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Angela's God
By Richard Lawson

 

Okay, IMPORTANT NOTE: Religion plays a large part in this fic. If you
have objections to the religion and how it's portrayed, I'd love to hear
it - but please KEEP IT OFF THE LIST. The *last* thing this list needs
is a holy war.

I'm open to any other kind of C&C being posted publicly. And I'm open
to any comments at all that you might have, public or private - this is
a very rough draft, and I have ideas for revisions, but I'd like to get
any input you might have first.

Thanks.

-Richard

---

"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name."

The words echoed through the mostly-empty stone hall. The sound and the
words were comforting.

"Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven."

She could feel the presence of the church around her, the people nearby.
Yes. Thy will that these words be spoken. Thy will that I am here
speaking them.

"Give us this day our daily bread-"

As always, the words made her stumble a little. She rushed to catch up,
hoping Mother Abbess didn't notice.

"-our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Mother Abbess didn't look at her, which wasn't necessarily an indicator.
Mother Abbess could withhold any devastating comment until the moment
where it would have the most impact. She spoke the next words with more
passion than she meant.

"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

And deliver me from Mother Abbess, who is not at all evil but is just a
tiny bit overbearing.

"For thine is the Kingdom..."

Sorry, I shouldn't be thinking such things. I'll tell Father James
during confession.

"...the power..."

It's just that sometimes I can't help thinking ungenerous things. I
try, I really do. I want to be worthy. Worthy of cleaving unto you.

"...and the glory, forever and ever."

Cleave unto you forever, God. Soon.

"Amen."

She lifted her eyes. The Morning Mass continued and she kept her focus
on the ritual and the faith. Even after the Mass ended, she stayed in
the church and prayed. These were her favorite times, when she was
alone with her thoughts and God.

A touch on her shoulder was meant to be a polite intrusion, a gentle
indication from Mother Abbess. She knew Mother Abbess meant well, but
the touch was enough to send her thoughts and prayer into disarray. She
did her best to bring a proper end to her prayer, then stood up with
eyes downcast. Mother Abbess led the way.

Mother Abbess opened the door to her office. "Please sit, Sister
Angela." Mother Abbess put action to her words by sitting behind her
desk.

Angela sat on the extreme edge of the hard wooden chair, her hands
folded on her lap.

Mother Abbess nodded once, as if in approval. "Sister Angela, how long
have you been with us?"

"Almost four years, Mother Abbess."

"Four years." Mother Abbess mused thoughtfully. "I remember when you
first came to us. So eager to join. Not, as too many of our applicants
do, to run from something. You truly wanted to devote yourself
completely to God and His works."

Angela felt a warmth in her chest at the memory. She remembered
standing before Mother Abbess, professing her earnest desire to become a
nun. Mother Abbess's affected reluctance had only compelled her to try
harder to convince the head of the convent to admit her. Angela
remembered the passion that had burned in her, the pure desire that
drove her, the incredible feeling of relief and joy when Mother Abbess
had finally admitted her.

Mother Abbess smiled, evidently sensing Angela's reaction to the memory.
"You took to it so quickly. You completely threw yourself into the
disciplines, and I was certain that you would become one of God's true
agents in this world."

Angela looked down, a little embarrassed. "Thank you, Mother Abbess. I
am not certain I am worthy of such praise."

"Hmm. In five days your three-year vow will be over. According to the
rules of our Order, you must take one final two-year vow. Are you
prepared?"

"Of course, Mother Abbess." Angela looked up, her chin slightly
elevated. "The only thing I look forward to more is taking my perpetual
vows once my final two years are up. Then I can join the Holy Lady in
surrendering myself completely to God and dedicating my life to His
people."

"Yes, yes." Mother Abbess sounded slightly impatient. "Truly, Angela,
your faith is strong, which is very rare these days. I think you would
make a fine member of our Order. I would hate to see you waste that
opportunity."

Alarm rippled through the calm demeanor she had been so proud of herself
for maintaining. "Waste it? Mother Abbess, I would never-"

Mother Abbess interrupted smoothly. "Give us this day our daily bread."

Angela felt her face turn red. She looked down at her hands.

A silence dragged on. Angela felt like she should say something, but
the words which flowed so easily when she talked with God would not come
in the presence of Mother Abbess.

Finally Mother Abbess broke the silence herself. "Angela. Something
comes between you and your relationship with God. You must deal with
this if you are to renew your vows."

Angela rushed to provide a response. Any response. "I... I will fast."

Mother Abbess spoke in tired resignation. "Another fast?"

"Depriving ourselves of food is an excellent test, Mother Abbess. By
seeing how we react to the absence of nourishment, we can see how we
will respond to the other sacrifices we must make in our calling. It is
when we-"

"Angela, do not think to lecture me about privations."

Angela felt her cheeks burn a little brighter. "Sorry, Mother Abbess."

Mother Abbess sighed. "I know what you're trying to say, but you fast
so often I might almost suspect you suffer the sin of vanity."

"Mother Abbess, no!" The very thought shocked Angela to the core of her
being. "I would never... I do not... *would* not-"

"Yes, yes." Mother Abbess made some vaguely reassuring gestures with
her hands. "I know you well enough to be certain that you are not
trying to make yourself more attractive. But neither is fasting a
burden to you. I think you must truly test yourself, Angela."

"Yes, Mother Abbess." With a huge effort she brought herself back under
control, to appear calm and unruffled under Mother Abbess's scrutiny.
"Please, whatever you think appropriate. I am eager to prove myself to
you."

"Good." Mother Abbess leaned back, studying Angela closely. "I would
like to see you avoid reading the sports section of our local paper for
one week."

Angela blinked. "The... sports section?"

"This is the sacrifice I would like to see you make: Attend no sporting
events. Do not watch any sports on television, nor look for news of
sports. Do not talk with anyone about sports. *Anyone*, Angela."
Mother Abbess's eyes seemed to fairly glow. "For one week, until after
you've given renewed your vows, I would like to see you avoid sports
altogether."

"But-" Angela couldn't control her mouth. "Friday is-"

"Is what, Sister Angela?"

Angela snapped her mouth shut. Suddenly she felt very, very frightened.
"I... will do as you say, Mother Abbess."

"Good." Mother Abbess stood up, and Angela did as well. "I want you to
know, Sister Angela, that I will not allow you to take your vows if I do
not feel you mean them sincerely."

"I would not allow myself to take them if I didn't, Mother Abbess."
Angela ducked her head, then turned and strode rapidly towards the
dining hall. Breakfast was surely getting cold, and the nursery would
be opening soon.

Her mind whirled. She quickly reviewed the oaths she was to renew in a
few days. Obedience, poverty, and chastity. She had to obey Mother
Abbess's command, and make the sacrifice. No sports.

But Mother Abbess never said when you had to *start* avoiding sports,
did she? Just that you eventually do so. You could start first thing
Saturday morning.

She shook her head at her own sophistry. Mother Abbess clearly meant
for her to start immediately. And she was bound to obey, by her oath to
God.

But she couldn't just abandon those who depended on her without so much
as a word, could she? Surely that, too, was a sin.

But you must obey. You gave an oath. As hard as it is, as much as it
tears you apart, you have no choice. As you love God you have no
choice.

Angela found herself heading to the nursery, skipping breakfast
altogether. She decided that was just as well. She arrived at the
building and unlocked it. She was the first one there; the other staff
would begin arriving in a few minutes, the first children in about an
hour.

She almost ran to the portrait hanging on one wall. She knelt there,
stared into the loving face of St. Mary, and prayed.

Please, Holy Mother, what am I to do? I must obey. But I cannot
abandon those who look to me for help and guidance. Please, what should
I do?

She knelt a long time, hearing behind her the other staff coming and
quietly setting up. They were not sisters, but they respected her
calling and did not want to interfere with her prayer, for which she was
grateful.

Finally, she crossed herself and stood up. Tonight. I will make the
vow tonight. I will perform one last duty, then I will obey Mother
Abbess and test myself. Obeying is so very hard, but I will do it.
You'll see, Holy Mother. I will pass this test and be worthy to serve
you.

Angela smoothed her habit, bringing order to her dress and mind. Then
she turned and joined the others in preparing for the day's duties.

---

"Higher! Higher!"

Coach's admonition was far from a new one. He struggled to obey it.
His next punch hit the bag fractionally higher than the previous one
had.

Coach looked disgusted. "C'mon, Kosaku, are you a girl? You can do
better than that!"

"Easy for you to say! You haven't been doing this for an hour!" Using
all the willpower he had, Kosaku lifted his leaden arms, throwing the
next punch an inch higher.

Coach grunted. "This is a ten-rounder you're training for, boy. If you
can escape a knockout in the early rounds, that means you'll have to
last longer than you ever have before. Do you think Niiyama's going to
lower his head to make it easier for you to hit?"

