Title: au début
A/N: For the Curse of the Cross zine! I had plans for this and then the first scene devoured my word count. Sigh.
Summary: If this was the only way to help her brother, the only way she could pay him back for all he'd done for her, then so be it. Lenalee would become a paladin. Lenalee would fight witches. Lenalee would sell her soul to the church and smile while she did it.
Standing in the center of the church, Lenalee stared up at the stained-glass murals. Morning sunlight streamed through the wall sized panes, covering the floor in a multicoloured mosaic. Each panel told the same story, the ancient depictions of the Innocent gods facing down the Akuma devils. Their apostles, angels blessed with the powers of their patron gods, at their side, fighting against the traitorous Noahs. On the glass, good and evil were struck down alike, neither side able to find purchase and win. The story was older than the town itself. Older, perhaps, than time itself. It was a constant reminder that despite the church's best efforts, the devil remained alive and strong. This fight would probably continue in her children's and grandchildren's time.
"Lenalee?" From the pulpit, Komui called out her name softly, as though afraid to break the silence. She lowered her gaze to her brother. He gave her a soft smile, beckoning her to come forward. Dressed in long white robes, he looked more serious than he did at home.
Then again, so did she. Her heavy, paladin armour weighed down on her limbs, keeping her immobile. This was it. This was the point of no return. Everything she'd trained for, everything she'd planned, it was all for this day, this moment. Swallowing, she forced herself to take a step. Her metal greaves clanked at the movement, the sound echoing through the high-vaulted chamber. The second step was easier and by the time she reached her brother, she was comfortable walking. "Brother."
Eyes tinged in sorrow, he lowered his gaze to the golden goblet in his hands. Rubies decorated the chalice, glinting in light. "You don't have to do this, you know." His fingers trembled, holy water sloshing out of the cup. It spilled down the sides, running over his fingers, and she watched as a droplet hit the ground with a soft splash. "There are others. You can remain here, with me."
"I could." Truth be told, she wanted nothing more than that, than the safety of her brother's arms, than the warm meadows of her youth. Here was a world without violence or injury, a world as warm as a winter blanket. Yet, despite her brother's best efforts, the world outside could only be kept at bay for so long. At some point, sanctuary would be broken and she had to be ready. Reaching out, Lenalee steadied his hand and gave him a reassuring smile. "But I don't want you to bear this burden alone. I want to help you. I always have."
"I know." His face crumpled and he reached out, pulling her close. Hugging her tight, he murmured, "I know. I just wish…I don't want you to know these things. To know what I do." Komui's voice dropped an octave lower. "The church…it hides a lot of darkness. So do I."
She wrapped her arms around him, relishing in his warmth. "I'll always love you, no matter what." Pulling back, Lenalee looked up into her brother eyes and brushed a stray lock out of his face. "You're my family. Besides I…" Lowering her eyes, she smiled sardonically. "I already know what the church is capable of."
There was a long silence after that and her brother closed his eyes, no doubt remembering the church's upbringing. "That's true." His expression remained strained but Komui finally released her. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Yes." She nodded, determined. If this was the only way to help her brother, the only way she could pay him back for all he'd done for her, then so be it. Lenalee would sell her soul to the church and smile while she did it.
"Alright." Gently, Komui held her face and closed his eyes as he softly chanted in an ancient language the world had long forgotten. A white glow surrounded him and, by extension, her, filling her with a sense of peace. Speaking English once more, he asked, "Will you join the Church's holy order, to become a Knight of Innocence?"
"I will," she replied dutifully.
"May the blessings of our gods be with you." Leaning forward, he softly kissed her forehead. The white glow left him, pouring into her, and she closed her eyes, unable to handle how bright the light was. A few minutes later, he let go and the peaceful feeling rescinded. The light was gone when she opened her eyes. Her brother's expression was wistful as he stepped back. "It is done."
"Thank you." Gingerly, she touched her forehead, wondering if he'd left a mark, if the sign of the saints was now branded onto her skin. There was only smooth skin. The rest of her felt the same and she wondered if it'd worked, if Komui had truly passed on the church's holy abilities to her.
"Your first mission." Komui returned to the pulpit and picked up a scroll. Unrolling it, he studied the contents before binding it once more. Once more, his expression was troubled yet he still held out the scroll. "Make sure to prepare your supplies before going, it will take a few days."
"Yes." Her fingers trembled. This was her first official mission, her first mission alone. Lenalee swallowed and grabbed the scroll.
He didn't let go. When she looked at him inquisitively, Komui added, "Please, be careful."
At that, she smiled. "I'll come home."
Standing in the stables, Lenalee studied her horse. Her saddle was on securely, her bags packed, and her armour felt just as heavy as it had an hour ago. Pulling out the scroll, she examined its contents once more. It seemed like a simple enough case. In a nearby village, a man had been spotted preparing a demonic circle. His lover had died recently, leaving him overcome with grief. No doubt he was trying to revive the dead, not realizing the demon would only take his and his lover's soul in exchange.
