The original fic can be read here without commentary!
Trigger warning for the general discussion of child abuse in the fic and commentary.
This fic is part of a longer project, romeo and cinderella, that stars the Blaze Union cast in a modern setting and deals heavily with the themes of abuse and recovery from abuse. The original story starts with a cold opening on the initial situation (Gulcasa meets Nessiah trying to steel himself for suicide, stops him, takes him home) and then gradually unfolds to explain the terms of the world and the characters' places in it. The whole process was very organic and even I didn't know where everyone was going to fit in until about chapter four out of five. That--and the fact that romeo and cinderella is very much focused on the here and now and simply surviving and recovering--meant that there was a lot of backstory that just didn't get expressed in the main body of work.
The ending of romeo and cinderella was very much a huge jolt, so I've decided to let that stand as it is and work on a series of oneshots to flesh out the universe and explain some unanswered questions--how Nessiah knows Soltier and Lapis, what's up with Gulcasa's relationships with Siskier and Leon and more about how he got his position, how Yggdra wound up involved with all this in the first place--rather than rush right into the next major fic.
from the heart takes place seven years before romeo and cinderella: Nessiah is twelve, Soltier is thirty-two, and Lapis is twenty-four. In accordance with the naming scheme, the title is taken from the Vocaloid song "Kokoro Kara" by monaca.
From that day on, the world went dark. Another cold opening. This is a tradition that is going to be preserved.
The mansion was lavishly furnished, but the lights were usually kept dimmed, and aside from the servants, he was alone in it. He preferred being alone. It was like being in the guts of some giant beast; his experience of the place was that it was a series of twisting corridors from which there was no escape. Dark dark dark dark dark. I was going for a grim, dangerous, fairytaleish atmosphere all built out of pure feeling. Something else to observe from this section is that Nessiah is intelligent and very articulate.
The alternative to solitude was a pair of hands—thick, with blunt fingers the size of cigars, each fitted with at least two ugly, heavy rings. The hands gripped too tightly, the knuckles alone were enough to give him terrible headaches for hours, and wherever they appeared, they were always trailing nightmares. Anything was better. This is a very important paragraph. I don't like just handing people plot points; I want my readers to actually engage with the piece and think and try to figure things out for themselves. Who is it that abused Nessiah? It's a question that goes unanswered in the main piece. If I did my job right, it should be possible to guess correctly based on the clues given in this story; the answer will be confirmed in another piece. Whatever the case, this person has distinctive hands. These are not hands that match the description of Hector's, which are average-sized and not particularly bulky.
He told himself he was a doll, and made himself scarce whenever he could. It didn’t make much difference. More about the situation: Nessiah is trying to dissociate, but whether because of his sensitivity or because of how new the severity of the abuse is to him, it's not successful.
He didn’t stand out to the rest of the family, and he knew it. He was too dull to intrude upon their minds or their extravagant lives—just a small, thin boy with pale skin that rarely saw sunlight, dressed in similarly pale colors. When he had to be present at family gatherings, he never spoke for fear of worse punishment; he knew that his guardian would be believed if he tried to tell the truth, not himself. His bruises were covered carefully with foundation and talcum powder.
He may have been young—he may have been quiet—but he knew that he would not last if this continued. Being in that place was a slow and painful death, and he was not entirely sure why he continued to cling to life.
It was a snap decision—a door left open, no one around. He didn’t have anything to take with him—he just pulled shoes on and walked outside as quietly and carefully as possible and started to run with everything he had.
- - -
It had been evening when he had first slipped outside, and the air had been chilled and filled with the half-remembered scent of impending rain. It hadn’t registered for a while, because he’d only gone one block before an insane kind of fear had seized him and turned his senses inside out—and he’d run, only managing not to trip and fall because each foot continued to strike out faster and faster. The distant rumble of thunder and the shock of the freezing rain had only made him run harder. Now that we're out of the situation overview, there's a sort of narrative disconnect: Nessiah talks more about his actions than about his feelings. This is partially because he's running on fumes and partially because he's still dissociating.
He had no idea where he was now. It was some form of other residential district, large but less grand than the one with the cold house. All he knew was that his legs could not carry him much farther, and if he tried to force them to, he might well collapse. His body felt fevered and itchy, and he almost wanted to scratch off his skin, but it was so cold and wet and without it he’d freeze.
