Title: Nom Nom
Summary: Eli watches Josef's odd interactions with their newest team member, trying to understand that this was the same Josef Liechten he knew months ago.
A/N: Hmm... just a little bit from Eli's POV, since I already wrote two stories from the POVs of Josef and Nico. I love Mother-Hen!Josef, as most of you know by now, so this is just one of those moments where Josef is being all mother-henny. It's my interpretation of how Nico came to be part of the team too.
It was past midnight. They were all tired, and Eli knew that it was merely by a stroke of luck that they managed to find an inn at all. And that there was still a spare room left. It was just one room, but the inn keeper promised that the bed was big enough to fit five thugs, and should be more than fine for two men and a little girl. He charged them less for it, which was not a bad deal, seeing Eli was not in the mood for some money-bragging.
"Here you go, young man," the inn-keeper opened the door to the only room on the third storey. It was medium-sized, but the bed, true to his word, was huge. The room was clean and comfortable, the sheets on the bed spotless white, and the floor swept to a shiny sheen. There were two lamps set on the only table adjacent from the bed, setting a nice, warm glow on the walls.
"I'm sorry I cannot offer any more, but it's been terribly busy."
"That is alright. It's only for one night," Eli said. He stepped into the room after Josef and the new girl, Nico, before closing the door behind him.
"I claim the middle," Josef said, setting his load down by the wall.
Eli rolled his eyes. Oh sure, of course. Powers forbid the girl slept beside anyone else. Eli watched as Josef rummaged through a sack he placed on the floor, took out a small med kit and headed towards the bed. He motioned for Nico to sit beside him.
The day had been eventful, exciting, and not so rough as usual, but just as expected, Josef managed to get a wound. Eli was no longer surprised. Wounds seemed to be attracted to the swordsman's body wherever they went, and whatever they did. There hadn't been any fights earlier when they stole the country's tower keeper's... well, tower, but it had been a rough escape, even for Josef. It was a small tower, recently built in the last five years, when the tower keeper decided to relocate. So what if the poor, old Spiritualist should come home tonight and find his lovely new home a pile of rubble? Eli was certain that would garner him at least a thousand standards.
"Just place the thread in like this..."
Great. Josef was going to show the girl how to stitch him up. Eli shook his head, and began pulling out their dinner from two of the bags that Josef had set down on the floor.
A fortnight ago, he found Nico guarding the small cottage in the woods by the foot of the mountains where he and Josef agreed to meet up after two months of individual endeavours. Seeing her shaggy hair, skin-and-bone appearance, and patchy clothing, he thought that Josef had left, and the cottage had been inhabited by some sorry looking stray. Then he got a better look, and realized that the long, quilt-like shirt was Josef's, and it had been adjusted to fit the girl's small, skinny frame. That left two explanations. The girl stole Josef's clothes, or he gave it to her. But his friend hardly even had any extra clothing on him; it would be out of character to just donate one to a girl he didn't even know. The girl stealing it sounded absurd. He doubted she could even walk straight, so unhealthy she looked.
"Are you Eli?" she asked him. Well, she knew him, so that could only mean that Josef knew her, otherwise she would not even have guessed who he was. When he nodded, she opened the cottage to let him in. "Josef's gone hunting. He'd be back in a few minutes."
Huh. This was getting interesting. What was Josef doing with a girl like this?
She sat by the farthest wall. He noticed that one of Josef's bandoliers was sitting on the floor. The girl picked one of the knives, and began sharpening it. Oddly. Eli noticed that there was something strange to the way she held the knife and the stone, a tenseness to her shoulders as she scraped the blade, and a wary, almost paranoid look in her eyes. Then he heard something else, and he realized it was a whimper. Of the blade.
"You're a demonseed," he gasped. She didn't say anything, but things suddenly began clicking into place. Her looks, the smothered atmosphere in the cottage, the hushed whispers of the trees outside... the whole clearing felt a little off when he stepped into it. He thought he was just a little tired after walking so far, but now he understood.
Swiftly, he turned on a pivot and rushed out of the cottage. He looked up the sky. Not really look, but he gave it a sort of a glancing skim that took note of the colour and the state. It was bright blue, not a cloud in sight. He looked away after a second. It had been enough to know that the League wasn't coming. Why not?
