A/N: I am so sorry it took me so long to post an update. I swear to you it hasn't been forgotten. I've been working diligently on it every chance I can. I've been working the shifts of two people for the last month and a half because the only other person who can do my job got real sick and hasn't been able to come back. So I've been working or sleeping. Writing only happens during downtime at my job because I've had hardly any off days all summer. They finally hired another person so I should have more time to write and update from here on out. Fingers crossed, anyway. Regardless, this is not forgotten or abandoned. Merely, slow-going. I beg you to have patience with it and not give up on me.
Confrontation at the Onsen
The group found themselves walking along the damp stone path lined with carefully placed rocks creating small waterfalls and puddles with intermittent vibrant green moss and plants on either side. The sun hung low in the sky casting shadows over the bubbling streams and the outside lights created a warm, inviting glow against the deep blue night sky. Chise walked quickly, her eyes darting left and right as her family dawdled, taking in the peaceful scenery. She felt none of its effects and only wanted to get inside as soon as possible.
"Slow down, Chi, give us a chance to look around," Ruth implored.
"We can look around tomorrow, but for now, we need to get checked in before they decide we're not coming and we lose our rooms." It sounded reasonable enough, though she knew it was a total lie. She led them faster down the path until they reached the entrance. Elias, in his human guise, was quick to reach out and pull on the handle. It didn't budge. He tugged twice and still the door would not move. Chise watched in amusement, her fear momentarily forgotten.
"Did they already lock the doors for the evening?" He asked, cocking his head. "Clearly your haste was not unfounded, though it would seem moot now." Chise giggled behind her hand and he turned to her. "Did I say something amusing?" She patiently unhooked his fingers from the handle, hooking her own in his place, and pushed the sliding door to the right.
"Traditional shoji doors slide," she said, giggling, before crossing the threshold, feeling immediately more protected when Silver had slid the door shut. She knew she was no less safe from evil ones but there were far fewer that could slip between the cracks.
She approached the check-in counter and had a lively conversation with the man in charge, apologizing profusely for the late hour, being assured it was no trouble. She was told that tea would be served to them after they refreshed and was handed four sets of clothes. After bowing her thanks and receiving one in return, she started walking towards the left hallway, turning back when she realized she was walking alone.
"Are you coming?" She asked her family, confused.
"Where?" Ruth asked.
"To our rooms. Weren't you listening? After we freshen up and get changed, he'll serve us tea."
"It may come as a surprise to you, Chi, but none of us know how to speak Japanese. I couldn't even translate your thoughts because they were in Japanese too."
She looked from amused one face to the next. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she replied, bowing quickly. "I didn't even realize I'd transitioned to Japanese. I'll try to remember to translate from now on." Righting herself, she gestured for them to follow her. "Our rooms are this way."
She passed by the first two rooms and stopped at the third on the left. "Silver, this is your room," she said, handing the blonde the pink, floral yukata set and sliding the door for her. "I'll come help you put this on after I get finished with these two." The silky nodded and stepped into the room, looking around. "Ruth, our room is over there," she turned, indicating the door across the hall.
"Don't you mean my room?" He replied with a wink, grabbing the navy blue set from her hands and darting away before she could do more than glare.
"Elias, this one is your room," Chise indicated the last door in the hallway. "Like I said before, it's got a private, open-air bath that I thought you would appreciate."
"I do believe your familiar made it clear," he replied, smiling and leaning down to her ear. "And we did have a deal." He chuckled as the heat returned to her cheeks and placed a gentle hand on her back, guiding her through the door.
Even as embarrassed and unnerved as she was, Chise still took joy in the beauty of its simplicity. Much like the rest of the onsen, the room was designed in the traditional way. The sitting area had the same low tables and cushioned seats she had used growing up. The sleeping area, she was relieved to find out, had two western-style beds, but they were low to the ground as well. She was slightly disappointed by the lack of tatami mats but reasoned that her very Western family would only be able to take so much Eastern tradition.
"Where are the legs for the chairs?" Ruth asked.
"They're not chairs," she replied, giggling. Elias, who had been inspecting the same furniture, gazed at her curiously. "They're cushions for kneeling at the table." She allowed her familiar full access to her mind so that he could see what she saw and walked over to the cushions, demonstrating how they were meant to be sat on. Elias nodded, copying her movements.
"That's going to get uncomfortable fast," Ruth replied, turning into a Grim and curling up on one. "Much better."
"Ruth, if I get charged extra for dog hair everywhere, I'm making you sleep outside. Pets aren't allowed here."
He huffed, turning back into his human shape. "Fine, but I am not kneeling." He instead sat cross-legged on his cushion, turning his nose up, defiantly. Chise sighed.
"Is something wrong?" Elias asked, taking her hands in his gloved ones.
"No, just Ruth wanting to do his own thing. He thinks the kneeling is too uncomfortable so he's sitting cross-legged." A mischievous glint grew in his light brown eyes.
