Path Built On Graves: Chapter Six: Chasing a Story

AN: Writing Bby!Kanda is the best, but one day soon we'll get back to the Noah.

Kanda was getting pretty good at reading his master's moods and general state of being, and a sure sign that something was wrong was when she kept twisting her wedding ring, like she was now.

Maria seemed more tired these last few days, an exhaustion that had nothing to do with all the traveling they'd been doing. Her eyes were fixed out of the window as trees flew by. Mun was resting on her lap, a bit enlarged, which he usually saved for sleeping, seeming to almost preen under her hand. Mun was very much like a cat, Kanda had come to realize.

"What exactly do Finders do?" he asked suddenly, drawing her out of her thoughts to turn her attention back to him.

"Ruin twelve-year-olds' lives," Maria muttered, rubbing her eyes and Kanda remembered the story about how she'd become an exorcist in the first place, after Finders had discovered her talent. "No, what they do is travel the world, looking into anything unusual, rumors of ghosts, mysterious deaths, disappearances, those kinds of things. Most of what they find is just rumors, but sometimes they find something that might be Innocence, which is when Exorcists get called in."

"But there aren't a lot of Exorcists, right?" Kanda probed. The only ones he'd seen in the European Branch had been a woman that a passed through with a facial scar and rough laugh when Maria offered to steal her whip with a grin on her lips, and that small girl that had always been hiding from the man with the short moustache that Maria didn't like, Lvellie.

Maria shook her head. "Exorcists don't tend to last very long," she admitted, "some get lucky, others don't." A grim look morphed onto her face. "My former master, General Yeegar, has been an Exorcist for probably the longest time and is probably the oldest of the bunch, I'll admit, but be became an Exorcist later in life, not like we did." Her mouth twisted; she didn't like talking about her old master.

"Sometimes," she continued, "Exorcists get caught and surrounded by Akuma when they least expect it…not everyone is good at keeping themselves out of trouble."

"You're not," Kanda muttered under his breath, causing a smile from her then.

"Well, it doesn't matter if I get into trouble more as long as I'm the one that comes out on top," Maria winked and Kanda rolled his eyes.

"What's the story with this mission?" he asked.

"Supposedly there's Innocence involved in an arena in the outskirts of Rome, but the Finders that discovered it lost contact with HQ rather soon after making contact…" Maria didn't seem too worried, but that was probably a personal bias. Kanda knew there were Finders she liked; he'd seen her talking with the one named Toma on more than one occasion. But there weren't enough to offset how much she disliked them.

"They were investigating a rumor or a ghost, then?"

"More like a story," Maria admitted, prodding at Mun, not that he seemed to mind, reaching down to pull out the briefing folder they'd been given, the story written out there like it had been dictated by a storyteller, "More than one thousand years ago, the Emperor who united Italy sired a beautiful daughter named Sandra. When she reached the age of sixteen, word of her incredible beauty spread throughout the land, and men from as far away as Greece and the Orient crossed both sea and mountain to ask for her hand in marriage. However, the princess wouldn't accept any proposal, no matter how great her suitor. To each of them she said "I will marry the strongest man in this world." The princess asked a swordsman in her father's employ by the name of Vittorio to fight her suitors. All of the mightiest men had assembled, and fought for many hours, but not one fell. It is said that when the princess fell ill and died, even to this day the battle continues."

"People still fighting for a thousand years over a dead princess?" Kanda asked dubiously and Maria could understand the confusion.

"Probably not, more likely it's just an embellishment to an old story, and it's probably likely that the suitors all died rather early on into the challenge," Maria admitted. "They were going against an accomplished swordsman…but if he possessed Innocence that allowed him to stay alive and keep fighting all these millennia later, it could be that he found himself fighting Akuma that were drawn to it." She gave a careless shrug. "Hard to tell without going there first."

The thing that really got Maria was that it was an old story, a very old story, probably retold over and over again for an age…if the Vittorio in the story was real…could the Innocence have truly kept him alive all these years? Maria had never heard of an Innocence that could keep someone alive that long.

"I guess we'll find out in about—" Maria pulled an old pocket watch from her pocket that Kanda had seen her fiddle with from time to time. It was a beautiful piece, he thought it was safe to say, with music notes carefully carved into it. "—an hour, if the train is on time."

Kanda groaned under his breath and Maria spared him a smile. "Don't worry, darling, we'll be there before you know it."

Kanda doubted that.

Maria hummed a faint tune that he wasn't familiar with, holding out her hands, the air above them glowing faintly until twin pistols dropped into her palms. She weighed them carefully, examining them with a sort of disinterest. She didn't tend to use her Innocence much, Kanda had come to notice that over the months he had been her student. She'd make a sword to spar with him and then it would be gone during the break, only to return when they needed to spar again. "It's a waste of energy," she'd said to him once, "to keep it activated when you don't need it to be."

