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The Debt

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  • Аннотация:
    Lina takes advantage of Xellos's poor state... too bad she doesn't know just how he likes it. Explicitly L/X.

   Xellos's body was spread out on an enormous stone table, his black astral essence leaking from a painful-looking wound in his stomach. Zellas bent over him, whispering something reassuring, then put her hands over the wound and started to enchant.
   As she was reuniting the elements of his inner structure, images and emotions he had experienced flashed through her mind. She was used to it and didn't pay much attention until...
   Suddenly she froze in mid-chant and straightened her statue.
   "Xellos!" she barked in a surprised and resentful voice, forcing him to come to his senses at once. He opened his eyes weakly and stared at her as if blind.
   "Are you really in love with that human wench?!" hissed his mistress.
   "Yes, Zellas-sama," managed Xellos resigningly.
   "Then go croak on her lap, you walking disgrace to my creations!" roared Zellas, and Xellos felt himself being teleported away with enormous speed.
   Lina was deeply engrossed in a book they've extracted from a weird underground temple the day before. The book turned out to be a prior's diary and contained all kinds of exciting things -- from kitchen spells to battle tricks. Everything the odd man heard, read or figured out and decided worth writing down. Currently Lina was learning a summoning charm that brought you things from not far away -- very useful when you are too lazy or too busy to stand up and go fetch it.
   And then all of a sudden she felt the air around her shuddering, and there was Xellos falling out of an astral slit, like a log. He collapsed with a low thump and a groan, dark vapour streaming from his stomach in every direction.
   "Xellos! What the hell happened to you?!" she cried jumping up.
   "Sorry Lina..." he barely whispered. "I didn't mean... to end up here..."
   He clutched at the wound and curled up defensively. Lina knelt beside him.
   "Who did this to you anyway? Not Gaav-reborn, I hope?"
   "No... Say hi to Filia for me though..." the mazoku attempted a wry smile, but that didn't look convincing. He winced and groand again, somewhat desperately.
   "Hey, Xellos... Can't you go to the Astral Plane and heal there? Or can't your master help you out?.."
   Xellos just shook his head weakly. By that time the whole Slayers gang, including Sylphiel, surrounded him. Lina's mind was racing.
   "But there must be some way to get you to normal... Maybe some other mazoku-lord?.."
   "Nah, Lina, I won't make it, sorry to bother you..." Xellos's words were barely audible. Lina's eyes widened:
   "Holla! You're not dying on me!"
   Instead of an answer the mazoku closed his clouded eyes. Lina clenched her fists. It was time for action.
   "Oi, Xellos! Just make sure you're alive for another minute, OK? I'll just check something out!"
   With that she jumped back to her place near the fire and grabbed the book. Where was it? After the noodles-making spell, but before the dragon anatomy chart... Ah, here!
   She quickly re-read a page, recalling the words and moves. Then rushed back to where Xellos lay still and silent, as if already dead. But she knew he wasn't because mazoku vanish when they die...
   Lina turned her unfortunate comrade face-up and pulled the glove off her left hand. Then she pressed her hand with spread-out fingers right into his wound. Xellos jerked and opened his eyes once more:
   "Lina! J-just leave me alone!"
   "I know better than to do that", she smirked evilly and proceded following the prior's instructions. There -- she felt the pulsing orb at the very center of Xellos's body. That was supposed to be his core, the essence of his being. She cupped her hand around it gently and took in a deep breath before starting her chant.
   "Lina! Don't do it!" Xellos moaned desperately.
   "Sorry. You're not in the position to order me around", she smirked.
   Lina opened her eyes to see the first sunrays penetrate the thickly interwoven branches above her head. She slowly sat up feeling weak and agitated. To her right Xellos was lying motionless, but his form was solid and his energy was not spilling into entropy anymore. To her left Zelgadiss jerked his head up, an expression of relief plastered uncharacteristically across his face.
   "Lina! Are you all right?"
   "Sure! Just a little funny... and VERY hungry!"
   "Good," Zel nodded. "There's a town a couple miles away, we can have breakfast there. Just wake that sodding mazoku up, no one would want to carry him, you know..."
   Not willing to stand up yet, Lina crawled to Xellos's side and shook his shoulder.
   "Oi! Time for breakfast, you sleepyhead!"
   The demon started and abruptly sat up. He eyed Lina with something vaguely reminding of concern.
   "Are you all right?" he asked predictably.
   "Sure, why shouldn't I be?" Lina giggled nervously, thinking that, perhaps, she really did something at the top of her abilities. She even checked if her hair was still red...
   "That was kind of presumptuous of you to think you could heal me... I am a high level demon after all, and with the injury to the core... It took all of your power to make up for my damage. And why on Earth would you even want to do it?"
   Lina raised an eyebrow.
   "Presumptuous or not, I did succeed. And now you're in a life debt to me, aren't you?" she smirked at the obviously dumbfounded monster.
   "Just who is the monster here?" whispered Zel to himself.
   Lina finally stood up slightly swooning and waved at the approaching Gourry, Amelia and Sylphiel who brought water and some herbs.
   "Hi guys! Drop that stuff, we're having a decent breakfast in the next town!" shouted Lina a little less cheerfully than she would have liked. Xellos, who was still eyeing her thoroughly, stood up at her side.
   "I'm teleporting you there", he said curtly. And the next thing they knew -- they were all standing in a narrow deserted street just a block away from a cute little inn. Lina almost fell over at the teleportation and was now cursing loudly:
   "What the hell made you do that, Xellos!? I can't recall you acting so cooperatively anytime before!"
   "You wouldn't have made those two miles in your current state, Lina", he answered coldly, slightly scoffing (which looked kind of weird with his eyes closed). "You need to eat immediately if you don't want to collapse. Your Astral Body is barely visible..." he finished angrily and strolled off towards the inn. Lina caught him by the elbow and hung onto him, her legs stumbling at every next stride.
   "I warned you not to do it," said Xellos grudgingly, turning to Lina just to meet her astonished gaze.
   "Xellos... Is this really you?"