Kosaku thinned his lips and hit the bag again, higher still. He managed
to throw the next ten punches at about the same spot before they began
to drift downwards.

"Ah, enough. I can see we're wasting our time." Coach released the bag
and stood back as Kosaku bent forward at the waist, grasping his knees
as well as he could in the gloves. "You have to improve your
conditioning quickly. We've only got five days left and a lot of work
to do still."

Kosaku straightened and looked at the clock on the wall. "Dinnertime."

Coach turned red. He spluttered for a few seconds before coherent
speech came out. "Do you understand what we're doing here? What we're
trying to accomplish? This is your big chance, boy. Blow it and you'll
probably never get another one. Can you follow that, boy?"

Kosaku nodded energetically. "Dinnertime."

A low rumbling seemed to emanate from Coach. Finally he turned away,
his voice some kind of continuous growl. "Go on, then. I want you back
here in thirty minutes, do you understand? And run. Always run."

"Of course, Coach." He ran over to where his sweatshirt and sweatpants
hung on a peg on the wall. He quickly put them on over his shorts and
t-shirt, shedding the gloves along the way. Feeling the eyes of the gym
on him, he kept his head down and ran out the door.

Kosaku quickly settled down into a jog, throwing the occasional punch as
he weaved through the early-evening pedestrian traffic. Most of the
people knew him and smiled at him, offering him an occasional
encouragement.

Finally he turned the corner and came to a dead stop.

She was there, as always. His eyes drank in the sight of her. She was
covered head to foot in her white and sky-blue habit. It almost
succeeded in disguising her figure underneath. Kosaku had seen her
once - only once - at a pool, and his mind filled in the details,
figuring which bulges in the habit corresponded to the curves he'd seen
in the swimming suit.

The only thing exposed to the sun was her face, and it was beautiful.
She wore no makeup - of course - but nature had graced her with features
that needed no enhancement. And her beauty was only enhanced by the
bright expression she always had when she first saw him. Her smile was
brilliant, and threatened to blind him.

"Good evening, Kosaku," she said cheerily as she sat at the counter of
the noodle stand.

"Good evening, Sister." He sat next to her. The smell coming from
behind the counter drew his attention away from her. "That looks good."

"Doesn't it, though?" She put her elbows on the counter and cupped her
chin with her hands. "What will you have today?"

The chef came over, a resigned look on his face. Kosaku grinned at him.
"Shrimp noodles. Two of them."

Angela's cheeks dimpled when she smiled in this position. "Better make
that three, don't you think?"

Kosaku nodded rapidly. "Yeah. Three, please."

The chef wrote down the order. "Teawiththat?"

"Yeah. Bring a pot." Kosaku followed the chef with his eyes as he
began to prepare the order.

"How is your conditioning going?" Kosaku reluctantly turned to
reconsider Sister Angela. "How long can you keep throwing punches?"

Kosaku looked down. "Not long. Only an hour."

"*Only* an hour?" Sister Angela lifted her head up a little so she
could count on her fingers. "A ten-round match is only fifty minutes,
isn't it? And you spend a lot of that in your corner."

He shrugged. "Coach says it isn't good enough."

Sister Angela smiled. "I suspect Coach Mukaida wouldn't think the
ability to run the length of Japan and back would be good enough."

Kosaku laughed. "Probably not."

Her eyes twinkled. Then she looked as three bowls of shrimp noodles
were placed on the countertop.

Kosaku felt his mouth watering uncontrollably. "Okay! Let's eat!"

"Let us pray first."

He nodded. Sister Angela reached over and they clasped hands. Kosaku
bowed his head, doing his utmost to keep his thumb from stroking her
fingers.

Sister Angela always adopted a different voice when praying. It was
soft and breathless, almost ethereal. "Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy
gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our
Lord."

"Amen," he mumbled with her. It was her usual prayer, and he had once
made the mistake of asking if they really had to pray before and after
every meal. That had earned him a stern lecture, most of which he had
tuned out. She liked to pray, of that he had no doubt.

He released her hand and tried to draw away, only to find that she had
maintained her grip. He looked at her in surprise and she quickly
released the grip, reaching out for the teapot. "Let me pour you a
cup."

"Thank you, Sister." He examined her face closely as she set about the
task. It looked a little troubled. He wondered what was worrying her.
Maybe about the fight Friday. He brightened a little at the thought
that she was that concerned about him.

She finished pouring the tea and sat back on her stool, regarding him,
the cup held in her hand. "I was thinking last night. If you win,
you'll have a winning record."

"For the first time since I was one and oh. Yeah, it'll great." He
smiled. "I'll be a real fighter at last."

She shook her head. "You *are* a real fighter already, Kosaku."

"Thanks, Sister." He smiled a little sadly. "But most other people
don't think so. A lot of them still remember that I once threw up in
the ring."

Sister Angela made a little face. "That was almost two years ago!
Doesn't anyone ever forget these things?"

He shrugged. "Some things stick with you." He picked up his chopsticks
and began poking at the noodles.

Sister Angela eyed his meal critically while taking a sip of tea.
"Perhaps we should add some beef ramen. Don't you think?"

Kosaku nodded. "Yes. Beef ramen, please!"

The chef raised an eyebrow but nodded.

Sister Angela put her hand on his forearm. "So how are you doing,
really? Do you feel prepared?"

He tried not to think of how much he was enjoying the pressure of her
hand through his sweatshirt. "Um... well, I feel like when the fight
comes I'll be ready." He grinned. "No matter what Coach tries to tell
me."

She didn't even smile. "But you're doing well? Sticking with the
training? Doing what Coach Mukaida tells you to do?"

He brought some noodles to his nose and breathed in deeply, allowing the
smell to reach the innermost recesses of his lungs. He let the breath
out slowly. "Yes. All that. I'm going to destroy Niiyama, just you
watch."

"Good." She released his forearm and went back to sipping her tea as a
bowl of beef ramen was placed on the counter in front of Kosaku.

"Beef." He dropped the shrimp noodles and neatly speared a strip of
beef. "It smells *so* good."

"It looks good."

Sister Angela sounded strange and distant. Kosaku frowned at her, the
beef momentarily forgotten. "What's wrong?"

She looked at him evenly for a moment. Then she reached into the pocket
of her habit and put something on the counter. "Here."

Kosaku looked down. It was a ticket. A ticket that, for the first
time, listed his name.

He looked up, startled. Sister Angela looked very unhappy. "I can't go
see you fight, Kosaku."

His heart caved in. "What?"

"I c-can't see you anymore." She looked down at her boots, evidently
unable to meet his gaze. "Not until after I've taken my vows."

He felt beyond the ability to do anything other than parrot. "Vows?"

"D-Didn't I tell you?" She smiled wanly, still looking down. "I'm
renewing my vows on Sunday. Two more years as a novice, and then I can
become a full Sister."

"A full sister." He blinked. "What does that have to do with you not
coming to the fight?"

She looked at him intently. "Do you know what my vows are?"

"Er..." He'd never thought about it. "Go with God and stuff like
that?"

"One of my vows is obedience. And Mother Abbess has asked me go without
sports for a week."

A kind of cold fear, coupled with a bit of anger, settled into his
stomach. "No sports? But... why?"

She looked down and licked her lips. "It's a test. As I strive to
become a woman religious, I must be prepared to make the necessary
sacrifices. And if I am to take my perpetual vows in two years, it must
be in the full knowledge that I can be true to them for the rest of my
life."

He reared back slightly. That had been some speech. "I... still don't
get it. Why should Mother Abbess care-"

"It doesn't matter *why*, Kosaku." Sister Angela looked back at him,
her eyes full on intensity. "Being obedient means trusting that my
superiors in the Church have my best interests in heart. If they think
that this is a necessary sacrifice, then they must be right."

Kosaku wasn't sure he liked that. "Do *you* think it's right?"

The flickering of her eyes was enough of an answer. "Kosaku, it's a
test of my faith. And I... cannot fail it. Not now, not before I have
to renew my vows. Do you understand?"

"No!" He dropped his chopsticks back into the beef bow. "I don't!
Sister... it's only five days to my fight. I need you. I can't... I
can't do it alone."

"Kosaku." She smiled bravely at him. "You're not alone. Don't forget
that God is with you."

The words left ashes in his heart. "God isn't enough, Sister Angela. I
need you, too."

She sighed. "You mustn't say such things. God is always enough. He is
the one who will be beside you all your life. For the next week, I
cannot be." She clasped her hands in front of her heart. "But I will
pray for you, Kosaku. I promise."

Prayer. Wonderful. He turned his head angrily aside. "Fine, whatever.
Abandon me, see if I care."

He heard a sharp intake of breath from beside him. He tried not to
turn, but he could still feel her glower. "Don't you dare do this.
Don't you dare give up." She climbed to her knees on the stool and
towered over him. "You're going to fight and knock Kiiyama out and
you'll do it because God is with you. Do you hear me!"

