a/n: I thought I'd try my hand at Chrno Crusade on behalf of ChaosD.In any case, I do not own Chrno and company, and as for Goethe, well he's been in the public domain for a very long time.
She was fifteen the first time a devil marked her. For all that Sister Kate rails about Rosette's recklessness, my contractor is actually pretty careful about things like devil claws. True, she's not careful with the tools of the trade. Broken equipment, wrecked jalopies and structural damage are almost unavoidable around her, but injuries... well, like I said, she was fifteen the first time it happened.
We were in upstate New York, about forty miles from anywhere. The devil in question had taken up residence in a tumbledown barn some would-be hedge witch had decided to call home. It was a nasty one, no doubt about it. By the time the order was called in, the thing had killed its summoner, eaten all the livestock and begun hunting children in neighboring townships. Still, the indicators all pointed to a single spirit, and nothing so powerful as, say, a soul-eater. Things were a little tight that week, so Sister Kate reluctantly acquiesced to what had to have been Remington's suggestion that Rosette and I take this one.
This wasn't her first solo exorcism (they called it solo any time she went out with only yours truly for backup – odd that even as much as she hates me, Sister Kate acknowledges there's no separating Rosette and I). She'd done four missions on her own within the past two months. Each time, she'd been eager, enthusiastic, and fearless as only Rosette can be. Perhaps it's the bliss of ignorance. She's never met any of the beautiful, deadly horrors I used to call peers. Perhaps it's her stark refusal of regret. In either case, when the call came, she was happy to go. My darling, daring Faust could never be called hesitant.
Freezing rain mired the jalopy twice on the dirt roads leading up to the place. The first time, she managed to get it out with some deft manipulation of the steering wheel accompanied by swearing that really would have been sufficient to invoke something – had it not been unintelligible. The second time, I had to get out and push. This was enough to make me nervous regarding our chances of making it back home, but Rosette... well, she's the embodiment of "devil may care" attitude. After all, of the two of us, she doesn't. With the thought of rescuing children and driving back the darkness no doubt firmly fixed in her head, she yelled at both the car and me before throwing it into gear, coating me in half-frozen mud and jerking the tire for good and all from the hole. I managed to climb back in before she'd gotten too far, but not through any consideration on her part.
Looking back, I'm not really sure why she was having kittens that day. Admittedly, she's always been easily frustrated by cars, and she hates sleet with a passion that defies logic, but even as a kid, she was never high strung. Maybe it was something about the setting. The countryside around us had a lot in common with her one-time home at Seventh Bell. To hear her talk, you'd never peg my contractor as sentimental, but some things do haunt her. If I had to guess now, I'd say Joshua was on her mind from the moment we left the Apple for a world of frozen trees. At the time, all I noticed was how cold you get when your clothes are soaked and the heater can't compete with the cracks between the floorboards.
We found the place easily enough: only two wrong turns and twenty minutes of being completely lost, but that's to be expected in this part of the world. I could sense the menace lurking in the barn well before we reached it. I told her so, and watched that seriously dedicated look harden her face. She un-holstered her Colt, and I shouldered the backpack. We'd have been quite the sight if there'd been anyone there to see... well, anyone who mattered.
In the rest of the world, it was almost Valentine's Day, but here, there were no colored hearts or chocolates. The only red was the mockingly bright smear frozen into the roadside sludge where something had ripped a goat to pieces. Rosette gulped hard, and I put a hand on her shoulder. I may take her power, but she says I give her strength in moments like this. I wish I could give her more... With gun in hand, and me following along like a bat man of the Great War, she ran straight through the open front door.
Inside, at least we no longer had to worry about the rain. Her habit is wool, so it had to weigh a ton after our little dash through New York's idea of mild February weather. At least wool stays warm when it's wet. I could tell the skirt was annoying her, but she wasn't about to let go of the gun to wring it out. I could feel rainwater dripping off my braid and down my collar. She fidgeted a little. I stayed as still as I could. For what felt like an hour, we stood pressed against the wall beside the door, listening to the muted rain and our panting breath, and letting our eyes adjust.
Mine are a bit better in the darkness. I was looking around before hers got the hang of it. The barn appeared to have two levels. On the ground floor, where we stood, the stone foundation reached up into walls about six feet high. After that, painted wood soared up to the roofline some twenty-five feet above our heads. The second floor was a hay loft, but it only occupied about two thirds of the overall area. From our vantage by the door, a vast emptiness seemed to yawn over our heads. The first floor was divided into stalls – all empty, from what I could hear. In the corner, a couple of them had been walled off, and a shiny new lock held the little door that pierced them shut. When Rosette saw it, she pointed and I nodded. We crouched down and headed there as carefully as we could.