   The mazoku sighed, then pulled what was left of himself together and finally managed a Typical Xellos Smile.
   "Of course it is, Lina-chan."
   Thus they entered the inn.
   The Slayers gang ate in relative silence -- Lina was too weak to battle over food today, and anyway felt bad about stealing from her plate when she could barely stand. Xellos sat straight and stared at the table in front of him looking pretty pathetic. As Lina finished the last bit of her order, she decided it was time for him to come clean.
   "So, Xellos, talk to me. What on Earth happened to you yesterday?"
   Xellos waved his hand dismissively and -- to common astonishment -- actually answered.
   "The Golden Dragons of the Earth King's Temple have found some powerful artifact... I was supposed to go see what they were up to, but they spotted me. A battle started -- and as it took place on the holy grounds of the Temple, my powers were limited... So I got injured before I could get away."
   "So how come Zellas couldn't repair you if I could?" wondered Lina feeling uneasy at Xellos's abnormal behavior.
   "It's not that she tried and failed... She decided I didn't deserve to be saved."
   "HUH!?" roared the whole gang, even Zel, who was normally more reserved than others. But to think that the trickster-priest was so easily let down by his Lord... As much as the Chimera hated the guy, he had to admit that Xellos was extremely good at his job and never once failed his mistress... And all those Dragons and minor demons fearing to so much as pronounce his name... Surely, that Lord was making a huge mistake sacking such a servant like that.
   "Pretty humiliating, isn't it?" Xellos said in a slightly raised voice. "And others are going to know soon, too."
   "Is she really THAT kind of a fool?" cried Lina who had obviously been thinking along the same lines with Zel. Xellos shuddered and pursed his lips.
   "She... had good reason to be angry, actually. But that is none of your concern," he opened his eyes and gave Lina a pointed look.
   "Oh." the sorceress said simply. She fell silent for a bit and then changed the topic: "So, Xellos... You are somehow enormously talkative today... Does the life debt thing work differently with mazoku or something?"
   Xellos raised his eyebrows in calm contemplation.
   "No, it's the same as with every other race. I'm talkative because I don't need to be loyal to my mistress anymore... And you can actually say that I'm too distressed for games."
   Lina frowned. During the time she was acquainted with Xellos she often wished that he'd drop his playful attitude and be serious for a bit at least. Yet now when he did she somehow wished he was back to his jolly self. It made her feel really uneasy to watch him lay his forehead on his crossed wrists at the edge of the dining table. She got up and went to the bar to make another order, not willing to be overheard.
   "A huge bowl of hot chocolate please. With ice-cream and cream and almond and marshmallow and maybe even strawberries, just anything. And make it as sweet as possible." If there was something about Xellos that Lina was sure of -- it was him having a gigantic sweet tooth.
   As the order arrived, Lina pushed the bowl in front of Xellos and tapped a finger at the back of his head to make him notice the treat. At that Zel seemed to have choked on his coffee and Amelia got the whole Milky-Way of stars in her eyes seeing Lina actually taking care of someone else. She and Sylphiel immediately exchanged glances and started discussing something in undertone. Gourry put his hand to the back of his head and smiled approvingly: "Yeah, Grandma always said chocolate helps when you're down."
   Meanwhile Xellos was unsure of what was going on, so he stared searchingly at Lina.
   "Empty this," said Lina coldly, her lips a thin straight line, trying hard to ruin her own friendly-like gesture.
   "Th-tha-anks," Xellos blinked and tried a strawberry resting on top of the cream-iceberg. He then proceeded with the dish, looking a little less awkward. Lina inwardly sighed in relief -- eating was at least something to keep the mazoku from imitating a worn-out rag-doll.
   "So Lina," he said suddenly, "Your sole concern when saving my life was to get me in this debt, wasn't it?"
   "Yeah!" said Lina cheerfully before anyone could even think of any other reason. "You see, ever since I got hold of that spell and knew how to convey the ritual, I was kinda looking forward to finding a mazoku in need... I mean, I thought it would be lovely to have a demon all to myself, wouldn't it?"
   "Oh." Xellos seemed surprised unpleasantly. "It would certainly have some benefit. Did you consider the negative consequences though?"
   "Eh? What negative consequences?" Lina asked, clueless as Gourry.
   "I see," Xellos said in a weird tone that made Zel tense. "I'd better enlighten you then. Once you have claimed that a certain mazoku is `all to yourself' you automatically become responsible for his actions."
   Zellas was biting her lip. Perhaps she really wasn't thinking straight in her rage. After all, she was the one who created Xellos, and in a way it was her who let this happen to him. Fall in love, that is. It was the way she created him, although she expected her sole minion to fall in love with his mistress and soon, as she was the only woman on the island and so powerful and beautiful... Zellas spent a good half an hour musing on her own advantages.
   Yet then she thought that she had miscalculated something or another, and her Priest was incapable of love. Cold and strategic, so yummy-cruel... He was surprisingly loyal to her -- while with such powers and wit one would expect him to turn tables. Deep in her core Zellas knew that she herself could easily become a marionette in her servant's hands. A few times it seemed to her that that has already happened. Yet, day after day, Xellos was politely kneeling before her throne and complementing her and obeying her every whim. Although she knew better than to order against his advice as she often failed to observe all the circumstances and reasons that were obvious to him.
   So now that he was gone, she was at a loss. Just this morning she found that she didn't really know how many mazoku there were on the island and if there were any of her Pack on the continent running an errand for Xellos. She didn't know which of her servants were trustworthy. She didn't remember all of the magical artifacts kept in the castle... Damnit, she didn't even know if there was enough wine stored in the basement to last until the next fruit season! Really, some sappy love affair her Priest was having with that little witch was nothing compared to this disaster, arghhhh!
   Lina was walking down a dirt road, a wistful expression on her face, hands folded at the back of her neck, elbows pointing skywards. Gourry was by her side, whistling. Zel walked behind them trying to read some ancient book on foot which made him sick and angry. The girls followed, giggling. Xellos was dragging behind, hating every single bit of his surroundings. He didn't have his staff, as it remained in Juu-ou's domain, and anyways he had no right or reason to dress up as a priest. As depressed as he was, he didn't even bother creating a new illusional set of clothes, instead he simply bought a couple of items at the town's market. He was now wearing a white tunic with bluish-lilac embroidery and navy-coloured bell-bottomed pants. And sandals.