"Would you like me to teach him a lesson about disrespecting your culture?"
"No," she giggled. "It's not that big a deal. But thank you, I appreciate it." She was amused to see a brief flash of disappointment cross his face before he smiled. It always marveled her just how expressive he really was, and she could only ever see it when he took his human form. She could read his emotions fine in his usual form, but it was a delight to be able to see them. She glanced over at the bed where she'd deposited their attire. "It looks like you and Ruth have samues instead. Those are a lot easier to put on than yukatas. So I'm going to take mine over to Silver's room and help her get dressed. Is that okay?"
"Of course little one. I'll be waiting."
A light blush stained her cheeks as she pulled her hands from his. She picked up her yukata and left, sliding the door behind her, leaning heavily against the doorframe. What was she going to do without his kind words once he learned about the scars she hid? When she had her glamourspells on, she could almost pretend she was normal. She looked down at her hands and clenched her left fist. She was far from normal, even by fae standards. Chise sighed and braced herself with a grin, pushing back all the negative emotions that hung over her.
A little while later, she and Silver returned to Elias' room where they found him and Ruth sitting at the table. Both males looked up at their entrance and appeared spellbound. Chise had left her hair down, the ends brushing the collar of her royal blue yukata. Light blue flowers were embroidered into the fabric at random and it was neatly tied with an intricately knotted, silver obi.
Silver Lady was no less beautifully attired in her pale pink yukata decorated with white blossoms. Her blood red obi was tied differently, though just as intricately as Chise's. She had forgone her usual bonnet and instead, her long, blonde hair was swept up in a complex knot that was held together by two long, black sticks.
"Wow, Silver, who knew you'd look so great without all the frills and bows?" Ruth said without thinking. He paled when the silky glared at him. "N-not that you don't look pretty in your usual dress, just th-that I'm not used to seeing you in anything else." She nodded as she and Chise kneeled at the table across from Elias and Ruth. "You look pretty too, Chi," he added.
She beamed. "Thanks! It does feel good to be back in a yukata. They're so comfortable!"
"I say that because I know your husband won't," he snickered.
"Ugh! You're so mean!" He laughed harder.
"Don't worry, Chi. I'll teach him how to compliment you properly."
"Don't trouble yourself," Chise grumbled.
"Do you ever wonder what they're talking about?" Elias asked Silver Lady as the two watched Ruth and Chise conversing silently. Silver only shrugged.
A black-haired boy around Chise's age carrying a loaded tray knocked lightly on the doorframe, calling their attention. Silver began standing automatically to assist but Chise tugged on her sleeve and shook her head. Speaking in rapid Japanese, she invited the son of the manager in to deposit the tea and snacks. He replied smiling, bowed, and left.
"Here, allow me." She quickly reached out to uncover the cups and started pouring the tea with a practiced hand. To her delight, it was her preferred green tea. Taking the lid off another jar, she was pleased to discover honey, which she then liberally dolloped into her own cup and added a small amount to the rest. Ruth leaned closer to watch.
"Watch it, you'll spill the tea," she chastised, batting his elbow away from the cup before passing around plated onigiri, sashimi, and takoyaki.
"That's tea?" Ruth wrinkled his nose. "Why is it green? And what's that little stick?"
She giggled. "It's green because it's flavored with matcha. The 'little stick' is just a stem from a tea leaf." She went on to explain the dishes she'd put in front of them.
"What?! What do you mean this is raw fish?!" Ruth exclaimed, picking up a slice of salmon and wiggling it in her face. "You can't eat raw fish, it'll make you sick!"
She narrowed her eyes and, swiftly using her chopsticks, deftly swiped it out of his fingers directly into her mouth and ate it. "That's funny," she said, swallowing, "because I've been eating it almost my whole life and I don't recall ever having a problem."
Chise sat back with a huff and picked up an onigiri, taking an indignant bite, humming in satisfaction at the familiar flavors and textures. The others mirrored her actions. Ruth absolutely refused to try the nori and though Silver Lady and Elias both tried it, it was clear that seaweed was not to their palate. Chise giggled at their expressions and continued to eat hers down to the last bite, which she pointedly placed back on her plate before starting on her sashimi. Ruth refused to eat the raw fish, as did Elias, but Silver was brave enough to give it a chance. Chise couldn't tell whether she liked it, but she did finish the dish.
"So what's in these then?" Her familiar asked, poking the takoyaki skeptically. She popped one into her mouth with her chopsticks, chewing slowly.
"Hmm…it's either octopus or minced tempura, not sure which. It's been a while since I've had either. Regardless, it's cooked and it's delicious!"
Ruth, Silver, and Elias all tried to mimic her actions, each grabbing their own chopsticks. Silver got the hang of holding them fairly quickly but couldn't maneuver her fingers to actually use them and the round takoyaki kept slipping through. She glared at the food and stubbornly continued trying. Ruth tried to use them by putting one chopstick in each hand. After she patiently showed him and Elias how to hold them, he still got frustrated and tossed them aside in favor of his fingers.