His legs wavered, and he meandered off the sidewalk and onto the nearest front step, where he stood shivering and panting and not quite sure whether or not he could sit down—whether or not he’d be able to stand up again if he did.
And then the door opened.
He jumped a little and his already-racing heartbeat sped up, but the fear and exhaustion paralyzed him, leaving him unable to do anything but stare wide-eyed at the owner of the house.
It was a woman, and she was also staring at him blankly. She was beautiful; he could tell that much even in his condition—she was wearing a blue shirt that draped over her curves and a pair of black jeans, with a blue headband along her forehead. She had blue eyes, dark skin, and long pale hair that had a number of thin braids and beads woven into it.
Her gaze pierced him from head to toe like some kind of scanner, and he felt like there was nothing she could miss. She went on staring and staring, but in the end she reached out and touched his shoulder. Her palm was hot against his skin, and her touch was firm but careful as she pulled him inside the house and closed the door behind them. This is our first big piece of characterization for Lapis. In my personal experience, the number of people who would actually, legitimately open their homes to a distressed child Nessiah's age are very, very few. The average person would have slammed their door in his face.
He stared around at the kitchen he was led to after kicking off his shoes. The place was large and airy, and although it was just as well-furnished as the place he’d fled, it was filled with light.
Then the sound of a man’s voice rang out, and he flinched, clinging closer to the woman.
“I thought you were going out to the convenience store, Lapis?”
“I was. You need to come out here and look at this.”
“If you’re telling me to stop working, I guess this really must be important. You spend at least sixty percent of the day nagging me to do things faster.”
The woman named Lapis sighed, looked down at him as if she had no idea what to do with him, and then looked up as footsteps started to whisper across the wood floor and a tall man with shoulder-length black hair appeared in the hallway.
He was very tall. Most grown-ups looked huge when you were barely even four and a half feet tall, but he had to be almost two feet taller. He was also wearing clothes that looked old and well-worn, was spinning a pencil between the fingers of one hand, and scratching the nape of his neck with the other hand. He had a very bored expression on his face.
He started to retreat further behind Lapis’ back, but she noticed and stopped him.
“It’s all right. No matter what he looks like, he’s not a scary person. This is Soltier; he’s an irresponsible businessman who likes to slack off and play instead of checking paperwork.”
The huge man named Soltier sulked. Reinforcing what Lapis says right away with Soltier's behavior is another important thing for setting the scene: It makes him less threatening, which makes him easier for Nessiah to deal with. “That’s company president, not businessman, thanks.” He arched one dark eyebrow and stopped twirling the pencil, staring intently. “Lapis, where’d the little girl come from?”
Blank shock and embarrassment overcame the fear in a great rush. “I-I’m not a girl.”
But then when they both looked down at him, fear made a triumphant comeback, and he tried unsuccessfully to make himself small and hide behind Lapis once again as Soltier crossed the room and knelt down, putting them closer to eye level. Both Soltier and Lapis are very good at dealing with people younger and smaller than them in a way that values their feelings. Soltier is willing to look at Nessiah from a position more comfortable to the latter, but still speaks with him frankly and without patronizing him.
“Well, you’re trying to hide behind Lapis, and you look more like a drowned rat than anything else—and you’re wearing a dress.” Soltier rested his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand. “I see crossdressers start early these days.” I am so used to Nessiah wearing full-skirted robes in canon that it just seems out-of-character to me to stick him in pants, no matter the setting. I don't feel any obligation to violate the femme aspect of his identity just because we're in a modern setting.
“But I can’t wear pants. They hurt.” Establishing that Nessiah's clothing is his own choice for reasons of comfort and avoiding dysphoria is also really important, otherwise readers might just think that his guardian forces him to dress like this.
The only response he got was a blank stare. And then.
“…Kiddo, did you fall down?”
Shyly, he shook his head, not really understanding.
“Or did you get in a fight?”
He shook his head again. There was concern on the man named Soltier’s face, an expression he hadn’t seen in so long that it looked almost comical.
“Then who hit you?”