   His morning talk with Lina didn't bring any answers to his questions. The sorceress just battered her hypnotizing eyes and cooed something like "But you won't do anything I won't approve of, will you?" and then she just slammed her palm into his back, smiling cheerfully and told the rest of the group to get on the road.
   He didn't know what to make of it, really. On one hand Lina wasn't stupid to simply trust in him. On the other hand he knew he wasn't going to do anything she wouldn't like, and not just because he loved her. Being pushed out of the mazoku hierarchy made him sick to the core. He desperately needed someone above him, someone to decide for him, to depend on, to seek approval with... It was the only way for him to maintain his identity -- to have someone else responsible. And now there was no such person. That was why he was so eager to inform Lina of the effect of her claim. Of course, Lina Inverse was just a seventeen-year-old girl, lucky and mighty, but hardly the mistress type. He could see that even despite his passion. Then, again, it was still a question, what the other mazoku would find more humiliating -- being a stray dog or being a domesticated dog in a human's service. Somehow those seemed equally low ranks.
   For Xellos, though, there was one hell of a difference. As long as Lina was going to tolerate him, he'd do anything for her. Especially since she would hardly really take any responsibility once he'd done something wrong.
   So there was this question -- just how much did Lina know of his motives? Has she figured it out that he needed her for guidance? Does she already know how he feels about her? Was he really doing a good job concealing his feelings? Especially yesterday, when he was half-dead. He didn't really remember what nonsense he spoke then. He only recalled being afraid that Lina might die trying to heal him. That would have been...
   ...Well, in a way that would have been splendid. Oh yes, he was selfish enough to contemplate such a possibility with a smile, especially since in that case he wouldn't have lived to see the world without her.
   Ever since he first saw the sunlight, he was wondering what was that blind spot inside his core. It seemed to contain nothing and to take part in no processes such as feeling, thinking or feeding. It had nothing to do with his mistress and his powers. It never changed in any way, it just was there, like a pea under the twenty mattresses.
   And then he met Lina and he knew at once that the purpose of this spot was to contain all of his memories of her, so that they wouldn't mix with others and be forgotten. There they were now, all sorted and polished with care.
   Lina laughing and happy -- and for some reason her emotions didn't displease him.
   Lina annoyed and angry -- and that was a royal feast, though for some reason he could never exhaust her, no matter how much he took.
   Lina beaten and bleeding -- and still even more appealing. So alluring, in fact, that he would hurt her himself just to see how she would stand up each time, determined, bloodstained but undefeated...
   Now, that was a dangerous chain of thought. There was no way he would allow himself to hurt her, no matter how tasty that sounded. He was to stay by her side as an ally. As a faithful servant, if that was what she wanted. He was realistic enough to see that she would never view him as a mate. Not with his past. Not with her reluctance to deal with his kind. Especially not now, with the whole world hating him and prying on his disgrace.
   Meanwhile the object of his passion jumped down from the body of the road and waved for others to follow.
   "There's a stream and I'd do with some refreshing!"
   Xellos followed the others, maintaining a stupid grin on his face. Should he wash his face too and soak his bangs, like humans do? Would she notice? Or maybe it's better for her not to notice and to let the images of him acting like a human penetrate her unconsciousness and stay there? What good will it do, anyway, if, perhaps, she doesn't even consider him a living creature since he never was born and never was going to die?
   As he raised his head from the waters, though, his thoughts were interrupted by a sudden appearance.
   "Xellos-sama!" exclaimed a tall snow-white-haired mazoku with white and blue stripes decorating his face.
   "Lantz? Why are you here?"
   "Who's he?" Lina demanded, instantly adopting a fighting position.
   "He's one of Juu-ou's Pack, used to be under my commandment," Xellos answered. Then turned to the newcomer expecting his answer.
   "I was nearby on duty and spotted your aura," Lantz said brightly. "Came to check it out, since we were told you were dead..."
   "I am, to you," said Xellos gloomily.
   "Oh, Zellas-sama was quite explicit about you not belonging to her Pack anymore, but..." the mazoku looked pretty sad. "It's still good that you're alive somewhere..."
   "Ah," Lina seemingly relaxed. "That's OK. I've been taking good care of him, ya see!"
   Lantz cast a curious glance towards the weird red-head, but decided not to meddle in his former commander's business.
   "Anyway, sir... even with the official ban, there's still quite a team of us who would be glad to serve you, as long as it doesn't contradict the mistress's orders too obviously," the mazoku laughed nervously.
   "Oh, rest assured, I won't ask any sacrifices of you," Xellos chuckled, however he looked quite pleased. "Yet I would be grateful if you manage to retrieve my belongings from the castle, as I can't cross the borders now..."
   The younger mazoku beamed with delight (which left the girls really puzzled about the emotional specter of this race).
   "Oh that's no problem, sir! Shall I bring it here?"
   "Hmm, no, better store it in that hut I used when spying on Sherra. You're the only one who knows the place exists."
   "Of course, sir," the mazoku gave Xellos something between a nod and a bow. "I'll do it right away. And you can call on me or others (you know who I mean) anytime. We all hope this clumsy situation is going to be resolved before long."
   Xellos nodded his thanks, and Lantz was gone.
   "What was that?" asked Zel in deep shock. "He's loyal to you despite Zellas's orders? Just what did you do for that?"
   Xellos looked at him rather gleefully.
   "Perhaps there is no way you would know it, Zelgadiss, but sometimes people seek each other's company without being forced to do so, but just because they enjoy it!"
   He would have continued his angry speech if not for Lina's fist that crushed right into his temple.
   "You know, Xellos, everyone has already noticed you're not in the best mood nowadays, and I'm not saying you have no reason for it, but that doesn't allow you to insinuate about others! Zel, for the matter, watched two of his comrades die for him even though Rezo's orders were that they kill him!"