"Aha!" Elias exclaimed proudly as he held up his takoyaki in his chopsticks.
"Stabbing the middle and holding it on the outside doesn't count," Chise teased. His expression fell into a pout as Ruth snickered and Silver giggled. "If it's that much trouble for you guys, I can go and ask for forks," she said, giggling. The three sighed in resignation, nodding. She left the room, still chuckling quietly and went to retrieve their preferred western utensils.
"Nakamura-san gave us mochi ice cream too!" She grinned, holding up the container in the doorway upon her return before deadpanning. All three takoyaki plates were empty. She held out the three forks she was also provided.
Ruth shrugged. "We got hungry so we just stabbed them. They were good." She sighed.
"What is mo-chi?" Elias inquired, curiously.
"It's kind of like a rice cake paste surrounding a ball of ice cream and then rolled in powdered sugar. He said there was matcha, strawberry, and chocolate. Enough for all of us to have one of each."
An hour later, the four found themselves leaning back against their cushions, completely sated. Chise discovered that while Silver seemed to really like the matcha flavor, Elias and Ruth shied away from it, both preferring strawberry and neither of them finishing their tea. She guessed Elias might enjoy jasmine tea and stored the information away for later in their trip.
"Why do you do that?" She glanced at her husband questioningly. "Every dish, you left one bite on your plate. Why?"
"It's customary here. It lets the chef know you enjoyed the food."
"But wouldn't eating all of it be proof of that?" Ruth asked. Chise shook her head.
"Here, eating it all indicates that what you were given wasn't enough and you're still hungry."
"What?! Why Didn't you tell us sooner?!" Elias exclaimed, looking panicked.
"It's okay, it's fine," she eased, giggling. She loved his wider range of expressions when he was in human form. "Nakamura-san and his family who help him run this place are all well aware that you might not know to do that. They know you guys are definitely not from around here. They've all assured me that they won't be offended if you finished your meals."
The group chatted for a while longer, Chise asking if her family was enjoying their first day in Japan and in turn, Ruth and Elias asking Chise about the things she had planned to show them. Silver listened happily, reacting when appropriate.
"Hey Elias, why haven't you changed back yet?" Ruth asked after Chise had finished telling them about the Shinto temples she wanted to take them to.
He shrugged. "The thought hadn't occurred to me, I suppose. Though now that you mention it, I am beginning to feel the effects of this confined form." And with that, he started to morph. His human face gave way to its usual elongated, white skull. His pale hands and neck turned deep purple and scaled. His arms, torso, and legs stretched out until the sleeves of his samue reached almost to his elbows, the bottom of his shirt exposed about three inches of his well-toned abdomen, and the hems of his pants approached his calves. A moment's pause as Chise covered her mouth, Ruth's jaw dropped, and Silver's eyes widened.
Elias looked down at his exposed scales. "Well this was unexpected," he said, drily. Chise bit her hand to keep from laughing. Ruth snorted before falling over in full belly laughs. Silver giggled her bell-like chuckle behind her own hand.
"So…wh-what do you intend to do about this-s-s situa-tion?" Ruth asked between breaths.
"Hmm…I do believe I will return to my usual attire. If that is alright with you, Chise." She nodded, not trusting her voice quite yet. In a puff of black smoke and thorny vines, Elias stood before them looking as he always did when he was relaxed at home. "That's better. Chise, are you aright?" She nodded again, taking a couple of deep, calming breaths.
"Yes, I'm fine," she said after wiping a tear from her eye, still fighting a grin. "Sorry, I tried not to laugh, but it looked like you had tried on a child's size by mistake."
Elias chuckled lightly. "I see the humor now." She giggled before hiding a yawn behind her hand. "Are you tired, little one?" He asked, concerned.
"Maybe a bit. I could keep going if you all still wanted to talk though." Ruth facepalmed as Silver shook her head.
"Nonsense," Elias replied. "There is no reason to exhaust yourself. It is late. We should all sleep." And with nothing else said, everyone bid their goodnights and left. Chise took her pajamas into the bathroom to change. By the time she returned, Elias had changed his own sleeping attire and had pushed the two low beds into one, an act that caused Chise to blush. He cocked his head.
"Is there something wrong?" She shook her head free of the images in her mind, cursed her hormones, and climbed in next to her husband just as she did most nights at the cottage. After all the excitement of the day, sleep was easy to come by for both of them.
A mere two hours later, her foot reflexively kicked out in response to a sharp pain around her ankle. Unbeknownst to the sleeping red head, a disgruntled black blob with six eyes and blood dripping from its fangs scuttled away and slipped between the cracks of the wooden floorboards. Moments after, two red orbs glowed and Elias inhaled deeply, his mouth beginning to water as Chise's undiluted scent hit his nostrils. He sat up, licking his large canines.
