It felt like sacrilege to be there, no matter that the religion was not his own. Faith was something inspiring and dangerous, and therefore deserved any respect he could muster. Still, he would prefer not to be there, and in fact would be miles away if not for the horde of children gathered at his back. He chanced a glance back at them, taking in glowing faces and an innocence he couldn't understand anymore, and wondered how Ken could stand this. It wasn't really his place to question it, however, or his place to turn this final request down, so he turned his attention back on the church.
The hushed voices behind him didn't carry past even the closest pew, but the incense burning on the altar at the front permeated everything. Sunset glittered through massive stained glass windows, casting color and images of suffering onto the short gray carpet. Ran took everything in with a steady sweep of his gaze, counting exits and possible threats out of habit. They were the only occupants, some eight children and himself, so he took the first step forward out of the doorway.
That was what the children were looking for, apparently, because seven scattered past him towards the pews. The eighth caught hold of his sleeve with an almost desperate grip. Ran looked down at her bleak expression and followed her stare to the confessional booth. He started to move his arm that direction in encouragement, but she held her ground.
Swallowing a sigh, he crouched beside her. She sent him a pleading look, one-part fear and two-parts wishing he was Ken. Ran idly wished he was Ken, too, but Siberian was on day one of his incarceration today. There was no way he could be here for these kids' first confessions, which meant Ran was all that was left. He didn't like it, but he didn't have to. He had to be there for what was left of his shattered team. He had to be there for Ken. They'd done a lot of things right in the years they'd known each other, and a lot more things wrong. There were enough pieces broken now that it would take years to fix it. Ran wasn't going to break any more before those could heal.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
"Is God going to hate me?" she asked tearfully. The door opened behind them, but Ran couldn't look away from her miserable face. "I told a lie yesterday. Mommy said God hates lies."
Ran floundered for just a second, wondering which was the greater crime: saying yes to a face like that or telling the girl her mother didn't know what she was talking about. He'd just about decided on a vague answer when a hand came down on top of the girl's head. Ran flicked a quick look up at the new arrival and went perfectly rigid.
A too-familiar white-haired madman had paused behind the child, and the smile he offered her was terrifying. Ran pulled her up against him and Farfarello didn't even try to hold on, just continued to stare unnervingly at the both of them. Ran reached for a sword he wasn't wearing, then followed the line of his leg to his boots, where he'd stored a more discreet knife. He hadn't even made it that far before Farfarello was turning away.
"God hates all his children," the Irishman intoned, flicking his fingers in lazy dismissal, "but there are far greater things for him to worry about than lying little babies."
"Don't listen to him," Ran told the stunned-looking child without taking his eyes off of Farfarello. "He doesn't know what he's talking about."
"Don't I?" Farfarello slowed to a stop by one of the pews. The children were all staring at him, fascinated by his ghoulish appearance. None of them realized just how horrified they should be to be in the same room as him. Ran felt that strongly enough for all of them, perhaps. There was no way he could face Ken if he let this demon massacre Ken's charges. "Who knows more about God's love and hatred than I do?"
"What do you know past what you want to think and believe?" Ran asked, pushing himself to his feet. His knife came with him and he shifted his jacket, forcing his sleeve down over his hand to help conceal the blade.
"Are you judging me now?" Farfarello asked, tilting his head to one side. It wasn't enough that he could see Ran past his shoulder, but more than enough to put the children in his sights. Ran gave the girl's shoulder a small squeeze to get her attention and tilted his head at the pew when she glanced up at him. She headed that direction and Ran started for Farfarello. Schwarz's madman finally turned just enough to offer him a hooded look. "Can you?"
Ran considered the amused challenge in that piercing gaze and opted on the answer they both knew was the truth. "I have no right to judge anyone."
"Good," Farfarello said, and he rewarded that honesty by stepping away from the children's pew.
Ran followed him all the way to the confessional booth. Farfarello didn't stop until he'd reached it, and then he turned around and propped his shoulder blades against the smooth wood door. This close to the front of the church, the incense was even stronger. It burned thick enough in Ran's nose that he almost thought it was coming from Farfarello himself. It made him feel a little light headed. He pressed his fingers into the blade, just enough to cut, just enough to focus his thoughts again.
"Leave them alone."
"Them?" Farfarello didn't look impressed by that warning. There was no interest in the glance he sent the children, but Ran couldn't be sure it wasn't a farce. "Why would I hurt children?"