Too late, he realized that there were large patches of bruising visible on the parts of his skin that weren’t covered. His clothes were white, and soaked, and clung to his skin, so that blotches of discolored skin could vaguely be seen through them. More context clues: The abuse has progressed to the level where this feels normal to Nessiah and it doesn't occur to him that his bruises will be remarked upon.
He couldn’t hide; both of them were watching him closely. All he could do was try to cover his body with his hands, and that was impossible.
Neither one of them asked again, but he got the feeling that somehow, miraculously, they already understood.
Lapis ran the bath for him, and brought in a camera after he was finished. She explained that they needed to take pictures of his bruises while they were still visible, and called it documentation.
“But what is that for?”
“Documentation is a fancy word for proof. If you can tell us who hurt you, why you ran away from home—then we’ll call the police and show them the pictures to prove it.”
It didn’t take very long, but her eyes were very hard once they had finished.
- - -
Finding something that he could wear was a problem, but while his clothes were being washed, he couldn’t just walk around naked—that was something that they all agreed on easily. He settled for an old shirt of Lapis’ and sat down to wait for dinner, which she would be making. This is a callback, as in romeo and cinderella Nessiah spends two and a half chapters wearing Gulcasa's shirts and nothing else.
“Mostly because she doesn’t trust me in the kitchen,” Soltier related conspiratorially. “And she’s got damn good reason for it too; I could burn water if I don’t watch it, and she’s good.” Soltier's behavior in these early scenes is especially important, since he and Lapis are serving the same protector/caretaker role as Gulcasa in the original. To keep things from being repetitive, a contrast must be drawn between Soltier and Gulcasa: Soltier is facetious, lazy, bad at cooking, and mischievous; Gulcasa is serious, gentle, frustrated, and cooks like a god.
He still felt more comfortable around Lapis, because no women had ever hurt him before, but he was trying to suppress the urge to cringe away every time Soltier looked at him. Just because the owner of the nightmare hands was a hurtful person didn’t mean that every adult man was the same, and these two had shown no indication that they were anything other than kind. It takes someone sensitive and analytical to be able to come to this conclusion this quickly. Nessiah is smart.
“Are you married?” he asked, which seemed to take Soltier by surprise.
“No, but it’s funny you ask.” He turned back towards the kitchen, grinning, and called out, “So hey Lapis, will you marry me?”
She glanced over her shoulder with a slight frown, then went back to cooking. “Please stop fooling around.”
“I keep asking, but she never takes me seriously.”
Lapis made a dissatisfied little huff. “I’m sorry, but I’m not sure how anyone could.”
Soltier spread both hands and pointed them at her, palms-up, while shrugging as if to say You see what I have to go through all the time?
He didn’t think Soltier had sounded very serious about it either, but he decided it was better to be polite and kept quiet.
“If you’re curious as to why we live together, technically Lapis is my bodyguard. We go way back, and she started getting funny ideas about my not being able to take care of myself alone, so she moved in years ago and has been living here ever since. With that out of the way, why ask if we’re married?”
He smiled a little. “You remind me of my parents—the way they used to be together.”
“Used to be?”
“They died a long time ago.” And it still hurt, even though his memories of them became more vague every year. This is reinforcement for the things Nessiah discusses with Gulcasa in chapter four.
Soltier grimaced, but he didn’t apologize. He looked like he wanted to say something, but then Lapis announced that she was almost done and they had better get to the table.
The food was good. And it was warm—he’d almost forgotten what it was like to eat something warm. That was, in the end, what helped him relax for good.
Relaxing had him starting to nod off in the middle of dinner, though he struggled on heroically until he was able to finish everything on the plate. Having a full stomach only made him sleepier, though, so he was already drifting off when Soltier and Lapis debated in quiet voices where he should spend the night.
And almost as soon as the couch was fixed up as a makeshift bed, he was asleep. Nothing quite says "we don't know where to put you" like being made to sleep on the couch.
- - -
He awoke with a jolt in the middle of the night and became aware that this wasn’t the house of dark corridors. The ceiling was high, and he was warm, and he was lying on something soft.
He scrambled to remember, then recognized the couch and realized: He hadn’t been dreaming. He’d really done it—run away. He was here, at Soltier and Lapis’ house, and they had really taken him in without question, and he was safe.
It was too much all at once, and he started to cry in great gasping sobs that shook his whole body, that just wouldn’t stop.