"How can't I hear you?" he found himself saying. "You're screaming in
my ear."

She spluttered. Somewhere in a cynical part of his brain, he made an
observation that for a nun, Sister Angela could get good and mad.
Finally she pushed herself off the stool and began to storm away.

The sight of her leaving caused something to tear in his gut. "Sister!"

She stopped but did not turn to face him.

He didn't know what to say. He cast wildly about. "You didn't say the
after-meal prayer with me."

She stood absolutely still, her hands clenched at her sides, for about
twenty seconds. Then she turned her head bowed, and came over to him.
Without looking at him she reached out. They clasped hands and she
began, her prayer voice a little strained. "We give Thee thanks for all
Thy benefits, Almighty God, who livest and reignest world without end.
Amen. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God,
rest in peace."

"Amen," he echoed with her.

She looked up into his face, still clasping his hands. "Good luck in
your match, Kosaku."

He nodded. "Thank you, Sister Angela."

She released her hands, then turned quickly, her habit swirling about
her. She walked just slowly enough not to be running.

Kosaku still had his hands in the position where they'd last touched
Sister Angela's. He didn't know what to do. How to feel. Sister
Angela was gone and she wouldn't be coming back until the single most
important event in his life to date was over.

Finally, he turned to look at the bowls of food still sitting in front
of him.

The chef was watching with a kind of idle interest. "Don't she usually
take the food wit' her? To give to the poor or sumtin'."

Kosaku nodded. He took a deep whiff, and was suddenly overcome with an
urge to lift the nearest bowl and pour it down his throat. He turned
savagely away. "Throw it out, I don't care."

"Well, I do. You gonna pay for that?"

Kosaku reached into the pocket of his sweatshirt and pulled out some
crumpled bills. "Here. Give it to the dogs or something."

The chef took his money without further comment. Kosaku hopped down
from the stool and walked away before his hands grabbed the food of
their own accord.

Good God, he was already losing control. How was he supposed to last
the next five days?

The betrayal raw in his gut, he ran.

---

Dear God, please be with Kosaku tonight. Help him to resist temptation,
to be strong, to keep his mind and body pure and prepared. Father in
Heaven, please watch over him.

The touch on her shoulder caused an irrational surge of anger to bubble
forth. Angela spent another thirty seconds asking forgiveness for that,
then crossed herself and stood up. "Yes, Mother Abbess?"

"You have been too long in the church." Mother Abbess indicated the
otherwise-empty pews. "It is time for bed."

"Yes, Mother Abbess." She ducked her head and made to leave.

"You went to see him tonight, didn't you?"

That stopped her short. "Yes, Mother Abbess."

Mother Abbess's voice sounded dangerous. "I told you not to."

"You asked me to take a vow. I did. During my evening meditation, I
vowed to stay away from all sports until after I have renewed my vows.
Just as you asked, Mother Abbess."

"I see." Mother Abbess walked around and put herself in front of
Angela. "You know, do you not, that you are rationalizing your
disobedience?"

"I obey, Mother Abbess," she said with a little more feeling then she
meant. "But I also needed to tell Ko- Hatanaka-san that I would be
unable to help him spiritually prepare for his next boxing match. As he
had come to depend on me for spiritual guidance, I felt it was my duty
as a Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to inform him of my vow
before I took it, so as not to leave him totally bereft."

Mother Abbess had this wonderful trick for looking at someone down the
length of her nose. It gave her a powerful and foreboding presense. "I
see you have thought long on this. And I also see that you decide
yourself how to carry out the commands I have given you."

Angela rallied herself, trying not to cower. "Did not the Holy Son
question the command to sacrifice himself? And yet he obeyed the will
of God, in his own way and in his own time."

"Such a prideful child, to compare yourself to Our Lord."

Angela felt her cheeks burn brightly. She dropped her gaze down to her
feet.

Mother Abbess continued relentlessly. "When you have taken your
perpetual vows and are a full sister of our order, then perhaps you can
decide best to obey the commands given you. But you are still a child,
and still need much guidance. Think hard on your vows, Sister Angela.
You must learn to obey without question, without reservation in your
heart and mind, if you are to become a woman religious. In the future,
come to me when you feel there is a conflict. We could have had another
of our sisters pass word to your young boxer, and you would not have
violated the spirit of the command I gave you."

With all her will she kept herself from shaking in shame. "Yes, Mother
Abbess."

"Be sure to mention your lapse at your next confessional."

"Yes, Mother Abbess."

"Good." A pause of a few seconds. "Angela, I *do* have your best
interests at heart. You *must* come to trust me. A wonderful life as a
woman religious awaits you if we can overcome the last of these trials
that have been set before you."

"Yes, Mother Abbess."

"Father in Heaven, I've turned you into a parrot. Come, child." Mother
Abbess put her arm around Angela and guided her towards the dormitory.
"It warmed my heart to see you praying so fervently. Such faith and
devotion is mighty in His eyes. You set a fine example to the other
novices, Angela." Her voice became warm and motherly. "And you make an
old Sister feel very, very good."

Angela managed a smile and leaned into the large presence of Mother
Abbess. She leaned her head on the older woman's shoulder, and took
strength and comfort from her.

God is surely here, Angela thought to herself. He is in this place, and
in this woman. I feel so warm and alive. This will be a wonderful life
here.

She let her worries drain away for the moment. She felt her smile
growing as peace settled over her, helping her through the night.

---

Kosaku stared at the hamburgers through the window. There were people
trying to eat the hamburgers, and he hated them for it. But they seemed
distracted by the way his face was pressed against the glass, and he was
able to stare in rapt fascination for almost two minutes.

Then someone hit him on the back of his head. "Stop that! Keep
running, boy!"

Kosaku turned to consider Coach. With every fiber of his being
screaming at him to run inside the restaurant and stuff into his mouth
the first vaguely edible thing he saw, he put one foot in front of the
other until he was doing a credible imitation of a man jogging behind
Coach's bicycle.

Coach, meantime, was moaning. "Two days before the fight, Kosaku. You
only have to last two more days. For God's sake, don't screw it up
now."

The Coach's admonition succeeded in getting Kosaku's mind off food, but
for an entirely unrelated reason. They made him think of Sister Angela,
and unfortunately that caused an entirely different kind of pain to
surface. He hadn't seen her in days. And it hurt. More and more his
focus was wavering without her steadying presence to guide him.

The aroma of noodles succeeded in getting his mind off Sister Angela.
He slowed to a halt, then wandered over to the cart, his mouth watering.
The chef smiled at him. "An order, sir?"

"Yes, and hurry!" He fumbled in his pockets.

"No!" Another blow to the back of his head, and this time it hurt.
Kosaku winced, then turned to jog behind the bicycle again.

Coach sighed. "You'll have to spend these last couple of nights in the
gym, that's all there is to it. I am not letting you out of my sight
until after the fight."

Kosaku frowned. He hadn't had to sleep in the gym in a long time. "Ah,
c'mon, Coach. Dontcha trust me?"

"Trust you!" Coach stopped the bicycle and turned to face Kosaku.
"Trust you? Let me ask you this, boy: Do you trust yourself?"

Kosaku closed his eyes. Ouch. Yet another cruel blow to his gut, and
he hadn't even stepped into the ring yet. His metaphysical knees were
wobbly, and he had most of the round to go yet.

Dammit, it just wasn't fair!

He opened his eyes and ran past a somewhat startled Coach. Coach called
out and followed on his bicycle. Kosaku ducked through the crowd and
down a street, picking up his pace. Coach wheeled after him, shouting
out angry interrogatives that Kosaku ignored.

It was only when the church loomed in the near horizon that Coach fell
silent. Kosaku ran through the gate and towards the nursery. He was
about to burst through the door when he remembered the children. He
spent a second schooling his features, then calmly pushed the door open.

The floor was crawling with children, as always. Many turned to look at
him. A few of the older ones shouted out his name in glee; he was - or
had been until very recently - a frequent visitor.

Two of the workers, both secular and paid by the church, looked askance
at him. Kosaku looked around and saw the door that lead to the offices.
He strode across the room, waving at the children, gently patting a boy
on the head as he rushed up to him. Kosaku spent a few seconds saying
hello to the boy, then stepped around him to the door.

He opened the door in time to see a set of white robes vanish through
the back door. Kosaku felt a brief surge of joy at the sight,
counterbalanced by the painful thought that she was running away from
him. He ran over to the back door, flung it open, practically flew
outside-

-and stopped dead in his tracks as an imposing figure in black stood
before him.

Kosaku stared at her for a few seconds, then stammered a greeting.
"M-mother Abbess."

"Hatanaka-san." She somehow managed to make his name sound like an
accusation. "What a pleasure it is to see you again."

Something about that made him afraid, and he converted the fear into
anger. "What the heck gives you the right to make Sister Angela stay
away from me! Dammit, I need to see her!" He moved to step around her.