Ran hesitated, thrown, and frowned at him. "Why wouldn't you?"
"I could," Farfarello admitted, tracing a pale finger across his throat in a slow line. "I could kill them. It would be far too easy. But why would I? It's too boring. Besides, it is far, far crueler to let them live. God can destroy them more thoroughly than I ever could." He smiled, a chilling little twist of his lips, and turned back on Ran.
Farfarello took a step away from the wall, pressing himself fully up against Ran's tense body so he had enough room behind him to open the booth door. Farfarello had seemed to grow in the two years since Ran had last seen him and had gained just enough inches to stand eye-level with Ran. He was broader across the shoulders, but Ran blamed that on his own genetics.
The only thing that surprised Ran, perhaps, was the intelligence in that single eye. Kudou and Ken had always downplayed Farfarello to a drooling, raving beast. Now Ran wondered if they'd done that to come to terms with their fear of the man. Mindless monsters were one thing; clever demons were another entirely.
"If you are not here for the children, are you here for me?"
Farfarello quirked an eyebrow at him and took a step back into the doorway. As he put space between them, he trailed his gaze down Ran's body. Ran shifted his grip on his knife, readying for a fight. Farfarello brought his stare back to Ran's face. "Tempting," he said. "Get thee behind me, Satan, for I am busy now."
"Which of us is Satan, really?"
Farfarello tipped his head to one side, conceding that point, but the look in his eye was still a challenge so fierce Ran couldn't look away. "All I want is free will," the Irishman said, and Ran could practically taste the mockery in his voice. "All I wanted was a chance to pick my own path. Is that wrong?"
"What you do-" Ran started. Thoughts of the children seated just twenty feet behind him had him dropping his voice to a low murmur. "Why you do it," he said instead, but Farfarello interrupted him.
"Why?" Farfarello goaded him. "Why do I?" Ran hesitated, and Farfarello's lips twitched again. He parted them to bare his teeth at Ran, and Ran saw colored sunlight glint off the tiny pick blade he was biting down on. "Let me be Satan, then. You can be Judas, who betrayed everything he and his loved ones held dear."
It felt like a knife in his chest; nothing ever hurt like truth did. Ran didn't let it slip in his expression. "I made my decision," he said evenly. "I wouldn't have done anything differently."
It was worth it. She was worth it. Seeing her open her eyes again and hearing her voice one more time made these long years a little less terrible. The blood he'd spilled couldn't bring his parents back, but it had brought her back, no matter how often people had tried to tell him that it couldn't. She was alive and awake again, and she would be safe as soon as he caught his plane to Europe tomorrow.
Farfarello opened his mouth enough to draw the blade back in, hiding it somewhere along the inside of his cheek. "He could never understand you. Not like I always could." Ran shook his head a little, not understanding, so Farfarello clarified. "Crawford. He chose this path for himself. He doesn't understand how one can be driven here by desperation and manage to hold on so tightly so many years later."
Ran hesitated, caught off guard. His tongue burned with a question he knew he had no right to ask. Farfarello looked bored by the self-censure and took another step backwards.
"You come here," he said, lifting a hand and curling his finger in a beckon. Ran looked from him to the small booth he was backing into. The look on his face made it clear he was not at all interested in getting trapped in such a confined space with someone like Farfarello. The Irishman just glanced past him towards the children, and Ran weighed the distance between them. Farfarello made that decision for him. "I'm still faster than you."
"You aren't," Ran argued easily, but speed didn't matter. There were eight children and just one of him, with one knife. Even if he beat Farfarello there, he couldn't defend so many small bodies.
Farfarello gestured to him again. Ran tightened his grip on his knife, silently reassured himself that his reflexes were still as good as ever, reminded himself that Ken was relying on him, and followed Farfarello. The fractured colors that danced over their skin were swallowed up by shadows as they disappeared inside. Farfarello reached past Ran to pull the door shut and Ran had his knife at Farfarello's throat as soon as it was shut enough to block them from the children's view.
"And will you murder me here?" Farfarello asked.
It was the right word choice to make Ran hesitate. They had no missions out against Schwarz; in fact, Persia had taken the team off of their list of targets after the psychics had assisted them against Estet at Koua Academy. Ran had seen Nagi off and on since the end of that mission, though he hadn't heard anything regarding Crawford or Schuldig outside of the fact that they'd survived. Farfarello hadn't been there at all, so Ran wasn't sure if that meant he was still Schwarz or if he'd broken away from them now. Hadn't he just said he'd wanted freedom?
