As an Exorcist, and as a trainee before that, he’d seen a lot of strange things: a woman whose body unraveled into ribbons that would wrap around a man’s limbs and pull him apart, a pair of twins who melted into a single two-headed monster that howled in dual voices, his own father’s skeletal arms come slicing down over his eye. He’d watched his master cut down a man who sucked the life out of people with a single touch, an old woman who’d sprouted eight spiderlegs from her back and spat acid, and some ragged shivering creature who reeked so badly of garbage and worse that Allen had nearly passed out just watching. The Earl’s ability to design new and strange weapons for each AKUMA was admirable, in a sort of sickening way: the human body twisted and stretched to accommodate the mecha stuffed into the fragile skin.
This was going entirely too far.
Ravi took one look at him and nearly killed himself laughing — his head made a loud clunking sound when he hit the ground, and Allen had been more than happy enough to finish the job if necessary. Rinali interfered at the last moment, pushing them apart before herding Allen out of the room. There was nothing to be done for it now, she’d said, and the best they could do was hope they found the AKUMA responsible and see if it would play the same trick again — or that the effect would wear off eventually, which was still a legitimate possibility. And she’d kept her voice low and patient the entire time, but he’d still caught the glimmer of amusement in her eyes as she added, We look about the same size, maybe you should borrow some of my clothes.
He opened the bag she pressed into his hands and wondered if perhaps he could just — spontaneously stop his heart and not have to deal with this any more.
“If you need help with the bra, Allen,” she says, and it’s kind of amazing how she can keep a straight face like that, “just let me know.”
Ravi started calling him “Ellen” instead of Allen by that evening.
The next morning he had two black eyes and Allen had no guilt at all.
It was actually something of a relief that the Gatekeeper recognized him.
“I know what you’re trying to do,” it sniffed. “You’re trying to trick me, aren’t you? Changing your face like that, so I’ll be lulled into a false sense of security. Hah! I’ve still got my eye on you, Allen Walker, and I don’t care how you disguise yourself.” It huffed a few times for emphasis and stuck out its chin far enough that Allen had to sidestep it, wobbling a little as he did. It continued to glare as he walked around it and inside, too, and that was also kind of nice.
He managed to sneak to his room without getting caught — Rinali had promised to distract people as long as possible, but Allen sort of hoped to have a little more warning before the inquisition started. He closed the door and leaned back against it with a sigh, then plucked a little at his shirt, making a face at the flesh underneath. Rinali’s estimate of their sizes had been generous: his new breasts were small and flat, his hips jutting out at bony angles rather than any softened curves, and the smallest of her spare uniforms still bagged on him.
Allen let go of the shirt and thumped his head back against the door. It wasn’t the first time he’d been alone, but now there was stillness settling into his bones and a growing certainty of how he’d changed, what he’d become, all the strange new curves and angles and juts of the body he’d used to know. He pressed his left hand to his heartbeat and counted the beats — that was how Mana had taught new performers to deal with stage-fright, swallow down nervousness by replacing that with the steady knowledge of the closest available rhythm. Under his palm, his own flesh was soft and alien.
“It’s not that different,” he muttered aloud, and winced at the sound of his voice, high and teetering just on this edge of terrified. He’d never had the deepest of voices — before, and now that he was changed, it was nearly an octave higher (or was that just hysteria finally setting in?) and shaking just a little. “You’ve dressed up as worse. You’ve volunteered to perform worse. Mana let you get away with it–”
His voice hitched. Mana’s face and the cheap costumes and plaster jewelry the company carted with them seemed distant and faint, like smoke that his fingers would pass through if he reached out. Allen opened his eyes and looked down at himself, small breasts and awkward hips, and took a deep breath.
“Not that different,” he said, and bit his lip at the sound of his voice again. “Right.”
To his surprise, Komui was neither flippant nor evasive, and that worried Allen more than anything. He looked at Allen over the rim of his favorite mug, eyes hidden behind the glare of his glasses, and said, “Allen, have you tried to invoke your Innocence since this happened?”