Looking her over, he could see no sign of wound. She lay at his side peacefully as she usually did. His eyes trailed down the length of her petite form searching for the source of the blood that still assaulted his senses and threatened to overwhelm his instincts. Drool dripped down his snout as his red orbs glazed over the circle of blood that had soaked through their blanket around her feet, even as his panic increased, trying to figure out what caused it.
Ever so gently, he uncovered the area to see what appeared to be a bite mark over her ankle. He drew upon his magic to lick her wound clean, shuddering and nearly humming as the potent flavor touched his tongue and lingered. Looking again once he'd regained his self-control over the sudden urge to taste more, Elias realized his initial guess at a bite being the cause couldn't have been far off. He could see the individual puncture marks indicative of many sharp, pointed teeth. He carefully picked up the appendage and inspected it further. It looked exactly like the marks he had seen on the plane.
Elias brought her ankle to his chest, cradling it delicately, and whispered a healing spell that would prevent scarring, though he feared it might already be too late. He sighed, a deep hurt growing in the center of his being. What secrets did she keep so well guarded? How could he help her if she refused to open up to him? What could he do to encourage her to talk? He spent the rest of the night alternating between restlessly pacing the room and holding his precious Robin close, coming no closer to an answer. Frustrated as the early light filtered through the thin paper windows, he decided to try out the naturally-heated bath she had described the night before.
The first day at the onsen, Chise spent entirely in the women's bath, either in it or sitting beside it. Sometimes she was joined by Silver Lady or another woman, most of the time, she spent in solitude. While she was alone, she tried to just focus on the heat of the water, the pressure of the jets as they pulsated against her tense muscles. She did everything she could to avoid thinking about why she was currently sharing a room with her husband instead of her familiar. It was a fruitless attempt.
So far, she had managed to evade the topic ever since the plane and it had only vaguely alluded to when assigning their rooms. Beyond that, she'd kept everyone sufficiently diverted until she could slip off that morning and stay away. 'This is ridiculous!' She chastised herself. This was a family vacation! She should be spending it with her family! But she was so afraid of her scars coming up that she was hiding from all but the one who didn't speak. She was so afraid of hearing Elias tell her to leave that she would rather not talk to him at all. So long as she didn't have to hear those words from him. She knew she wouldn't survive that rejection. He was the first one who cared for her, made her feel warm and welcome. To have him banish her was a pain she could not bear.
"Einsworth-san, I have brought you some snacks." Chise opened her eyes and turned her face towards the owner's wife who was currently holding a platter of onigiri, gyoza, and shumai.
"Arigato, Nakamura-san," Chise muttered distractedly. Try as she might, she couldn't help the intrusive worries from invading. The woman sat the tray next to her head.
"I can't help but notice, Einsworth-san, that you seem upset. Is there anything I can do to help?"
The girl thought about it for a few moments. Did she really want to confide in this stranger? How could she possibly talk about her problems without giving away any actual information? She couldn't exactly tell this human, 'I am a powerful, magical being who is constantly running from creatures who want to eat me. I'm covered in scars from said creatures and I have to hide them from my husband or else he'll banish me. Any advice?' Somehow she didn't think that would go over too well. But she did need someone to talk to. Someone who may be able to offer advice even without knowing the whole story. She sighed heavily, realizing just how careful she would have to be.
"There might be, actually," she replied, timidly, biting her lip. Nakamura-san paused a moment before removing her shoes and sitting on the stone next to Chise with her feet in the water.
"I have a feeling it isn't a request for services, is it, dear?" She asked kindly. Chise shook her head, not looking up. She felt a comforting hand stroking her hair. Not the same kind of comfort she received when Elias did it. No…this was different somehow. It forced her to recall memories of her mother. Curiously, she glanced up at the woman. Nakamura-san had a warm, patient smile on her face that, again, reminded Chise so much of her mother, that she could no longer hold back.
"Have you ever hidden some from someone because you were afraid of how they'd react?" Nakamura-san blinked before looking off into the distance.
"Yes. Once," she said with a hint of a smile.
"What did you do? Tell them? Or did they find out on their own?" Brown eyes met green.
"I tried hiding it for as long as I could. But eventually, the stress of it, among other things, started making me sick. He fretted for days, worried about what was wrong with me."
'That sounds familiar,' Chise thought, looking back on how this whole trip started.
"After I saw how much I was worrying him, I broke down and told him."
"And how did he take it?"
"He was upset at first, but only because I'd kept it from him. He was over the moon about the news itself. I had nothing to fear from his reaction. He was so quick to reassure me and I haven't doubted him since."
"So it was good news?" Chise asked, disheartened.
"I thought it was. I just wasn't sure if he would. Is yours not that good, Einsworth-san?" Her shoulders slumped and Nakamura-san wrapped her arm around the young girl, pulling her closer in comfort. Chise laid her head on the woman's lap. She really did feel like a mother, something Chise had desperately missed in her life. "Whatever it is, I'm sure it won't be as bad as your head is making it out to be. If he really loves you, no amount or type of news is going to change that," she said, gently.
