A/N: Apologies for the delay. I hope everyone has had a wonderful holiday season and a great start to the New Year. Let's hope it's better than the last. :) Also, the new few chapters are a little slow, but necessary, please bare with me. Thank you!
Chapter Seven: Complicated
Greg was standing in an open field of grass. His katana blade back in his grasp.
He'd walked away from his bedroom, leaving his mother and Mika to look after Iliana. Found his way back to the training quarters of their mansion and dressed himself for practice, pulling on a traditional set of men's hakama, louse trousers that tied around his waist. He'd walked out in just the trousers and a pair of boots, letting the rays of the morning sun burn at his bare skin. A desperate, and likely, useless attempt to burn away the tense feelings of desire that were still coursing through his veins.
He was moving slowly and carefully through the five blade master poses, his mind clear and focused…he wasn't practicing with a wooden sword after all.
The words broke through his focus and his foot slipped. Greg caught himself easily and moved out of the pose. He sheathed his sword as he turned his gaze back towards the house.
Jin was standing a few feet away. A look of absolute annoyance marred his usually calm features.
Greg frowned. "What?" he asked easily. Standing there before each other, swords on hips…it reminded him of the years they had spent together, training, learning to be warriors.
"You've been gone from Takamagahara, for what?" Jin began simply, his words dripping with irritation. "Fifty years?"
Greg nodded. "Something like that," he agreed.
"And you come back after all that time, pick up your sword and it's as if no time has passed?" Jin sounded absolutely vexed. "Your stance is still fucking perfect."
Greg laughed. They had been incredibility competitive with each other when they were young. "It's hard to forget," he answered instead.
"Right," Jin rolled his eyes.
"Did you come for something?" Greg asked instead, holding back laughter.
Jin's feature softened. "I heard your bride is doing better," he answered softly, concern in his voice.
Greg stiffened. Focusing on his blade work had helped clear his mind…he didn't necessarily want to think about her just yet.
"Yeah," he answered finally, turning away to try and find his focus again. "She's doing much better, thank you."
Jin tilted his head curiously. "You…don't seem pleased…" he noted slowly.
Greg sighed…they had been best friends once; he could still make out Jin's lies as much as Jin could see his. It was irritating.
"It's complicated," he replied simply; he lowered himself into a defensive stance.
Jin raised an eyebrow. "Everything with you always was," he retorted, very clearly ignoring Greg's desire to drop the subject.
Greg cursed softly beneath his breath and sheathed his sword in annoyance. No point in trying; he turned to walk back towards the house, passing Jin silently as he went. He reached the open patio and brought himself down to sit on the wooden floor. Jin followed with careless ease and took a seat beside him. He waited. Silently.
"Yuuki says Hachiman is never wrong," Greg spoke finally.
Jin nodded. "She likes to say that," he chuckled before continuing. "But it has always been true, hasn't it?"
Greg sighed. "For the first time, I think it isn't."
Jin leaned back curiously. "You don't believe the end is coming?" he sounded surprised.
"Not that," Greg shook his head. "That is probably true," Yuuki had never had an inaccurate vision. "But my bride…the human they brought into Takamagahara…they got that wrong."
Jin raised an eyebrow. "Oh…" he muttered, processing the statement. "She's a stranger to you?" he asked finally.
"No, not exactly," Greg frowned; it was complicated. "She is a woman I used…to have a relationship with…" not a truth, not a lie. "But it's been years since we've been together…"
"Oh, that's hardly unsurprising," Jin shrugged easily. "You always said marriage wasn't for you…Hachiman simply gave you the wife you were unwilling to commit to."
Greg ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah…well…it's not that I wasn't willing to commit," he snapped mildly irritated. "I proposed even…just not to her..." It was all spilling out. He hadn't really talked about any of it with anyone. His parents knew about Laurel but he hadn't confided in them the reality of it all. Hadn't shared how much her rejection had devastated him…and how confused he was now, with Iliana here in her place.
Jin actually gaped. "You proposed to another woman?" the astonishment so clearly evident.
Greg nodded, his eyes on the empty field before him. "Yes, but she said no."
"Oh…" Jin muttered and a look of sad contemplation settled on his face. "Did you expect Hachiman to choose this other woman as your bride?"