Lenalee lowered her eyes. Almost every mission had the same story, of love lost and a desire to bring back the past. Demons preyed on this weakness, on victims who didn't realize that that was lost was gone forever.
Hopefully, this man wouldn't be a victim too. All she had to do was stop him in time. Gathering her courage, she put her scroll back into her bag. She had delayed for as long as she could, it was time to go. Lenalee hoisted herself onto her horse and gently nudged him out of the stables. This was certainly a beginner's mission, an easily completed one. It was just like her brother to worry out of proportion like that. If anything, this was probably the church's way of testing her and gauging her strength.
She could do this.
She had put in the hours, training almost nonstop. Lenalee could do this.
The more she said it, the more it sounded like a lie. Her fingers shook as she guided the horse toward the city's exit. A ball of fear grew in the pit of her stomach. Even the most seasoned paladins sometimes came home in coffins, a demon was a demon no matter what level the mission was, and death was always a possibility.
As she passed the city's gates, Lenalee heard the steady clip-clop as horses trotted behind her. It felt like an ambush, though she knew that was irrational. Most likely, it was just a pair of merchants, heading out for a trade. Still, she couldn't shake off the fear, and slowly, she glanced over her shoulder before groaning at the sight behind her.
"Hey, Lena!" Lavi waved at her cheerfully, his other hand carefully cradling his lute. His red clothes contrasted wildly to the drab browns and greys everyone else wore. As expected of the bard, he looked ready to play at any time, though she was sure he used it more often to pick up girls than to fight demons.
Next to him, Kanda said nothing, not even nodding his acknowledgement as he urged his horse into a quicker speed. His dark clothes, remnants of his days as a lone ranger, blended in with his horse and if they were in the forest together, he'd be all but invisible. Sometimes, she wondered what he was doing with the church; he preferred his solitude so much she knew this couldn't be his preferred employment.
"Lavi. Kanda." Lenalee looked from one to the other as they caught up to her. She felt sandwiched between them, like a novice going out for an apprenticeship again. It was more comforting than she'd like to admit. "What are you doing here?"
Kanda grunted noncommittally, clearly leaving the explanation up to Lavi. Considering how brutally honest he was, as though truth was a blunt weapon to bludgeon others with, she wondered if he was a terrible liar.
"A mission." Lavi's smile didn't dim at all and he winked at her. He raised a finger to his lips. "All hush hush and top secret. You know what missions are like."
Oh, she certainly did. She also knew bullshit when she heard it. Lenalee crossed her arms. This timing, it couldn't have been a coincidence. Her brother must have informed them before she'd even left to pack. When she got home, she was going to whack him. "Guys. I don't need your help." Her voice came out firm and she was proud of that, afraid that it would have wobbled and let on to more of her feelings than she'd wanted.
"Help?" Looking shocked, Lavi placed a hand on his chest. "Wouldn't dream of getting in your way, Lena." He pulled out a scroll and tapped on it. "Look, all official-like. Isn't that right, Yuu?"
"Don't call me that, idiot," Kanda growled, ignoring the rest of the question. That answered her question—he was a terrible liar.
"Aww, don't be like that," Lavi pouted. He was lucky she was in between them—if they were standing, he would certainly have wrapped an arm around Kanda by now. And Kanda would certainly have stabbed him with his sword.
Lenalee raised a brow, staring at the scroll. Her brother could have faked that. "Really?"
"Are you calling me a liar?" Lavi looked even more shocked. Strumming his lute sadly, he sang, "Oh fair Lenalee! No longer do you trust me!"
It was terrible how good a singer he was, even this ridiculous ditty caused sadness and guilt to well up in her. "I know what you're doing," she grumbled, blinking away tears before they could form.
"I'm just singing." Lavi cocked his head, looking far more innocent than he had any right to be. "I'm not doing anything."
"Right. Sure." Lenalee wiped her right eye and glared at him. "Komui didn't have to send you, I can handle this on my own."
"And he didn't." Lavi grinned brightly at her. Loping his reins loosely around his wrist, he picked up his lute once more. "We came on our own. Don't worry, we won't get in your way."
It was as close to an admission as she'd get. Done with the explanations, Lavi strummed his lute once more, tightening and adjusting the knobs as he did. Lenalee turned to Kanda. "I can do this."
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. Gruffly, he nodded. "I know."
For all his insults to Lavi, his words had only ever been kind to her. She resisted the urge to smile. "And I don't need your help."
Lenalee tucked a lock behind her ear, relaxing as some of the pressure left her. "I'm glad you came."
He looked in front now, but she could have sworn his lips tugged up into a ghost of a smile. "I know."
Feeling more determined now, Lenalee turned back to the sprawling path in front of her. "Alright, let's go."
She could do this.
This time, Lenalee believed in those words.