He woke with a start, his pulse racing and sweat beading on his forehead. Shaking his head slightly, Ban pulled himself into a sitting position, carding his fingers through his hair and taking deep cleansing gulps of the soft summer air. Everything was still. There was not even the rustle of leaves or the buzz of insects searching for food. All he could hear were gentle sighs, just about distinguishable if he concentrated really hard, made by the girl who slept a few paces from him, her body curled up near the shore of the lake. Her white dress gleamed, strands of her hair catching the pale silver moonlight that pooled down like quicksilver to cover the landscape with an eerie shine.
He looked at her, drinking in every inch of her form, and he felt as if his heart would break.
Six days he had been here in the fairies’ forest and he had done nothing. Nothing but tease and laugh and joke and talk and talk and talk about ale. And she had listened, her golden eyes wide, as if he was somehow worthy of her interest. Ban knew, of course, that it was a mistake. Elaine obviously had no idea about humans. She spent too much of her time blasting them off an impossibly high cliff to protect the fountain from would-be thieves. She had no idea how lowly he was, how he was totally and utterly beneath her notice.
And so he had grinned at her, pushing his feelings down and away. Like he always did. Ever since he was a child. He had learned to switch off, to make himself go numb, to focus on something small, be it the next meal or even how he was going to take his next breath. That way he did not have to think about what was happening around him. It was how he had survived all those nights when his stomach growled with hunger and his bones ached with cold. It was how he had survived his father’s anger, a little boy who stared back at the Goliath of a man, jaw clenched and eyes as hard as his fist. He had refused to cry when his old man had beaten him for whatever shit he was supposed to have done or not done, even when it left him so bruised and sore he could barely move when the blows stopped falling.
But, no matter how hard he tried, he could not do that now. His feelings had grown too big to contain.
He loved her, of that Ban was certain. And he was even more certain she could never love him in return. How could she? She was a princess and he was a no one. Worse than a no one. He was a thief and a wastrel who lived for nothing more than to taste the next ale because it was all he had in the world.
Ban watched as Elaine turned over in her sleep, strands of hair falling away from her face and he inhaled sharply, the sudden influx of air catching his lungs. She was so beautiful. He swallowed, clasping his hands hard together to suppress the urge to reach out and touch her.
He would have to tell her. He would have to just grit his teeth and explain how he felt. To tell Elaine that, to him, she was perfect.
Ban snorted, managing to bite back a harsh bark of laughter. As if he could ever sound serious or sincere. As if Elaine would ever want to hear his declaration.
“Say nothing,” he murmured to himself. “You gotta pack up and leave tomorrow~”
He looked again at the girl and his chest twisted, the pain of his impending loss permeating into his soul. Every part of him was screaming at him to stay by her side, to look after her, to care for her, even if he got nothing back in return. Even if she never cast him more than the odd glance. All he wanted was to be near her and to keep her safe.
“I’ll let her decide,” he murmured as he settled himself back down on the ground, stretching his arms out towards the stars before resting his hands behind the back of his head. He would stay in the forest for as long as Elaine would allow. Ban closed his eyes, totally powerless against the agony and love and fear and hope that crashed through him like waves and, for the first time that he could remember, he opened his heart and let himself really feel.
Beside him, Elaine opened her eyes, forcing herself to stay stock still so as not to give herself away. She felt the sudden rush of emotion from the man who had sprawled out a few yards away from her, a respectful distance she had not even had to ask him to keep. The force of his turmoil was so strong it had dragged her from sleep and she laid there in the dark, wishing her heart was not so receptive. She could hear nothing but her own pulse as it pounded in her ears. Surely Ban must hear it too. The stars above were like clouds of twinkling lights, and she focused on them as she worked to control her breathing, making herself take shallow sips of air.
How long she had wondered if Ban was beginning to feel this way, she was not sure, but now his love for her was beyond a reasonable doubt.
And still, she hesitated. She cared for him too, but how could she ever hope to make him happy. Ban had seen the world, even though he had only been on the earth for such a short period of time he had lived . He had seen and tasted things she could only ever dream of. How could she ever be worthy of him?
Elaine closed her eyes to shut out the pain, listening to Ban’s steady breathing as her brain whirred, preventing her from sleep. He would leave soon, walk away from the forest and she would once more be lost and alone. And she knew at that moment that she desperately wanted him to stay. But how could she ask this? How could she chain Ban to the tedious fate that was her own?
“I’ll let him decide,” she determined to herself as she prepared her heart for the upcoming loss.