Hardestadt Delac opened his door after hearing the knock. The house was comfy. Nothing special, but a pleasant little place in the city. It had served as an adequate base of operations for now, and France was indeed lovely this time of year. He had been surprised when he'd heard a knock there, though.
So he opened the door, his eyes widening as he saw her. "Eliza?" He said. She stood there, in a heavy coat, her hair done up under a thick cap.
"Hello?" she said with a nervously cheerful grin. "Happy Christmas!"
Hardestadt found himself laughing softly. "How did you-"
"I was nearby and…well, I found myself wishing to see you, and there you were! It seemed a terrible shame not to come say hello!" Eliza said. "It has been a few years, after all!"
"It…it has," Hardestadt grinned. "Well, come in, come in, it must be freezing outside!" he pulled the door opened and Eliza walked in, taking off her cap when he shut the door. Her hair spilled out, flowing down her back.
"Goodness, that is better! What a lovely house! Is Grete here with you?"
"She's in business in Belgium. She's due back next week…I'm seeing up some business ventures in America as well. I've mainly been staying between New York and Chicago down there ever since I got back from New Orleans and the western territories…" he looked at her. "What have you been doing? You look…amazing!" he couldn't keep the smile off his face. Eliza always, always made him smile. Her guileless warmth and cheer was utterly infectious.
"Oh, thank you!" she removed her coat and he took it, hanging it up "Oh, you even have a fire going!"
"More for appearance than anything else. I don't feel the cold much…"
"Sir Delac, you are a shameless braggart," Eliza's red eyes danced. "I was…well…if you do not mind…"
"Perhaps we could spend Christmas together?" She looked at him hopefully. "I was helping several Seers through the Remeditary not long ago. In fact, they are all doing splendidly! A husband and a wife together if you can believe that, and the wife's brother. They all awakened at the same time and thankfully I found them and helped guide them to safety. But…well…they seemed so close together and I have been wandering about for some time. I was unsure if you were alone, but…well…seeing everyone so happy with the season…"
Hardestadt surprised her. He leaned in and gave her cheek a kiss, Eliza seeming to beam in delight. "Milady Cortly. I would be honored." He grinned and took her hand.
"Oh, wonderful! Wonderful, how lovely! Thank you so much!...I mean, I…" Eliza stopped, flustered anew. He had known her for nearly two centuries and he never failed to love her presence. Hardestadt remembered something.
"Actually…" he said. "I have a surprise."
"A surprise?" She asked. Hardestadt took her hand and led her to the living room. "Oh…oh, my, is that a…is that really a-!?"
"It's a phonograph," Hardestadt said. "I managed to pick one up! Even some records! Watch this!" He opened the drawer, removing a black disc and setting it. "Let's see…" he adjusted the machine as the slow music began to play "Since this is a holiday, I believe in lieu of a ball…" he offered his hand. "May I have this dance, Milady Cortly?"
"Sir Delac, I would be delighted…" Eliza reached and took his hand. He put his hand to her waist, the two beginning a slow, even waltz right there in the living room. Eliza kept her eyes on his, matching his movements, holding his hand. "Oh, this is new," Eliza whispered softly. She leaned in, putting her head on his shoulder. "I am glad to see you…" she murmured. "So glad…"
"Seeing you always does my heart well, Eliza," Hardestadt said. He squeezed her hand. "Christmas, hm?"
"Well, it is catching on of late! Did you read Mr. Dickens' delightful book?"
"As a matter of fact…" Hardestadt dipped her, bringing a delighted look to Eliza's eyes. He leaned in and kissed her then and she brought up a hand behind his head, kissing him with comfortable familiarity. He knew the value of touch to her, the way she sometimes struggled with physical contact and sensation. He, however, was the seeming exception she had admitted to him. The two had an intimacy as friends together, a complete and utter trust between them.
The music continue as Eliza drew him closer, kissing him harder. She pulled him to the couch, sliding her hands down to undo his belt. "What say we…warm up a bit more?" she asked with a giggle.
"You read my mind, Milady Cortly…" he grinned at her.
Eliza savored the feel of his warmth to her own. "Honestly…I had not exactly planned to do that quite so early. Not that I am complaining, mind!" she giggled, laying upon him. Hardestadt folded a hand behind his head, stroking her white hair with the other. Eliza kissed his chest before she sat up. "And the fireplace is delightful."
"Actually," Hardestadt said. "I need to step a few houses down to pick up some things soon…" he looked at her. "You mind waiting here for just a bit?"