'Loves me? Well, I already know the answer to that. He can't feel love. So where does that leave me? Back at square one?' Different scenes ran through her head. The first time he picked her up and carried her home, his uncontrollable rage after the chimera almost killed her, the way he only calmed down at her touch, flying into his arms as the phoenix after her wand was completed, how he described feeling lonely without her there, Elias ripping off his old bolo tie and throwing it into the fire before donning the one she bought him. Didn't they all indicate love? "How do you know?" Chise sighed.
"You will know by his actions, more so than by his words. He may never tell you outright if it's not in his nature to, but you'll know. In a crowded room, you'll be the one he pays attention to. Yours will be the opinion he seeks first. If you are hurt or sick, you will be his whole focus until you are better. He'll want to keep you close but he'll let you have your space. If you find yourself in danger, he will stop at nothing to get to you, to protect you. You may never know by word, sweetie, but you will know by deed." Chise listened with wide eyes and slightly parted lips. It was as if she were describing every interaction she'd ever had with her halfling husband.
"Is that what Nakamura-san is to you?" Chise whispered. The older woman chuckled.
"Yes. He is."
"And you were still afraid of how he'd react to what you thought was good news?"
"He had given me the impression before that he wouldn't like what I had to tell him. That's why I hid it." The young girl smiled at the newest similarity between herself and this unexpected source of comfort.
"Thank you, Nakamura-san."
"Please, while you are guests here, call me Izumi."
"Only if you call me Chise, Izumi-san," the red head grinned.
"Deal," Izumi-san chuckled and patted her head softly. "I think I will leave you to your solitude now to reflect. But for what it's worth, I think you should tell him what's on your mind. His reaction will probably surprise you."
"Thank you, Izumi-san," Chise said again, raising her head from the woman's lap, unsure of when she even laid it down.
"Of course, Chise-san," she replied. "I never had a daughter and this feels like the sort of conversation that would happened if I'd had one so, thank you for granting me that experience."
Izumi-san stood and grabbed a towel from a nearby table, drying her legs. Then she slipped her shoes back on and left. Chise spent the rest of the day contemplating their conversation. It seemed as if Izumi-san had said everything she'd needed to hear and even opened her eyes to the possibility that Elias might actually love her without knowing it. She still didn't know if she wanted to tell him about her scars, but at least she wasn't as panicked as she was before.
Elias found her later that night, pacing their room rapidly, muttering to herself in rapid Japanese, clearly agitated. He had returned from the dining area where he, Ruth, and Silver had waited for over an hour for her to make her appearance. They'd given up, eaten, and returned to the rooms. Ruth had been glancing down the hall towards the rooms throughout all that time but insisted that Elias alone needed to talk to her. He had yet to have a chance to speak with her about the wound on her ankle and it was bothering him increasingly that he had seen little of her all day.
"You've been avoiding me, precious Robin," he accused, feeling a sharp pain in his chest as he watched her jump, startled. Chise couldn't deny it even if she wanted to. She bit her lip and nodded slowly. He looked away. "Then again, my precious Robin doesn't actually look like you, does she?"
In an instant, it felt as if ice water had been poured over her. Her color drained from her face and her heart dropped to her stomach. It was so brusque. So straightforward. A simple statement but it felt like a punch to her gut. The red orb she could see blinked before he sighed, hanging his head.
"You hide so much, little one. I understand hiding from the world. Far better than most, in fact. But please, Chise, my dearest one, hide from me no longer." The way he implored her to open up to him…the desperation in his voice, yearning to understand…
"I…I'm scared…," she whispered shakily, hand fisted over her pounding heart. Her breaths quickened as she hunched in on herself, eyes flicking back and forth across the floor, unseeing.
"Scared of what, exactly?" He asked, softly. She remained silent, her face scrunched, her desire to tell him everything warring greatly with her need for a home, for a family.
"Please, Chise," he urged gently.
"You," she breathed.
A moment's pause. "I see."
Her head whipped towards him in confusion but he was no longer looking at her. Realization dawned on her as it settled in her mind how her words came across…and what her husband's greatest fear was. "Oh no. No, I didn't mean…like that." She took a half step forward, one hand outstretched, reaching for him. His skull faced her again, two piercing orbs staring hard into her emerald eyes and she somewhat lost what little nerve she had gained through her panic. Her hand dropped.
"I-I-I mean…it-it's more like I'm s-scared of how-how you'll react." She bit her lip, looking everywhere except at him, hand clutched back over her heart. Elias remained silent, still staring. 'At least I had one good year,' she thought, tears springing to her eyes. She knew she would not survive the rejection she knew was coming this time. Not after finding a home and a family that wanted her for so long. Chise swallowed hard past the lump forming in her throat. "You really want to know what I truly look like?" She asked, her voice wavering. Instead of simply continuing, she waited, forcing him to answer.