   "There's no reason to bring my personal history into this, Lina!" growled Zelgadiss. "Since when are you acting like a good guy with a knowledge of friendship, though, Xellos? Sacked once, afraid to be sacked for the second time, eh?"
   "Shut up, Zel!!" roared Lina, throwing something at the enraged Chimera, who easily dodged whatever it was. He snorted and turned towards the road, stalking off.
   Lina groaned, grabbed Xellos by the collar and followed her rocky friend, cursing under her breath.
   Xellos was quite aware he wasn't thinking straight. Not that the realization made him feel any better. Why on Earth did he talk to Zelgadiss in that way? He was so glad about Lantz's loyalty, and here all his good mood was completely ruined...
   And now Lina was mad at him. Not that that was unheard of -- Lina was mad at someone or another almost at all times, and Xellos was at the top of her list of targets, right after Gourry. He used to enjoy angering her a lot. On the other hand, Zellas's rage with him always made him feel miserable, just like now. Did that mean he was already thinking of Lina as of his new mistress? Xellos chuckled silently at the pun. Human language was pretty disturbing, mixing those notions.
   But seriously, if his subconsciousness already put Lina's image into the gaping hole which was the Master's place in his core, he wouldn't be feeling so lost and unsure. And that, he realized, was the cause of his quarrel with Zelgadiss. The moment at least a tiny bit of his self-confidence was returned to him, he was too eager to prove his own worthiness. Funny, how long it took him to figure that out. He used to notice this particular disgraceful feature in others instantly. Recalling the images of people who possessed this flaw, he became utterly ashamed of himself. Oh no, he'd rather die than turn into a squabbly human teenager! Even though his beloved was one.
   Xellos glanced at Lina's stiff back and felt his insides churn. She wasn't stabilizing him like a mistress, but her anger did make him sick with guilt. Looks like he was stuck between two statuses, experiencing the worst side of each. That had to be changed -- either Lina was taking full charge of him and make him steady and confident, or she refused to have anything to do with him and then at least he wouldn't be feeling so miserable with her anger. It was time to talk to her again. He was desperate enough to reveal all of his reasons, all of them, just to make her decide.
   But then -- what if she refuses to take him? The thought hurt. Yet it was most likely that she'd do just that. She might think it was some kind of the Pledge (shudder) which she had sworn to never seal. And even if she didn't, there still were hundreds of reasons for her not to want him. Actually, there were almost no reasons for the opposite... Why almost? None at all!
   Xellos found himself shaking slightly. He needed to get over with this while he was still sane. Yet, as convinced as he was that she'd refuse him, he was very reluctant to start the talk. She hasn't said anything yet, so there still was... hope? He rolled the word around in his mind. Until now he only had a very vague idea of it's meaning. Still he knew humans often behaved really foolishly and refused to face the obvious just because they claimed to have `hope'. No, thanks. It was enough that he already displayed some self-affirmation today. He wouldn't cling to another stupid human invention!
   The mazoku quickened his pace to catch up with Lina.
   Meanwhile Lina was also deep in thought. That `being responsible' thing was really bugging her. Did that mean she was actually responsible for Xellos insulting Zel? Did that mean she was supposed to apologize to Zel? But he wasn't being so good either, he knew Xellos was under a lot of pressure, there was no need to make such a comment... Although, as insulting as it sounded, it could have actually been true. Xellos has been anything but himself since he was thrown into their camp the day before. Perhaps he was just trying to make himself appear in a better light in Lina's eyes, but, being a mazoku, had a wrong idea of what to do for that.
   Lina sighed. It looked like having Xellos under her commandment was going to be a real challenge. Perhaps she should talk to him about simple morals or something. It was a good start that he was concerned about her, she hoped it was not just because of the debt. But if she was going to teach him to treat others with respect, she was to watch her own mouth accurately. It wouldn't do any good to hurt him with a sly comment or put him down where he thought he could rely on her.
   So Lina took a deep breath and decided to go apologize to Zel after all. Not for Zel's sake, though, but so that Xellos would see she was doing her job right and he had no excuse to do his wrong. But at this moment something appeared right in front of her.
   Zellas was drunk and therefore sentimental. She was lying lazily on the thick Oriental carpet in her private quarters, looking at the world through a glass of finest pink wine. Things were appearing pink to her, and their better sides were largely exaggerated. She engrossed herself in recollections of her happy days with Xellos, of his smiles and complements, of his perfect and graceful ways to solve most complicated problems. Of his soft hands and hair that she created with such anticipation...
   A sudden whim forced her to get up and leave her chambers. She descended a level to where Xellos's abode was. Of course, running her hands through his belongings won't substitute for the loss, but still... Perhaps she could understand him better if she did it... And also... Wait. Where is everything?
   The chamber was empty as Shaburanigdo's soul and clean as Cefied's conscience. Obviously, someone did a good job transporting everything away. But who would do that, considering no one but her could enter the chambers without Xellos's permission? Could that mean he might be still alive?..
   Lina froze as two mazoku arrived before her. To her right a movement ceased -- it was Xellos, his frame stiff, his eyes open. She glanced back at the newcomers. They were a guy and a girl, dressed in aquamarine and turquoise with lots of shells and corals for decorations. They looked pretty full of themselves, contempt radiating from their forms in almost visible rays.
   "What's the great idea?" asked Lina in a bored tone.
   "Just look who we've found!" said the girl, ignoring her. "The precious all-the-best General-Priest! Now, isn't it sad that your Lord thinks she got rid of you for all times to come?"
   So they were after Xellos, not her, Lina figured. Which wasn't really much difference now, she reminded herself. She felt Gourry and the girls stop right behind her.
   "I hate to state the obvious," said Xellos in a neutral voice, "but there's no such person as `my Lord' now. So what is the purpose of your coming here?"
   Lina frowned. Didn't she count as a Lord? Perhaps not, since she wasn't really a mazoku Lord. But surely she did count as a mistress! Heavens, that sounded embarrassing. Damn those guys!