A few minutes later, there were stumbling footsteps and one of the lamps turned on, illuminating the room and Lapis with her hand on the light switch. Her hair was slightly disheveled, and she was wearing a white sleeveless nightgown with one of the straps sliding down her shoulder. More that says a lot about Lapis. She's not very emotive as far as facial expressions and tone of voice go, so she has to be expressed through what actions she takes. And it takes a lot of caring and concern to come charging in to deal with a child's distress as your instinctive response, even if you're not sure what exactly you're supposed to do.
“What is it?” she asked anxiously, crossing the room towards him in wide steps and then kneeling down in front of the couch. “What’s wrong? Are you feeling all right?”
“It’s just—it’s just—” It was hard to talk, and he had to work to stifle the tears long enough to get words out. “It really happened. It’s not just a dream that—that I’m here—”
And she reached out and put her arms around him very gently, as if she wasn’t sure how much strength it was safe for her to use. He held on to her and cried, and she stroked his back as if he were a little boy again.
“Come on,” she said, and took his hand, and he followed her on unsteady legs up the stairs and through the hall into a large bedroom with a bed as vast as an island. This is a big and momentous scene when put in context of the role sleeping arrangements played in romeo and cinderella. First of all, just like nothing says "we don't know where to put you" like being made to sleep on the couch, nothing communicates trust like being invited to share the same bed as your host. This was a very long and drawn-out process in romeo and cinderella because the characters are of an age where sharing a bed has a sexual dialogue to it; this was also made into a Big Deal by Luciana actually mistaking Nessiah for some new lover of Gulcasa's, which a) establishes Gulcasa's sexuality and that it is possible for him to be attracted to Nessiah, b) forces Nessiah to the couch/outsider position to the point that he actually gets used to it, and c) makes the scene where Gulcasa insists that they share a bed for the sake of Nessiah's physical comfort a lot more emotional and momentous in the context of these things. This scene between Nessiah and Lapis is a lot more parental in tone, but the contrast of how fast this is happening is still very stark.
Half of the island of mattress was taken up by Soltier, who had pushed himself up on one elbow and was staring at Lapis as if he weren’t quite awake.
“Don’t ask questions,” Lapis said—he wasn’t sure to which of them—and got back into bed and cleared a space on the mattress next to her, helping him clamber up.
He slept, and woke, nestled into her side with her arm around him and Soltier’s over both of them. This positioning is important--Nessiah is at the edge of the bed next to Lapis, both so that he doesn't have to sleep next to Soltier (good for his comfort level right now) and has an escape route that doesn't require waking an adult to get to (very good for not making him panic).
It felt like family, and all he could do was cry. He tried not to make too much noise—he didn’t want to scare Lapis again—but he woke her up anyway; she seemed to understand this time, and just stroked his hair until he was able to stop.
- - -
“Since I never could go shopping last night, I’ll be taking care of that now,” Lapis announced, halfway out the door already. “Be good and don’t cause any trouble; watch the house.”
Soltier made a sulky face at the door once Lapis was gone. “Which one of us does she think is the kid here?” he complained, and then went into his office, carrying an armful of papers to lay out across the table.
There wasn’t much else to do, so he pulled up a chair and watched and asked questions.
“I’m just checking this stuff over—it’s for work—but it’s a pain in the ass and a half. I doubt those guys would actually make any mistakes; I hate having to redo all the paperwork when there’s not really any point.”
And because he was curious, Soltier wrote out several mathematical formulas on a napkin, and showed him which were supposed to be used where. It looked like fun, and he’d always been comfortable with numbers, so Soltier looked over the papers for glaring errors and he double-checked them, happy when all the rows of digits tidied themselves up in columns, just how they were supposed to. His mind was able to wrap itself around the numbers easily, and so he worked fast—he and Soltier finished one page in about the same amount of time. The half-assed job Soltier is doing is important to may girl, which follows this. It also reinforces Nessiah's being good with numbers, as Nessiah is actually doing the work.
“Want a job, kiddo?” Soltier asked after an hour had gone by, and ruffled his hair with a soft touch; he glowed with pride. More callbacks.
All the papers were already gone by the time that Lapis came back—Soltier helped pass the time with stories of when he and Lapis were younger—and then he went to go help her put things away.