"Of course I do," he replied, reaching out his clawed hand to hold her. When she didn't take it, he withdrew. "You are my wife. I do not want you to feel the need to hide from me. You are the only one who never need fear me or any reaction I may have."
'You say that now,' Chise thought, smiling sadly. 'But what about after you've learned the truth?' She closed her eyes, feeling two tears slide down her cheeks and unclenched the fist at her side. Breathing deeply, she exhaled slowly and with it, released her two glamourspells. She heard him inhale sharply, though she couldn't tell if it was from her scent hitting his nose or the scars that suddenly covered every inch of skin that was visible around her yukata, though thankfully it wasn't much.
"Do you remember the first night after you bought me?" She asked, quietly. When she opened her eyes, she didn't even glance at Elias. Only the dead-looking hand clutching her blue yukata like a lifeline.
"Chise, what are those?" Elias replied, ignoring her question. She shook her head and tightened her grip on the fabric again, her lip quivering.
"You and Noel-san had the same idea. Neither of you wanted damaged goods. Noel-san wanted me to look undamaged so he placed a glamourspell on me that fed off my own stores of magic. You wanted me to stay undamaged so you thoroughly tended to every wound I've received while in your care. I can't say I blame you. No one would want a damaged product. Especially one they paid a lot of money for." She looked him in the eye, unflinchingly, even as she felt the teeth of an evil one sing into her left foot. She could see two more slipping in between the floorboards and from the corner of the walls in her peripheral and just sighed, already resigning herself to being their next meal. "Do you get it yet, Elias?"
Three thin, black blurs shot towards her. One, past her left hip. The second, past her right shoulder. The third caused the teeth to retract from her foot. Glancing around, she saw nothing but three black scorch marks marring the wooden floor. He'd destroyed the three evil ones so easily.
"They're scars," he said simply. "And my words that night led you to believe I would dismiss you if you were, to use your word, damaged." Tears flowed freely from her eyes, though she hadn't blinked, nor was she wiping them away. A fourth evil one snuck up and started licking the blood from her foot. She didn't react. He blasted it with another vine. "Doesn't that hurt?" Her lip quivered worse as she nodded. "Then why –?"
She sniffed. "The same reason I didn't react when I clawed into my own arm that first night. The same reason I didn't react when Joseph's chimera impaled me. The same reason I didn't react when the excess magic caused me to cough up blood," she told him expressionlessly. Only her glistening eyes gave away the true depth of her pain. "I taught myself to not react."
"Why?" He asked, quietly.
"So I wouldn't suffer worse." A pregnant silence enveloped the pair. Two more tears slid down her face. Perhaps if she left on her own terms, it wouldn't hurt so bad. 'But he owns you,' a little voice reminded her. 'You signed your life over to him.'
"This isn't the extent of your past wounds."
It wasn't a question, yet she answered anyway. "No," she whispered.
"Show me," he pleaded, gently. She bit her lip and stepped back, holding her yukata with both hands.
"Isn't this enough?" She begged, cursing her trembling voice, her breathing speeding up again.
"Not if you are still hiding yourself from me. I do not want you to hide."
"But…why…why do you care so much about it?!" She started backing away, looking around for an escape, any escape. But Elias was blocking the door that led out. Her head darted everywhere, her breathing becoming way too rapid and shallow. Two vines snaked their way up to her face and tenderly wiped the tears that lingered there, freezing her at their touch and stopping her retreat instantly.
"Because you are hurting, my precious bride."
"If you are hurt or sick, you will be his whole focus until you are better." Izumi-san's words rang through her mind. Could she be right? Could it be that Elias hadn't meant what he said all those months ago and that his reaction would surprise her? Or was Chise right all along and nothing but agonizing rejection awaited her if she continued to show him what she really looked like?
'Will you still call me your precious anything after this?' She thought, closing her eyes and scrunching her face against the gentleness of Elias. She almost wished he would yell at her. Command her to leave and never come back. Even beat her like her family used to for causing so much trouble, for not listening to his orders, for hiding the scars from him in the first place. Anything except what he was doing now. The tenderness with which he was treating her was only going to make his inevitable dismissal hurt so much more in the end. His vines still held her face so delicately. She felt his skull lightly rest on her forehead.
"Please, Chise," he mumbled. His long fingers replaced the vines to hold her head to his. She couldn't resist it. The soft voice. The gentle hold. The pleading for her to stop hiding. It was overwhelming her, encouraging her body to react. As if in a trance, her trembling hands reached around to her back and started untying her obi. She felt him step back when he realized what she was doing. The silver obi fell to the floor, quickly followed by the koshihimos. Her yukata hung limply on her petite frame. Her husband delicately lifted off her shoulders and allowed it to follow the other pieces of the complicated garment. She closed her eyes, unleashing a torrent of tears.
