For Keyk no Miko.
That voice. That obnoxiously cheerful male voice, ever-laced with that mischievous tone that she had regarded in not too few times as hateful and detestable and damaging to an otherwise ordinary, beautiful day the dear Lord had planned for her.
"Got bored in your coffin?" Asakura Hao continued to ask, seemingly oblivious of the pointed silence she maintained as she continued to walk down the sidewalk. "Oh, I get it! You got excommunicated by your church! How nice! Now you have more time to devote on baking muffins and sewing pretty dresses for your dollies."
"Those may be your hobbies, but certainly not mine," she replied primly.
"True," agreed Hao with much amusement. "But with the way we are recently bonding, you may soon come to appreciate the beauty and sheer joy of my pastimes."
"Never," she hissed fiercely. "To appreciate someone like you is to glorify the devil."
The brown-haired shaman chuckled, much to her consternation. "I really like the way you lambast me with those compelling metaphors. I must thank my little brother sometime for giving us this opportunity to hang out often--"
She clenched her fists. Asakura Yoh, the mirror image of this exasperating long-haired shaman, had chosen to seal Hao's soul after the latter died years following the fateful tournament. The artifact—a fragment of an old Asakura clan sword—was handed over to her by Yoh, explaining that she was the best person to hold this very important object.
"Anna doesn't want me to keep it—she said it's bad luck for her onsen to have items containing a dead brother's soul lying around. Everyone else refused to have it. You're the only person left, Jeanne-sama, who I could ask."
And since she knew she was perfectly capable of holding a vessel with Hao's spirit in it, she accepted it.
That was a decision she would come to regret later.
By mistake, one of the new members of the X-Laws' church accidentally saw the old sword and unsheathed it to scrutinize the weapon more closely. This resulted to a blinding scarlet light that enveloped the whole chapel, and a moment later, Hao's smiling face appeared in the air, greeting the poor, stunned man.
"Who is holding the sword, my good man?"
"Oh?" And Hao did perhaps the most absurd thing in the world—clap his hands delightedly. "The girl who carries her coffin around, even in the lingerie department of the mall? Most entertaining."
Her reverie was interrupted by a sudden burst of furyoku beside her. It was Hao, who had summoned his Spirit of Fire. She shook her head, sighing. Where else could one find a power spirit that could summon another power spirit?
The giant column of blaze towered above their heads, and yet, it had its head bowed to Hao in reverence. The loyalty of the power spirit was unquestionable—even death could not severe the ties it had with its former master.
"We will be following the Jeanne-sama in her itinerary for the day," Hao was explaining to the scarlet spirit. "Her excommunication is still particularly painful for her, so we need to stand by her and become her guardians of faith."
"Blasphemy," she whispered angrily, aware of the normal human beings that would take notice if she rose her voice to a step higher of a decibel. "You will burn in the fires of hell, I assure you."
"Just like throwing a turtle into the open sea," remarked Hao, chuckling.
She heaved a sigh. Of course. How ever had she forgotten that? The inferno was to Hao as air was for the birds in flight.
"Jeanne-sama?" he called out.
A vein practically popped on her head. A name that rung with such awe and admiration when uttered by the lips of the X-Laws members could be relegated to a ridiculing pet name when it was Asakura Hao who would speak it.
"Isn't that the gentleman dowser that used to tag along with my little brother?"
Hao's question made her freeze, keenly aware of how every bodily function in her stopped. Save for her heart, which, after its momentary pause, leaped into a faster pace, like an orchestra playing a wild, uncontrolled rhythm.
The long-haired spirit looked at her curiously. It seemed something happened with the revered female—her demeanor had changed, her aura mellowed, and her eyes…
He turned his gaze back at the green-haired man, whom he later recalled as the child that survived in that London fire. He didn't seem to notice them in the crowd that filled the little tea house—perhaps, even with the absence of these numerous people, he still wouldn't see them.
All his attention was devoted to the young woman he accompanied. He watched her as she pointed at several cakes, with the tenderest look a man would only reserve for a woman after his own heart.
Understanding came to him, and along with it was an emotion he thought he would never feel for anyone, aside for his twin brother.
Sympathy. Compassion, even.
"Jeanne-sama?" he said gently, causing her to glance at him, startled. He smiled at her. "I believe Marco-san said that the store on the other avenue sells sweeter cakes. Why don't we pay it a visit?"
She gazed at him, perhaps measuring his intention in his eyes. In the end, she acquiesced. Giving her former X-Laws disciple a forlorn gaze, she stepped back, pivoted, and left the establishment.
Only the slight tinkling of the door chimes served as the evidence of her brief presence, but the other people in the store had their own affairs in mind and were too busy to even pay attention to it.
The warm, aromatic steam of hot chocolate warmed Jeanne, helping her to calm her frazzled nerves. Beside her, the Spirit of Fire floated by, inspecting its new surroundings.
Some of the visitors of the café, whose sixth senses were more receptive than others, stopped and stared at the blazing spirit in fright.
Hao, who was seated across the nun, looked at her, chin cupped. "How old are you, Jeanne-sama?"
"I'm…" She frowned delicately and placed her cup down. "It's nothing that concerns you."
"Humor me, Jeanne-sama." He snapped his fingers. "Or would you have me guess instead?"
"Eighteen," she said quickly before he could poke fun at her age.
"So it's been, let me see, seven years since I got sealed in that sword."
"Seven years… and you've already learned the ways of the grown-up," he said. "The rudiments of man's ultimate weakness… the anatomy of man's fall."