   It was only then that she understood that Zel was still walking along the road far ahead of them, unaware of the unexpected visitors.
   "Why, wolfie," the mazoku-guy sneered, "nervous, aren't we? Must be really hard not to belong, eh? They say you could've made a Lord yourself if not for your disgraceful need for a superior power."
   "What's your problem, Megus?" hissed Xellos, balling his fists. Lina's jaw dropped. It looked like he wasn't even going to contradict the bully!
   "Hey, really, what's your problem, dude?" she shouted, putting her hands on her hips. "I'm in charge here, so talk to me!"
   "Hmmm?" the mazoku-girl turned to her. "Some annoying insect at your side? How humiliating, mister ex-Priest!"
   "Don't you call Lina names!" Gourry cried. "She kills for that!"
   "Gourry-sama," whispered Sylphiel cautiously, "it may be dangerous to provoke mazoku like that..."
   Lina's eye started twitching. "Gourry," she said in a frightening voice, "get your sword ready."
   She cast a quick homing fireball to confuse the opponents and then jumped high above them with a little magical aid from Amelia to position herself in front of the blinding Sun. By the time Gourry plucked his sword deep into the mazoku-guy's side a Dragon Slave was formed in Lina's hands, and so the annoying monster went down.
   The group descended at the edge of the newly formed crater, Xellos setting Gourry back on foot. The dumbfounded mazoku-girl backed away, but Lina caught her with a hair-pulling spell.
   "Now listen, little mussel," the sorceress said, hands firmly on her hips. "Xellos is mine and no one is going to bully him about it. I advise you go inform your friends, if you don't want one more downfall of your race."
   "Y-you t-took the responsibility for him?" stuttered the mazoku-girl in disbelief.
   "So you're not just stupid, but deaf as well?" inquired Lina with fake concern. "I'm telling you I'm in charge here! So if you have a problem with Xellos you're going to settle it with me!"
   The girl cast the group a final frightened look, nodded and disappeared.
   Xellos felt relief washing all over him. He didn't need to ask Lina about anything at all. He didn't need to hope or to prove himself. Where was that chimera-man? He'd apologize at once, really...
   "Lina!" Zelgadiss came running. "What's going on here!?"
   "Not much," Lina shrugged, stepping away from the dangerous edge. "Just a couple of monster-brats looking for trouble."
   "Lina-san!" Sylphiel whined suddenly, "What have you done! The road is completely destroyed now! How are people going to use it?"
   The group turned their heads to the crater, as if spotting it for the first time. It was three times as wide as the road and headlong rocks were rising skywards left and right, eliminating any possibility of bypass.
   Xellos teleported to stand in mid-air over the damaged area and observed the surrounding cliffs. Now, there was a nicely shaped rock...
   "Amelia-san, would you please put up a barrier? It's going to be dusty..."
   The princess did as he asked, eyes wide.
   Xellos summoned the boulder and dropped it into the crater. It fit well, but now there was a small hill. The mazoku did some calculations with his swift-as-digital mind and vapourized the gibbous part of the boulder with a spell, leaving a perfectly even plato. He then teleported back to the group, dusting his clothes.
   "Is this satisfactory, Sylphiel-san?" he asked, beaming.
   The Slayers stared at him in utter disbelief.
   "Now what!" Lina cried suddenly. "Are we staying here forever? I'm hungry, so move on, guys! I'd rather make it to the next inn before dusk."
   "So Xellos," Lina turned to the smiling mazoku. It looked like he was finally regaining his composure. "Why didn't you tell those guys right away that I was your er... Master, or whatever?" she blushed slightly. "Are you ashamed of it?"
   Xellos raised his palms denyingly and shook his head resolutely.
   "By no means, Lina-san! I was just a little confused as you haven't stated it clearly earlier. I thought you might have reconsidered our relationship."
   Lina suspected he used the last word purposefully, to make her blush even further.
   "Oh. I thought it was already sealed by the debt".
   The smile vanished from Xellos's face.
   "No, it's a separate arrangement. The debt only states that my life belongs to you unless I pay you back. As for my will -- it's your free decision."
   "Doesn't really matter," Lina said lightly. `This is even better,' she thought to herself. `If it was just the debt, he had a chance to get away -- after all, it's not a big deal for him to save my life. But this way he's bound no matter what.' A mischievous grin appeared on her lips.
   It was the evening of the very same day, they were still walking down the road among the mountains. Lina was in high spirits after eliminating another mazoku, plus Xellos was finally acting like himself with all his jokes and comments, making Sylphiel blush all the time. He even attempted apologizing to Zel, but the chimera didn't seem to take him seriously, which was just as normal as ever, especially since Xellos made it sound pretty insincere.
   Alas, it was just the kind of day when you can't make a step without another mazoku appearing in front of you. This time it turned out to be Zellas herself. Although Lina didn't know that as she'd never seen the Greater Beast. So from her point of view it all looked pretty unnerving: some blond barely dressed girl appears right before Xellos and hugs him with a joyful scream. He freezes, wide-eyed, then starts frantically pushing back. The girl doesn't seem to notice his rejection, instead she grabs his shoulders and starts telling him how she missed him and how she's sorry, with stars in her eyes.
   At first Lina felt insulted. Was that Xellos's girlfriend or something? How come he never told her he had one? That wasn't very friendly of him. Then, if there was a girl who cared about him so much, why is it Lina who's helping him out in trouble? This hussy just waited for someone to fix her guy and now came to take him away, huh!? Lina wasn't just insulted anymore. Her rage was building up with each breath, at some point she thought the surroundings reddened somehow, but she couldn't pay attention to such a trifle. She was about to cast another Dragon Slave, no, a Ragna Blade, no, that's not enough either, it should be...
   She felt fingers closing tightly on her shoulder.
   "Lina, relax a bit! What's wrong?"
   She blinked. It was good to be able to see and hear again. There was Xellos standing before her, a look of frightened concern on his face. The blond girl stood a little away, eyeing her cautiously. There was a strange smell in the air.
   "Whozzat?" Lina managed hoarsely.