Careful is a relative term. Rosette tripped on an old, rusty plow blade as we crossed the center passage between the two rows of stalls. She started to yell, but I clapped both hands over her mouth before more than a peep could escape. Her eyes, when they found mine were murderous, but only for a moment. Then I felt her lips smile gratefully beneath my hands, and let her go. Thank you, she mouthed. I nodded. Together, we crawled to the door.
As it turned out, it would not open. There was simply no jimmying the thing. I wasn't much help in this respect since while I've gleaned quite a few talents in my long years on this earth, picking locks has yet to be one of them. Rosette only thinks she can pick locks (she read a few too many of her brother's detective novels as a child). The feeling of encroaching evil was getting stronger all the time, as she fiddled with hairpins and such. When I felt things going south, I nudged her arm and gave her a meaningful look.
"Oh, horsefeathers!" was her reply, and she aimed the gun and fired before I ever got a chance to cover my ears. I think she forgets how acute my hearing is. The lock all but vaporised, the door swung open, and Rosette leapt inside. At almost that same moment, I felt the stomach-churning presence of the spirit we'd come to kill drop down into the passage through a hole in the loft. It jumped over me in a startlingly graceful choreography of arms and legs, then closed the door behind it, trapping my contractor inside. This was not a situation I much cared for.
Shucks, honestly, that's putting it mildly. To put it in perspective, imagine your soul – not some nebulous, intangible thing, but a feathery, angelic presence composed of every joy and potential you will ever, can ever know. Now give it a face, and not just any face. Give it a face whose smiles could make you cry and whose tears would make you kill. Call it your child, your treasure, your Helen (if you're classically inclined), and pretend it lives in the hollow just behind your heart. Now imagine someone wrapping their fist around that soul (and the part of your heart that can't be avoided), and starting to pull. That's what being separated from Rosette feels like. Every time.
So I was, understandably, a little frantic. I wrenched the door open, wishing it were like the old days when this door would have been as nothing, and the spirit of even less consequence. Rosette did not scream – she yells all the time, but screaming isn't really her style – but I heard a loud crack as the thing swung her sideways against the wall. It was short, crawling on two stubby legs and a pair of arms while a second pair fought from their higher perch on its torso. Its head looked like nothing so much as a blister between its shoulders, with eyes all around. I'd seen these critters before, and while they aren't particularly powerful as spirits go, they are mean,quick and fairly strong compared to fifteen-year-old girls. She sagged slightly, and I noticed her gun lying useless on the floor, just out of reach.
I ditched the backpack and leapt for the gun. Of course, the thing saw me, but it was kinda busy holding my contractor to the wall beside the door by her right leg and shoulder, while its free arm swung back for a punch.
"Rosette!" I yelled, to get her attention, then tossed the gun to her as I pounced on the thing's body. She was turning in its grip almost before I yelled, and I saw her left arm flail. The punch turned into a raking of disorganized claws as the spirit struggled not to let go of the squirming girl, while attempting to defend itself from me. That was all it took. I got a good grip on the thing's body, and Rosette pulled that gun from the air. She shoved the barrel, left-handed, into the nearest eye and pulled the trigger again and again until the gun clicked, empty. Happily, this creature was not of the exploding-upon-death variety. It simply died in a shower of ichor and stench, leaving my contractor and I shaking and gasping in the aftershock of adrenaline.
In the dimness, it took me several moments to realize Rosette had been hurt. After all, she was smiling triumphantly, and her slightly bent posture could easily be explained by a lack of oxygen. When I smelled the blood, her blood, I shoved the dead creature away, and crawled over beside her. I don't think she knew, at that point, that anything was wrong. The excitement of the fight was still coloring her cheeks and lighting her eyes, and she smiled at me.
"We did it, Chrno!" I was gratified to be included in the success, but worried just the same. "That'll show 'em! Bruiser never had a chance!"
"Um, yeah, Rosette. Why don't you just sit here a minute – I kinda forgot something in the car." She waved me away absently, her mind clearly buried in a glorified review of her victory, and I bolted.
Outside, the sleet had given way to snow, and large, white impossibility was filling the road and fields. I found the jalopy easily enough, but beyond it might as well have been one of those new paintings where everything looks like everything else and the artist can't afford many colors. The first aid kit came back with me, and so did the extra coats, snow shovel, kerosene lantern and little lunch pail.
"How are you doing?" I asked, when at last I made it back. She was sitting where I'd left her, beginning to look unsure. The rush was clearly gone, but reality was being avoided.