She stared at him wordlessly.
"You've fallen for the dowser," he stated matter-of-factly.
Her whole body stiffened.
"So what happened?" asked Hao, peering at her inquisitively.
"None of your—"
"I'm a very persistent person, Jeanne-sama," he reminded her. "I didn't live two lifetimes on Earth for nothing."
She resumed eating, but her motion was more mechanical. It was clear she was not going to say anything.
And she thought Hao would stop at that. But to her utter surprise, he suddenly leaned forward. With an outstretched forefinger, he touched her temples.
The next instant, she was only aware of a shot of electricity entering her consciousness, diving down her memories.
He was penetrating her thoughts!
"Hao—" It was too late—darkness had already embraced her.
"My place is the church."
"You shall never be far from it! All I ask is to let me stay with you."
"What you ask is impossible."
"My whole life is devoted only to one cause: the protection of justice in this jaded world. I will live for no other purpose. Not even for love."
His gloved hand tried to touch her, but she stepped away. With a pained smile on her face, she said, "I forbid you to ever touch me again, Lyserg Diethyl. You have lost respect for this holy woman. Human sentiments and feelings must never be accorded to someone as me."
"I told you I can be pretty persuasive."
These were the first words that she heard when she felt herself regain the control of her wits.
"You fiend," she murmured in anger. "You intruded upon a person's psyche!"
Hao chuckled. "So you turned away the dowser's affections."
"It cannot be helped," she said. "He cannot fall in love with me. It's a sin."
"A sinner accusing another."
Her cheeks flushed.
"You loved him." His words were surer now.
"Yes, the way Mother Nature smiles in affection upon the trees, the rivers—"
"You love those things the way you love him?" he laughed. "I didn't know you're into perverted practices, Jeanne-sama."
"Silence," she hissed, feeling the hot spots on her cheeks warming even more. Hao's audacity was despicably unspeakable.
"Just a little girl," continued the long-haired male, gazing at her with amusement. "You're but eighteen years of age. You will meet more men… sinners, as you call them." He smiled. "And perhaps, the next time, you won't be as difficult."
"Difficult?" she exclaimed, incredulous.
"You grew up thinking you are not a human but a consecrated creature of purity. I'm afraid I must tell you this though. For all those things Marco-san and the rest of the X-Laws told you, you are and will remain to be a human." He looked at the rest of the people in the restaurant. "You have powers, of course, and a mind more comprehending than these insects. But emotions-wise, we are still bound by this… this humanity." He gestured to the blissfully unaware crowd. "We know pain as we know joy. We feel sadness as we feel happiness. We hurt and bear scars like them.
"Tragic, indeed, that we had to feel what should already be beyond feeling for us. But there exists a higher power that decided these for us. Something I call Fate and you worship by the name of God." He shrugged. "It took me many years to accept it, but now I've learned to live with the fact that between the Higher One and man, existed nothing. There is no semi-divine, no holy intermediary but a man's actions itself."
"And your point?" she asked, concealing the intensity of her sympathy to his words.
He smiled. "Chocolate cake is much better than strawberry cake."
Her forehead creased.
"Eat it," he ordered her.
She scowled, and then reached for the pink cake instead.
He broke into a wider grin. "I think you got my point."
To this, he replied gently, "You have a choice. You always do."
Choices were a novelty for her. She had always known that a path had been set out for her, and it was fixed. All her actions and deeds were expected of her as the Iron Maiden Jeanne, and she was but an instrument that was meant only to serve and wait.
Learning to want, however, introduced her to a kind of existence that was so unpredictable and new that she could only think of one word to call it.
Years passed, and though reluctant at first, she had come to slowly welcome the presence of the lone man who refused to take her as a semi-goddess out to execute a divine mission. He still treated her as he would an ignorant young child who pretends to be well-versed about the affairs of the world.
But she took that good-naturedly. She had come to assume, perhaps rightly, that it was Asakura Hao's way of expressing his affection for her.
Marco believed that having Hao as a power spirit had in some ways corrupted her innocence, but still he relented, seeing that the unusual friendship between a world-weary former shaman and a conservatively-reared church lady wasn't going to destroy the world order as he formerly assumed. In fact, he could see that it worked wonders to cheer the most holy maiden up. The Asakura, on the other hand, seemed to have lost interest for the time being in conquering the world and obliterating mankind, and had opted to focus on the silver-haired lady.
But as much as it brought him relief, the blond man still maintained some amount of censure, of course, whenever he could accompany the two.
"Jeanne-sama, how old are you?"
She glanced at Hao, surprised. They were both by the church yard, feeling and enjoying the afternoon breeze.
"Twenty-six," she replied. "Why do you ask?" The question brought memories of their first-ever conversation as friends years ago back in her mind.
"You're still alone," he remarked quietly. "Are you still mourning?"
"No," she said truthfully. "Lyserg is just a part of my many fond memories."
"Then this solitary isolation of yourself…" He frowned at her. "Church orders?"
She shook her head. The X-Laws had long been dissolved, after a long time of deliberation. It took some members, especially Marco, that amount of time to accept that justice was too powerful a thing to be put in the hands of a few mortals with limited understanding of human nature.
Hao blinked, and then went on to insist that she had the choice not to live in a solitary confinement, no matter how self-imposed it may be.
She could only smile, but speak not. It was a choice she made for herself—to live the rest of her days with only a pesky power spirit that could summon another at his own will, and trade anecdotes and jibes with him to pass the time away.