His thoughts were distracted when he saw a familiar form step out from behind the shadowy copse with one small, skinny rabbit in one hand, and bloody throwing knife in the other. As soon as he was at the edge of the clearing, Eli ran to him.
"Hey Josef!" Eli exclaimed. "Josef Liechten, hello, my dear, dear friend. Did you realize you've been keeping a very dangerous weapon in your living quarters? I mean, I took you to be rather bullheaded at times, but never suicidal."
The swordsman took a quick glimpse down at the rabbit. "I didn't expect to see you back so soon. I thought I'd bring something for lunch for me and the girl, but I doubt this will be enough for all of us."
"Hey, don't change the subject." Eli laid a hand on Josef's chest to stop him from walking.
The taller of the two narrowed his eyes. "She is not a weapon. Her name is Nico."
Eli shrugged. "Okay, her name is Nico. Did you realize your little girl is a demonseed?"
"Yes," Josef nudged him to the left to continue the path to the small cottage. "She told me."
"Ah, I see. She told you. And how in the world did you come by her, pacify her enough to not eat you, and end up having tea parties and heart to heart chats?"
"I found her on the mountain," Josef said. "She was in a very bad state, so I took her down here."
"Oh, Powers!" Eli grabbed Josef's arm and spun him around. Then slowly, so he could make sure that Josef understood every word he said, he told the swordsman, "When I left, and I joked that you could try 'Relaxing, grabbing a drink, and picking up a girl', I didn't mean it literally."
Honestly, this was what he got for talking slang with a caveman.
"What's your point?" Josef asked as he trodded up to the cottage's door, and went inside.
Eli shut his mouth as he entered too. Nico, as the girl was apparently called, was finished with the knife and was putting it back in the bandolier.
"Well, what are you going to do to her now that we're going to leave?" Eli asked. Nico's head shot up, and she looked at Josef with an almost pleading look in her eyes. Well, as pleading as a demonseed could look like. They were usually as expressive as mountain faces.
There was silence for a moment. Josef got ready to skin the rabbit, then he gave the thief a smirk. "We have something to show you after lunch."
It was a spar, as Eli found out a couple of hours later. And he would get the world's most prestigious award for lying if he managed to convince himself, even the slightest, that the spar did not impress him, did not leave his mouth hanging open, and his heart thudding with suspense. For every stroke Josef delivered, Nico was there with a block or a counter attack already waiting. She was fast. She was deadly fast. Eli knew a few things about demonseeds, but since he had never interacted with one before, he was surprised at how graceful and powerful this one was. Of course there was a chance that the human shell could do this even before she was a demonseed, but he did not think that was the case. When she so much as made contact with a shadow, she could evaporate, and next thing he knew, she would be on the other side of the clearing.
It was not only her speed, but her strength too. Josef easily weighed more than twice as much as her, but she could twist his arm and flip him over as if he were a five-year old. Her punches were bone-cracking, her kicks bent trunks of trees, and she could shatter Josef's blades with a slice of her hand without using her seed to eat any of the spirits.
It was amazing.
And Josef thought so too. Never had he seen the swordsman look so energized and excited during a fight.
When it was all over, Josef came over panting to him. He let out a euphoric laugh. His shirt was in tatters, even though he was the one who had been using blades, and Nico had only been using her limbs. In contrast, the girl looked like she just did a one-lap jog around a block. Quick breathing, but no sweat. She wasn't even breathing as heavily as Josef. No cuts, no bruises, her skin as pale and smooth as it was before.
The swordsman gave him a conspiratorial smile. "Strong, fast, heals herself, can transport and lurk in the shadows... don't tell me you're willing to leave her behind."
Eli looked down at Nico. She returned his gaze without expression, but then flicked her stare to Josef's back as if it was the most interesting thing she had ever seen.
He sighed. Even someone who could only disappear into shadows would be a hefty advantage. With all her other abilities? He'd be a fool to let her go. And if somehow things were to go wrong, well, there was always the risk of things going wrong, even without Nico. Everything he did, everything about his job, about himself was a gamble.
Now, as Eli began setting out the food on the only table in the room, he was glad he had given Nico a try. The girl wasn't even a bother. The only time he had to mind her was before he got Slorn's help with weaving a coat to hide her demonseed status. She was so quiet, so careful, sometimes he forgot there was even a third in the team now.