Either way, no mission meant Ran couldn't kill him, at least not until he really did make a try at the children. It still physically hurt to lower the knife. He made sure to keep it between them, ready to use it if need be.
Farfarello pulled the door closed the rest of the day, casting them into darkness. The only light came from small slats near the top of the booth that were covered with thick mesh, meant to protect the privacy of those inside. Thicker mesh separated their booth from the empty priest's, so that entire wall was pitch black.
"When he comes, will you be ready?"
"He'll offer to clean your soul for you." A hand pressed against his chest. In the dark, Ran had no warning it was coming, and his knife automatically went back to Farfarello's throat. He'd thought he'd be able to see more of the Irishman in here than such a dim silhouette. Someone that pale should have glowed in this kind of darkness. He blinked against the shadows, trying to force his eyes to adjust faster, and thought he heard Farfarello's lips parting on a wicked smile. Fingers dug a little tighter into Ran's chest, over his heart. "He'll offer you absolution, if only you'll cry and say you're sorry. Would you let him?"
"I don't believe in absolution."
"Curiosity." Fingers tracked their way up his chest to his throat and lingered there, just below his chin. It was disorienting, being touched when he was blind. For a moment he thought it was Ken, but he and Ken hadn't touched each other like this since they'd come back from Kyoto half a year ago. Too many things had gone wrong for it to feel right anymore. Ran reached up and moved Farfarello's hand away. Farfarello, for some reason, let him.
"No," Ran said. He wondered if he was answering Farfarello's question or talking to himself and the heat that lingered on his throat. "Will you?"
"I am not penitent," Farfarello answered.
"Then why are you here?"
Farfarello leaned in against the knife, ignoring the way the blade must be digging into his throat. Ran could feel warm breath ghost over his lips. His hand was back, but this time it was flat against Ran's abdomen. It felt like an invitation, almost, except from Farfarello it could only be a demand. "Curiosity."
The door on the other side opened and both men went still and silent, waiting and listening as the priest let himself in and quietly got settled on the other side. The bench creaked a bit under his weight. Ran heard Farfarello smile again. His palm was hot and heavy against Ran's middle and it started sliding further down. Ran let him get as far as the waist of his pants before pressing harder against the knife. Farfarello obediently stopped his exploration but didn't draw his hand back.
"Are you there, my child?" the priest asked, hearing the faint rustling of Ran's shirt.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," Farfarello said. "It has been eight weeks since my last confession."
"God and I are listening, child."
"And what would you have me say?"
"Whatever it is you would like God to hear, my child."
"Do you know why I am here, Father?" Farfarello asked. His free hand lifted to Ran's knife and he traced the length of the blade. Ran felt the faint stickiness of blood as Farfarello slid his finger up over Ran's knuckles towards the hem of his jacket sleeve. His hand went all the way up Ran's arm to his throat and his face, and he pressed his finger against Ran's mouth as if inviting him to taste the blood. Ran tilted his head away. "I am here because God does not listen when I call out to him alone, so I must use you as my medium in order to get any response."
"God hears everything we say to Him," was the soothing response. "He just doesn't always answer."
"Never," Farfarello countered, "so you will pass this on instead. Tell him that I'm not sorry. Tell him that until he drags himself out of the darkness of his apathy to answer me that I will continue on as I always have, wrecking his houses and watching his lambs bleed and cry."
There was a heartbeat of startled silence as the priest was lost for words. Farfarello didn't let him get his wits back but drew back from Ran entirely and leaned up against the mesh separating them from the priest.
"The last priest told me God refuses to answer me because I am challenging him, and that for him to answer me would be him bowing to my demands. If that is so, tell me what is the greater evil: acknowledging me and leaning in to strike me dead , or ignoring me and thereby ignoring the cries of hundred of his beloved children."
"I have no place in my life or my universe for such a fickle, condescending God," Farfarello interrupted him. "His sheep are blinded by his lies and his rules are corrupted."
"My child," the priest tried again.