With deceptive speed and uncanny accuracy, she latched onto his ear with
a grip not unlike a steel vice. He yelped in pain as she half-led,
half-dragged him across the yard. He recovered his balance enough to
walk with her, but was unable to think of a way to free himself. Other
than using some of his boxing skills on Mother Abbess, which was
unthinkable.

He was expecting to be led off the church grounds, and was somewhat
surprised when she took him inside the church and into a shared office
that he assumed was hers. She released her grip and sat behind the
desk, looking at him sharply. "Sit."

His knees reflexively buckled. He sat on a nearby chair and managed
something of a glower.

Mother Abbess regarded him coolly. "I hear that, despite losing to our
handyman, you have become quite the accomplished boxer."

His anger was tempered a little by puzzlement. That was an underhanded
compliment she had slipped through his defenses. "Er, thank you."

"And I understand our Sister Angela has helped you find your spiritual
balance and peace with God."

Not exactly, but close enough. "She's been great. And I don't
understand why-"

"And now, perhaps," she cut him off smoothly, "it is time for you to
stand on your own and be judged by your own merits."

The anger returned. He worked his jaw for a few seconds, trying to
articulate a reply. "It's not fair that you just take her away from me
like that. This is an important fight I've got, and I need all the help
I can get."

Mother Abbess nodded serenely. "That I can understand. The Lord did
not intend for everyone to shoulder their burdens alone. If you would
like, I could hear your confession and suggest prayers that might
strengthen your faith for the battle to come."

Kosaku looked her up and down. She was large and wide, quite an
imposing figure of a woman. And he had trouble even thinking of her as
a woman; she was a *nun*. "I... it's, uh... Sister Angela that I've...
she's the one who's been helping me."

"I understand that you want Sister Angela. But you must understand,
there are needs here that are more important. Sister Angela is going to
renew her vows on Sunday. She must undergo her own test of faith, and
strengthen her own resolve."

Mother Abbess leaned forward and impaled Kosaku with her stare. "You
must give up your prideful and selfish claim on Sister Angela. Her
needs are more important than your silly boxing match." She overrode
the objection he tried to make. "I know it is important to you. But
think on it, young man - this is Sister Angela's life we talk of. She
has to become strong in her faith if she is to become a full-fledged
Sister. And, Hatanaka-san, I don't know if you truly understand this -
she wants to be a nun. She sat where you are now just a few days ago
and spoke of how much she looks forward to giving her perpetual vows.
She very much wants to be a nun for the rest of her life."

Kosaku looked back at Mother Abbess. Her words had no meaning. Utter
nonsense, how could... Sister Angela was just... she couldn't *really*
want...

He couldn't finish the sentence, even in his head. Because he knew. He
knew Mother Abbess was right. Sister Angela *did* want to be a nun,
more than anything else.

He slumped in his chair, the knowledge overwhelming him.

Mother Abbess did not sound entirely unsympathetic. "My son, you must
move on with your life. If you truly seek spiritual balance, I know of
many sisters who would be glad to help you find it. Even Father James
would be an excellent instructor for you. But I think you must agree
that Sister Angela is not the right one for you to seek this guidance
from. Because there is a certain... lack of sincerity that accompanies
your faith. You do not worship God, you worship Sister Angela's God."

Stop it, for crying out loud. You've got me against the ropes, I'm
throwing in the towel. He stood, finding his legs surprisingly
unsteady. "I... gotta get back to training."

Mother Abbess nodded. "Good luck, Hatanaka-san. I sincerely hope you
find peace. Let us know if we can help."

He turned away from her and shuffled out the door. He moved unseeing
through the church grounds until he somehow found himself outside,
standing in front of Coach's bicycle.

Coach looked extremely irritated. "Are you done now, boy?"

Kosaku nodded miserably.

Coach looked like he wanted to say something, then grimaced and changed
his mind. "Let's get back to work," was all he said.

Kosaku began jogging, slowly, only speeding up at Coach's insistence.
At one point they passed right next to a noodle cart. Kosaku stared at
the food, finding something strange about it. Only after passing the
cart did he realize that, for the first time in his life, he wasn't
hungry.

---

Sister Angela peeked around the corner and watched Kosaku leave. He
looked utterly dejected. She felt a terrible sadness with just a touch
of anger at the sight. The fool should have known better than to try
and fight Mother Abbess.

She waited for a few seconds, then ran to the gate. She watched Kosaku
jog away. There was no life to his movement, no enthusiasm for the
work; he seemed nothing more than an automaton. That, more than
anything, made her feel awful.

"Sister Angela." Mother Abbess's voice was not really accusatory,
merely conversational. "Don't you have duties in the nursery?"

Angela looked up at Mother Abbess. A sudden, terrible anger welled in
her, and she trembled just once, her hands tightening around the bars
they held. After a few seconds it passed, and she released the gate.
"Yes, Mother Abbess." She bowed her head, then whirled and ran off.

And her mind whirled. It wasn't fair, it wasn't fair, it wasn't FAIR!
Kosaku was alone and miserable, and needed someone to help him. She
could get him out of it, she just knew it. But because Mother Abbess
had ordered that stupid vow, she couldn't go anywhere near him. It
wasn't fair.

She rushed inside the nursery and to the back office, thankful for once
that it was her turn to take care of some of the administrative tasks.
She sat over the ledge, picked up a pen, and held it over the paper.
Heavenly Father, forgive me my anger. I know this is a test of my
faith, and that Mother Abbess is doing what she thinks best for me.
I'll try to see that, and not focus on how unfair it is that she makes
Kosaku feel so bad, I'll-

She cut off her prayer; it was not a worthy one. She glanced at the
column of figures, looked over at the pile of bills, picked one up,
looked at it, then shot to her feet, the chair falling over behind her.

Somehow, she found herself on her bicycle, pedaling for all she was
worth. She wasn't going to disobey exactly, she told herself. But
Kosaku needed her help, and it was only Christian of her to offer it.

---

Kosaku hit the bag twice, ducked, threw two more punches, moved his head
to the side, threw two more punches...

"Enough." Coach released the bag and watched as Kosaku fell onto his
seat. "That was a good session. You kept your punches nice and high.
Well done."

Kosaku drew in deep breaths and stared at the ground listlessly.

"Kosaku." Coach sounded disturbed. Kosaku looked up at him. "You
gotta snap out of it."

Kosaku shrugged and looked away.

"You're punching like a robot." Coach now sounded a little frustrated.
"No fire in your belly. You have to remember to have fun out there. If
Kiiyama sense any weakness or hesitancy on your part, he'll exploit it.
And then where will you be?"

Kosaku shrugged again.

"Ah." Coach threw up his hands. "I give up. Bed time anyway."

Kosaku removed his gloves and took a quick shower while Coach prepared
the futon. Kosaku entered the ring and flopped onto his back, staring
at the ceiling, feeling sleep was miles away.

Coach lay next to him. He tossed and turned for a few minutes before he
abruptly sat up. "Here. I wasn't sure if I should give these to you."

Kosaku turned his head and looked at him. Coach was holding a cross on
a chian and a piece of paper.

Kosaku sat up so suddenly his head spun. He grabbed the items from
Coach and stared at the cross. Just like the others Sister Angela had
given him. He felt his heart pounding as he examined the familiar
details of the figure on the cross.

He examined the paper. It appeared to be a bill for various office
supplies. Including crayons and construction paper. Kosaku stared at
it, puzzled.

Coach sounded tired. "Other side, idiot."

Kosaku turned it over to find Sister Angela's familiar flowing script.

Be strong in your training. God will be with you
in the ring. As will I, in spirit. Wear this cross
and remember your faith. I pray for you daily.
-Angela

Kosaku crumbled the paper in his hand, overcome by emotion. She hadn't
forgotten him, hadn't forsaken him. She still thought about him.

He took the chain and put it around his neck. He lay down again, one
hand clutching the cross. He quickly fell asleep, thinking all the
while about Sister Angela.

---

Dear God in Heaven, please be with your lamb, Kosaku, during his fight
tonight. Let the strength of his faith be reflect in the strength of
his arm. Help him to find You in the purity of his pursuit and the
passion of his calling. Let not my absence tonight distract him, Lord.
Let him know that I am with him and am praying for him. I ask this in
the name of Jesus Christ, Our Lord.

And Heavenly Father, help him kick Kiiyama's butt. Amen.

---

"And in this corner, weighing in at 125 pounds, with a record of eight
and eight, with seven knockouts, from the Mukaida Gym... Hanataka
Kosaku!"

Kosaku lifted a glove and waved at the crowd, who gave him scattered
light applause. There were a lot more people than we was used to. Most
were here for the main event, to take place after his match. Still,
this was the closest to the main event he'd ever gotten.

It felt good.