"May I come with-"
"Actually, I would appreciate if you would just look after the house for just a short time? I won't be long, Eliza, I promise?" he gave her a pleading look. Eliza cocked her head.
"Oh, certainly then," she said, blinking a bit. I hope I have not offended him…he is not usually so…evasive there?
Hardestadt had soon dressed and departed, leaving her to warm herself by the fire. Eliza sighed in contentment. Things had been comfortable for a while now. The funds Hardestadt provided her helped a great deal. No more scrounging or foraging, no worrying about making ends meet. He had made certain she could withdraw from banks all over the world, any time she needed. It made a very welcome and helpful change, she noted cheerfully.
Although Hardestadt wasn't usually evasive like this. She hoped everything was alright. He had seemed fine when she had shown up, even delighted to see her. She loved, absolutely adored the way his eyes lit up when she surprised him. She giggled to herself, settling by the fire. Delightful…well, I should not worry about it…
She heard the door some time later and glanced up, wrapped in a blanket. "Hardestadt?"
"I'm back!" he called, setting a few things on the table. "I'm friendly with the local butcher. Managed to get some food…I'll cook us a little feast later!" Eliza sat up at full attention hearing that.
"Also…well…I'll show you later," he added. He gave her a smile, the snow still in his white hair. "Why don't we spend some time by the fire? I'll take down the pillows and blankets, we'll camp there and keep warm all night?"
"I have never spent a Christmas like that, but it sounds superb!" Eliza said. "What did you get?"
"Patience, milady Cortly…" Hardestadt said. He made his way over. "Sorry about running out so suddenly, but…" he paused for a second. "Grete…would love to see you, too. You mean a lot to her, Eliza."
"My little wolf girl…She has been well?"
"She has," Hardestadt said, the proud look in his eyes again that Eliza loved. Ever since Venice, she had known Hardestadt as kind and unflinching. After Venice, she had seen him with his daughter, beholding the love and devotion he had for the child. What was more, Eliza herself had bonded with little Grete, and she began to find more and more reasons to visit them, seeing Grete as she grew, even letting the young werewolf confide in her.
Eliza and Hardestadt talked for hours. Plays they had seen, places they had been. Eliza asked him about the hunts he had been on, expressed worry for the wounds he had taken, and he in turn inquired about the Seers she had rescued, worrying equally about the relentless Consultant of Shadows.
When he began to cook for her, Eliza stood with him by the small kitchen as he crafted a new meal for her, her eyes straying to the one box he had returned with, that he had refused to tell her of yet.
After they had eaten, Eliza took a seat on a chair, suggesting they tell ghost stories. It was, after all, tradition. The snow began to pick up outfit, blanketing out the world in sheets of white. Eliza pressed herself against him, ostensibly for warmth, though she giggled all the way through with his arms around her.
When the day began to die, Hardestadt lit candles, kindling the fire anew, before he retrieved the blankets and pillows to lay upon with floor. "And while we can still see…close your eyes." He added. Eliza grinned.
"Oh, very well…though are you certain you cannot wait to blindfold me later?" she teased. Hardestadt grinned.
"All in time. But…please? Just a few moments." He said. Eliza obeyed, closing her eyes. She heard movement and then felt him sat in front of her. "Gift giving is a tradition during this, right?"
She opened her eyes, and then they widened. He had a small box before him. "Happy Christmas, Eliza…" Hardestadt said. Within the box was a small object; a pendant upon a silver chain. The end was shaped like a star, carved from a red stone, the same shade as her eyes.
"Hardestadt…" she whispered. she reached out and took it.
"You never seemed someone who cares much about…material things overmuch," Hardestadt said. "But, well…I wanted to get you something. Something…nice."
"Nobody has given me a gift like…" Eliza lifted it. She usually never bothered looking twice at things like this, not since her time in Venice. Stefano had presented her with an abundance of fine gowns and jewels largely to have something better to look at, to draw the envy of other men and women in public. She had felt a costumed trophy then, attaching no emotion, nor significance there.
But this? This was different. "And…" Hardestadt removed something else. "Actually, I picked this up in American about five months ago…."
"The wonderful Wizard of Oz?" Eliza read the title. She looked up at him. "These are for me?" She saw him smile and nod.
"I don't have…anything for…" She looked at the pendant, seeing the red gem sparkle in the firelight. She looked at the book, her hands trembling. Nobody has…
A feeling welled within her, warm and deep. She looked to him, her eyes shining now. "Oh…Hardestadt. Thank you so much."