Greg nodded wordlessly. "I'm glad he didn't," he repeated what he'd already shared with his mother. "This ritual, what was done to the brides…it's cruel. I don't want her to suffer this fate."
Jin turned to look at him critically. "That may seem sweet to you," he began slowly, "admitting that you love someone enough to want to save her from this fate…but the reality is that someone did suffer. Are you okay with this other woman, your bride, suffering in the place of the woman you love?"
"I know how it sounds," Greg muttered annoyed. "I would rather no one had suffered it at all."
They were silent for several minutes, until finally Jin broke the silence. "The woman they chose to be your bride," he began slowly, warily. "Do you feel anything for her at all?"
Greg stared out into the open field. "We don't love each other," he answered finally.
Jin stared at him, sighed heavily and then leaned back to rest his weight on one of the wooden beams of the open patio. He raised his arms above his head, wrapping his hands behind his neck.
"Do you remember when we were young?" he asked randomly.
Greg glanced back at him curiously. There was a sly smirk on his face. "Yeah, I remember," he chuckled.
"Rising stars in combat," Jin continued nostalgically. "Decorated warriors before we were even truly men…"
Greg nodded gently. They had been born into a dark world…they had helped bring it back into balance.
"And arrogant bastards to the boot," Jin ended in laughter. Greg couldn't help but join him.
"We were young and stupid," Greg laughed simply. "We're lucky we survived."
"Always so modest," Jin laughed. "We were good at it…at being warriors. At fighting wars…at killing demons."
Greg nodded. "Your point?" he asked warily; Jin had been the angriest when he'd left Takamagahara. Couldn't understand why he would leave a world he had so ardently fought to protect.
"That's the world we grew up in," Jin answered simply. "All we knew and understood was war and death…we didn't know how to connect with the world outside the battlefield. We didn't learn to care about others…not in the way that matters."
Greg sighed heavily. "I know where you're going with this," he cut in. "But I was sure. I am sure."
Jin actually snorted in disbelief. "Greg, you were frivolous with woman," he retorted simply. "We both were. We flirted and wooed them but never actually let ourselves connect with them. That was our nature, we broke hearts…tell me you were any different on Earth?"
Greg frowned. "No…that pretty much sums it up," he admitted simply.
"This woman you proposed to," Jin continued. "Are you sure you love her?"
Greg stared back, offended at the question. "Of course, I'm sure," he snapped back finally. "I was happy with her…living a human life with her seemed like a peaceful way to spend the remainder of my life…I wanted that. A peaceful life…it's why I left Takamagahara to begin with. She gave me that…when I was with her, I thought myself the luckiest man alive."
"And your current bride?" Jin pressed. "How do you feel about her?"
Greg hesitated. How did he feel? "Iliana…my bride," he began slowly, warily. "She was kind and innocent…still is," he muttered gently. "…and smarter than anyone I've ever met…being with someone like her, knowing what I am, felt wrong, she deserved better. Even more so now."
He meant every word. Most woman exploded with anger when he ended things…Iliana had simply smiled and nodded. Of course, she had said, that was always the deal. She had been so calm…radiant even when she'd walked away, he had almost stopped her. They had become friends…the only woman he had ended things with who was still a part of his life.
"So why did you end things with her?" Jin pressed calmly.
Greg sighed; the reminder still pumping through his veins. "I had no control," he conceded finally.
Jin stared. "What?"
Greg ran a hand through his hair. "With Iliana…things were a whirlwind," he answered slowly. "I couldn't control myself around her…she was…intoxicating. I couldn't live like that…always feeling desperate for her."
Jin barked a laugh. "So the sex was amazing?" he concluded easily.
"Mind-blowing," Greg nodded simply.
Jin laughed. "So what, you didn't like feeling like she owned you?" he asked amused.
Greg hesitated. "It wasn't that…" he began slowly. "After a while, I was having a hard time controlling my tengu form around her."
Jin's careless posture broke and he slipped off the beam he was resting against. He caught himself before he fell over, eyes wide in disbelief. "That's…" he looked at loss for words. "Did you ever…" he couldn't even get the question out.
