times when a man’s needs have to be met, and denying that sort of thing will only get you in trouble. Perhaps for a brat like you, that doesn’t make sense yet, but–”
“I am going to sit outside of this room until you’re done,” Allen said. “And to anyone who wants to know why I’m here, I’ll say, ‘I’m waiting for my father,’ and then I will cry. I will be the very saddest child. I will use the worst French I know, and I don’t know very much. It will be very touching and people will be too uncomfortable to stay for very long, and then the madam will be annoyed that you’re losing her business.”
Cross’s forehead wrinkled. He squinted at Allen’s face for a moment, as if trying to find something in his expression. Allen squared his jaw and lifted his chin, glaring back. He balled both hands into fists and tried not to shake.
Finally, though, Cross made a rude noise, running a hand through his hair again. “This is why I hate brats,” he said. “You’ll never impress women that way.”
“I have time to learn from my mistakes,” Allen retorted. “Are you coming or not?”
The following pause was very nearly too long. Cross’s face was oddly stern, his one visible eye dark and narrowed. Eventually, though, he sighed, loud, long, and dramatic, and said something in French to the two women. One of them tossed her head and slid off the bed with a sniff, flouncing past Allen without a second glance. The second, though, giggled something in response and kissed Cross’s cheek before she too left the bed. At Allen’s side, she bent and kissed him too: a quick pressure of lips on his temple, heavy with the smell of perfume.
“He is a very good man, your master,” she whispered to him, in thickly-accented English. “I am glad. Good luck.” She squeezed his shoulder and was gone.
“Well,” said Cross. He swung his long legs over the edge of the bed. His bare feet were almost white against the dark wood of the floor. Allen glanced at that and had to look away again. “Don’t just stand there. Are you hungry?”
“Then let’s get dinner,” Cross said. He slid his boots on, and then his long black coat, and got to his feet, striding for the door. He stopped long enough only to put a heavy hand on Allen’s head, warm even through his gloves. “Don’t give me that look, either. You’re old enough to stand on your own.”
Allen took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You were gone for a whole week,” he said sullenly.
“Someday, we’ll be parted for even longer than that,” Cross said. “… But maybe it’s too soon to think about it that way.”
“It was definitely too soon!”
“You found me,” Cross said. He moved his hand to Allen’s back and gave it a small push. “Let’s go.”
iv. Hong Kong
A girl tried to tell his fortune, as thanks after he chased off a couple of men who’d been harassing her. She was very pretty, with long dark hair and large soft brown eyes and the smell of jasmine in her hair. “My grandmother taught me,” she said, her words blurred by her accent, before she touched his wrist with soft fingertips. Allen gulped a few times and turned his head when she leaned forward.
And then, a moment later, her expression crumbled. She made a small pained noise, as if struck, and bowed her head; a moment later, teardrops splashed on his wrist. Startled, he jerked his hand back and watched in horror as she covered her face with her hands and began to sob aloud. Allen flailed his hands for a moment, hovering, but never quite touching her. “I’m sorry,” he said, helplessly, “I really am, I don’t know what I did, but–”
“Oh,” she gasped over his apology. “Oh, oh, oh no, oh no, oh! Oh sir, I am sorry.”
“Why are you sorry,” he asked. He gripped his red wrist with his normal hand and hunched his shoulders, awkward as she wiped at her eyes over and over. A proper gentleman would have a handkerchief to offer, he thought, though he hadn’t had one in years. A sleeve wasn’t very comforting. When he tracked his master down again, he’d ask to buy one–
“I’m sorry,” the girl said again. She took something from her pocket–a little charm, set with several pale green jade beads–and pressed this into Allen’s hand. “For luck, for luck when you need it,” she said, and before he could thank her, she pulled away from him and ran off, and was soon lost in the crowd. Allen looked at the charm she’d left behind and tucked it into his pocket.
Months later, during the long journey from India back to England, he put his hand in his pocket and found the charm was gone.
Allen heard the girl’s voice before he saw anything, small and sweetly hesitating, and he’d slammed the door open harder than necessary, because really, Master, was this the time–? before stopping short at the sight of a skinny little stick of a thing (and Allen was no judge, but if she was older than him he was a Frenchman) draped heavily across his master’s body, her fingers beginning to slide under the edges of his mask. Above her rose his soul, stoop-shouldered and bowed as if shouldering the weight of all his karmic sins at once. His withered face was twisted with distaste and anger–it thrummed in his chains with visible energy–and his lips moved as hers did, mouthing curses where she was cooing filthy suggestions. Allen moved before he could stop himself, eye burning and arm aching; by the time the Akuma had registered his presence it was too late. A moment later he had it pinned to the floor, claws buried in its chest as it hissed and spat and shrieked its human disguise to shreds.
“I’m sorry,” he said, though he didn’t think he was heard. “I hope you’ll see her again.”
When he pulled his claws free he pulled the guts of the Akuma with it: clockwork springs coated in fleshy pink pustules and slick red-tinted oil, and for a moment the entire room smelled like Butcher’s Row at the end of the day. It faded a moment later with the body, the chains of the soul snapping one by one. The old man did not smile, like some Akuma did; until the very end, his mouth remained a flat hard line and his eyes dark and unkind. Only when he was completely gone did Allen turn back to his master, frowning.
“Please be more careful,” he said. “I thought you were the one who said you could trust no one.”
“Even monkeys fall from trees,” Cross said. He hadn’t yet moved from his initial sprawl, his head tipped back and his throat exposed. His shirt was halfway opened. “Did you bring dinner?”
“Are you really still hungry after that?” Allen snapped. “What if I’d been five minutes later? Aren’t you supposed to be the master here?!” He stomped back to the door, where his dropped bag lay slumped on its side. “If the curry spilled everywhere, it’s not my fault.”
“If it’s spilled, you’ll have to go fetch more.”
“I refuse.” Allen dumped the bag into Cross’s lap and tried not to cringe at the wet thud it made. “Do it yourself.”
“Ahhhh,” Cross sighed and moved finally, first bringing in his long sprawled limbs and swaying into a vaguely upright position. “What a worthless student I’ve picked up …”
“I think that’s more my line.” Allen sighed. He flexed his fingers and watched that gesture. “Where did you meet her?”
“Does it matter?” Cross fished a cigarette from his pocket–somehow miraculously uncrumpled–and then a match to light it. “There won’t be family weeping for her at the end of the day. She came from the slums.” At Allen’s flinch, he raised an eyebrow. “If anything else, you’ve probably done them both a favor, even if the old man didn’t think so.” He tipped his head back again and exhaled a long thin plume of smoke. “Whether you believe in the Vatican or the Buddha, a bad deal is a bad deal. Don’t you get it by now?”
Allen looked at him. He was relaxed and unmoving except for the steady rise and fall of his chest with his breathing; the tip of his cigarette glowed with a cherry-red spark. Up close there were visible kiss marks on his throat, and pale scars under that, the edges shiny and puckered. One lay uncomfortably close to his heart. Even sitting up and drawn in, he took up most of what was meant to be a three-seat couch. Allen moved to perch on the edge of what little room was available, then tucked himself in just a fraction closer than that, until his knee was right up against his master’s.
“I guess,” he said.