She took the pendant and unclasped it, sliding it around her neck and fastening it. "How do I look?"
"Exquisite as ever," Hardestadt said. He reached out and she took his hand. With her free hand, she felt the gemstone. She never would have looked twice at such a thing, it was true. But having it given to her like this. To have it presented to her by her dear friend. IT was more than just an adornment, it had his feelings, his emotion attached to it.
"You don't need anything for me, Eliza. You being here is more than enough," he said. His hand closed on hers and she reciprocated. Long ago, she had told him of her difficulty in physical contact, in how overwhelming it could be for her. That hesitation seemed to burn away around him now. The ease at which she touched her skin to his, her lips to his, how they moved against one another both startled and thrilled her.
It was not simple the physical act. Sometimes she loved more than anything else to just lay against him quietly, to embrace him and to feel his warmth to her own. There was no hesitation, and all they had been through together only strengthened the bond she felt toward him.
Wearing this…it's a gift from a friend, she thought happily, touching it again. She leaned in and kissed his cheek. "I shall read that book as soon as possible," she added happily. "And…I am so glad to have you beside me as well, Hardestadt Delac…Happy Christmas."
"Well, let it snow!" Hansel Brighterson laughed a bit, raising his beer. Eliza Cortly grinned and clinked her glass of hard cider against it before they sipped their drinks. Eliza beamed, hearing the snows coming down outside their hotel room. "How'd you get the money for a place like this anyways? Pretty fancy…"
"Oh, well, I have my ways! And friends with large accounts," Eliza admitted with a giggle. Hansel put a hand behind his head. "Heard anything from the girls?"
"Not yet," Eliza said. "But I don't think it will be long now," she added. "After that, it will just be a matter of directing them where they need to be." The Seer looked out the window, the heat up in the hotel suite, a collection of drinks before them. She had spent numerous holidays with her friend now and had grown well accustomed to his presence at her side. Her sailor cap was resting on the table, though she was still dressed in an oversized sweater. She sighed softly, gazing out the window. "The last time I spent the holidays with someone, Hansel…was a friend. A dear, dear friend of mine. I'm certain he has forgotten me by now, though. I do not suppose our parting was on the best of terms."
"I don't think it's possible for anyone to forget you, Eliza," Hansel said with a warm look. "Come on. You don't give yourself enough credit. Don't be down on yourself. I bet the guy misses you, too. Maybe you should look him up, give him a ring?"
"Oh, goodness," Eliza flushed despite herself. "It has been so long and, well, I do not know where I would begin with an explanation, Hansel. I had wanted to, but…I suppose I was frightened at the time." Eliza paused. "Though it is odd. I had almost forgotten about the holiday until just recently."
"Huh. Now that you mention it, so did I. We were pretty busy, though. Guess we just sort of forgot?"
"I suppose that is as valid an explanation as any," Eliza shrugged.
"It is good to spend Christmas with family, though," Hansel said with a sidelong glance.
"Well, I'm the only one here," Eliza sipped her cider.
"Like I said. Family," Hansel said. "Though I should have remembered to…grab a ham or a turkey or something."
"You should have seen what Hardestadt could do with a kitchen!" Eliza brightened suddenly. "Once I had a Christmas supper with him and his daughter. Obviously I don't quite have to eat, but ohh, that was a meal I can still taste," she sighed.
"You sure you're not looking this guy up, Eliza? For my sake, if nothing else? I could murder a good Christmas dinner right now."
Eliza waved a hand. "I will…tell you the story, Hansel. One day, perhaps…" her gaze turned wistful. "A lot of things happened."
"I'm not gonna pry," Hansel said gently. "But…if nothing else? You got a friend right here," he raised his glass again and Eliza brightened back up. She lifted her cider when she heard a knock at the door.
"Are you expecting somebody, Hansel?"
"Huh? Me? No, you?"
"No. Not at all," Eliza closed her eyes, her head slumping down as she projected her mind out. She looked beyond the door, gazing into who could be there at the hotel. She returned to her body immediately, her head snapping up. She leaped up so fat that she dropped her cider, nearly tripping over her own feet. "Hansel! Hansel! DOOR!"
"Huh?! Are we under attack!?" He looked frantic for a moment. Eliza seemed to be paralyzed, staring at the door, her mouth working without sound. She had not expected this. She was paralyzed, heart pounding in her chest. What do I do what do I do what do I do?!