“It’s getting cold, and you only have one outfit, so I went and picked some things up for you,” she told him when they were done, and presented him with a few hooded sweaters with soft insides. They even fit—although one of them was a little long in the sleeves. And even more callbacks.
He pulled one on over the dress he was wearing, and would not hear of taking it off for the rest of the day, at least until it was made clear to him in no uncertain terms that it was bath time now.
And after he’d gotten himself clean, Lapis brought him back to the master bedroom.
“Don’t ask questions,” she said as soon as Soltier’s eyebrows went up. Soltier shrugged and said he didn’t mind suffering for one night as long as it wouldn’t turn into a habit, and Lapis hit him, which made him laugh. I really like this expression of Soltier's character, that he's just been shoved into fatherhood out of the blue but is fine with making sex life sacrifices for the sake of Nessiah's well-being.
He didn’t really understand the point of the joke, but then grown-ups were like that sometimes. This time he was able to sleep through the night.
- - -
And the days began to go by. There's no need to look over this part of the story in minute detail, I think--both because it would be romeo and cinderella but with parental undertones rather than romantic ones and because I am horribly out of my depth in imagining how loving, supportive households work.
He didn’t leave the house, but then for the most part Soltier and Lapis didn’t either. There wasn’t much for him to do, but it was better than the terror of the place he’d run from. And besides, there was so much to observe between the two of them; it was more interesting than television by far. Despite how much time Lapis spent scolding Soltier, her words rarely had any real bite to them, and she actually seemed indulgent towards him; her eyes were always smiling after his back even when the rest of her face was expressionless. Soltier never got angry at her, either, not even when they disagreed.
Maybe, he thought, the real reason that they weren’t married was because they were so used to what they already had to want to change it by giving it fancy names.
Every now and again he caught them staring at him with distant eyes, usually when they thought he wasn’t paying attention—and he knew that he was the topic of some of their hushed discussions.
He wondered if they wanted to have children. Adapting the symbolism used in Blaze Union to juxtapose Soltier and Gulcasa for my own purposes, Soltier is completely sterile. This is another reason why he and Lapis are not actually married yet.
They were like his parents—but they were warmer than the figures in his faded memories.
He kept his thoughts to himself, but came to them willingly on the fifth day when they asked him to sit down.
“This is probably going to seem sudden, but—we’ve been wondering if you would consider staying with us. Letting us adopt you.”
That shouldn’t even be a question—of course he preferred this to where he had come from, and he reminded them so softly.
“But legally, your guardian still has custody of you. To actually join this family, we would need to charge him with child abuse, and have his rights to take care of you taken away,” Lapis explained. “And that means that you have to explain to us—and to the police—what’s happened to you.”
He’d been expecting it. But he had decided not to say anything about it until he was asked directly—because no matter how this turned out, it meant exposing himself, and it meant the end of being able to pretend that that part of his life was over now.
So he nodded and took a deep breath.
“My name is Nessiah Aries Artwaltz.” Our other major clue, the binding of Nessiah to Yggdra's family.
Lapis’ eyes widened slightly, and Soltier’s forehead creased.
“That’s Artwaltz as in Ordene, isn’t it?”
He took another deep breath and nodded. “He’s my uncle. My parents were part of the branch family, so… that was why I wound up with my guardian instead. My uncle and aunt already have a daughter, I think. So they couldn’t take in a second lower-ranking child all of a sudden.”
And, slowly and carefully, he told them everything—even when it got hard to talk, he didn’t stop. At the end of all of this, he would be able to stay with them, with people who were actually warm and kind and attentive and treated him with affection. So he reached out and held Lapis’ hand and stared at the floor and kept forcing the words out, even when it hurt to.
…But in the end, the door was closed on him before he could walk through it, and he was left with nothing but a dream that could have been granted in another life. And since it is obvious that it turned out Soltier and Lapis could not keep Nessiah based on romeo and cinderella, I chose to end the seven-years-ago segment here rather than drag it out and risk exposing the abuser's identity to those who haven't yet guessed who it is. This also drives in hard why Nessiah is so reluctant to explain where he came from to Gulcasa in the main work.