Elias had seen his wife's unclothed body only once before, on her first day at the cottage. He thought nothing of it then or since, only needing to show her how the bath worked. Beyond some slight malnutrition, he saw nothing of any real concern. How wrong he had been. Staring at her now, he felt himself grow cold.
There wasn't an inch of skin that wasn't tarnished by some scar, most of them the same circular bite marks that had covered her arms and legs on the plane. He'd expected that much. If her limbs were so encased, he knew it must have been as bad elsewhere. What he hadn't anticipated were the long, jagged lines crisscrossing her chest and stomach. Clear signs of struggle. He hadn't anticipated the puckered gash-like scar that spanned from the left side of her abdomen to the right. Rage flooded his being.
An agonized gasp brought his attention back to her face. He'd never seen so much horror and pain there before, even as she desperately tried to cover as much off herself as possible with only her arms and hands. The sight of it unleashed an onslaught of emotion that he couldn't identify. There was rage there. More than he'd ever experienced in his life. He thought he'd felt rage when he saw her walk through the portal with Cartaphilus. He thought he'd felt rage as he watched the chimera pierce her chest. Or as she grew closer to the little girl and further from him. He was wrong. Cartaphilus may have had him uncontrollable and seeing red. But the extent of what his precious little Robin has suffered in her life before him had Elias shaking, his vision black.
But mix in with all of that fury was just as much sadness. Or at least that's what he thought it was. All he wanted to do was wrap them in a ball of intertwining vines and hold her. Put a spell over her so that she would forget all her misfortune and agony. Take her back to the cottage and hide her from the world entirely. Anything that would take that expression off her face. He never wanted to see it there again. Whatever caused it was tormenting her. Had been for so long. How long, Elias had no idea. He hadn't even realized she was hiding anything until the plane. He didn't know what to do.
Suddenly, the shoji door leading to their room was thrown open. Standing in the doorway, panting, hair disheveled, black eyes widened in panic, was her familiar, Ruth. Barely passing a glance in his direction, he swept Chise into his arms and brought her to the bed. By the time Elias realized what happened, Ruth already had her wrapped tightly in the blanket and was holding her, stroking her hair, whispering soothingly in her ear. Her scent was masked just as quickly, covered by that of her familiar's.
"I know. I know it hurts, Chise," he muttered, rocking her back and forth as she fought against the terrors of her past. He'd had to fight the overwhelming instinct to come and protect her since the moment the pair started talking and he was doing well. But once her clothes were removed, it caused every memory she worked so hard to repress to come forth in one excruciating ambush that he could not withstand. "So she finally showed you," he stated, addressing Elias without diverting his attention from his companion. "To be honest, I'm surprised she gave in so quickly."
"Of course I knew!" Ruth exclaimed, impatiently. "I'm her familiar. Our bond runs deep, Einsworth. Probably deeper than you realize."
"You never told me."
"She didn't want you to know. She didn't even realize I knew until we were on the plane. So how did she finally tell you?" Ruth stared intensely at the top of his sobbing companion's head. "Oh, I see," he said glaring at the skull-faced creature. "You cornered her until she broke."
"It would seem so, though it was never my intention."
"Whether it was your intention or not, Einsworth, that's what happened," he snarled, stroking Chise's hair. "Shh, shh, shh, I know, Chi. I know it hurts. But I told you that you had nothing to be afraid of, didn't I?" A pause. "Chi, I don't know what you're thinking right now. You've got to translate if you want me to understand." Another pause. "What do you mean he never confirmed one way or the other?" Her body shook as she relayed parts of the conversation to her familiar. "Ah, I get it. So he addressed your fear but didn't do anything to alleviate it. That about right?" The ball she had curled into tightened.
"Look at me, Ruth," Chise mumbled forcefully. "He said he didn't want a scarred bride. Well, that's exactly what I am. Scarred. Damaged. Why would he still keep me around after finding out I'm exactly what he didn't want?"
It seemed as though, in her distress, she had completely forgotten Elias was even in the room. He stayed silent, hanging on her every word, nearly salivating at this one chance to peer into her mind, yet despising the self-loathing and fear he had unwittingly put there. Those words, said so long ago he could hardly remember them now, had apparently left such a lasting impact on his young bride. The knowledge caused a sharp pain in his chest. This fear, her fear, was his fault.
"He said that on the first night," Ruth tried, again, to reason. "Don't you think things have changed since then?"
"How could it?" She retorted, covering herself completely with the blanket. "When he's taken so much care to prevent scarring on evert wound I've gotten in the last year?"
"Maybe because he loves you and doesn't like to see you in pain?" He replied as though it were obvious.
"Impossible. He's already told me he can't feel love. Any attempts to say or act like it, he said, would be empty gestures at best." She was past tears now. Her pain and fear had manifest in a quiet despair that tore through her companion like no other. He hadn't felt so hopeless since Isabel went into the ground and never came out.