She steeled herself, taking a breath as she looked at the door. A woman's voice groaned outside. "Eliza Cortly, I know you're in there! Just open up already!"
"….Are we dead?" Hansel asked. Eliza swallowed hard. She walked to the door and opened it. Before her stood a young-looking woman, though Eliza knew she must have been nearly two hundred and fifty now. Her skin was a dusky shade, her black hair tied up in a knot at the base of her neck. Her turquoise eyes were warm, lips curved up in a smile. She was carrying several bags in her arms.
"Hey," she said as she saw Eliza. They stared at one another, memories threatening to overwhelm Eliza Cortly. She felt a tear in her eyes, bracing herself for attacks, insults or more. She deserved them from this one, after how long it had been, how things had ended previously with her and-
The woman set the bags down, stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Eliza in a tight hug. Eliza might have stiffed at the touch of another still sometimes, but this woman's embrace was something she knew so well. Instead, all she felt was an urge to envelop her in her own arms.
"Grete," Eliza murmured. She hugged her close. "Oh, darling girl. My dear little wolf child," she brought a hand up to her head, holding her in turn. The storm in her breast did not subside, but she grasped on to Grete even tighter. They released one another, stepping back. Eliza brought her hands up to Grete's dark cheeks, feeling her. "You're so cold…"
"It's cold outside. But the food I brought is hot."
"She brought food? Is she as amazing as she sounds?" Hansel asked, looking up. "Oh…hi, I'm-"
"Who is he?" Grete looked to Eliza, pursing her lips like a pouting teenager.
"A friend, that's all! His name is Hansel! Nobody inappropriately intimate!" Eliza said quickly.
"Good," Grete smiled suddenly. "Hansel, was it?"
"Hansel, remember I mentioned that friend had a…daughter?" Eliza motioned her head to Grete. "This is her…"
"Sometimes I forget how you people live forever," Hansel grinned. "Hansel Brighterson," he offered a hand. Grete took it.
"Grete Luciana Alevia Delac. Grete Ravenhallow professionally," Grete said. "First blade of the recognized Werewolf Nation."
"She's…she's a werewolf?" Hansel stared at Eliza.
"Rather!" Eliza's mouth curved up as memories came rushing back to her. "I used to hold her for hours after she would run through the forests and return with her fur all tangled up, and then we would get her into the bath before her father found out!" Eliza giggled as Grete flushed, waving a hand. She went down and picked up the bags, bringing them in and setting them on the table.
She removed a large spiral ham to start, along with potatoes and vegetables. "I…made this myself, actually."
"And I'm in love," Hansel whispered. Eliza whispered in his ear. "She's-….oh, really? Never mind there." He said.
"Grete, how did you find me?" Eliza asked. "Not that I am complaining, but…"
"The bank account? I noticed the withdrawal. Child's play to track you after that," Grete said. "Grandpere offered to come get me in a few hours so I could spend time with papa and the others, but…I wanted to see you first. Catch up. I…I missed you," Grete said. She reached and took Eliza's hand. "I missed you so much."
Eliza's heart seemed to settle as she brought both her hands to Grete's own. "My darling wolf girl," she said as she squeezed it. "I missed you so-" she stopped talking and came forward, pulling Grete to her, into another tight hug, stopping herself from weeping with sheer relief and joy only with great effort.
"She's a…werewolf?" Hansel asked again.
"Growing up, she was the sweetest werewolf imaginable!" Eliza said. "Please…come in, Grete, come in…how is…" she steadied herself for a moment, bringing his face to her mind, with all the emotion she had spent decades suppressing and driving down coming to the forefront. "How is your father, Grete?"
"Dad…" Grete smiled softly. "He's engaged. To someone he….cares for a lot."
"Oh. Oh, I see. Good. Good for him then," Eliza kept the smile on her face. Of course I am happy for him…of course I am. "She is a good person?"
"Her name is Erin. They're happy," Grete said. She watched Eliza cautiously, but Eliza only smiled, reaching to rub her cheek. "You would like her, Eliza."
"I have no doubt. Anyone he cares for must be a wonderful person."
"We put Siegfried down, too," Grete said. "Though everyone found out about the supernatural as a result. I…I was a Jaeger until recently, or I would have come sooner…"
"Oh, dear girl…what matters is you are here now." She leaned in and kissed Grete's forehead. "Thank you for-"
"Eliza," Grete took her hand. "He never forgot you. Never. Not once. Not even today. He loves Erin so much, but I promise you…he treasures every memory he has of you. You should see him. He's missed you so much."