"Imagine a man at the end of his rope, desperate and angry and hungry. Imagine him coming across a small family, weak and naïve enough that he feels powerful for the first time in his life. Imagine the father's horror as he is killed; imagine the woman's desolation as she is raped and tortured. Imagine the daughter watching it all and suffering the same." Farfarello's fingers dug their way through the mesh and tugged, and Ran heard the wires strain a bit against their frame. "Imagine fifteen years later, when the man has suffered in prison and has learned through that misery that he is sorry for his deed. Imagine the daughter whose life was irrevocably destroyed, and the crimes and horrors she cannot forget and forgive. Imagine them meeting, and her seeking out her revenge, and him dying at her hands. Imagine that she's not sorry and never will be. Which of those children, then, does your precious God's rules leave out?"
Silence stretched between them as the priest collected his thoughts. "Men are capable of doing terrible things," he said quietly, voice full of regret. "It is a consequence of us misusing our free will."
"Which one?" Farfarello demanded.
"The man truly regrets what crimes he has committed," the priest started.
It was the answer Farfarello had known he would receive. "Why does God pity him?" he asked coldly. "Why does he smile upon the demons, and cast out the ones so damaged and broken? It is too much to forgive. Imagine, Father, that I break through here now. I would carve the skin off your body with a hot blade, keeping you alive until it was all gone. I could pull you apart with my bare fingers, break the bone and the muscle into nothing. I would make it last hours; I would make it last a day. And then a few days from now, I could truly be sorry that my anger drove me to such a thing, and I would be let in heaven's gates to sit alongside you for eternity."
Fear stuck the priest's tongue to the roof of his mouth, choking the words his faith demanded he say. Farfarello waited until he could hear a ragged breath, the sound of the man trying to pull himself back together again.
"I will not forgive," Farfarello insisted in a low voice. "I will not be forgiven. And until he listens to me, I will continue to make waves of children just like me, until hell is overflowing with his broken creations."
"I beg you," the priest started, getting to his feet.
"Beg your God," Farfarello said. "He is the only one who can stop this."
"Wait," the priest tried, but Farfarello was already wrenching the door open. Ran was blinded by the abrupt return of sunlight and he hid his knife as quickly as he could. Farfarello seized his wrist and hauled him out of there, ignoring the priest's helpless cries.
Ran wrenched out of Farfarello's grip as they reached the first line of pews. "You're insane," he said flatly.
"Are you sorry?" Farfarello asked, calm all over again, as he turned on Ran. "For what you did to Takatori?"
The man's name was enough to twist Ran's heart into a ball of hot hatred. "Never."
"Then you will rot away in hell for eternity," Farfarello concluded, "same as I will."
"If there is a hell, then so be it."
Farfarello offered him a look so full of contempt that Ran felt offended. "You won't even fight it," he noted. "Maybe you weren't listening. If he had repented in his final breaths, truly repented everything he'd done that had led him to his death, he wouldn't be in hell with us. He would be in Purgatory, letting his sins wash clean over eons until he was pure enough for God's presence."
Ran hesitated at that, argument forgotten. Farfarello continued. "Your sister and your mother and your father, forced to spend eternity with him and forgive him for absolutely everything he had done. Tell me if that's fair."
"I don't even believe in God," Ran said at length.
"Tell me if it's fair," Farfarello insisted.
Ran floundered, staring at Farfarello. There was such a vicious hatred emanating from him, such a terrible sense of betrayal, that the man was practically trembling under it. Ran felt swallowed up by it, lost somewhere between the fractured rainbows and choking incense and Farfarello's unexpected fire. He'd always thought of Farfarello as cold, had always assumed he was shallow and mindless like Yohji and Ken had always said. Somehow this furious passion was more jarring than finding out he wasn't idle-brained. Maybe it was because he knew that emotion by name.
"No," he finally agreed.
The fire abruptly disappeared, hidden once more behind Farfarello's lazy coldness. A pale hand reached out and Farfarello traced a fingertip down Ran's cheek, tracing the path of an imaginary tear. "Will he weep?" he wondered. "Will he cry over the loss of yet another son?"
Ran moved Farfarello's hand aside. The Irishman just twisted it to catch hold of Ran's wrist, and one hard pull brought Ran right up against him. Ran was aware that the children were watching, clueless as to what was going on. He was more aware of the heat of Farfarello's body against him, completely at odds with the coolness in his expression. There was something insistent in his grip on Ran's wrist, almost daring him to try and break away again.
"Let go," Ran said in a low voice.
"Do you understand?"