He went out to the center of the ring and received his instructions.
Then he went to his corner and sat on the stool as Coach talked rapidly
and intensely. "Okay, Kiiyama used to be the number five contender
before he lost his last match. He needs this win to get back into the
top ten, so he'll be after a quick and decisive victory. Stay away from
him this round, just block and retreat, counterpunching only when you
have an opening. Don't be so passive that you lose the round, but don't
trade blows with him either - he has a strong jab and a devastating
uppercut. Remember, our plan is to get him into the later rounds and
finish him there."

Kosaku nodded. He felt Ishida, the Coach's assistant and one of his
corner men, lift the cross from around his neck. Kosaku stood as the
bell rang and crossed himself. For you, Sister Angela.

He made his way cautiously to the center. Kiiyama came out jabbing,
quick and deceptively hard punches that Kosaku blocked or avoided.
Kiiyama kept pressing and Kosaku kept falling back, giving ground but
not allowing himself to be backed into a corner.

Then Kiiyama launched an impressive flurry of blows. Kosaku, in one
corner of his brain, admired the other boxer's handwork. Quite
technically proficient. The best boxer he had faced yet. He blocked
most of the blows, got a glancing jab to his shoulder and responded with
a solid punch to the gut. They separated, the audience giving them an
encouraging cheer.

Nothing else significant happened the rest of the round, and the bell
rang.

Kosaku sat down and Coach shouted words of encouragement. "Good, very
good. Keep it up. Don't forget your footwork as you retreat. He seems
to be trying for your jaw, so keep your guard up."

The next two rounds were pretty much repeats of the first, Kosaku
retreating, Kiiyama pursuing, the occasional quick flurry being
exchanged. Kosaku heard the occasional shout from the crowd - "Stop
running away, coward!" "Stand up and fight!" - but he had learned long
ago to ignore them. His own sense was that the fight was going well -
more often than not, he came out ahead in the exchanges.

He sat down in his corner, trying to gauge his reserve. Time was that
the third round was the halfway point - and actually, many of his fights
had been over by this point. Long fights were much more tactical
affairs, as Coach had said - picking the time for your attack, waiting
for the opponent to drop his guard.

The fourth round saw Kiiyama come charging in right after the bell.
Kosaku was caught off guard and took several hits before he was able to
get Kiiyama into a clinch. The referee separated them and Kiiyama
charged in again. Kosaku was able to defend a little better this time,
although his jaw ached from the shots it had taken. The crowd, sensing
a kill, began to cheer a little loudly as Kiiyama relentlessly pressed
his attack. Kosaku had to clinch three more times - the last drawing a
warning from the referee - before the round ended.

Coach, predictably, was furious. "Always keep your guard up! And he
was leaving himself open, but you didn't attack his openings!
Concentrate, Kosaku! Don't just let yourself get hit; *box*!"

Kosaku got to his feet, feeling a little refreshed. Kiiyama bounded
into the ring, eager to attack. Kosaku gave way, letting Kiiyama pursue
him. Kiiyama launched another flurry, and Kosaku managed to block most
of it, then throw a hard punch to Kiiyama's ribs. Kiiyama hesitated a
moment, feeling the force of the blow, and Kosaku launched his own
flurry. Suddenly it was Kiiyama retreating as Kosaku rained blows on
him, Kiiyama clinching as a way to buy time.

Kosaku danced back as the referee separated them, experiencing a new
kind of rush - the crowd cheering his efforts, appreciating his skill.
The referee ordered them to box again and Kosaku quickly closed on
Kiiyama. He landed one, two blows to the gut-

And suddenly his world reeled. The thump he heard was probably that of
his body hitting the canvas, but he was a little beyond feeling at the
moment. He was vaguely aware of someone counting, and sheer panic got
him back to his feet. The referee looked into his eyes and asked if he
was okay. Kosaku nodded despite feeling a little wobbly. And more than
a little frightened. He'd never even seen the uppercut that had decked
him.

The crowd was still cheering, but Kosaku found no pleasure in it.

Kiiyama pressed his attack, and Kosaku had little left in him other than
retreat and clinch. Fortunately, the round came to an end.

Coach was livid. "Did I tell you to attack? Did I say it was time to
go after him? That was pathetic! Keep your guard up! Counterpunch
only! Keep away from him this round. He'll try for the knockout. You
can't let yourself be hit. He's expending more energy than you are.
Get past this round and we'll have the match. And clinch only when you
need to; we can't afford to lose a point."

Kosaku stood, more than a little alarmed at how much effort it took.
Kiiyama advanced, grinning confidently. The other boxer abandoned all
pretense at defense, instead launching a furious offensive. Kosaku
blocked it as best he could, his arms beginning to feel heavy, aching
from shoulders to knuckles. He was forced quickly into a clinch, which
received another stern warning from the referee.

Kiiyama came at him again, and Kosaku's whole world became block,
retreat, block, retreat. The attack was relentless and he felt himself
buckling. Then something pressed against his back. The ropes.
Suddenly he had nowhere else to go, and the blows starting coming faster
and harder. Kosaku did his best to block those he could, but some were
landing, and he was beginning to see red, his knees were beginning to
weaken...

..and then he lashed out, hitting Kiiyama solidly in the gut. It was
hard enough to make Kiiyama take a step back. Kosaku knew he should get
off the ropes, but he legs did not want to cooperate. Fortunately the
bell rang.

Kosaku staggered back to his corner. He wanted the fight to be over.
What round was it? The eighth? He looked up at the display, to see
that they'd only finished six. Four more rounds to go. Kosaku was
fairly certain he wasn't going to last that long.

Coach sounded a bit subdued. "Good defense, but you have to do more
counterpunching. He's killing us on the scorecards. Look for your
openings and take them. We can't afford another round like the last
one."

Kosaku felt something like despair. Coach expected him to be capable of
rational thought and intelligent boxing. Kosaku was wondering if he
would remember how to stand up when the bell rang.

Ishida leaned in and spoke into his ear. "That last blow hurt him. I
could see it in his eyes. He's beginning to wind down. He may take
some desperate shots this round. Be patient and you'll have him."

Kosaku nodded. The bell rang and he stumbled to his feet. Kiiyama, he
noted, did not have the confident grin anymore. But he still stalked
purposefully after Kosaku. He threw three left jabs, one snapping
Kosaku's head back, then let fly with an uppercut. Kosaku moved aside,
let the blow fly past, then threw a hard left at Kiiyama's face. It
landed, and Kiiyama staggered back.

Kosaku didn't pursue, instead appreciating the seconds of rest he had
while Kiiyama gathered himself. Kiiyama approached him again, this time
a little more cautiously. He tried more jabs, but this time Kosaku
managed to block them, retreating backwards. Then Kiiyama stepped in
quickly and launched another uppercut. Kosaku sidestepped it, brought
his left hand to bear...

..and fell to the canvas. He stared at the ring in a daze,
appreciative of Kiiyama's technique. The uppercut had been a feint.
He'd never met anyone who could feint an uppercut so well. Kiiyama's
right hand had connected with the point of his chin. Already Kosaku
could feel his face swelling. This was not good.

Coach was screaming something, and Kosaku convulsively got to his hands
and knees. With a supreme effort he got to his feet, wondering if he'd
beat the count. Evidently he had; the referee reached over to grasp his
gloves. He gave Kosaku a hard look. Kosaku returned the gaze, nodding.
The referee hesitated a moment, then released Kosaku's gloves and
indicated that the fight should continue.

Kiiyama's grin was back. He reached back and threw a haymaker, a
brawling bunch with no technique behind it. Kosaku ducked under it and
threw two shots to Kiiyama's gut. Kiiyama staggered back and fell to
one knee. The referee immediately waved Kosaku to a neutral corner.
Kosaku complied, sucking in air as best he could.

Kiiyama continued to kneel as the referee counted. An old technique,
Kosaku knew - Kiiyama was buying resting time while he could. When the
count reached eight, he stood up. The referee quickly told them to
resume boxing.

They circled each other warily. Kiiyama tried a couple of jabs which
Kosaku easily avoided. Kosaku tried no attacks of his won, and the
round ended.

The Coach and Ishida worked on him in silence. Kosaku felt weary to his
bones. This was beyond reasonable. He couldn't get up ever again; it
hurt too much.

Yet when the bell rang he found himself on his feet and approaching
Kiiyama. Kiiyama, he noted, was visibly breathing. Some part of his
brain tried to tell him this was a good sign, but he couldn't figure out
what to do with the knowledge.

For a minute they circled each other, the crowd growing frustrated with
the lack of action, until the referee warned them to start boxing.
Kiiyama stepped in and threw a few jabs. Kosaku felt one connect.
Almost reflexively he counterpunched to Kiiyama's gut. Kiiyama's eyes
widened and he quickly retreated.

Kosaku decided to take a step forward, and Kiiyama took a step back.
Kosaku liked that. He took another step forward and Kiiyama retreated
again. What a joy in the feeling. He spent the rest of the round
playing the game, fending off the occasional jab from Kiiyama.

