Hand in Hand
Xana found herself feeling odd, somehow. She didn’t particularly like the idea of what was going to happen next, but not in a way that it was totally unappealing. She found herself squirming a little as Gabriel adjusted her clothing in a last-ditch effort to make her look more present. She didn’t really fear the idea of saying the wrong things, or so she thought, but she wanted this conversation to go okay. She cared a little if it fell through.
“Is this person going to care about my clothes?” Xana wondered aloud, voice slightly hushed but at a volume Gabriel could still hear. “Doesn’t God give you guys your uniforms and armor? That’s how I thought it worked.”
As she pulled forward the collar of the simple blouse she’d asked Xana to wear, Gabriel giggled. “Even if that were true, and there is only some vague notion of what you would call a ‘dress code’ within the Heavenly Host… this person is not an angel. Indeed, she was once a human, and lived in leaner times. I am hoping your clothes will make a good impression.”
“Hmm,” Xana considered the clothes she was wearing. It wasn’t a long, elegant skirt paired with a classic uniform, like the long list of characters she knew from anime or Miss Templar. Nor did it offer the freedom of movement or the badass look that Shio’s street clothes gave her. It was more like Newbie’s clothes than anything she’d ever wear.
“I think it makes a bad impression,” Xana said impassively. “I look like the person trying to sell you a phone case at the mall.”
The nearby computer’s fans whirred to life.
“Or the person who walks into a clothing shop and looks lost,” Xana added after careful thought.
“Well,” Gabriel said, her smile never leaving her face, “I think you look nice. And, were you to wear your usual clothing, the Lady Maria might worry that you are injured or leprous.”
“Leprosy has been eliminated basically everywhere but India,” Xana replied, reciting what she’d learned from textbooks and the Internet with scarcely more intonation than her sources. “She’d have to be pretty dumb to think that.”
“Such diseases are kept at bay only by the grace of God and the good sense of man,” Gabriel responded evenly. “And it is not always the case that it is the grace of God first.” The edges of Gabriel’s lips twitched upward as she remembered the tenfold punishment upon Egypt. Sometimes, disease was the heavenly and righteous response to injustice.
“Right. That’s why people wear masks when they get a cold,” Xana noted. “When I see someone sneezing, it makes me want to puke.”
Though, of course, Gabriel thought that Xana’s chosen response was perhaps not an appropriate or better one, that her partner could turn the other cheek a touch more often, she did not say so. They had spoken about this before, after all, and Gabriel could only be glad that Xana did not seem able to vomit.
“Of course, the Lady Maria was once a human. Though sainthood has given her life unyielding, she understands such concerns. Thus, it would be best for you to treat her as a human.”
“I was going to, even if she’s a demon now.”
Gabriel once again held her tongue, only because she knew that Maria herself would not take offense and would not want her to take offense. Instead, she lifted Xana’s arm to take Xana’s hand in hers, and led her to the door. Xana followed unsteadily, on underutilized legs slowed further by reluctance.
Xana did not have to follow Gabriel for long. In truth, Black Maria had been waiting in the hideout all along, inside one of the heretofore unused guest rooms. What Xana didn’t know couldn’t make her even more fussy, Gabriel had thought, without fully realizing that Xana knew when others came, when they went, and when, with both advantages and disadvantages, she was by herself.
The woman before her was dark-skinned, with ashen hair decorated with a fuchsia flower hairpin. Her appearance was tidy but in a sense businesslike, with her outfit consisting of a simple white shirt and black sweatpants. With her hands elegantly folded in her lap, Black Maria looked up from her seat at the couch to greet Xana with a small smile.
“So you are Xana? Gabriel has told me a lot about you. It is nice to finally meet you.”
After a moment of leaning slightly away from the demon in human form, time Xana spent appraising her, Xana responded: “The shoes you left at the door are really worn. How far did you walk?”
Black Maria chuckled. “Thank you for your concern, but the walk here was not a problem.”