   "Zellas-sama," Xellos said quietly, looking down. He withdrew his hand from Lina's shoulder and she noticed that she was unsteady on her feet.
   "Great," husked Lina. "Came to finish what you started, I presume?"
   Zellas shifted a little.
   "No, as I was saying, it was a mistake. I was enraged and, well, my temper decided for me."
   "Too bad," said Lina, her own temper soaring skywards. "I believe you had five thousand years to learn to control it."
   "Well, Lina," Zelgadiss suddenly said, "if you're going to fight over this fruitcake, I'm not in." He passed her by and proceeded walking ahead. Lina gulped. She didn't think she was going to fight. After all, Zellas was a mazoku Lord, but, more importantly, Xellos was so down after she sacked him... what would become of him if she died? Wouldn't he try to avenge her?.. Damn that mysterious mazoku hierarchy!
   "That wasn't very friendly now, was it, Zelgadiss-san?" asked Xellos in a very soft but audible voice. Lina pursed her lips -- Xellos was asking for a quarrel again. It was Gourry who made everyone forget about the chimera, though.
   "So you came to take him back?" said the swordsman, scratching his nape. "Too bad, we're kinda used to him now!" With that he patted Xellos's back with a little too much strength.
   "Naturally," said Zellas, folding her arms. "He belongs with me."
   Lina looked down. Why would she even think it was going to be any different? Good things rarely happened to her and never lasted. It was fun to think Xellos was at her disposal, but she knew all along that was just some mistake... No one will ever be there `all to herself'. She hugged herself defensively. Her anger was burning again. Why would they always need to tease her? Why show her the pleasant possibilities just to take them away next moment? Did they want to break her? Well, whoever they were, their victory was close. She felt her blood boiling. Damn them. Damn the golem-maker who lured her with an idea of perpetuating her image in one of his creations. Damn Gourry who saved her as a heroine but treated her as a child. Damn prince Phil who was no prince Charming. Damn Giga Slave that she couldn't really use. Damn the world!
   And damn Zellas.
   Lina raised her head, fangs showing in an evil grin, fists clenched. Everything around turned orange and crimson, and when she spoke her voice sounded more like a roar, but she never noticed.
   "It's just fine, my dear Zellas-chan. First you banish him away due to your bad temper, and I almost lose my life saving your Priest's ass, and the next day you come and demand him back! Don't you see the odds are against you, eh? Can't you figure out that I'm sort of not too willing to let him go?"
   Zellas opened her mouth, but closed it right away as Lina stepped forward. She caught a glimpse of Xellos's deformed face, pale even in the auburn light. So he was willing to go back, wasn't he? And no matter what she thought earlier, he'd weasel out of their `arrangement' and go curl around Zellas's feet right away. And even if he doesn't, what good would it be to have an unwilling mazoku under your commandment? Lina's eyesight faltered once more as everything was now covered in reddish mist. She squeezed her eyes shut and bellowed, "Well, say something, you shuttlecock!!"
   "I'm sorry, Zellas-sama," came Xellos's weak voice, "but it is here that I belong now, not with you. Lina-san has taken full charge of me, not to mention that I'm in a life debt to her, so... You know how it works."
   "I do," Zellas pronounced slowly as if trying to speak human language for the first time. "Perhaps I was not so wrong when I chucked you. Too bad she isn't even pretty," she scoffed and was gone.
   Lina felt someone touching her shoulders again and wriggled away. Her hands and eyes burned, the smell around the place was sickening.
   "Hey, Lina, let them treat you, you're all burnt!" came Gourry's voice.
   "Why is that?" she asked stubbornly.
   "I dunno, but there was fire coming out of your eyes and hands!" the swordsman exclaimed. "Looked horrible and your bangs are singed."
   Lina started and opened her eyes abruptly. She stared at her hands, feeling nauseated. Her gloves were gone and the skin... well, there wasn't much skin left. She tried to imagine what her face must look like. Zellas's last words roared in her mind. She felt a freaky salty taste in her mouth, then her knees gave in and then...
   She woke up in bed. It was dark, but the darkest spot was a gap between the light curtains on the window. So it was night outside, too. She started yawning, but choked as the events of the day surfaced in her memory. She sat up at once, made a Lighting spell and searched her hands for burns. There were none. Then she looked over the room and noticed a bed-side table with a glass of water and a mirror left on top of it, obviously for her. She grabbed the mirror and stared at the reflection expecting the worse. The face that stared back at her was flushed, pretty and frightened, but bore no signs of being in contact with fire lately. Lina sighed deeply and emptied the water, reminding herself that she was traveling with Sylphiel, who was just as good a healer as they came.
   She was going to climb out of the bed and go look for the others, as Xellos materialized at her bedside almost soundlessly.
   "Feeling better?" he asked casually, sitting down on the edge of her bed.
   "Feeling," she stated. "I don't think I was, lately. Was there really fire coming out of my eyes?"
   Xellos nodded. "Didn't it hurt?"
   "No. Just the smell... And everything looked red. And then there was that mist... Though... if my eyes were burning, it must have been steam."
   "It never happened to you before, did it?"
   Xellos nodded again.
   "I'm hungry."
   "Sylphiel and Zelgadiss went to buy some food. You see, there's no inn in this village, so we're staying in a private house owned by an old woman. She has several spare rooms, but told us to cook for ourselves."
   "I see. Isn't it too late for shopping, though?"
   "It's seven in the evening. There's a storm outside. I put a silencing spell on your room, so that you could rest."
   Lina felt her face heating, but she also felt a growing warmth inside her chest. "Thanks. So you're still with me."
   "Yes. Even though you didn't seem to care much."
   Xellos raised his head and it was only then that Lina noticed he wasn't looking at her from the beginning.
   "You never explicitly told Zellas that you picked me up. Instead you forced me to do this."
   Lina stared. "And you're mad because of it?"
   "I can't be mad at you. But you let me down." He paused, but as she couldn't come up with anything to say, he continued, "I don't know what to think, Lina. Do you really want me or is it just a game?"
