Shifting his attention back to the girl in his arms, Ember mumbled softly, "It's okay, sweetheart. Everything is going to be alright."
A deep sob wracked her body, and she clung just a little tighter to him. He did not push her away. He just pulled her closer, and he did not let her go until she chose to leave his embrace.
Backing out of his arms, she wiped at her eyes. He rested his hands lightly on her bare, bony shoulders, rubbing them to offer as much comfort as he could.
"I'm Ember," he said, "You can talk to me at any time, alright, sweetheart? I'm here for you."
She just nodded, her gaze on the ground. His hands found her cheeks, and he drew her close, pressing a kiss to her forehead.
"It's going to be alright," he promised, "It's going to be alright. I'm here, sweetheart. I'm here."
She thunked her head onto his chest.
"Are you hungry?" he asked.
"What's your favorite food?" Ember asked, a hand playing with her hair, the other laying lightly around her waist.
She looked up to him and just stared, as if debating whether to trust him or not. She stared and stared and stared until-
"I like turkey sandwiches."
Ember almost flinched.
Her voice was so ravaged, so pained, so scratchy...
When was the last time she'd had anything to drink? When was the last time she'd spoken? When was the last time she'd made a sound that wasn't mixed with a sob?
He steeled himself, forcing a smile onto his lips as he asked, "Anything on them?"
She shook her head, and he pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead.
"Then I'll make you the best turkey sandwich you've ever tasted," he promised.
A smile tugged at her lips, and he found himself fighting to keep from pressing his own mouth against them.
Instead, he again kissed her forehead and took one of her delicate hands, leading her into his kitchen.
He set her down at the behest of his table, pecked her cheek, and went to make her the sandwich. For the next few minutes, almost obediently, she sat with her hands folded in her lap, and she waited.
"Would you like the crusts, or no?" Ember asked, throwing a look over his shoulder.
"Please," she replied, her voice hardly above a whisper.
He nodded, filled up a glass of water, and brought the plate and cup over. Setting it before her, he pulled up a chair, crossing his arms over the back of it. With his chin on his muscled forearms, he watched the girl eye her food wearily.
"Dig in, sweetheart. Just make sure to eat slowly. I don't want you getting sick," he advised.
She already held that little bit of knowledge from past experience. But, just to be kind, she acted as if she didn't.
Reaching for the sandwich, she almost paused.
She hadn't realized how shaky her hands, how bony her fingers, how empty her stomach until she closed her hands around the plain bread and turkey sandwich.
Yet, it still was no issue to follow Ember's order to eat slowly.
She knew she could hardly get anything down. She ate too much too fast, and she knew she'd end up vomiting in his bathroom for the next few minutes.
Somehow, she managed to get the entire thing down, even if it took her almost twenty minutes.
After she'd eaten the last bite, she again settled her hands into her lap. A nauseous feeling began to spread through her belly, and she gritted her teeth, begging herself not to throw it all back up.
The feeling wasn't new. It showed its face every time she ate.
Thankfully, recently, the feeling evolved less and less into anything worse.
When the feeling subsided, she mumbled out her thanks, not daring to look at him.
She didn't know why she had such an issue with holding eye contact with anyone. Well, other than her obvious useless eye, of course.
Gods, she hated her eye. She hated it so, so much.
He brushed a hand over her cheek, his thumb grazing under her good eye. Drawing her attention to him, he met her gaze.
She didn't know why she tried for a smile, but it failed.
His response was to draw her closer.
"I'm so, so sorry this happened to you," he said softly.
She didn't need to be told what he meant. She was a living corpse, scarred and broken and skin-and-bones. She was quite possibly dying.
And he was the first to say anything about it and not just stared at the girl who looked like a ghost. Most people were too afraid of triggering her, should they say anything. So, most people just didn't say anything.
At least, not anything along the lines of, What's wrong with her face? Why is she so skinny? Mommy, what's wrong with her?
Sentences she'd first heard ten minutes ago, when those kids managed to catch a glimpse of the gnarled wyvern carved into the side of her face. Sentences that had caused her to leave before the panic rising in her chest took over.
"Most people aren't," Jewel said, her voice quiet.
Lifting his other hand, he cupped her other cheek, her scarred, nerve-damaged cheek, and she didn't feel it. She didn't even realize he'd done it until he pushed her hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. Flinching beneath his touch, she wrapped her arms around herself, the trembling returning.
Don't cry, she begged herself, Please, please don't cry.
"You know," he said, rescuing her from the tears that threatened to well up against her eyes, "Despite the scar, you're still beautiful. Hell, it makes you more beautiful."
She laughed. Genuinely laughed at how ridiculous his words had been. "How? It's the ugliest thing about me."
He leaned forward to lay his brow against hers. "No. No, it's the most beautiful thing about you. It means you fought. It means you lived. It means you're strong."