“I know it wasn’t,” Xana said. “That’s why I’m asking. You really got all the perks of becoming a demon, then?”
Looking for all the world as though she’d just opened her tastebuds to the bitter taste of a whole lemon, Gabriel landed next to Xana and clapped a hand on her shoulder. “Xana, please.”
Black Maria’s smile flattened into placidity as she gently turned her head to look at Gabriel. “Gabriel, please do not worry. My situation is unique, and I would be happy to explain it to your summoner.”
An angel’s mind does not work exactly the same way as a Hollow’s, or even that of a human turned demon. Only a small portion of Gabriel’s true capacity for thought rested with her; in moments such as this one, she called upon the vast pool of intelligence shared by the divine, and used it to make decisions based on her own priorities.
There was no way for this conversation to go poorly. Maria had been elevated to sainthood with good reason, and her patience and sympathy was legendary. Gabriel had, thus far, chosen not to introduce Xana to many of her peers.
Uriel had inserted himself, of course, and accepted that Xana’s response to him was his own doing; Raphael had shown some interest, but decided that if Gabriel was “keeping Xana to herself”, he wouldn’t make an issue out of it; and Michael would not have time to meet with Xana even if she had offered.
But for all that Gabriel had thought about her position in the Heavenly Host and how to navigate it while holding to a lasting contract such as Xana’s, it was not even remotely necessary with Maria.
She could leave the two of them to talk. Both of them would appreciate this, and it would be a show of trust in Xana, which had been sparing between them early on. That was what the universe’s keenest intuitions, those used to find and destroy demonkind, told her. And so, Gabriel did exactly that.
Black Maria gave Gabriel the time to excuse herself, and then responded to Xana. “Sometimes, I am not sure if I once gained the blessings you speak of, or if I have always had them. Was I a human, or am I the idea of a human, given sainthood, formed into a demon? I cannot deny man’s interpretation of demonkind, or guarantee that it does not apply to me.”
“It’s really complicated,” Xana agreed. “What humans want, what humans feel they want, and what humans think they want are all different. Maybe ‘demons’ like you are just the result.”
And as Xana made that claim, she jolted upright in the seat she’d taken. After consciously hoping that Black Maria had not noticed, Xana then remembered that she was supposed to be nervous. But why was she ever nervous? Black Maria didn’t seem that bad. It hit her only a moment later: she was nervous because this was one of Gabriel’s friends, and it wasn’t Uriel.
That was an easy explanation, and it was the right explanation too. And somehow, it pissed her off a little. But she couldn’t do anything about it.
“Oh my, really?” Black Maria asked. “Often, it is demons, deceiving the most vulnerable, who blame what man wants. Some of them say it is what man asks for; others say it is what man secretly yearns for. But, in reality, I think what man wants is quite simple.”
Xana frowned and tugged at her collar. Black Maria had her attention. “What do you think man wants then? Don’t say something cliche like love.”
Again, Black Maria chuckled. Her voice was almost melodic, but no part of it was more so than her laughter.
“I think that man wants to be free of its pains, and to find and keep its joys. The exact nature of each is what is complicated.“
“Are we talking about the same thing? It sounds like you’re just saying that demons like to make excuses.”
“Do you disagree?”
Xana exhaled through her nose.
“No. But even when humans know what they want, they don’t always know how they want it or how to get it.”
For just one solitary moment, Black Maria stopped smiling. She cut a motion with her hands, the beginning of wringing, short and placed them gently behind her back and below her waist.
“…You are right, of course. And man cannot always obtain what it wants, nor what it deserves. Xana, have you ever been to Shin-Okubo?”
The question caught Xana a little off-guard. Their conversation had been deep and introspective, piercing through the normal perception of their respective natures. It was nice, both interesting and a little tense. And then the Virgin Mary asked about Tokyo’s geography, and about things Xana wasn’t sure she had done.
“I’ve walked through it,” Xana replied.