But Josef did not forget. Not for a second. Eli wondered what it was that made him so attached, and so suddenly too, to this waif. Maybe something about his past...?
They had bought a large dinner to celebrate their success, which was one of the reasons it took them so long to settle down for the evening. He grabbed one of the sandwiches with slices of steak, cheese and vegetables, and leaned back against the table. Nico had the needle now, and Josef's hand was guiding hers as she crisscrossed the thread from one side of the wound to the other.
"Am I hurting you?" she asked softly, her head bent towards his shoulder.
"I'm fine. Keep going, you're doing alright." When she was finished, Josef showed her how to tie a proper knot. Once they washed their hands by the nightstand, Josef collected for himself one steak sandwich, a handful of fruits, a slice of roasted chicken, and a few rolls of bread. He settled himself back on the bed, bringing the three plates with him.
"Don't drop anything on the mattress," Eli warned. "They might charge us more for laundry."
"When have I dropped anything I eat?" Josef asked, glancing pointedly at Eli's crumbly collar.
Eli held up his hands in defeat, and continued savouring his meal. There were cheese sticks lying around somewhere, he remembered. He'd like to try those; he hadn't had some in a while. Plus, there was the bottle of wine he snagged from the tower. Ah, spirits, how very fitting!
"Nico, have some dinner," Josef said.
"I ate an apple," Nico replied back, in that quiet voice of hers. Eli still felt like jumping sometimes when he heard her voice; somehow hearing her affirmed her presence, and he was still not quite used to having another voice, a soft, female one at that, in the same room as Josef and himself. "Didn't you see? I'm full now."
"Full?" Josef asked incredulously. "You're full after that apple? Well, that won't do. Why don't you take a bite out of this? It's good. There, just try it." Nico leaned over to take a small bite out of the steak sandwich. She nodded her head as she chewed, confirming that she liked it.
"Well, then take another bite," Josef suggested, and she did. "Here, one more." Eli could see her hesitating, but she still took the smallest of bites, before settling back on the bed. Josef took her wrist, and insisted she eat one more bite, but didn't quite stop pushing until after five "one more"s, a branch of grapes, half a tangerine, a few olives, and a roll of bread that he buttered himself.
She refused the bread. "Josef, I really am full now."
Josef took her hand and waved it. "Look at you, so skinny. Let's get some more in you." Nico sat back, and looked at Josef. She shook her head.
"I'll upchuck," she said, and Josef let her be.
"Rest for ten minutes, then you'll feel better," he told her. "There's so much food, it's sad if we let them go to waste."
"Yeah, Nico, why don't you go down and get a couple of wine glasses?" Eli interrupted. When she was out of the room, Eli took the chance to explain something to his friend.
"You know," he began. "She won't flesh out just because you stuff food down her throat."
Josef just stared back at him.
"It's a demonseed's nature. The seed eats anything it can. That's why we had Slorn make metal braces for her using really tough metal, because at least the seed is preoccupied with trying to eat those instead of other spirits. The host themselves are eaten almost to skin and bone, but it won't eat them all the way; it leaves just enough for the host to sustain itself, so that the seed can also survive," Eli explained.
Josef's facade was one of disgust. "You mean it's eating her right now?"
"All I'm saying is that Nico wouldn't get the chance to fatten up, because the seed would eat whatever she gains, until she's back to the way she is now. She only eats enough to keep the demon from eating more of her. So, you see, the more you feed her, you're not really helping her. You're helping the seed, and we wouldn't want that."
"I thought the food on the road just didn't suit her," Josef grumbled. "I didn't think she was on a strict diet."
He was quiet after that, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. Eli rolled his eyes. He met Josef as a ruthless swordsman and bounty hunter, stoic and easily bored without good fights, but now, he seemed almost... mellow. No doubt he was fussing in his mind about how to spoonfeed his little, what's the word, pet? That's almost fitting. He could almost see Josef rolling Nico over in a bear hug and blowing raspberry kisses on her cheeks. Eli hid his chuckle. Actually, he would not be surprised at all if that's what Josef ended up doing. The poor fighter must have gotten hit over the head a little too hard in his last duel. Or maybe he got a cruel punch by the chest that made his heart beat in a different rhythm. Either way, this was not the same Josef he had left a few months ago. If it was, he was showing a different side of him, a side that Eli wasn't sure he was supposed to see.