Now, Maria winked at him. "Just in case," she said.

The marketplace was bustling with people and normally Maria didn't mind that, she'd been to more than her fair share of marketplaces, but this one was packed with such a high number of men that Maria couldn't help but automatically stiffen.

Maria didn't have a good track record with being surrounded by men, but that was almost the entirety of the Order. Klaud Nine was the only other female Exorcist she had met -though it was very telling that the only two in the Order were Generals- and they both disliked the blatant misogyny. Though, Klaud hadn't been literally locked up and experimented on. Lucky her.

Kanda gave her an odd look, like he was curious but also didn't want to come off as too concerned, and, in the end, Maria decided to not throw him a bone, scowling instead at a bunch of large men that had knocked down a boy and barked at him to watch where he was going.

Maria thought there was an awful lot of guns in hand in a marketplace, but she'd never been to Rome before.

There were two men with rifles arguing loudly and Maria was starting to wonder if one of the guns was going to go off.

"Why are they trying to start a fight?" Kanda asked, maybe a little too loudly and a voice spoke up from behind.

"I wish the two of them would just shoot each other."

Maria and Kanda turned as one, Maria's eyes narrowing. This man was taller and larger than the rest with an eyepatch over his left eye, a scar that sliced through the eye visible underneath.

"We're bounty hunters," the man explained, being more open about information than most generally were. "We're here to recover the Sardinis' kidnapped daughter."

"Kidnapped daughter?" Maria arched an eyebrow.

"You don't know?" the man asked in surprise and Maria's eyes flicked briefly towards Kanda.

"We're just passing through," Maria said and the man's attention shifted between Kanda -who couldn't have looked more Japanese if he tried- and Maria -who was probably Northern European- and trying to figure out how two people such as themselves were traveling together; not everyone knew what the symbol of the Black Order meant, which was both a blessing and a curse.

"Three days ago, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Sardini Family, Claudia, was kidnapped." He pointed to the missing poster on a nearby wall. There was a black and white photo of a young girl with wide eyes and expertly styled hair that probably wasn't her idea. "The man who kidnapped her called himself Vittorio."

Maria arched an eyebrow once again. What were the chances that there was some guy roaming around using the name of a millennium-old gladiator who wasn't the actual gladiator in possession of an Innocence-imbued sword? Maria thought it was rather slim.

Hooves clicked against the road and a shout rang out from the messenger atop the horse that barreled into view. "Viscount Paretti has handed down an order on behalf of the Sardini Family! All those wishing to claim the bounty are to assemble at once!"

Maria grabbed Kanda's shoulder, pulling him out of the way of some men that apparently thought it best to rush, just barely keeping him from getting knocked off his feet. A good portion of the people around them were all heading in that same direction, including the bounty hunter that had been talking with them.

"We're going to follow them," she told Kanda.

"We're not bounty hunters," Kanda pointed out and Maria's lips twisted in amusement.

"A good way to find out what's going on in a place you know nothing about is to ask questions," Maria said. "And I'm very interested in speaking with this missing girl's father."

Kanda, it seemed, was attempting to absorb as much information as possible, which was fair, since this was technically his first mission -killing all those Akuma on the way to European Headquarters didn't count-, at least he was learning things that were going to be helpful to him in the long run. Maria despised the Black Order, but she'd rather Kanda learn this now than end up caught off-guard in the future and end up dead.

The kid was starting to really grow on her and Maria hated seeing those white coffins.

They followed at the back of the crowd, walking for what seemed for a long time until they came to a large estate. Predictably, Maria went right for the food and Kanda followed her in a bit of exasperation, but he did remember the literal piles of food she'd eat at every meal when they were at HQ. He got the feeling that on assignment she didn't actually get to eat much, which was why she had to make up for it when back at HQ.

Being a Parasitic-type didn't sound like fun and Kanda was starting to feel very glad that his Innocence was Equipment-type.

"Have some potatoes, darling, I don't want you passing out if this takes too long." Maria handed Kanda a plate and Kanda sighed very loudly, before taking it from her as everyone's attention was drawn to balcony overlooking the courtyard.

There was a well-dressed man in a uniform and dark hair and then a portly man with a thick mustache following behind him, a bit shorter and a bit more tired; Maria assumed the latter was the father.

"My friends, I ask that you stop for a moment and listen to me," the man in uniform said and Maria presumed he was the Viscount Paretti that had been mentioned before. "As you likely know, the Lady Claudia of the Sardini Family had been kidnapped by a bandit calling himself Vittorio. This matter is deeply troubling to Mr. Sardini."

Maria's eyes flicked towards Mr. Sardini who had made no moves at all to speak up.