“There are many people there who were born in Japan, who grew up in Japan, and who look Japanese, unlike you and I. Yet they have experienced greater hardship than we can know, because their parents hail from a foreign country.”
“Oh…” In a flash, Xana put together multiple interrelated concepts that she hadn’t needed to think about, and came out with what she figured was the right answer. “So the sorts of people who get hired to clean septic tanks or move stuff around the landfill?”
“Yes, exactly,” Black Maria said, lips curled into a deep frown and brow furrowed, a touch of shadow darkening her face. “Or, they might work at a gambler’s den, only to lose all they have there after the day’s end.”
“It doesn’t change anything though. They’re all humans in the end.” Xana knew she was being led into a particular lesson about the complexities of humanity, but she didn’t care. She just wanted to voice her opinion and then absorb what Black Maria had to say.
“But because two human groups have a complicated history, those poor people work harder than their neighbors, only to be rewarded with less. I believe that those people might blame God or their parents, but no individual is at fault. In such times, when no one person is at fault, mankind has a difficult road to walk.”
“You mean before their wish can be granted?” Xana asked.
Black Maria chuckled, and Xana could tell that her probing was, for whatever reason, genuinely lifting her spirits. “Yes, that is one way to put it.”
“Hmm… but we can’t do anything about that by ourselves. When you put it that way, it makes me want to puke.”
“That is not true, young one,” Black Maria said. That look of plaintive sympathy that seemed directed at the middle distance now fell upon Xana. “We cannot solve the problem by ourselves, as the Liberators might set right what has gone wrong, but any of us can be a part of the solution.”
Xana thought back, then thought forward. As if scrolling through her memories, she elided what had happened in the Aura Gate and all she had said about it. There was more to her life than that, after all. She remembered when, after being forced out of her own room again, she told some humans that they needed to stop selling themselves short and do what they’re good at.
This was like that.
Xana shot Black Maria a look of intense, unmistakable curiosity. “So what do you do about it?”
“I help an organization that gives out food and hand soap. To answer your earlier question, I came here from Shin-Okubo.”
“So about an hour,” Xana said, confidently.
Black Maria stood up, out of her seat on the couch. “You and Lady Gabriel should join me sometime. I think the experience would be good for her, as well.”
Impulsively, as she did whenever travel was suggested, Xana pulled out her phone and tapped her way to a map with directions between Akihabara and Shin-Okubo. It wasn’t five minutes away, but the trip didn’t look that bad.
She looked back up at Black Maria. “I’ll think about it.”
“Good. I’ll see you two again in a few weeks. Until then, please support your human friends. No matter how many demons you fight, what is most important is that we all stand together, hand in hand.”
That sounded cheesy, to Xana, but it also sounded about right. No Warrior of Light got by without companions, and then there were all the shopkeepers, people with instructions, people who needed rescuing, and everyone else. Things were interconnected enough that she figured, if she really wanted humanity to stick around, she’d at least pitch in.
When Black Maria left the apartment, and Xana and Gabriel reunited, Xana immediately walked past Gabriel to go to the apartment kitchen.
“How did it go, Xana?” Gabriel asked, turning in midair without so much as a wingbeat and fluttering after her into the kitchen. She landed when she saw that they would be in the room for longer than it took to grab Kitty Kandy: Xana was pulling out pots and pans.
“Good,” Xana said, a little absent-mindedly. “Soup is easy to make, right? Do you mind helping me?”
Gabriel pursed her lips, but she was not one to decline that type of request, under almost any circumstance. She already found herself crossing the tile to stand behind Xana. “I am not a skilled culinarian, so it may be better if we find a recipe.”
“That’s what I was going to do anyway, so that’s fine,” Xana said. Stainless steel rattled against granite as she set down more utensils than any soup needed to make.
Realizing that Xana may not have the most normal recipe in mind, Gabriel glanced about quickly for a cookbook and, finding none, reached with resignation for her own cellphone, which had sat unused on the counter for the past few days.