Allen blinked, his hands tightening on his borrowed cup. “… No,” he admitted. “There wasn’t any need — Mr. Bookman thought we should hurry back after what happened, and we didn’t run into any trouble along the way …” He swallowed and looked up. “Why?”
Komui got to his feet, his mouth set in a grim line. “Come with me,” he said, and Allen found himself on his feet and following before he could think to question. He kept his left arm cradled to his chest like an injury as he trailed Komui down long dark stairs, down to where Helbraska slept. As always, a strange cold shiver went down his spine as the creature lifted hir feathered head, the eyeless face swinging towards them.
Somewhere in the depths below the platform, where the unsynchronized Innocence slept, was a dry whispering sound, like the rustling of a thousand wings.
“Allen … Walker,” Helbraska whispered, hir heavy lips shaping the words with determination. Echoes of hir voice caught and shivered back up along unseen walls until it seemed to form a complete chorus. “It seems … you have changed … since we last met.”
He took a deep breath, hugging his arm to his chest again. “Y– yes,” he managed. “There was an AKUMA–”
“Hel,” Komui interrupted, his voice clipped and precise as it rarely was. “Will this affect his ability to synchronize?”
The rest of his sentence dried to ash in Allen’s mouth. He looked down at the arm he held to his chest — one of the few things that had not changed when the rest of him had, still with a broad palm and black nails against blood-red flesh. The cross cut into the skin winked faintly, catching and reflecting the glow of Helbraska’s feathers. It didn’t feel any different either — just his arm, hardly normal, but still his own. He looked up as Helbraska’s head swung towards him and just barely refrained from flinching as hir head bowed down, their foreheads touching as they had long ago.
Allen drew in a quick breath and held still as possible. Below him the sound of moving feathers grew louder and all he could see were Helbraska’s layered, luminescent feathers.
Long minutes passed. Allen flexed the fingers of his left hand slowly, feeling the give and shift of muscle.
Then Helbraska sighed, rearing back, long neck curving into a sinuous “S.” Hir face turns blindly from Allen to Komui.
“You … needn’t worry,” ze sighed. “Allen Walker is … the same as he’s always been.” Hir lips curved into a faint smile. “Enough, anyway, for the Innocence.”
And just like that, Komui’s serious expression melted away. He beamed like the sun coming up, whacking Allen heartily on the back a few times. “Ah, I see, I see! That’s great news, Allen! You should be happy, you’ll be able to carry on as you have been! Isn’t that nice?”
“But,” Allen said, and gestured at himself and all his new wrong curves. “What about tihs? I can’t–”
“We’ve got people working on that,” Komui said breezily, and whacked Allen’s shoulder again. “Don’t worry! We’ll have you back to normal in no time!” And then he laughed, loud enough to drown out the shush of feathers and drier things in the dark. As Allen gaped, Komui put both hands on his shoulders and began to push him back up the stairs, chirping out a happy farewell to Helbraska as they went. Allen glanced over his shoulder and saw hir sinking back down into the darkness, and it seemed that hir heavy mouth was smirking just a little before ze vanished from sight.
He walked back to his room with his arm still cradled to his chest, watching his feet. It hadn’t taken him very long to regain this much equilibrium, but it would take a bit more practice before he could properly–
In midstep Allen paused. His shoulders twitched. He turned his head slowly and looked back.
Khanda stared back, flat-eyed and deadpan. His uniform was travelstained, and there was a fresh bandage taped under his right eye. “Don’t walk so slowly. You’re blocking the way.”
Allen felt a vein in his temple begin to tic. He dug in his heels and very pointedly didn’t move.
“Oi, I said.” The corner’s of Khanda’s mouth turned down into a scowl. “Move.”
“I’ll go at my own pace,” Allen said, through gritted teeth and icy politeness. “The hallway is big enough for you to go around me.”
Khanda’s eyes went wide and for a moment Allen gloated, pleased with himself — and then he stopped and considered the sound of his voice, higher-pitched than normal — almost shrill, really, with his irritation. He resisted the urge to clutch at his throat.