Coach broke the silence in the corner. "Okay, now you start attacking.
Go after him, he's out of energy."

"Go for the gut," Ishida urged. "He's afraid of being hit there."

Coach nodded. "We need some points, maybe even a knockout. You have to
start scoring."

Kosaku looked wearily up at the scoreboard. Round nine. He'd never
gone this far before. How did people do it?

He stood as the bell rang. He moved towards Kiiyama and saw him adopt a
defensive posture. Obviously he'd been told to protect his lead.
Kosaku began throwing his own jabs, although he had precious little
force behind them.

Summoning up the last of his reserves, he launched an attack. Three
blows to the body, blocked by Kiiyama. A jab to Kiiyama's face,
connecting, bring his guard up. Another blow to the gut, quickly
blocked. And then a hard right to the side of Kiiyama's jaw, and
Kiiyama stumbled and fell.

Kosaku went to the corner, watching, praying. Kiiyama was blinking,
shaking his head. The count reached four, five. Kiiyama pushed himself
off the mat. Seven, eight. Kiiyama got to his feet and nodded at the
referee.

Kosaku stepped out of the corner, bitterly disappointed. He simply had
no energy left. He approached Kiiyama and tried a jab, surprised at
just how slow he was moving. Kiiyama ducked under it. Kosaku stepped
in, threw two more glacial punches aimed at Kiiyama's gut. They missed,
and Kiiyama threw another uppercut. It too was slow, almost laughably
so. Kosaku had plenty of time to see it coming before it connected and
he fell.

Almost immediately the bell rang. Coach and Ishida were quickly beside
him, dragging him to his feet. He fell onto the stool, completely
beyond moving for himself.

"Kosaku!" Coach was yelling in his ear. "You have to go for the
knockout. Do you understand? The knockout! He's just about finished,
one good punch will do it! You can still win this fight!"

Win? Who was thinking about winning? He just wanted to survive. He
stared dumbly at Coach, then managed to speak. "Steak?"

"Yes!" Coach seemed to take heart at this. "Win and I'll buy you a
steak dinner, as big as you want, that's a promise!"

For some reason that didn't make him feel any better. He continued to
stare numbly at Coach. Then the bell rang. He was more or less pushed
to his feet by Ishida, and he managed to get to the center of the ring
to touch gloves with Kiiyama. Final round.

They stood there, staring at each other. This was not good, he thought.
Kiiyama doesn't have to do a thing and he'll win. I gotta knock him
out. If I do, I'll win. If I win, I'll have steak. Steak. Great
stuff. With baked potato. And butter. And onion rings.

His mouth failed at all to water.

His arms were pure lead, his body one massive bruise, his legs made of
wet noodles. He had nothing, nothing at all, no energy, no will.

And, for the first time since the match began, he thought of Angela.

Kosaku lifted his right glove. With it, he touched himself on the
forehead, than the sternum. Left shoulder, right shoulder.

For you, Sister Angela.

He moved in towards Kiiyama. He drew his glove back and threw a punch.
Kiiyama blocked it. Not hard, since Kosaku had thrown it right at his
chest. Kosaku followed with his left hand, a little higher. Kiiyama
blocked it again. Higher, aiming at Kiiyama's jaw now. Kiiyama bobbed
to the side and tried a counterpunch, but Kosaku avoided it easily.
Another punch to the face, another block.

Then Kosaku ducked slightly and threw a hard punch at Kiiyama's gut.
Kiiyama desperately tried to avoid it and ended up falling over
backwards in the effort. It counted as a knockdown, and Kosaku went to
the corner. Kiiyama, despite not having been touched, had trouble
getting back to his feet. But he did. Kosaku glanced up at the clock.
One minute to go. He had to hurry.

He quickly moved in. He threw three punches to Kiiyama's face. One got
through, and Kiiyama staggered. Kosaku stepped in, ducked, threw a
punch at Kiiyama's gut, connected...

..and Kiiyama somehow worked a counterpunch in. Kosaku felt the blow
to his chin and staggered. Blackness claimed him.

---

Sister Angela paced furiously around the room, wringing her hands.

Two days it had been. Saturday had been pure torture. She had
desperately wanted to read a newspaper, call up the gym, *something*.
But she'd had to stick to her vow. She'd been distracted all day,
unable to focus, wanting to *know*.

But she couldn't. All because of the stupid vow.

Angela quickly crossed herself. Sorry, Father. It's not a stupid vow.
Mother Abbess must know what she's doing. Even if she is still human
and capable of making mistakes and enforcing stupid vows-

Angela crossed herself again.

Obey, she had to obey, she had no choice. It was in her vows. And now,
in a few minutes, she would have to renew those vows. She would have to
swear to God Almighty that she would obey. Obey even when the vows were
stupid and pointless and mean.

Angela clasped her hands and squeezed her eyes shut. God, help me. I
must have faith that this is for the best.

She was desperately afraid, however. Desperately afraid that when she
was asked to obey she wouldn't be able to take the vow. Because some
commands were stupid. Why'd she have to abandon someone who needed her?
He might need her right now, he might have lost and be depressed. He
might need her guidance, but she couldn't go see him because of the vow.
Oh Lord, he might kill himself, and it will all be Mother Abbess's fault
because she told me not to have any contact with him.

Angela's hands made the crossing motion again. Her thoughts were
running away with her. Kosaku wouldn't kill himself, of course not.
But he *really* might need her help. And she couldn't. Because she had
to obey.

Had he won or hadn't he? She needed to know. She *desperately* needed
to know.

She tried her best to still herself. The vows were given for a reason.
Sometimes things happened, and they seemed inexplicable, but you had to
have faith that they happened for a reason. God tests us, every day.
She needed to understand that. She needed to know that obeying commands
blindly was one of the sacrifices she was going to have to make. It
would strengthen her faith, make her a better person, allow her faith to
shine and inspire others.

She *had* to obey all the rules. Even the stupid ones.

Angela lifted her head, feeling something almost like peace. She still
wasn't completely happy. But perhaps she would be able to swear to obey
now. If she could say the words, then she knew she would have passed
this test. Her words were her oath, and she'd never be able to speak
them if she didn't really mean them.

Have faith, Angela, she told herself. Have faith in God, have faith in
yourself.

One of the other sisters poked her head in. "It's time."

Angela nodded and folded her hands. She walked into the church, where
Father James stood next to Mother Abbess. They watched her silently,
and she returned their gazes with as much serenity as she could,
although it hurt a little to look at Mother Abbess.

The ceremony began. Prayers were made, Sister Angela joining the other
sisters in giving thanks to God. Then Father James spoke the same words
he'd spoken three years ago, talking about the life of service and
sacrifice, the holy calling that led to a rewarding and fulfilling life.
Sister Angela barely paid attention, rehearsing the words in her mind.
Obedience. She had to say the word. Obedience. To say it was to mean
it. She had to have faith. Trust. Obey.

Then Father James nodded at Mother Abbess. She called Angela forward.
Mother Abbess looked somewhere between impassive and encouraging.

Mother Abbess spoke, her voice resonating strongly throughout the
church. "We Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, rejoice
in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ, who joins us to himself and to
all others in his Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. By membership
in this congregation, we seek to grow in friendship and union with the
Lord and to share in his redeeming mission. Sister Angela."

Angela clasped the cross around her neck. It was time, and she felt
God's eyes upon her, watching closely. She fought to get the words out.
"Trusting in the grace the Lord has given me, I am firmly resolved for
the glory of God to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ as perfectly as
possible. With all my heart I entrust myself to this religious family,
that through the operation of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of
the Blessed and Immaculate Virgin Mary and all the saints, and with the
support of my sisters, I may fulfill my consecration in the service of
God and the Church."

That was the easy part. She drew a deep breath. "Therefore," - here it
comes - "in the presence of the community of my sisters," - you can do
it, you can say it, you can mean it - "I vow to God" - God is watching,
have faith, have faith - "to live in-" she paused, a split second, a
second that lasted forever, her whole life hanging in the
balance -"obedience..."

She'd said it. The words had come out and she'd meant them. She felt a
smile begin to form as relief washed over her. She had passed the test,
she had done it. She had more words to say, and she hastened to get
them out. "...poverty, and-"

Suddenly her throat closed and the words dried up. Her eyes widened as
panic filled her. Nonsensically, only one thing flashed across her
mind. Uh oh.

Angela adjusted her grip on the cross and tried again. "To live in
obedience, poverty, and-"

Nothing. The panic grew, and she felt the stares of everyone on her.
Her whole life was tumbling, crashing, splintering. She drew in breath
and spoke, the words tremulous. "O-obedience, pov-poverty and..."

The silence stretched on and on as Angela gasped to get the words out.
They wouldn't come. It didn't matter that it meant her whole life was
over. They wouldn't come.

She doubled over, still clutching her cross, feeling the tears become to
come.