   "I DO!" Lina cried furiously and then blushed all the way down to her chinbone. "I just thought... Well, you were looking at me so furiously when I started screaming at her, I thought you actually wanted to go back. I mean, you were so distressed when she sacked you... You might be willing to forgive her..."
   "Heavens, Lina," Xellos chuckled softly, rubbing his face with his palms. He wasn't wearing gloves -- his new costume didn't include them -- and Lina found herself staring at his hands. They were large, even too large for a man of Xellos's height. The knuckles were much wider than fingers themselves. The nails were cut short but they began deep back in the phalangettes, so they looked quite long. Lina looked away. Whatever Xellos's body parts looked like, it was just due to Zellas's weird sense of humour. Meanwhile the mazoku started explaining.
   "I was not upset because Zellas left me to die. It would've been the same with any other person. Remember Megus? He was actually right. I need to belong. I don't have any feelings for Zellas as a person. She isn't much of a person, for the matter... I just don't do on my own. That's the way she created me, to ensure I won't oppose her. She didn't foresee you would be there for me, though," he gave her a warm smile and Lina felt herself smiling back.
   "I see. Sorry, but you'll have to explain things like that to me actually. Now why don't we go see if dinner could be speeded up?"
   As they walked into the living-room, Lina started at the sound of thunder and rain from the outside. Zel and Sylphiel have just returned from their shopping trip and were soaking wet. Amelia applied a drying spell to Sylphiel's clothes and hair and went to take the food away to the kitchen. Lina thought it was weird she didn't take care of Zel, but then she noticed that no one was talking to the chimera at all. Gourry and Xellos both avoided so much as looking his way.
   Sylphiel went to the kitchen and started washing some vegetables. Lina came in after her.
   "I'll do the bakery then."
   "Oh, Lina-san, shouldn't you be resting?"
   "I'm as good as new, and if I don't busy myself something I'll start eating pot flowers," Lina chuckled.
   So soon everything was chopped, mixed, boiled and baked. Sylphiel was a really great cook, and everyone was hungry (even Xellos, but he extracted his dinner from the sulking Zelgadiss).
   As soon as the main dishes were consumed, Lina brought her masterpiece -- a huge round sponge-cake with berries.
   "You made this?" asked Gourry, surprised. "Can you, really?"
   Lina just shrugged dismissively. She then spotted Xellos, who was leafing through a book in the farthest and darkest corner of the room.
   "Hey, Xel! Come, have some."
   "Nah, Lina, that'll be a waste. You know, I don't really --"
   "I know how you like sweets, so come out! I don't cook often, as you could notice, so there's no way you're missing the offer."
   "All right, if you say so," Xellos sighed and went to the table to take his saucer.
   Then for a while everyone fell silent, just the thunder roaring over the house. Then, finally, Sylphiel spoke.
   "Lina-san... You're a much better cook than I am!"
   "This is supereminent!" Amelia chimed in. "I've never tasted anything like this, not even in the palace!"
   "Who would've thought," mumbled Gourry, stuffing a second helping of the cake into his mouth. Zel looked away, obviously uncomfortable.
   Lina was eating slowly, with uncharacteristic grace to her movements. She looked smug and took the complements for granted. As everyone fell more or less silent, Xellos suddenly asked, "Is this really food?"
   Well, he did draw everyone's attention. Lina raised an eyebrow waiting for something else. Today's events have taught her to know better than to judge Xellos's actions by what they seem.
   "I believe it is," she said finally, prompting him to explain himself.
   "Ahh, oh, I just meant..." Xellos seemed to realize what he'd just said. "I mean, I never thought food could be such a pleasure!"
   Everyone breathed out.
   "Now, Lina," said Gourry, wiping berry juice from his mouth, "with such a talent you really should run a tavern of your own! You'd be the richest person in the world!"
   Lina paled and freezed.
   "No, thanks, Gourry," she said quietly. "I have actually had enough of it. Why, do you think, I never cooked before? It's because I hate it." Her voice grew louder and was slightly trembling. "You know, my sister owned an inn. But she was too greedy to hire a cook, and with my `natural talent' I was cooking for her since I was five and until I ran away. That is twelve hours a day, seven days a weak, and even more on weekends. And holidays. And festivals! And all that time I was supposed to wear her old clothes and eat what was left on the customers' plates, but there was rarely anything left, because no matter what I do my cooking is always splendid, even if I want to make it disgusting! And then the neighbours were curious why's that little Inverse girl so little and never plays outside with other kids! Why, huh? I hate this stuff, I just HATE it! I thought I was over it, but you just had to bring it up, didn't you!"
   Lina got up from the table and ran away, slamming the door to her room, before anyone saw her tears.
   "How was I supposed to know?" cried Gourry in complete confusion.
   Xellos got up and teleported inside Lina's room.
   The room was pitch-dark, and Xellos blinked, slightly disoriented. His vision wasn't much better than an average human's since his eyes were simply an imitation of human light-catching organs, and what helped him find his way in the darkness were his Astral senses. With them he could estimate the distance and direction to anything that lived or any magical object, but not furniture. So he did stumble a couple of times before landing on Lina's bedside.
   To tell the truth, he didn't even need his mazoku senses to locate the loudly sobbing sorceress. From what he could make out, she was lying on her stomach, her face pressed into the pillow. Of course, he could simply make his eyes glow, but he decided that wouldn't cheer Lina up. Humans didn't react good to the sight of his eyes at all, and definitely not when they were shining with lilac-tainted light, casting infernal shade all over his face.
   At that moment he realized that he was indulging in unnecessary thoughts simply because he had little clue as for what to do. He spent enough time among humans to know that girls generally responded well to a warm embrace and an artificial assurance that everything was going to be all right. But those were ordinary girls and this was Lina. He was pretty sure he never saw her crying before, and so never saw anyone comforting her. It looked like he was going to be the pioneer... What he knew for sure, though, was that she hated it when people touched her. No, not people, more like guys. So he was already at a disadvantage here, as he definitely was one. There was one more thing that made him refrain from touching his new mistress -- he couldn't really do it without her permission, if it wasn't an extreme situation in battle or something. Now that he thought of it, he recalled that he didn't need a permission to kiss Zellas's hand, so it must have been Lina's personal rule, unspoken but strict. Whenever Xellos thought of putting his palm on the sorceress's shoulder, he felt himself in a full bodybind.