Ran wondered if he was talking about this unspoken demand or everything they'd been talking about so far. He went with the latter, because it would be far too dangerous to acknowledge the former. "You're still wrong. You're destroying hundreds of lives just to get a response back from a being that doesn't exist."
"Prove that he doesn't."
"Prove that he does."
"It's not something you prove," Farfarello told him, tilting his head to one side and looking at Ran like he was being simple-minded. "It is something you know."
"I don't believe anything on blind faith."
"Then what do you believe in?"
"Revenge," Farfarello added.
Ran couldn't argue with that. "And you?"
"Sin." He leaned harder against Ran, just from the hips down, just enough that Ran couldn't miss the extra pressure. His brain knew exactly who he was staring at, but his body twitched in instinctive response to such an unmistakable demand after half a year of celibacy.
"Let go," Ran said again.
"Mister Fujimiya?" one of the children asked hesitantly.
Farfarello slid a bored look their way, taking in eight anxious faces. He didn't look impressed by the interruption. Ran pulled a little against his trapped hand to get Farfarello's attention back on himself, and at last the Irishman let go of him and took a step back.
"So you are busy, too," Farfarello concluded. He studied Ran's face for a moment more, then offered a slight shrug, and turned away.
Ran stood still and watched him leave, not really sure what had just happened, not really sure he wanted to think about what had and hadn't been said. In the end he didn't have to, because the kids got up and moving the second the door was closed behind Farfarello. Ran brushed aside their questions with vague answers and sent them through the booth one at a time. He waited in the pew for the last to be done, staring at rainbow shards and curling incense smoke, and at last walked all eight to the station.
He went back to his apartment by himself and let himself in. There were a few boxes in the living room, mostly kitchen things that Kritiker would reclaim once he left Japan for his team in Europe. He'd never put much in here, as he'd never seen the need to make this place feel like home. His things filled up one suitcase, and then there was a box for his weapons and gear that would get shipped specially.
He toed out of his shoes at the door and went into the kitchen, looking for the one glass he hadn't packed yet. He found it in the sink and rinsed it off, and had just turned towards the fridge when he realized he wasn't alone anymore.
Farfarello was sprawled against the doorframe to his bedroom, watching him through one hooded eye. Ran stared back at him, thinking about the knife he'd hidden away in his boot again and the sword wrapped ever so carefully before being packed away. If Farfarello could see him plotting out the most effective way to get his hands on a weapon, he showed no sign of it. He just stood perfectly still and waited.
"What are you doing here?" Ran asked.
Farfarello arched an eyebrow at him and said nothing, challenging Ran's ignorance. When Ran said nothing else, the Irishman straightened at last and started his way. Ran thought again about his knife, but then Farfarello was right in front of him and taking the glass away. He set it down on the counter so carelessly that it fell over and rolled, but it didn't roll off onto the floor and that was all that mattered.
He was completely insane and Ran should kill him now. The death would shift him from assassin to murderer, but he wondered if it would be worth the loss of whatever was left of his soul. To save the children at the church today, to save the others whose lives Farfarello had promised to destroy, to save his own fragile grip on sanity, would it be worth it?
"I should kill you," he said.
The Irishman laughed and dragged his hands down over Ran's chest, digging his fingers in hard as if trying to feel skin through his coat. "Could you stop with me?" he asked. "If you step outside of your petty rules once, could you stop again?"
"You would be enough."
"That's what I thought, too." Ran stared back at him, startled by that jagged confession. Farfarello offered him a lazy smile, all fierce hunger and unrepentant hatred. He pressed a finger into the underside of Ran's chin, forcing his head up just a bit. "If you're looking for redemption, this isn't it."
"I don't believe in redemption."
Farfarello's smile just twitched wider and he yanked at the buttons on Ran's coat. Ran took over for him when he thought Farfarello was going to break them.
Farfarello pushed him up against the fridge and pinned him there, hands knotted in his hair almost tight enough to yank the red locks out. He still smelled like incense, though whatever he'd gotten into after leaving the church had sweetened out the harsh edge of it. His kiss was almost hard enough to bruise and tasted sharp like blood. Faith and sacrilege in one fierce bundle; life and death and hope and despair. He whispered prayers against Ran's skin that sounded like sin and burned them into Ran's body with his hands.
There were a hundred reasons why he shouldn't do this, and maybe two why he should. Ran voted in favor of the minority without knowing why.
Maybe religion did have its high points, if blasphemy felt so good.
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