She almost laughed at the absurdity of it.
"No. No, I'm not. I'm not. I'm weak, I'm a coward, I hide, I run, I flee. I do not fight. I do not fight because I am not strong," her voice cracked, "Don't lie to me."
"I'm not," he breathed, "Gods, Jewel, I'm not. Whatever you went through, it's over. You lived through it. And I admire that."
She bit her lip, her right eye welling up will tears.
Only the right eye, because only the right eye worked. The other... didn't. She couldn't see out of it, couldn't cry out of it. It had been that way for years, ever since that wyvern had been carved into her face.
Another imperfection that made her worthless. Unwanted. Made her father hate himself. Made her hate herself.
She dropped his gaze.
"Don't cry. Baby, don't cry," he almost begged, his hands finding hers.
"Why do you care?" she questioned, her voice struggling as she fought back the tears.
He paused for only a moment, but it was enough to make her want to fling herself out a window.
Then he spoke, his voice gentle. "Let's make a bet."
She paused. The tears still brimmed, but she managed to lift her gaze to his. "What?"
"I bet that you'll be my mate," he said.
Of all things, she hadn't expected that.
But still... she doubted it. She didn't deserve a mate. She'd never, never be given one.
There had never been an easier bet to win.
"Alright. The terms?" Jewel asked.
"You stay here, with me, for the next six weeks. Both so that we can wait for the bond to set in, and so that I can make sure you get better," Ember said, "As for prizes, I get to start planning our wedding the day you wake up and realize I'm yours. If it turns out that I'm not, then you can have whatever of mine you want. That, and I'll help you settle into this town."
She didn't know what she'd want with any of his things, but she knew she could find something useful. He was a healer, after all.
She nodded. "Alright. It's a deal."
He grinned, and he kissed her.
For only a moment, she stiffened, shocked. Quickly, however, she relaxed, melting into the kiss. Opening her mouth to him, she kissed him back.
She knew not why, but it felt right. Like kissing him could save her, even though she knew very well that that it couldn't.
His smile widened against her lips, his eyes closing. Deepening the kiss as his arms snaked around her waist, he pulled her into his lap. Her arms slipped around his neck, and she prayed she was doing it right as she met his tongue with her own.
Their lips moved together, not always anywhere near in sync, but that was to be expected when this was her first kiss.
But she enjoyed it. She really did, and she hoped he did as well.
Her first kiss.
Gods, she never thought it would happen.
She was kissing someone. She was kissing someone who'd just made a bet with her on the premise of them being mates.
What kind of whole had she just dug for herself?
Ember drew away, a little bit of worry in his eyes. It vanished when he noticed her cheeks glowing pink, her throat bobbing in a nervous swallow.
Drawing her a little closer, he murmured something quite inappropriate in her ear. Her blush deepened, and she pushed him away. Her arms had little force behind them, but he still leaned away.
It made her wonder if he'd pulled back on purpose, just because she wanted him to.
A chuckle escaped his throat, quite possibly the most wonderful noise she'd ever heard, and he quickly pecked her cheek.
"Don't worry, love. It's your choice if and when we do anything," Ember promised, "I can wait."
"Good," was her reply.
Gods, what was she doing?
He kissed her cheek again, this kiss lingering much longer.
"Alright, love. I've got to take care of your dish. Unless you want anything else?"
She shook her head, and he transferred her back into her seat. His thumb brushed over the scar, and he picked up the plate, taking to his counter.
When he returned, he pulled her up and into his arms, his forehead against hers, his hands clasped just above her ass.
"So, love, what would you like to do for our first day together?" he asked.
"I don't know," she replied, shifting her nervous gaze away from him.
He stuck a finger under her chin and lifted it, drawing her attention back to him. With a smile, he suggested, "How's cuddling on the cough sound?"
"No questioning the scar?" she asked, her voice quiet.
"I've got my own, and I know full well that prying isn't a good thing," Ember said, "Whenever you're ready to talk about your scars, I'll talk about mine."
She nodded, a small smile slipping onto her lips. "Thank you."
Pressing a gentle kiss to her lips, he murmured, "So...cuddling?"
She hummed her response against his lips. Opening her mouth to him, she kissed him back, already wanting to feel his mouth on hers. Needing to feel it.
He smiled, his hands sliding up and into her hair, and he kissed her deeply. She pressed herself against him, her arms snaking around his neck.
For a few minutes, they did nothing but kiss. When they drew away, he took her into another room, back to his living room, settling onto his couch. He guided her down onto it's soft cushions, tucking her into his side. She closed her eyes, happy to have the shelter, leaning her head on his chest.
"Would you like to talk?" Ember asked, his thumb brushing over her cheek.
She shook her head. "Not today. Tomorrow. I just need you to hold me."
So he did. For as long as he could, he did.