She felt arms wrap themselves around her shoulders. "Please excuse us,
Father." Mother Abbess led her out of the church as she began to sob.

Outside, Angela collapsed. She grabbed Mother Abbess's habit and sobbed
into it. "No, no, I have to go back in, I have to, I have to renew my
vow!"

Mother Abbess knelt next to her. "Angela, do you have faith in Our Lord
and feel a desire to serve Him?"

"Yes! More than anything, only..." She looked up at Mother Abbess,
realization forcing more sobs out of her. "I love him!"

"I know, Angela. It is through your love for God that you were called.
Now, however, you must-"

"No, no, no." Angela had to keep herself from shaking Mother Abbess.
"I don't mean Him, I mean *him*!"

Mother Abbess blinked at Angela for a few seconds, then her brow
cleared. "Ah. You mean your young boxer."

Angela buried her face in Mother Abbess's habit. "What am I supposed to
do? How am I supposed to feel?"

"Angela." Mother Abbess sounded puzzled. "What have you been thinking
about this past week? I thought you understood that this was a test of
your vow of chastity."

"No, Mother Abbess." Angela couldn't help the bitterness. "I didn't
understand at all. I spent all week thinking about him, wanting to be
with him, to help him, to-" Her voice caught and she looked up at
Mother Abbess. "I was struggling to obey your command without truly
understanding *why* it was difficult to obey."

Mother Abbess nodded. "So now you understand. With that understanding
in mind, can you take your vows?"

Angela stared at Mother Abbess for a long while, then dropped her head
and began to sob again.

"Oh child." Mother Abbess sounded infinitely sad. "If I had known this
was going to happen... Angela, you know that you cannot stay here unless
you give your vow."

With a violent shove Angela pushed herself away from Mother Abbess. She
ran across the yard, half-blinded by tears. Of course she couldn't
stay, she was unworthy, she'd been test and found wanting, and now God
had no use for her.

As she ran she took the veil off her head. She stumbled into her cell
and looked around. She had very few belongings, of course. Not even a
suitcase. She looked into her wardrobe. Almost nothing secular, she
wore habits exclusively, no need for anything else. She had one very
old dress, the one she'd worn when she first came to the convent four
years ago. She quickly undressed, almost tearing the habit off of her.
The dress felt foreign and strange, and she convulsed into sobs again as
she tried her best to fasten it. She formed an ersatz bag with one of
her habits and threw her belongings in it.

When she was done she looked around the cell, her home for four years,
the place she'd expected to spend the rest of her life in. And it was
too much, and she fell on the bed, crying again.

It was gone, it was all gone, her whole life. She'd known what she was
going to do, she'd had it planned carefully since she was a little girl,
and it had all come to nothing. Ruined, she was utterly ruined.

A noise made her look up. Mother Abbess stood in the doorway, her
expression one of sympathy. Angela sat up on the bed and Mother Abbess
sat next to her. "Here."

Angela took the enveloped Mother Abbess offered. Inside was a money. A
lot of money. She looked up, startled.

Mother Abbess spoke calmly. "It's your dowry."

"B-but Mother Abbess!" She held out the envelope. "I g-gave this of my
own free will when I joined. I... I have no right to it."

"Take it, child. You will need it. When you are settled, perhaps you
can think of ways you might repay it."

Angela slowly let her hand fall into her lap. "M-mother Abbess, I'm
sorry that I f-failed you."

"You haven't failed, child." Mother Abbess spoke plainly, with a kind
of cautious empathy Angela had never heard from her before. "It may
simply be that this is not your calling."

"Oh Mother Abbess." The tears began to flow again. "How could I let
this happen? How... how can I throw my whole life away because of one
man?"

"Angela..." Mother Abbess paused, then sighed. "We all find different
ways to serve the Lord. And the Lord does sanction the marriage of man
and woman." Mother Abbess smiled. "He has to; how can he have
followers if he does not?"

"Is... is that my whole life then?" Angela wanted to shout, wanted to
scream, but kept her voice quiet. "To be so dependant on one man that I
shut out God and everything else?"

"Of course not, dear. Please don't be obtuse." There was no rancor in
Mother Abbess's words. "You can still serve God. You know as well as I
how much the Church depends on volunteers, people who are not called to
service but still assist in the Lord's work."

Mother Abbess paused, her face thoughtful. "Angela, your faith is
strong. Very strong. Do not think for one moment that your faith is
diminished because you love this young man. It is possible to love God
and man at the same time."

She produced a piece of paper. "Here. I've written the address of a
young married couple. The wife attends services here, and she does
wonderful volunteer work. Her husband is a chiropractor and a fine
young man himself. I've talked to them and they've agreed to let you
live with them until you have found a place for yourself." Mother
Abbess looked at Angela closely. "Watch them, child. Watch how they
love each other and God. You could learn from them."

Angela looked at the paper and took it with little enthusiasm.
Volunteer work sounded so empty compared to the life of service she was
supposed to be living. She stood up and carried her bag with both arms.
She walked towards the door of the cell.

"Angela." She turned to look at Mother Abbess. "Please know that our
doors are always open. If you feel prepared to take your vows, we will
welcome you back gladly. And even if you don't, please do attend
services and drop in once a while to talk with an old woman who will
miss you terribly."

Almost despite herself, the words moved Angela. She set her bag down
and walked back over to Mother Abbess. They hugged for a long time, and
Mother Abbess muttered a prayer.

Angela turned away, picked up her bag, and left the convent.

She looked at the address on the piece of paper. She sighed, nodded to
herself, and strode off into the city.

---

Kosaku slowly climbed the stairs to his apartment, completely worn out.
His whole body ached from the fight two days ago. Coach had spent the
last several hours doing what he could, but right now the best he could
do was take it easy and let his body heal. And he planned to do exactly
that. It was rather late, and he craved sleep.

He walked down the hallway, stepping over someone sitting against a
door. He looked around, blinked, then turned. The door was his own.
The someone was a young woman in a dress that was a little too small for
her. She had been reading a book but she was looking at him now.
Closely-cropped dark hair, large brown eyes, a beautiful face, a cute
body.

He looked at the book she was reading. A bible. As he'd expected. He
knew this woman.

Kosaku swallowed. "Hello, Sister Angela."

She smiled at him, then picked up a folded newspaper lying at her side.
"On the undercard, Hatanaka Kosaku defeated Kiiyama Hikaru by knockout
in the tenth round. Hatanaka impressed the fans with his fine boxing
skills and stamina, managing to overcome three knockdowns and drop
Kiiyama in the final round, sagging against the ropes as the former
contender was counted out. Look for Hatanaka to begin moving up the
rankings despite his mediocre record." She beamed at him. "You did
very well, I see."

"Th-thanks." He reached inside his shirt and brought out the cross he
wore around his neck. "I couldn't've done it without you."

Her smile faded as she stared soberly at the cross. She stood, picking
up a bundle of cloth that looked like one of her habits wrapped around
something. "May I speak with you?"

"S-sure." He unlocked the door and led her inside, looking around to
see that the place was relatively neat. "What's on your mind, Sister?"

"I've left the convent."

He froze in the process of closing the door. Slowly, very slowly, he
turned around to stare at her. "Y-you what?"

"Left the convent." She looked troubled. "And I didn't know what to
do, so I came here."

"D-... d-..." He mentally kicked himself. "Do you need a place to
stay?"

"Actually, yes." She looked around. "May I stay here tonight?"

"Hell yes! I mean..." He clamped his mouth shut, then started again.
"Yes, please, stay as long as you need."

"Thank you." She walked over to where his sleeping mat was folded
against the wall. "Do you have a spare?"

"Er..." A spare? "No."

"Ah. Well, I'll sleep on the floor then. It won't be any harder than
my bed was back at the convent." She began to lay out the futon.

"Er... you know, we could-"

She looked over her shoulder at him, one eyebrow raised. "I trust you,
Kosaku. Enough to know how much you understand that sex outside of
marriage is a sin."

"It is? I mean, yeah, of course." He blinked as she smiled and went
back to preparing the futon. "Why'd you leave the convent?"

She froze in place, not looking at him. "You."

For some reason he was expecting a different answer. "Me?"

"You." She stood and walked up to him, looking up at his face. "I left
because I love you and could not swear an oath of chastity."

The words hit him like a hammer. He looked deeply into her eyes, trying
to figure out how to respond. "But you said sex was a sin."

She smiled. "I said sex outside of marriage was a sin."

That did it. He retreated into a full-blown panic. "Wh-what... I... I
never said... we... it's not like I... that is..."

She chuckled. "Silly. I'm not saying that I want us to be married.
I'm saying that I love you, and that until I decide how I'm going to
deal with that, I've left the convent." She fixed him with a hard look.
"I may go back, you know."

The words finally got through to him. "I... I hope not. I mean...
I'd... like to find out too what... how we... you and I..."