The door opened and Nico came in. She had in her hands two wine glasses, nothing extravagant, just simple, narrow-necked ones that sprouted in a flared lip. She handed them to him, and got back to the bed. Josef didn't offer her any more food.
Eli turned around, and pulled out the stolen wine. It was pretty dated. Ah, he couldn't wait to try it. He popped the top off, and poured himself a glass. He sipped the red liquid, savouring the sweet, tangy flavour, and the crisp bitter after taste. It would have been so much better if it was iced, but he couldn't have everything. He turned around and took the wine towards the two.
"Care for a drink?" he asked. Naturally, Josef would say no, so Eli turned to Nico. She looked curious. "Here," he said, extending the bottle to her.
"Powers, Eli. Don't give her the whole bottle!" Josef snatched it out of his hand, and took the other glass from the table. He poured a small bit, not even coming to a quarter of the way up, and handed it to the girl. Nico took it eagerly, but before relinquishing his hold, Josef warned her, "Drink slowly."
She nodded, and tipped the glass to take a sip. She made a small face after swallowing, and said, "It's good at first."
Nico handed the rest of the wine in the glass to Josef, who just shook his head. "I don't drink that stuff." He gave her a small smile. Nico gasped, and swiftly put the glass down on the floor as if it burned her, then proceeded to glare at the wine as if it was poison in disguise.
Eli shook his head. Josef Liechten was such a bad influence! He picked up the glass from the floor, and poured the rest of Nico's wine into his own glass. He returned to the table to grab some grapes to munch on with the wine. A few minutes later, he heard Nico tell Josef she felt strangely warm.
"Already?" Eli asked. "Wow, you two really don't know how to handle good stuff like this."
That pretty much set off the conclusion of their evening. Josef began tucking Nico in, and Eli swore he could hear him assuring her that he would indeed be the one sleeping in the middle.
"Don't forget to help me here," Eli grumbled, as he began putting the untouched food back in sacks. Josef got off the bed, and began gathering their wastes and depositing them in the room's waste basket. When everything was as right as it could get, Eli washed his hands, blew off the lamps, and settled back on the bed. Josef scrambled from the foot of the bed, pushing Eli to his left.
"Keep on that side," the swordsman mumbled quietly.
"I need a blanket too!"
Josef tossed him one of the sheets that wasn't covering Nico. "Though I don't know why you need it. Your little friend can warm you up, can't he?"
"Karon?" Eli said. "I'd rather not use him while I'm asleep."
When Josef was lying back comfortably, his back to Eli, the thief leaned on his elbow, and peered over Josef's shoulder.
"What?" Josef glared.
"I was just wondering why you were so gung-ho about taking the middle... you know, with Nico here and all," Eli gave him a long, slow wink.
The swordsman's glower turned stone cold and murderous. "No, I do not know," he said, enunciating each word, which hinted to Eli that he knew exactly what he was implying. Then Eli felt a pain in his ribs, and realized Josef just pinched him. Hard.
"Ow! What was that for?"
"For being an ass," Josef hissed. "Leave me alone."
Eli harrumphed and turned around, settling his head on the soft pillows. He opened his spirit a little, and woke up Karon. The lava spirit grumbled awake, though he could tell that the spirit wanted to sleep just as much as he did.
"What is it?" the deep, craggy voice asked.
"I just want you to know," and here Eli raised his voice a little. "That you're my best friend in the whole world, Karon."
"Ugh, Eli, honestly. Good night. Don't bother me."
Eli sighed. Seemed as if everyone was in a grouchy mood tonight. Such pleasant companies he kept. However, he felt the wine taking effect on him now, and the warmth that glowed from his belly put him at ease. He pulled the sheets over him, and closed his eyes.
A/N: Seems like these one-shots are getting longer and longer. I mean, I've written 14 paged one-shots before so, there are absolutely no limits. But I guess I'm surprised just where these snippets are taking me. I hope you're enjoying them. Because I'm having loads of fun writing them! This series does not get enough love.