Elias looked away. Yet more callous words that haunted his precious bride. While he still thought it was true, that he was incapable of the emotion of love, he certainly cared very deeply for the girl, more so than any other mortal he had ever encountered and knew for a fact that he felt nowhere near as empty as he was when he'd spoken those words. Silver had told him he loved her but he hadn't had a chance to explore that particular emotion since then as he'd never bothered to before.
"Chise, you cannot honestly believe he is still the same creature he was when you first met him. Hell, he's changed even since I've known him!" Ruth struggled to keep the agony out of his voice as he tried so desperately to reason with his companion. Her despair was like a knife to his very soul. "Especially towards you!"
"That was before he found out about all these," she argued flatly. Elias clutched the fabric of his shirt over the center of his chest. Did she really have so little faith in him as her husband and mentor?
"Oh, Chi," the Church Grim soothed, "the only thing this did was allow him to learn more about you. And isn't that part of what this whole trip is about? The chance for us to understand you better? I guarantee you he is not going to reject you or kick us out. He'll probably ask you a lot of questions but he's not going to reject you."
"Why wouldn't he?" She asked again. "Everyone else has," she muttered bitterly, sinking further into the bed.
Those words echoed in Elias' head as several things about his precious Robin fell into place with that one uttered sentence. She was used to people throwing her away, casting her aside at the drop of a hat. Well no more. She was not trash to throw away. She was not a disappointment. Nor was she damaged, as she thought herself. She was his wife. She was the companion he chose to keep by his side.
That she thought any of this at all meant that he had been neglecting her past as much as her culture and that simply would not do. He clenched his fist, wondering what other ways he had neglected his little one. This needed to be rectified immediately. He needed to rectify this. Starting with reassuring her that he would never dismiss her, banish her, command that she leave, and anything else she had been afraid of.
"Chise," he called, his voice strangled with an emotion he couldn't identify. She stiffened as an expression of abject terror crossed over her familiar.
"Geez, Chi!" Ruth exclaimed. "Calm down! So what if he heard everything we just said?! It's about time in my opinion." A pause. "Look, I'm going to leave now so you two can talk again. Nope. You're doing this. You're not in any danger so I don't feel compelled to stay by your side. I'm only a call away if you need me. Do you trust me? Then trust when I tell you you'll be fine." He kissed the top of her blanketed head, causing Elias to feel a sudden and confusing flash of jealousy, before standing, wishing Elias 'good luck', and leaving.
Elias hesitantly sat at the edge of the bed, watching her tense form. "I'd like to start by telling you that I am sorry. Through callous words that meant nothing then, and certainly less now, I convinced you that it was necessary to hide yet another part of yourself." Chise listened to his words, open-mouthed as guilt wrenched through her.
"Chi, would you at least give him a chance before you go all self-sacrificing? There's nothing for you to feel guilty about. He's basically apologizing for speaking without thinking. Chill out." Ruth relaxed as Chise, miraculously in his opinion, listened to him. Her attention snapped from her familiar to Elias as he continued.
"You are my bride, Chise. My precious One." She felt him shift on the bed before the blanket she had cocooned herself in was slowly pulled away until she was staring at his white skull and glowing red eyes. She instantly started reaching for it and trying to cover up as much of her scarred body as possible at the same time. She blushed, stilling completely, when he reached up and tenderly hold of her hands. "And I will never want you anywhere else but with me." He let her hands go only to cradle her face instead. "Do not ever fear my banishment again. It will never happen." He sounded so certain.
"But-" His index finger moved from her cheek to her lips, effectively silencing her.
"No buts, little One. In my many years wandering, I have never so much as desired a bride, let alone come across a female of any kind, fae or mortal, whose company I wished for over my solitude. Until I met you. I care not how many homes you have been through before. My home will be your last because, no matter what, I will not let you go. I cannot." Tears shimmered in her eyes before she cast them aside.
"This is already the longest I have stayed in one place since dad left," she joked, half strangled with emotion. He moved her to his lap and held her tight against him.
"The time will only grow. That, I vow to you, my precious One." There was something different about the way he said it this time. Something that felt more intense, more fervent, than whenever he'd called her that before.
"Thank you," she whispered through smiling lips. She fell asleep to the relaxing feeling of his long fingers tracing the patterns of scars on her back as he held her through the night, believing for the first time in the permanency of her new home.
Elias lay awake long into the night, cradling his petite wife, utterly destroying the minions of the corrupted fae that sought her blood. He held so much rage against them for causing her to suffer as much as she had. There would be no mercy. Every one he sensed would be obliterated until he drew out their puppetmaster so that he could eradicate it as well.
He would end her suffering once and for all or he wasn't Elias Einsworth, Son of Thorn, Shadow Mage. What good were those titles, these powers, if he couldn't protect and defend his most treasured One? He curled her closer to him as he watched another minion burn and surrounded their bed in an impenetrable cage of his black thorns before allowing himself to slumber peacefully in the knowledge that she was safe in his arms.