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Lessons In Adversity

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The house was dark when he lumbered in, but Cross would expect nothing less at three in the morning. Most people were unconscious at this hour. Normal people, that hadn’t just barely caught the last train back then hoofed two miles in the pouring rain. And last he’d known, Allen had been occupying the bed he himself used here. It didn’t matter. Once he was dried off and had a drink in him, Cross would and could sleep anywhere. The couch would do fine.

He hadn’t been going about his business quietly enough apparently, as a pair of round, gray eyes were soon watching him from the stairway. “What are you gawking at?” he drawled, most of his outer layers gratefully discarded.

“S-Sorry, Master, I just heard noises and, um… I’m sorry.”

“…Go back to bed.”

“Um, Master, um, you can sleep upstairs too. Baba got me my own bed, so…”

Good to know. “All right, go on now.” The boy gave a nod, and went. “Shower first,” Cross decided with a shiver. “Definitely shower first.”

&

Once warmed up and changed, the redhead did go up to the room, and found Tim had joined Allen and the kid still awake. “Why are you still up?”

“I just… sometimes I can’t sleep,” the other mumbled back, pulling at the golem, who didn’t seem to mind.

“Nightmares?” He nodded. And with how meek this one had become, he probably hadn’t mentioned this trouble to Mother or Baba. Probably wouldn’t have even known himself if not for this situation. “You haven’t slept at all tonight?”

“I can’t,” he reiterated only, pulling on Tim like taffy.

“You’re probably trying too hard,” the man replied, lighting a cigarette. “Think about things you like.”

“Mana?”

“Sure.”

“But… I keep thinking about…”

Cross deeply inhaled his next drag. He just wanted to sleep, and this shit was so high above his pay grade. “There’s nothing you like besides Mana? If nothing else, you’ve been here about a year- there has to be at least one thing you like.”

Allen seemed to be thinking. “I like it when it’s warm; everyone’s happier. Not like tonight, all rainy and cold. Did you walk here from town?”

“Didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.”

“…Oh. I’m sorry.”

“It is what it is,” the man shrugged. “If there wasn’t any bad shit, we wouldn’t appreciate the good shit. What?” he asked at the boy’s broadening smile.

“N-Nothing, just… you’re right. Um, Master, that you’re here, does that mean you’ll be taking care of the church tomorrow?”

“Fuck,” he cursed in realization. “Tomorrow’s Sunday. Whatever; that blowhard can do another week; it won’t kill him.”

“Ah, oh. Okay.”

Allen’s mask was getting better, but it wasn’t perfect yet. “What aren’t you telling me, Brat?”

“It’s n-nothing, Master!”

He looked really afraid. “I doubt that. Spill it.”

“I-It’s silly, really. I just… I’ve been wanting to see the church, but… Um, the man that’s there when you aren’t… Um… He doesn’t like me near it. He says I’m cursed, and he’s not wrong, so-”

“If you have no ill intentions toward it, there’s no reason why you can’t go if you want to. The place won’t explode into flames just because you walk into it.”

“It won’t?!”

“…He did not tell you that would happen.”

“Um…”

Cross felt the sudden urge to commit a murder. All this kid had been through, all that was still ahead of him, and that pompous piece of shit thought he had the right to-

“Are you all right, Master?”

“Fine, Allen. I just suddenly have some work to do.”

“I-I didn’t mean-”

“Get some sleep, Allen,” Cross told him as kindly as he could muster, taking another drag. “This will very much not be my first all-nighter.”

“Not mine either. Is it work I can help with?”

“…Can you make coffee?”

The boy nodded.

“Go make some. I’ll be back down in a few minutes.”

“Yes, Master!” Allen chimed, and ran off.

Cross chuckled despite himself, shaking his head.

&

"'Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.'” Allen was silent for awhile, balancing the Bible Cross was referencing in his lap. “So the lady in the story gave the church all her money? Is that good?”

“In the window’s case, not really, once put into context,” he replied, pretty much in lecture mode because of the questions and the homily he was in the middle of writing. “At that time, the temple leaders looked at your finances and income and decided for you what was affordable for you to give them.”

“That seems pushy.”

“It was pushy,” the redhead replied, looking up. “What seems to be praise for the woman giving so generously is actually a critique of how the church is run. It’s important to always have all the information you can get.”

“Yes, Master.”