"Everything's Jake," she tried to reassure me, but the fact that she didn't get up, and the unusual softness of her voice shone gaslights on her lie. I dropped the supplies in a corner of the small room, and kicked the corpse of the thing out the door. This had clearly been the witch's living space, and surprisingly was downright homey, if you ignored the satanic pamphlets attached to the ceiling and the summoning circle beside the little pot-bellied stove. I got the lantern going and had to swallow a sudden surge of rage at the dark stain transversing her habit just above the waist. I saw her wince slightly in reaction – some power always seeps when I'm angry – and felt immediately guilty.
"Can I take a look at that?" I asked. She nodded, looking a bit dazed, and walked over to the bed to lay down where I could see a little better. There was already a rather large tear in the bodice of her dress, and I hesitated a few moments trying to decide how best to get at the cut. The most obvious idea surfaced and I blushed.
"Oh, don't be such a ninny!" she said, and made short work of the blue wool and buttons, pulling the sopping garment off with distaste. As the fabric came away, though, her eyes grew wide and her lip suddenly trembled. "Oh!" she cried, sitting bloomer-clad on the edge of the bed. The crimson on her camisole was dark and obvious. "Ah, it hurts!" and she lay back dramatically. She carried on like Sara Bernheart while I wiped away enough of the blood to see the wound.
The cut was about five inches long, but it wasn't really deep. To hear her wailing, you'd think she'd lost a leg. I rolled my eyes, and told her she was being a baby, then told her to stay still or else. She wanted to know why I wasn't rushing her to a hospital, and I explained about the blizzard. Then she cried some more while I put a dozen little stitches in her tummy. She kept crying as I finished up (I was really kinda proud of my work, since I didn't even know how to sew until I came to the order). She cried when I wrapped it all up in gauze and bandages. It wasn't until everything was done and I was trying to fix her camisole with safety pins that I realized she wasn't crying from pain.
"Are you okay, Rosette? I'm all done, now, see?" She sniffled, and tears leaked down her cheeks. There was a patchwork comforter at one end of the bed (who knew satanists could quilt?), and I pulled it up to wrap around her. She held it tightly and closed her eyes, not answering.
There were supplies in the room to tend the stove, so I got a little fire going. No sense in freezing out here. I dialed up the Order on the backpack phone, and they said they'd send plows come morning. I thought Rosette might have fallen asleep by the time I'd finished all that, but when I sat down on the floor beside the bed, her eyes were open. Something inside me relaxed a little. I leaned my head back against the mattress and stretched my feet towards the stove
"Does it really hurt that bad?" I asked. She sniffed, and I handed her my handkerchief. After a noisy bout of nose-blowing, she shook her head.
"No, it's okay now. Thank you, Chrno," but her voice sounded terribly sad. This was not the boisterous, laughing, indomitable Rosette I'd grown to love. This child held echoes of another winter's night in her eyes. Some wounds are a great deal harder to heal than simple lacerations.
I'd long since ditched my soaked overcoat, but now I removed my boots as well, and with a moments' silently exchanged permission, joined my contractor, my soul, in her checkered cocoon. I wrapped my childish arms around her. There are times when being small has its advantages, but moments like that one always made me wish I could be big and protective and physically reassuring to go with the things I felt inside. It didn't matter to Rosette. She let me hold her and I felt her shoulders slowly begin to ease.
"It's just that when I was little, and I got hurt, Joshua..." She didn't finish. She didn't have to. I stroked her hair and hugged her tight. I could be her Mephistopheles, but I could not be her brother. The love I had to offer was a darker, deadlier thing, and not well suited to kissing-it-and-making-it-better. But at least I understood her. I missed him too.
"Shh. I promised you we'd bring him back some day." And I'll keep that promise if it kills me... I'll keep that promise because it's in the contract, even if there are days I'd rather let it go to give her, give us, just a bit more time. I didn't say that then, though. I'd never say that to her. "Don't you trust me?" I let pretend anxiety flood my voice, and felt the faintest of smiles against my neck.
"Always," she yawned, then drifted to sleep. She was snoring within ten minutes. I remember thinking it was almost amusing, as the darkness and I watched over her that night. Outside, the wind whispered around the tumbledown barn. The dead livestock never made a sound. Within the room, though, beside the stove, beneath the witch's checkered quilt, my contractor snored like the tides of fate.
Rosette is noisy even unconscious, but I don't mind. She's boisterous and reckless and inconsiderate, and Sister Kate will get an ulcer from her yet. In the time I've known her, my contractor has wrecked five jalopies, broken two Colts, crashed a cargo ship and once destroyed an entire city block. But she's pretty careful about things like devils. So I don't mind at all.