Greg nodded. "Once," he confessed…it was the first time he'd admitted it. "It happened quickly and I was able to pull myself together before she saw it…but that was it for me. I couldn't trust myself around her after that." He had never told anyone that…and even so, he couldn't bring himself to be completely honest…to admit how far he had fallen.
Jin was gaping at him. "Was it only with her?" he asked finally.
"Yeah," Greg answered. "I don't know why…the longer I was with her, the more my grip on my human form faltered…and I couldn't do that to her. Not knowingly…she deserved better."
Jin's brow furrowed in thought. "You've said that a lot," he mused thoughtfully. "That she deserves better."
Greg frowned. "Because she does," he answered staring back at Jin confused. "A woman like here…inherently kind and selfless deserves to be with someone of equal value. I am a tengu, all I have ever been good at is fighting and killing…and as soon as I could, I ran away from it. I'm not the partner she deserves."
Jin's eyebrows furrowed. "But none of those things worried you when you proposed to another human…" he stated slowly.
Greg sighed. "Laurel…was different," he answered simply. "We were similar…two people who had failed and just wanted to start over. See the world. Live free. Being with her was peaceful because I didn't have to pretend to be a good person. It didn't matter."
Silence fell. Finally, Jin sighed and stood up. "I think you need to reevaluate your definition of love," he turned to look at him, looping his thumbs into the waist band of his hakama.
"What do you know?" Greg snapped; suddenly annoyed. This conversation was hardly one he wanted to be having.
Jin rolled his eyes, exasperated. "I don't know what life you lived on Earth or what kind of love you experienced with mortals," he answered simply. "But I know what it's like to be thrown by a woman. It was like that for me…when I met Harumi. It made no sense and every moment was chaotic…"
"That hardly sounds healthy," Greg muttered. Harumi was Jin's wife…it had been a surprise to him when he'd received the invitation. Jin had been like him…marriage had never seemed to suit them. He had been wrong obviously, about them both.
Jin laughed and a grin settled on his face. "It was the most alive I'd ever felt," he answered, "it still is. With her, everything is brighter, softer, warmer…vibrant in ways I didn't know possible. As stupid as that sounds, I wouldn't want it any other way…that chaos we experienced when we met, just melded seamlessly into our lives. It's a great life."
Greg stared. The smile that had settled on Jin's face was soft, reflective…warm. He had never seen that in him before.
Jin turned his gaze away and his eyes settled far off into the open garden. "You think your bride, this woman who will become your wife, deserves better because you are unworthy," he continued thoughtfully. "You think your tengu form isn't deserving of her…but our tengu form is our true nature, it's who we really are…you can't pretend it doesn't exist…or that you aren't the man it made you. Stop lying to yourself…and to her. Let her decide if you're worthy—"
"That is crap," Greg cut him off annoyed. "No human would ever fall in love with a tengu." Yet he was reminded of how Iliana had reacted when he'd shown her…breathtaking.
"Then ask the others," Jin shrugged simply. "You're not the only one with a human bride."
He turned and started walking away. Greg watched him go, mildly vexed.
"Oh," Jin suddenly stopped and turned back towards him. "I'd like to meet her sometime," his smile was crooked. "This woman that seems to have broken you."
Greg glared. Jin barked a laugh.
The day felt excruciatingly long.
She was feeling better. Her back was sore…but the pain was beginning to dim, to feel more distant than merely numbed. And she could walk on her own, slowly but she could walk. It was a much-appreciated improvement.
She was sitting on a chair, Mika and Akemi fussing with her. They were getting her dressed and ready for dinner.
The day had been excruciatingly long. She had spent most of it pacing up and down the room, strengthening her body as she walked slowly, leaning against the wall. Mika had spent the day with her, checking her bandages and changing them for her when they began to itch. Greg had popped in a few times, but the awkwardness of their morning tussle hindered their speech. Neither of them knew how to approach each other, neither knew how to move forward…what was forward?
The day had gone by slowly until finally, both Akemi and Mika walked in, their hands carrying clothing, makeup and glittering hair ornaments. They wanted to introduce her to the family.
Iliana was tense…afraid and nervous. She didn't know what was coming…what to expect. Everyday something new.
"Relax," Akemi had kneeled before her, she was gently passing a brush over her cheeks. "You look absolutely breathtaking."