“Coffee’s almost gone. Go make some more.” In truth, Cross was 99.9% sure Allen was lying about having made the stuff before. What he’d come back with was the most vile concoction the man had ever tasted, but it was getting the job done.

Allen readily got up to make more, and Cross noticed the sun rising. Five am. Fun. At least the weather had cleared.

That asshole still needed to be put in his place, and as soon as humanly possible. Which, for him, was a touch above average, and being both cranky and sleep deprived would certainly fuel his efforts.

“Cross?” Mother was awake. “When did you get in?”

“A few hours ago,” he replied, finally wrapping up. He preferred to think the congregation liked that he got right to the point and let them go back home.

“And you’re not only still up, but getting ready for service? Usually you just go right to sleep, no matter what.”

“I have some extra incentive this week.”

“Do I want to know?”

“Probably not.”

She sniffed. “Is that coffee?”

“That’s what the kid claims.”

“Allen? He can’t make coffee.”

“I noticed.”

“Oi. I’ll go help him, since you won’t.”

“That brat’s gonna get more help from me than he can handle the next few years.” Wait. “If that dickhead hasn’t been letting Allen near the church, that means hasn’t been getting religious schooling with the rest of the kids?”

“I read him Bible stories, but I don’t think he always understands them.”

He sighed. “I’ll have to do something about that, too. Shit. You may be putting up with me longer than originally planned, Mother.”

“That’ll make the townspeople happy; they dislike your stand-in almost as much as you do.”

Cross scoffed before snuffing out his cigarette. “Flattery will get you nowhere, Mother.”

“I know Jasmine will be happy to see you,” she teased.

Allen came in, carefully setting his master’s mug on the coffee table. “Does that mean she’ll visit more?” he asked quietly, but hopefully. “She has a pretty smile.”

“She has even prettier-”

“Cross!”

“I was only going to say ‘eyes.’”

“Sure you were. At least wait until he’s old enough to know what you’re talking about before spewing nonsense like that.” A coy smile spread across her own features. “A talk you’ll be giving him.”

“Oh, hell no.”

“Oh hell yes. Don’t worry, you have a couple years,” she continued to smirk, and left the room for the upstairs again.

Cross’ gaze fell to blinking gray eyes. “Is there something you need to tell me, Master?”

“Not until you’re older. Go find Timcampy.” The two of them would keep each other occupied awhile, and he could finish getting himself set for the day.

&

Cross wasn’t sure what exactly he was going to say to the moron in charge of his church when he saw him, but he was sure he wouldn’t be short on words when they encountered each other. The polite thing to was send Baba to his house and let the man know his services weren’t needed this week. Cross wasn’t known for his manners, and he forbid Mother to put hers into practice. Baba just did whatever he was told.

He had Allen get dressed, and all four of them headed to the small church nearby. The kid had apparently managed to find a few friends; he ran ahead at the sight of a couple of other children’s waves.

Apparently, Marcus saw them coming, coming forward from inside the church to the small group. Cross couldn’t hear what he was angrily saying to the kids at first, but as they approached, found it was nothing he himself wanted to hear, and nothing children should be hearing- least of all about themselves. “Marcus,” he interrupted the ignorant rant, coming up beside him. “Has it always been your policy to frighten away those who only want to learn?”

The other priest stood straight, indignant. “Were that the case, no,” was the sharp reply. “That thing is cursed and has no right or privilege to be near the sanctity of the church.”

Allen had been shifting closer to the redhead, slowly, like he was afraid of drawing more attention to himself. “You told him the building would combust if he went inside, yes?” he asked. “How about we see what really happens.”

“Gamble with the church-?!”

“That is a building, it can be replaced. The church is the people who gather in it. The point is moot, however, since nothing will happen. You’ve just been filling a child’s head with lunacy. Come on, Allen.”

The boy stalled a half-second, then walked the rest of the way over to him, and followed close behind the few steps needed to get to the entryway. Gray eyes looked up at him then, so trusting, and took the next few steps on his own.

Nothing. Well, nothing negative. Those same eyes were wide now as they took in the interior, like he was inside a city cathedral instead of a small town chapel. In the back of his mind, Cross briefly wondered if Neah would make an appearance.

Allen’s brow did furrow a bit, then was looking back at him with a bright smile. “It’s not burning, Master.”