"As a representative of the honorable Paretti family, I swear to you all that whoever recovers my beloved fiancée will have a share of my property!" Paretti…now where had Maria heard of that family before?

"Well, that's a good way to get them out for blood," Maria muttered to herself and Kanda frowned at her but she was able to read it was one of his 'I don't understand' scowls. "What is it?"

"What's a fiancée?" he asked her bluntly and Maria smiled faintly. It was such a simple question and it was so easy to forget that there were a lot of things about the world that Kanda didn't understand that were so obvious to everyone else.

"You remember when we talked about people being married, being husband and wife?" she asked carefully. It was always a tough topic for her; marriage. Not that she didn't like being married, she had, she definitely had, and she could still remember Nea's vows to her:

"Loving you has made me a better man, a better person, and I know one thing for sure; I'll never stop loving you. Even when we didn't even like each other, you were the most exciting, most thrilling part of my life. There are times when you drive me completely insane, and there are times where I can't help but stare at you and wonder how I got so lucky, and I want to wake up beside you every day for the rest of my life."

But her marriage had ended painfully and bloodily.

"Like Tui and Edgar," Kanda nodded and Maria smiled thinly.

"Like Tui and Edgar," she agreed, "before you become husband and wife, you're each other's fiancée."

Kanda looked back at the man talking trying to make sense of it. "That man is very old," he noted.

"He is," Maria could see where this was going.

"Isn't the missing girl sixteen?"

"She is," Maria nodded.

"If he's so old, why's he marrying a kid?"

"Asking the real questions, kid," Maria snorted, sparing him a smile. "Sometimes fathers…I don't know, set up their daughters with older men if they're offered money or land…it's an old-fashioned notion for the upper-class."

The Campbell family was long gone now -Maria had checked- and she'd known that Nea and Mana's mother, Katerina had always been against betrothals for her sons, something she'd had multiple fights with her brother Cyrus about, which probably had more to do with their parents trying to betroth her, leading to her running away at the tender age to sixteen and almost immediately marrying a pianist with a devilish smile.

Maria had liked hearing that story and listening to how Nea talked about the father he never got to meet; a musical rival had decided to end his life before he even knew that his wife was pregnant. By rights, she was as common as his father had been, and Nea had still fallen for her. The musician and the singer ending up together apparently had been a generational twist.

Nea had run away right before his Noah gene had activated and apparently it had been quite the scandal. Maria suspected that the one involving Claudia was a bit more of one; disappearing acts of female nobles, even self-made ones like the Sardinis clearly were, made a bit more press.

"The kids don't get to choose?" Kanda scowled fiercely at that; before Maria, Kanda had lived a life without choice, it made sense that he despised that kind of life immediately.

"Not really," Maria said, moving back when the men began to boisterously shout. "Come along, Yu, I want words with that man about his daughter."

And then she weaved through the crowd so quickly that Kanda had to struggle to keep up.

Stefano Sardini almost slopped his tea down his frown when his butler said two people from the Black Order wished to speak with him. He'd heard about the infamous Black Order for years but had never dreamed of meeting a member (personally, he'd never really wanted to), and he had to stand hastily to greet them.

The first one he saw was young, younger than his Claudia, with a head of dark hair pulled tightly back into a ponytail and there was definitely an Asian look about him. The second couldn't have been more different.

It was a woman. Stefano didn't realize that the Black Order employed women. She was slight, like the child with her, hair chestnut brown and pulled back into a similar high ponytail, with warm grey eyes that cooled at the sight of his startled surprise. But there was no mistaking the emblem on their chests, gold rather than silver in her case.

"Mr. Sardini," the woman said simply, "my name is Maria Walker, this is my student, Kanda, we'd like to hear about your daughter."

Stefano sighed, but relented. "Please," he said with a vague gesture and Maria strode forward -belatedly he realized that she was wearing well-fitted pants under the trench coat that was undoubtedly a man's, and he would've been a bit more scandalized if the situation wasn't what it was- with purposeful steps in a way that Stefano was most accustomed to seeing with soldiers than a woman affiliated with the Black Order. Behind her, the boy followed, attempting to replicate but not succeeding, but at least his scowl was frightening enough.

(Stefano did his best not to comment on the strange creature hanging in the air beside Maria, fluttering its navy-blue wings as it followed her)

When they sat, he opened his mouth and began to explain.

"It was one month ago that my daughter started talking about an ancient gladiator appearing, the night of her sixteenth birthday," he told them, hunching his shoulders deeply, "I thought at first she'd been dreaming and gave it no mind."

"But something changed?" Maria tilted her head slightly.

Stefano sighed. "She just kept saying that he would report to her at night."

"Saying what?" It was the first time the boy, Kanda, had spoken. His voice was smoother than his mentor's, which was a bit ironic.