Iliana laughed softly. "Thank you but I'm not worried about how I look," she muttered.
Akemi looked at her curiously. "What are you worried about then?" she questioned.
"I'm not sure," she whispered gently. "Everything is still new…and somewhat scary."
Akemi smiled softly. "You don't have to be afraid," she assured her. "You are part of our family now. You're safe."
Iliana felt her chest tightened. She forced a smile. No, I'm not.
Greg waited in the hallway.
He was waiting for Iliana…his mother and Mika had gone in at least an hour ago, to help her get ready for dinner. He himself was already in one of his best set of black kimono robes, his whole-body tense beneath the fine cloth. He could feel the anxiety building up.
He knew what was coming, what his parents wanted from him and Iliana…and he knew he couldn't give it to them. He wasn't even sure he knew what he could do for Iliana. But he'd promised to protect her, he had to…his mind was clouded. With the still fresh memory of touching, kissing her that morning…and the very confusing conversation he'd subsequently had with Jin. Every day, every moment grew even more complicated.
Greg ran a hand through his hair, exasperated.
The door opened and Mika stepped out, she stiffened slightly when she caught sight of him, still embarrassed to be in his presence but she bowed politely before turning back. His mother was walking out with Iliana.
They had dressed her in a more western set of mixed-Japanese robes. A long pleated, dark blue skirt fitted high around her waist, a white wide neck blouse with long hanging sleeves, embroidered at the hems with soft blue flowers. A thin golden obi around her waist, bowed at her back. Her curly hair was tumbling neatly over her left shoulder, a single crystal flowered comb twisted in to keep it from falling over her face. A soft layer of makeup accentuating her ever-nervous gaze.
She looked like a doll. Greg felt the guilt return. This is what he hadn't been able to put into words…she didn't deserve this…to be paraded around as his dutiable wife. She was so much more.
His mother smiled as they stepped out and she held out Iliana's arm for him. He accepted, wordlessly. Iliana slipped her arm into his warily.
"Shall we?" his mothered smiled looking at them both with obvious delight.
"Lead the way," he muttered in return.
They walked through the house towards the main dining room. He slowed down for Iliana, falling several steps behind his mother and Mika.
"How are you feeling?" he leaned down to whisper.
"I'll be okay," she answered in return stiffly.
Greg looked down at her. "What's wrong?" he asked softly, recognizing the discomfort in her response.
Iliana sighed. "Your mother wants to start planning the wedding," she muttered simply.
Greg wanted to curse. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I'll deal with it, I promise."
She was silent.
They rounded a corner and came into the living room. Several soft pillows spread around small tea tables. The soft chatter of curious conversation. The room was crowded. Greg froze, he felt Iliana's grip on him tighten.
"お母さま." (Mother) A couple walked up as they stepped into the room. Still ever young, long brown hair twisted into a braid over her shoulder, soft tender smile in an oval face; the evident facial features of her mother present in the kindness of her eyes. Kana was the spitting image of their mother.
"I'm so glad you two could make it," his mother walked forward to pull her into a hug.
"Of course," Kana beamed back at her. "We would never miss this," she turned to look at Greg. "Long time no see," she giggled.
A smile pulled at Greg's lips. Kana had always been bright and cheerful; she could make anyone smile.
"You're getting old," he teased. She was his older sister after all.
Kana pouted, annoyed. "You're one to talk," she snapped. "Earth is chipping away at your eternal youth."
He laughed. "No, it's not," he countered and then paused. He glanced down at Iliana, standing nervously by his side. "Kana…I'd like you to meet Iliana…my bride."
She was leaning up against him for support. Acutely aware that she had not been ready for what was about to happen.
A young, beautiful woman came up to her and bowed elegantly. A peach colored kimono wrapped around a small, delicate body. She raised her face up towards her, and smiled, a smile that could brighten any room. She looked so much like Greg's mother.
"It's so nice to meet you," Kana's eyes were a soft brown, soothing. "I'm Greg's older sister, Kana."
"The pleasure is mine," Iliana whispered, feeling faint all over again. She had thought she'd only be having dinner with his mother and father…but the room was full. She caught sight of Yuuki standing at the other end of the room. She wasn't prepared for this.