Her smile returned. "Say it, Kosaku. Say it and mean it."

He swallowed. "I love you, Angela."

She closed her eyes. "Chieko."

"What?"

"My name is Chieko." Her eyes fluttered open, and he could see pain in
them. "Angela would have been my name if I'd become a full Sister."

Kosaku's personal reality had been violently reshaped several times in
the past minute or so. Finding out that the woman he'd been attracted
to for two years had another name was... weird. "Chieko."

She nodded. "I... liked Angela. But I can't... let myself..." She
drew in a sharp breath. "It still hurts, Kosaku. A lot. This love, it
had better be worth-"

He drew her in and kissed her.

For a few seconds she froze stiffly in his arms, rather like the only
other time he'd kissed her before. Then slowly, incrementally, she
relaxed. Slowly, she began to kiss him back.

After she'd gone limp he released the kiss and gazed into her eyes. The
futon was nearby, it wouldn't take much urging, he could see the desire
in her eyes, he'd simply suggest-

And in her eyes, along with the desire, he saw fear. Real fear. She
was terribly frightened.

He could guess why.

Kosaku mentally stilled himself. He *did* love her, dammit. And that
meant that he couldn't do anything that would hurt her. "I... think we
need to take this very slowly."

He saw gratitude flare in her eyes, and knew that he'd done the right
thing.

Angela - Chieko - stepped away from him. "I think I need to get to bed.
I... it's been a long day."

"Yeah. But you take the futon. I got some dirty clothes I can sleep
on."

"Thank you, Kosaku. I know this is an imposition. Tomorrow I'll move
in with some friends of the church until I can find my own place." She
untied her habit, and he saw various items spill out onto the floor.
"Would you turn around for a minute?"

He did, hearing her undress. He looked down at the small mirror he had
propped up on a small table. He tried to angle his head to get the
right view, but she was too fast. "Okay."

He turned to see her in a full-length nightgown. She smiled at him. "I
want to thank you, Kosaku. It means a lot to me that... you
understand."

"Um... you're welcome." He decided to try some of that sharing stuff
himself. "You've, uh, been my inspiration for the longest time. My
boxing career - heck, my whole life - got turned around because of you.
Thanks."

She smiled widely, her eyes watering. She shook herself and wiped them
dry. "Good night."

"Uh, yeah. Good night." He went across the room - as far as he could,
anyway - and emptied his hamper. He rearranged the clothes as best he
could, then lay gingerly on them. He turned his head and saw Angela -
Chieko, he had to try and remember - kneeling beside the futon. Her
back was ramrod stiff, her head bowed, her hands clasped in front of
her. She wasn't moving at all; he had the feeling she could hold that
position for hours.

He studied her, realizing that he was going to be seeing her do this a
lot. Convent or no, Sister or no, she was deeply religious. She truly
believed, and would expect him to believe with her.

"You don't worship God, you worship Sister Angela's God."

Mother Abbess's words came back to him. He thought for a long while,
then lifted himself off his laundry. Slowly, almost reluctantly, he
bowed his head and clasped his hands.

Uh, God, you there?

Look, I don't really know if you exist. Mother Abbess was right, I was
only going along with it to be closer to Angela. Chieko. I thought, if
she thinks I believe in God, then she'll like me. And it worked, you
know. The more I did it - wearing her crosses, the whole bit - the more
she liked me.

But I gotta admit, it was more a game than anything else. Hell- er,
heck, sorry about that. Anyway, I kinda saw the whole thing as silly,
all the ceremonies and the praying and everything.

So why am I praying now? I dunno. I guess maybe that if Angela -
Chieko - believes in you so much, that maybe you do exist. Because, you
know, I love her, and I trust her, and she's kind and sweet and nice and
real helpful, and if she's all those things because she believes in you,
then it won't hurt me to try and believe, too.

Okay, so if you're like she says, then you'll probably see that I'm a
bit skeptical here. I'm gonna try, really try. But you saw me with the
food - I'd try, but still I'd have trouble. I'm probably gonna have
trouble really believing in you. If maybe you could give me a sign or
something - nothing big, you, don't part the Sea of Japan or nothing -
anyway, that'd be real helpful. I think.

Hell... um heck, sorry, God... I feel silly even now. Think I'll wrap
it up now. But I'll try, really try. Anyway, talk to you later. Uh,
Amen.

Kosaku raised his head and looked over at the futon, wondering how much
longer Angela - Chieko - would be at it. To his surprise she was lying
in the futon, one arm propping up her head, looking at him with an
affectionate smile.

He felt his cheeks turning red. "Um, I don't know if I was doing that
right. I really don't know how to pray."

She chuckled. "The Holy See was once asked what the right way to pray
was. His response was, pray any way you like, so long as you do pray.'"

Kosaku considered asking what a Holy See was and decided against it. He
stood up, walked over to the wall, and turned off the light. "Well,
that's a good answer, I guess."

"It was." She sobered as he made his way back to his improvised bed.
"Kosaku, one more thing you have to understand about me. I am still
devoted to God and spreading His word. I'm going to try and get work as
a nursery school teacher, and I'll probably have to settle for a secular
job. But I'll be active in the church, and I'll be trying my best to
make as many other people believe as possible. Many people will treat
me with disdain and outright hostility for those things. Can you deal
with that?"

The answer was easy. "Sure. I'm kind used to disdain and hostility any
way. I'm a boxer." He smiled. "And you got me to try and believe, so
I think you'll be good at it."

She smiled back. "Kosaku, with you it was easy. Your whole life has
been a struggle for spiritual purity. Your efforts to get your mind and
body in tune for your boxing matches is an easy parallel for the
struggle of faith we all go through. The reason I fell in love with you
is because your struggle for purity touched me. You tried, you really
tried, and even when you sinned and fell short, even when others told
you to stop trying and give up, you kept struggling. And I thought,
here at last is someone who can understand me. Here is someone who can
truly know what it's like to live a pious life. Your unwavering faith
was an inspiration to me, and sustained me during my own battles. I
think... I don't know, but I *think*... God drew us together because our
struggles were so similar, and that together we might accomplish much
more than either of us could separately."

Kosaku looked at her, at her beautiful face and knowing eyes. He heard
the passion in her voice, the utter conviction of her faith. He noticed
the matter-of-fact way she mentioned her love for him, the complete lack
of inhibition in expressing her feelings, the depth of devotion that
implied. And he thought about how rare those things were, and how
extraordinary she was, and how remarkable it was that she had fallen in
love with him.

He looked into her face and caught a glimpse of something that might
conceivably be God.

Kosaku tried a smile. "Sounds good to me. Far be it for me to
interfere with God's plan for us."

She laughed. "A wise decision." He heard her settle back with a sigh,
a sigh that sounded relieved. "Kosaku, I think this is right. I think
maybe this is the right thing for me to do."

"Yeah?" He considered. "I'd like to say that I know for sure it is,
but I don't. I just think... I'm gonna like having your for a
girlfriend."

"Oh?" She sounded somewhere between offended and amused. "Who said I
was going to be your girlfriend?"

"Er... but you said you loved me, and..."

"And?"

He swallowed. "Chieko, I love you. Would you be my girlfriend?"

"Much better." She sighed again.

He waited for a while, then prompted. "You gonna answer me?"

"Tomorrow, Kosaku. It's all a bit too much for me right now. Let it
all settle in and I'll tell you tomorrow."

"'kay. Good night."

"Good night, and may the Virgin Mary watch over you as you sleep."

Kosaku closed his eyes, content, and waited to see what Chieko's God had
in store for them tomorrow.

~*~

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Let me say it up front: I am an atheist. I do not
believe in God. However, that does not mean I am against religion; my
mother was Catholic, and found a degree of comfort in her faith. My
view is that I don't believe in God, but if you do, that's perfectly
okay. I have seen what faith, properly wielded, can do for a person. I
fully acknowledge that I could be wrong about God.

One Pound Gospel always fascinated me. Only Rumiko Takahashi could make
a love story between a boxer and a nun work. I was quite intrigued by
what I read, and was quite disappointed that the manga died an early
death. I would have loved to have seen how Takahashi would have
developed their relationship - certainly the last manga story has Angela
admitting to herself how attracted she is to Kosaku. Then again,
Takahashi is also known for her ability to maintain the status quo; it's
quite possible nothing would have ever progressed between them.

I decided to explore how their relationship might have legitimately
developed. Obviously I skipped over a lot of the intervening time, and
obviously they still have a long way to go. Just as obviously, giving
up the convent for Kosaku has got to be a difficult thing for Angela and
not something she would do capriciously. Her faith would be a large
part of whatever decision she made, which is why God is mentioned about
every other line in this fic.

Anyway, any and all thoughts you have on the story I'd like to know.
I'm not certain I'm happy with the final scene; I think there needs to
be more tension between Kosaku and Chieko/Angela. Any views you have
I'd love to hear.

-Richard

 

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