“Beansprout,” Khanda said, his voice strange, maybe a little thick as well. “You–” He strode forward, one hand on Mugen’s hilt and the other rising to point. “What happened to you–”
Allen locked his knees before he could take a step back. He even lifted his chin a little, matching Khanda’s stunned look with a scowl. The fingers of his left hand twitched before he forced them into a balled fist. “It was an AKUMA,” he said irritably. “All right? I just messed up a little, they’re going to– hey!” He leaned back as Khanda leaned forward, into his personal space. “What?!”
Khanda continued to stare. “I don’t believe it,” he said, and his gaze tracked down to Allen’s small breasts. “Beansprout, you–”
With a growl, Allen smacked away the hand reaching for her face. “It’s temporary,” she said, fiddling with the edge of his shirt, trying to find a way to pull it so that it wouldn’t lie so obviously over his breasts. “I won’t be like this for long. Why are you looking at me like that?”
Khanda blinked and pulled back as though burned. He even stumbled a little before he caught himself. He drew up to his full height (which, really, wasn’t that much taller than Allen either), glaring down his nose for a moment. He opened his mouth and took a deep breath, his lips moving soundlessly.
He looked, Allen thought in surprise, like he was terrified.
It was hidden well enough, but there was still something — there in the back of Khanda’s narrowed eyes and contorted scowl, and in the draw of his brows together. He looked half-ready to bolt, kept in place only by his idiot pride.
… In fact, he was possibly even blushing. Just a little.
Allen looked at him and just resisted the urge to smirk.
Before Khanda could rally himself, Allen shifted his own weight and leaned forward, squaring his shoulders and pressing his chest forward, aggressively as possible. It was a pose he’d seen women from Mana’s old troupe use, emphasized posture and swagger, pointedly drawing attention down front. Khanda made a strangled noise, and he was definitely blushing at that point.
Allen took a step towards him, adding a bit of Rinali’s strong-legged confidence, and if he couldn’t copy it entirely or exactly, it was enough to freeze Khanda again, until now Allen was in his personal space, reaching up to place his right hand against Khanda’s thin chest. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at the obvious start that earned him and leaned up onto his toes, using Khanda’s own body for balance.
“Don’t worry,” he added, right against Khanda’s ear, and this too he remembered from childhood, when he’d been young enough to sit on Mana’s knee and watch as troupe ladies flirted extra drinks or a pastry for their little boy. His eyes half-closed at the memory, at Mary’s smile and the sweep of Victoria’s arm in its long sleeve, and it had been years since he’d performed any part, but it was easy enough to fall into again. He’d seen all manner of strange things, and now he was a strange thing, so really: why not?
“Don’t worry,” he said again, and exhaled softly in a rush; his mouth brushed skin for a moment. He put his other hand on Khanda’s shoulder, close to the neck, curling his fingers until they brushed skin and hair. “I’m not contagious.”
Khanda made a strangled sound and shoved Allen back, a hand clapped over his ear. For a moment he looked so shocked and off-balance that Allen felt the first twinges of guilt start. He even drew himself up with a breath to apologize.
And then Khanda drew Mugen in a whistling rush, his face going an unnatural shade of red, and the bellow of BEANSPROUT made the halls echo and bits of dust drift from the ceiling.
“What did you DO to him?!” Ravi demanded the next morning, with something akin to awe in his eyes. “I’ve never seen Yuu that freaked about — anything! At all!”
Allen looked up from salting his eggs and blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“You SHOULD be.” Ravi waved his fork. “I mean, what am I doing wrong? This is Yuu Khanda — he’s not scared of anything! But man, the look on his face! I mean, really!”
“HILARIOUS,” Ravi mourned, and slumped forward across the table, staring mournfully at Allen. “I want to be able to do that too. What the hell’s your secret, huh?”
“Oh.” Allen considered, then began buttering his toast.
“Women’s intuition,” he said.