"This is my husband, Hiroki," Kana turned to the man who was standing beside her. Tall and slender, he was wearing a dark green kimono, smiling at her from a round, almost childish face. Black hair trimmed neatly into an effortless bedhead.
"I'm glad to see you're feeling better," he bent down in a bow as Kana introduced him. He turned his gaze towards Greg. "Long time no see, brother!"
He slapped Greg's free shoulder, laughing merrily.
"How are the kids?" Greg grinned.
"Oof," Hiroki made a face. "Troublemakers, through and through, like their mother."
Kana blushed faintly. "Hiro!" she chided.
Greg laughed; they all did. Iliana stared…she had known he had sister; known he was an uncle. But they had always been people she'd never thought she'd know…it was strange, seeing him interacting with other's so warmly, so fondly. It was strangely uncharacteristic.
"We would have brought them," Kana added gently as the laughter died off, "but we didn't want to overwhelm you two."
"Right, of course," Greg nodded simply. "I'll make sure to stop by, before we go."
Kana and Hiroki stared. "Go?" Kana repeated. "Where are you going?"
Iliana felt him stiffen beside her. She looked up at him, and saw mild annoyance slip across his features.
"Sorry…nowhere," he laughed carelessly, the annoyance gone.
"Always rushing to go back to earth," a male voice cut through and Iliana felt herself immediately gape.
A warrior had walked up. Tall, muscled body wrapped in a black kimono; two long blades knotted around his waist. His easy stance alone commanded obedience…relaxed enough to feign carelessness but somehow still steady and resolved, as if he were ready to pull out a blade at a moment's notice. Olive eyes etched with knowledge, dark brown hair pulled back into a thick ponytail high on his head, soft short strands falling carelessly over his amused gaze.
But it wasn't the swords around his waist that took her breath away or even the obvious strength of his broad shoulders and sturdy stance…it was the warrior markings below his eyes.
Dark purple and jagged…angry scars on soft skin. Just as breathtaking as when she'd seen them on Greg.
He was perhaps the most handsome man she'd ever seen.
"Your month is open."
Iliana snapped her gaze away, to look up at Greg. "What?" she stuttered.
"Your month was open," he answered simply; his sounded mildly vexed.
Iliana felt the embarrassment rise onto her face. "Oh…" she didn't know what else to say.
"Give her a break, Kouki," the warrior spoke again. "You've always known I'm better looking."
Everyone broke into laughter, Iliana felt herself color even further in embarrassment. She tightened her grip on Greg's arm.
"Iliana," Greg spoke through the laughter. "Meet Jin…General of our armed forces."
General? Iliana felt her eyes go wide. "Pleasure," she whispered softly, still stunned by him.
"No, the pleasure is mine," he smiled at her as he bowed. His eyes still sparkling in amusement. "Kouki has done us a disservice, hiding such a beautiful bride."
Iliana felt her blush darken; why was he having an effect on her?
"You're married, you know," Greg was staring at Jin suspiciously.
Jin smirked. "I wasn't planning to steal her," he chuckled, he turned his gaze back to her. "But I am tempted."
Soft laughter broke out again. Iliana shifted nervously, acutely aware that she was the center of attention.
"Oh, don't pay him any mind," someone else broke into the conversation. A beautiful woman came up to Jin, taking his arm in her grasp, startling him slightly. She looked up at him, her face bright with amusement. Long black hair grazing her waist, delicate figure in clothes much like the ones Iliana was wearing. Her eyes were a surprising hazel.
"These two are always such a hassle when they get together," she turned to look at her; small oval face, large eyes, small mouth…the definition of Japanese beauty. "I'm Harumi, Jin's wife."
"Hello…I'm Iliana," so many new introductions, so many new people.
"Harumi, good to see you," Greg smiled at her gently.
She beamed up at him. "You look good," she smiled softly.
Greg chuckled faintly. "That's a relief," he laughed.
"And that's enough of that," Jin pulled his wife away slightly.
Another wave of laughter.
"Okay, hand her over," Harumi stepped forward and took the arm that Iliana was using to hold onto Greg. "She's been with you for four days now, give her some room to breathe."
"Ahh, she's not steady yet," Greg looked down at her worriedly as Harumi pulled her away.