"'The strongest man in the world has yet to appear'," Stefano put his head in his hands. "I screamed at her to stop her foolishness, but my daughter was so convinced that she was telling the truth. Then, three days ago when her marriage to Viscount Paretti was due to be confirmed…" He looked down his glass of whiskey. "God, what was she thinking?"

"Indeed," came a deeper voice, "what was Miss Claudia thinking?"

Viscount Paretti entered the room, sliding the door shut behind him. Maria arched an unimpressed eyebrow. "If she married me, the Sardini family, once mere merchants, would finally have a tie to the royal family."

Maria snorted at that. "You're not a part of the royal family. Viscount is a non-hereditary title; you were appointed to assist a count in governing his province."

Viscount Paretti's stare darkened and his face twisted into an unsightly sneer. "And what would a woman know of such things?"

Maria, it seemed, was used to being disparaged based on her gender. She considered him silently for a moment, keeping a hand on Kanda's shoulder when he tensed in affront at how degrading the Viscount was being towards his mentor. "Ah, now I remember where I heard the name Paretti before," she hummed, practically ignoring what he'd just said, "your family tried to marry into the Campbell family."

Viscount Paretti tensed.

Maria's mouth twisted in amusement. "The way I heard it Lady Katerina was very firmly against the union of Cassandra Paretti and her second born." Even as twins, Nea had been born second.

"Lady Katerina was already in disgrace for the scandal of her own marriage, that proposal would've saved face for the family," the Viscount replied fiercely.

"Yes, but Katerina's brother was the head of the family and he might not've been as free-thinking as his sister, but he turned down that request because it would've meant marrying his nephew off to someone of a lesser station." Cyrus had been eccentric, there was no denying that, but he still held onto certain beliefs, at least when Mana and Nea had been younger. She didn't know if Nea had ever told anyone in the family -apart from Mana- about her.

"Tough talk about a woman who married a common musician."

Maria's eyes sharpened. "There were many things my father-in-law was, but I can assure you, his musical abilities were nowhere near common."

The Viscount's mouth dropped open and he gaped at her, at this common woman, a member of an infamous order sanctified by the Vatican, and she'd been the one to marry into the family his had fought so hard to join.

She stood swiftly, Kanda following quickly. "And I think if either of you cared as much as you claimed to about Claudia, you would be out there with those men instead of hiding and waiting around for news that might not come."

Then they strode out of the room, and Maria worked not to slam the door shut behind her. Kanda gave her an odd look. "Trust me, darling, once you've dealt with the bureaucratic arrogance of men long enough, you'll want to rub accomplishments in their faces too."

Kanda made a conceding grunt of a sound. "So, your husband was a lord?"

"My husband was nobility, but I don't know if he would've ever worn the title of lord," Maria admitted. "But the Campbell family is still well-known and considered a noble family, despite their rather sudden deaths."

There was more to that story, Kanda could tell, but he didn't really think it was right to ask at the moment when they were already dealing with other things. "Do you think it's actually Vittorio, then?"

"I don't know," Maria sighed, cupping her chin thoughtfully as they were led back towards the main doors, "I mean, I suppose that it's possible that a man could've survived for thousands of years if that was his will and the Innocence amplified it…but it's just…odd."

"Because the princess in the story was sixteen?" Kanda didn't like children's stories but he didn't mind myths and legends, particularly tragic ones, but even the one she'd told about Vittorio didn't seem to be much of a story…more like a warning of ominous foreboding.

"That's another thing," she agreed. "A princess told to marry at sixteen and a daughter of a merchant whose father was going into talks about betrothing her who is just turning sixteen is a bit too coincidental, if you ask me…I've never heard of anyone summoning a ghost, though." Maria paused, a sudden inspiration hitting her. "Unless the Innocence is hers."

"But wouldn't that make the Innocence super old?" Kanda's brow furrowed.

"All Innocence is old," Maria's mouth twitched, "as old as Noah's Flood, if you believe in that sort of thing…supposedly the flood itself distributed the one hundred and nine pieces of Innocence across the world. It could've been that one was compatible to Sandra and just ended up in the hands of Vittorio. Innocence has an inherent desire to be one with its host, and maybe through keeping Vittorio alive and fighting it was finding a way to reach another compatible host down Sandra's line."

Maria shrugged. "It's a bit of a weak explanation, but I don't know if Vittorio is even of sound mind to answer questions once I beat him."

There was no doubt in her mind that she would and Kanda couldn't help but admire that steadfast belief in her abilities.

"Now, let's go watch those morons crash and burn, yeah?" The grin on her face had turned a bit demonic and Kanda replicated it with ease.

"Hell yeah," he said and Maria threw her head back and laughed and it took years off her.

AN: Yeah, I'm stealing a filler plot, no one can stop me.

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