"I know," Eliza said softly. "I know," she repeated. She thought of him, his warmth against her. She thought of his smile, reaching to feel the small pendant she still wore about her neck. "I think of him often as well." She thought of a faceless woman beside him, thought of the joy he must have shared with her. I…I am happy for you, my dearest friend. You deserve nothing but joy…all the sorrow and pain we have endured. If you are happy, that is all I need. "I will…I will try, Grete. I need time before I am ready to see him again, but…but please let him know….I think of him with infinite tenderness and compassion. That I never forgot him either. And it does not mean my care for you is any less, my dear wolf girl." She put a hand to Grete's cheek. She remembered her as a sweet, awkward teenager, so nervous about the new feelings and attractions within her.
"Of course, dearest. About anything," Eliza had taken her hand, rubbing it gently. "What do you wish to discuss?"
"There's something I can't…tell papa yet. Something I…I wanted to talk to you first…I'm nervous…"
It had taken Grete long moments before she had steadied herself. Life could be hard for her, Eliza knew. She had been marked as 'inferior' by much of society thanks to the darker hue of her skin. Eliza had become a Seer so long ago, had been isolated from human society for so long that the notion of prejudice for race, ethnicity or religion still boggled her mind. Especially in one so bright and loving as Grete was.
"I…I'm not…interested in men," Grete had confessed to her. "Not like other girls. I like women…" she had turned her eyes down, as if ashamed and nervous of Eliza's reaction. "Like Sarah Hawkins…she was at the market yesterday and I just thought about how nice it would be to kiss her…even if we're both girls. And I don't…" she stopped, an awkward teenager fidgeting with her hands. "I…yes. I like women and-"
"Grete," Eliza's voice had been tender. She smiled at her. "So do I."
"H-huh?" Grete looked up. "This isn't a joke-"
"Of course it isn't." Eliza put a hand upon hers, the gesture loving and friendly, that of a teacher or a mother's compassion. "I like women, Grete. That way. Ever since I was young, there were girls in my village I thought were beautiful. I could not name those feelings for years after. It took me a great deal of time to understand it. But I am proud of who and what I am."
"But you and dad…"
"Well. I like men too, I suppose!" Eliza smiled. "But if you only like women…then that is fine, Grete. It is more than fine, it is wonderful! It is nothing you should ever be ashamed of, it is something you should hold with pride, my darling wolf girl." She took Grete's face in her hands. "You are beautiful, passionate, artistic, strong…any woman you love would be lucky to have you, to treasure you as you deserve. Let me tell you a story, my dearest girl, about a woman who was special to me. Who helped me realize these things as well…her name was Aisling."
Erin…she thought of the other woman. Engaged with him…I…you must be very special…There was another emotion in her that she could not name, but she quelled it, forced it down. How can I be…anything but happy for my own friend's happiness? After so long? Of course I cannot.
"So….werewolf?" Hansel asked again. "And food?" Grete gave him a grin.
"I think I like you," she said after a moment. "He's a good guy?"
"Hansel is a wonderful person," Eliza said. "He has been my friend for years."
"Well. Makes him just alright by me!" Grete grinned and clapped Hansel on the shoulder. "Welcome to the team, Herr Hansel. What say we eat then? I got some time before Granpere is taking me to the family gathering."
"That sounds wonderful. We have a great deal of catching up to do-" Eliza stopped as Grete put a hand on hers.
"Jaeger or no….I didn't stop thinking of you either, Eliza. You were like family to me, too," Grete said. "Please…I want you in my life, too."
"And I am never going to leave it again, my girl," Eliza promised. She smiled at her.
"Well then," Grete said. She grinned. "Happy Christmas. We have a few hours. So where do we start?"
"Tell me everything, my dear," Eliza said. Grete beamed at her.
"Sure," she said. The snows continued to fall outside as the three settled down to eat and talk.
Even as she reflected on the past, with these two by her, Eliza felt curiously warm.
She felt like she never had to be alone again.
A/N: And I hope readers enjoy a very kindness of Devils Christmas! Some may notice the final chapter references the Never Mythos by my good friend Scraggle/Lordoftheclowns whose stuff is on Fictionpress as well, and which should totally be read by anyone who loves good fiction. We have a lot planned in our coming crossover, so stick with it.
Happy holidays to all there!