"It's okay, we got her," Kana came up and took her other arm, helping Harumi shuffle her away. "Sorry about that," Kana whispered as they stepped away from the men. "They would never stop fighting over you if we left you with them."
Harumi giggled. Iliana turned to look at her nervously. "Ahh…about your husband…I didn't mean to…" she didn't know how to express how embarrassed she was that he'd left her almost speechless.
"Oh, don't worry," Harumi smiled as she led them through the room. "Jin knows how good-looking he is and he likes to tease, I hardly register it anymore."
"Yeah, cause you won," Kana giggled glancing over at her as they walked slowly. "Caught the unattainable tengu."
Harumi snorted. "That title was always your brother's," she teased mercilessly.
Kana laughed. "Then I guess the most impressive one is actually Iliana," she turned towards her, "We never thought my brother would bring home a bride."
Iliana stared. "He didn't," she said it before she could stop herself.
"Oh…well…I mean," Kana stumbled over her words. "I'm just glad there was someone in his life who does love him…" her eyes suddenly widened and her cheeks colored in embarrassment. "I mean…" she looked like a deer caught in the headlights.
"Shall we sit?" Harumi cut in.
They had actually stopped at the far end of the room, there were a series of low standing couches along the wall. Iliana nodded wordlessly, slowly they all took a seat, carefully helping her down.
"Tell us everything," Harumi smiled gently.
They wanted to know how they met. How he treated her? How long they'd been together? Iliana did her best to answer, honestly, but she could see it in their surprised expressions. She knew him longer than they'd expected…she'd been with him before…no one wanted to say it. But Iliana could tell. They knew about Laurel and she didn't fit into the life they had thought Greg had had on Earth. It didn't help that Yuuki had walked over to join them, listening, silently observing. Already aware of what Iliana couldn't bring herself to say again.
"Okay, ladies, enough," it was Greg who finally came over to save her from their interrogation.
"Oh, come on," Kana pouted. "We're just getting to know each other."
"Right," Greg raised an eyebrow at her. "But it's time for dinner and there's someone who wants to meet her."
Understanding settled on Kana's face. "Oh, of course," she turned to smile at her. "We can finish this later."
Iliana smiled nervously. "Of course," she tried to keep the dread out of her voice. She looked up at Greg. "Give me a moment," she shifted to try and push herself back up onto her feet.
"No, it's okay," Greg was suddenly kneeling before her. He leaned forward and wrapped a single arm around her waist, pulling her against him. He was back up on his feet, pulling her up with him before she could even process. Iliana squeaked and grabbed a hold of his shoulders; holding onto him tightly.
"Show off," Harumi chided but her eyes were sparkling with laughter.
Greg ignored her. "You okay?" he asked softly.
She felt slightly faint…her heart pounding loudly in her chest, being wrapped up against him again did that to her. "Yeah," she lied.
He loosened his hold on her slowly, making sure she was steady on her feet before they started walking again. Iliana holding onto his arm as they made their way through the room. They were walking towards a couple….Akemi and…
Iliana felt her stomach drop. Something about meeting his father terrified her.
"Mother, Father," Greg spoke as the came up to them. "Please allow me to introduce my bride, Iliana."
They turned to look at them, Akemi smiled. His father stared back impassively. Iliana held her breath…there was something so strikingly familiar about his stern face. Short jet-black hair, square jaw and piercing brown eyes. Broad shoulders in a tall, muscled frame; a man accustomed to authority. A man of power.
And then he smiled softly. Wrinkles crinkled around his eyes and he stepped forward to bow gently.
"It is an honor to have you in our home, Iliana-san," his voice was low but comforting.
"The honor is mine," she whispered, taken aback by his kindness.
"We are quite fortunate," Akemi walked forward and took her hands in hers, "to have such a lovely young woman joining our family."
Iliana felt her chest tighten. "You are too kind," she muttered.
Akemi laughed before glancing at Greg. "Not at all, I can only imagine how difficult our son must be," she raised a hand and rested it on his chest. "Thank you for sharing your life with him."
"I…" the words caught in her throat. They were being so kind…she didn't deserve it.
"Mother," Greg cut in, his voice surprisingly firm.
Akemi looked at him curiously. "Shall we have dinner?" she asked instead.
Greg merely nodded.