“I see that, Brat.” Cross turned to the other priest. “See? There’s a difference between a cursed eye and a cursed heart. But you don’t have to worry about opening your tiny little mind; I’ll be here the next two months, and after that, Allen will be with me. Run along.”

Marcus paused, snarling, probably trying to think of some snide reply, but was coming up very short. He was gone, curling his lip in disgust.

“Are you really going to be here that long, Father?” one of the kids, Alice, spoke up. She had her mother’s bright eyes.

“I’m not in the habit of lying,” he told her.

“Imma go tell Mama!” she exclaimed happily, and ran off. Ideally, the news would agree with Jasmine.

She was smiling his way through the entire service. He did his damndest not to make it obvious how much he liked looking back at that smile.

Allen was sitting with the woman and her daughter, as well as Mother and Baba, the kid was still looking around in wonder now and then- futilely trying to make it look like he was paying attention. The redhead decided he’d let it go for now- idly wondering in the back of his mind how long that wonder would last before it turned to hard cynicism. It was the path most exorcists took, but… maybe Allen would be different. The fact that he still looked at the world in wonderment even at this point was extraordinary.

Afterwards, when he finished changing, he heard footsteps coming into the sanctuary. But he knew the cadence of those steps very well.

“Hello, Father,” a lilted feminine voice came from behind him.

“Jasmine,” Cross smiled as he turned to her. “I do recall asking you to address me in a far less formal manner.”

Her grin was inches from his own. “Oh, do forgive me. My daughter informed me what you did for her friend this morning and I suppose I’m still reeling. Could you possibly find it in your heart to forgive me?”

“Always,” he breathed, and closed his mouth over hers, no slow build up, just distance closed and both intent on enjoying it. Her curves were intoxicating, and he drank in the hitch in her breathing when his leg hiked up between her own. Having her warm body so close-

“E-Excuse me,” a tiny, fearful tone came. “M-Master?”

“What do you-?” he started to snap at the child, but saw Allen’s left eye activated. “Oh. All right. Show me where the fucking thing is.”

The kid pointed. At first, the redhead thought it was to Jasmine, which would be horrifying on several levels, but it was past her, to a boy calmly walking through- until he was pointed at. Then the shit started shedding his human disguise.

The woman knew the get the fuck out. This was not the first akuma she’d seen; out here, bonds were even deeper, and when you lost someone dear, everyone knew, and that just made everything that much fucking harder. “You leave him,” he barked when he saw her trying to take Allen with her.

“Cross! He’s-”

“Training to be an exorcist,” the man finished. “Aren’t you, Allen?”

The boy took a breath, standing as tall as he was able. “Yes, Master.”

A grin tugged his lips. “This’ll be over in a second anyway.” He aimed at the now fully-exposed akuma, also ready to fire, but with three of his own bullets later, the machine was disintegrating back to dust. Allen’s wide eyes were glued to it. “What is it you see?”

“The lady’s soul,” was the returned mutter. “All the chains are gone, and she’s smiling…”

The lady? Oh. The bound soul. He could see that? Rude, Mana.

“Allen, are you all right?” Jasmine asked the boy, who smiled again. Ah, that mask was improving.

“I’m fine, thank you. So’s the lady, so everything’s okay.”

Her brow furrowed, holding him close. “You poor child.”

‘You have no idea,’ the redhead kept to himself. “Quit fussing, he’s fine. It didn’t even get over here.”

“Just the same,” she spoke, standing. “How’d you like to come over for lunch, Allen?”

He looked past her to his master. “Like I care where you stuff your face.”

“Yes! Thank you! Your cooking is always delicious, Miss. Jasmine.”

“Aw, aren’t you sweet? Run and find Alice, okay?”

“Okay!” the child agreed, and hurried out.

The woman turned to grin at the remaining male. “It’s so cute to see you worry about him.”

“I’m not worried. The kid’s too tenacious to die. Fortunate or not,” he added without thinking.

“Why wouldn’t that be fortunate?”

“…Don’t worry about it. Am I invited to your house as well, or is it brats only?”

“It’s brats only, so of course you’re welcome,” Jasmine grinned right back. “And once the short people are fed and outside, we can have a play date of our own.”

“Sounds perfect,” he replied, grinning himself despite the shot to his ego. It wouldn’t do to be worrying over the future; what was going to happen was going to happen. Cross just hoped he was ready for whatever that was- himself and Allen both.