- - -
Soltier and Lapis turned, and he let himself slow down, eventually coming to a stop. He had to bend over for a moment to catch his breath, and finally looked up to see that they were both staring down at him with uncertain expressions. This part is Nessiah's perspective of one of the last scenes in chapter five of romeo and cinderella and takes place while Siskier is giving Gulcasa romantic advice.
“Nessiah?” It was Soltier who asked at last.
He smiled, and closed his eyes with relief. “So you do remember.”
“You didn’t recognize us—and your eye—”
Nessiah closed his right eye and laid his fingertips over it, his smile going bitter. “It was—extensive damage to the iris and the lens; once it healed, it had turned blue. I haven’t been able to see anything out of it ever since then. And… I didn’t want to talk about it in front of Gulcasa. He still doesn’t know very much about me.” Letting his hand rest at his side, he closed his eyes. “He let me come after you, though… I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay him for always knowing when not to press the subject. I never thought I’d be able to see you again.”
“How did you get here?”
“Don’t ask questions,” he said to make them smile, and looks of surprise crossed their faces until they realized and the atmosphere warmed. “It’s a long story—but to simplify things, I ran away again, and this is where I ended up. It’s kind of funny, isn’t it…? I never considered that he might have worked for you once.” He blinked; his eyes had started to sting. “I never thought I might be able to see you again.”
Lapis took a step forward and reached out to touch his shoulder lightly. “You’ve grown,” she said quietly, and even though she looked expressionless, her eyes were smiling.
“I have the two of you to thank for that. I don’t think I could have made it through the past seven years if I hadn’t been able to remember that there were still kind people in the world.”
Soltier’s gaze hardened, and he stared into the distance; Nessiah realized with a jolt that this was the same expression that Gulcasa made so often. They looked extraordinarily alike when wearing that face. “If we hadn’t gone to the police like that…”
“It isn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known that your influence and the evidence we had wouldn’t be enough; you did everything you should have done and more.” Nessiah covered Lapis’ hand with his, and reached out to lightly grasp Soltier’s. “I never blamed or resented you. I’m just—so glad that we’ll be able to see each other now.”
Soltier and Lapis exchanged glances.
“I don’t know about that. You might have noticed before, but that kid doesn’t like me too much.”
Nessiah couldn’t help it; he giggled. “No, I get the feeling that he doesn’t think badly of you at all—he just doesn’t like getting teased.”
“Well.” Soltier actually looked pleased with himself, so Nessiah had to bite his lip to keep from bursting out in another fit of giggles. “We’ll come by and harass him more often then, if it means we get to see you when we do it.” He was silent for a moment, his grin easing into a more serious expression. “Gulcasa’s a good enough kid. You should be safe with him.”
They stood there for a moment, in silence, hand in hand in hand. Nessiah was still reluctant to break the circle, and from the looks of it, Soltier and Lapis felt the same.
At last Nessiah took a deep breath, but Soltier started speaking again at the same time.
“I won’t ask you how you’ve been—I think we know the answer to that already. But I want to know how you are.”
It was so hard to speak around the sudden tightness in his throat. He had to close his eyes and take a deep breath to steady himself for a moment.
And then he opened them and smiled.
The party was winding down, with people trailing past them out the gates, but the lights were still bright and music was still being played in the distance. At the other end of the garden, Gulcasa was waiting for him, having trusted him enough to let him go for just a few moments and talk to people he considered rivals.
“I’m all right. For once in my life, I’m surrounded by nothing but good things. Thanks to Gulcasa, I’ve even been able to see you again. If I can keep going like this, I know that I can put all the bad behind me this way… I can actually be safe.”
And he looked at Lapis in her dark suit with her long white hair carefully braided, and Soltier with his white shirt carelessly buttoned, and he let the tears start to spill even though he never stopped smiling.
“And I can actually look back now, and say to you—that even if it was only for a few days,” and he gripped their hands with all the strength he had, “I’m proud to have been your child.”
After that, nothing mattered. Not the few other words that they spoke, not the crowds, not the cold—just the fact that he had been able to thank them at last, and Lapis’ arm around his waist and Soltier’s over his shoulders and the feeling as though something he had misplaced long ago had finally been returned to him. I will just let this last scene stand on its own; I'm very satisfied with how it turned out.