   All right then. The only thing he could do was talk. He slipped to the floor and leveled his head with Lina's so that his voice wouldn't be coming from above her.
   "Lina..." he breathed cautiously.
   "What!!" came an annoyed answer. "Feeding well, aren't you!?"
   "No!" Xellos shuddered at the idea. Funny how changing the Master quickly changed his attitude pattern.
   "Came to make me more miserable then?" sneered Lina bitterly.
   "Lina, I belong to you now, I can't feed off you, and I take no pleasure in seeing you upset," Xellos quietly explained. He had to state those simple truths to her, even if it was embarrassing. Perhaps, she would feel the same if it comes to her explaining him some motives of her actions. With all the time that he'd spent with humans, some of Lina's reasoning was still an enigma to him.
   The sorceress gulped and sniffed, fighting to utter a sound.
   "Then what are you doing here if you don't enjoy the sight?"
   "I-I thought... if there's anything I can do to help..." Xellos stammered. He felt very stupid, not knowing how to comfort his mistress. And here again she was mad at him...
   "There was something you could help seventeen years earlier, not now! I am what I am, and if you don't like me being your mistress, perhaps I should --"
   "NO, Lina, PLEASE!"
   "-- punch you into oblivion!"
   "Ah, well, that's fine as long as it cheers you up."
   Lina paused a little.
   "Then what did you protest so desperately about?"
   "Ah, well, for a moment I thought you were going to sack me too..."
   Lina sat up, wiping her nose on her glove. Her hands were still trembling hysterically, so she decided she wouldn't humiliate herself with a failed attempt at a Lighting spell.
   "Xellos, look at me," she demanded.
   "I am looking at you."
   "Well, I can't see that! At least make your eyes glow or something!"
   Xellos did that, mentally marking his earlier decision as "wrong" in the voluminous paper test titled "What to do and what not to do around Lina Inverse". She was no ordinary human, all right, he thought as she apparently relaxed in the infernal gleam surrounding her.
   Lina felt better to have Xellos so obedient to her. She was half-expecting something like `but isn't it more intimate this way, Lina-saaan?" and was glad nothing like that came. She disrespectfully pulled him up by the collar to sit on the bed with her.
   "Now, listen, Xellos. I'm not going to sack you, no matter how mad I am. For one, I'm not going to lose all the advantage that comes with you in my service, for the other, I've had enough of your bad mood to cause a new addition. Is that clear?"
   "Eh, I wish it was..." Xellos drawled, trying to get just when this conversation from him-comforting-Lina turned into Lina-comforting-him. "But I can't bring myself to trust in it until I see some proof, so sorry..."
   Lina moaned and Xellos felt her anger intensify. He cringed at that wishing he was still on the floor.
   "Great!" the sorceress exclaimed indignantly. "So are you just going to ignore what I say or will you deliberately anger me to the utmost to get your proof?"
   "Definitely not the second," Xellos said quickly. "You see, I'm not doing anything on purpose, it's just how things work..." he added, shutting up before something like "weren't you thinking of that when adopting me!?" escaped his lips.
   "And you just come to me when I'm at my worst to pour all of your self-pity over my head!?" Lina roared. "Can't you tell I'm not in the mood to nanny you?"
   He'd experienced Zellas's rage more than once, even though he's been a really good servant, no false modesty. But Zellas was cold, sneering and hating in silence. Whereas Lina was so passionate in her rage... She was passionate in everything, actually, but her rage was her most well-developed side. After all, that was where her Black Magic took energy from. Her rage was rich, unique and completely insufferable.
   Xellos tried to respond, but his mouth just wouldn't open, instead his eyes widened unnaturally as he felt piercing pain in his solar plexus, and he doubled with a groan.
   Lina's anger faded instantly. Was Xellos hurt? Was that why he'd come to her? Did he fight with Zel, or, due to the circumstances, with Gourry? Did he come to ask for help, but failed to bring it up seeing her in such a poor state?
   She grabbed his shoulders and pulled him backwards to see what was wrong. He caught her wrist.
   "Thanks... that was a little too much," he breathed.
   "What was?" Lina blinked.
   Xellos clapped his free hand to his face and let it slide down.
   "Heavens... I'm constantly forgetting you don't know your powers... You see, it hurts when you're so angry with me."
   Lina froze. Did she do it to him, then? Couldn't he WARN her beforehand? Couldn't he tell her when it started to hurt? Did he NEED her to feel so GUILTY!?
   She forced herself to calm down before she ruined him completely.
   "Now, Xellos," she said quietly. "You are going to tell me every single thing about our `relationship'."
   When they finished talking it was already lighting up. Lina was sitting in her bed under the covers, perched against several pillows. Xellos was lying in what seemed to be an utterly uncomfortable position, his head resting on her lap. She had to allow him to put it there since she refused to let him kiss her hand, and he claimed to need some kind of contact with her from time to time. She thought this way it was less embarrassing, perhaps, because it looked rather childish. Then, again, Xellos being childish was a pretty frightening idea...
   She stifled a yawn and patted his head which made his gleaming eyes squeeze in pleasure.
   "Time to sleep, kitty, before you learn how to purr."
   "I don't need to learn that," Xellos grinned broadly. "But your wish is my law. Goodnight then, my lady."
   With that he slowly disappeared, leaving Lina to contemplate on the whole picture of what she'd got herself into. Well, first of all, she'll need to have better control over her emotions. And then she must be prepared that he could ask most unexpected things of her, like this occasional contact. It was going to be a VERY embarrassing experience, she was just glad he felt the same way, stuttering and whispering certain things which Lina, on the contrary, saw as normal and understandable. It was bad, though, that she had no way to check if what he told her was true or if he made half of it up to make his life easier. Then, again, he claimed not to be able to lie to her.
   One thing she was still certain of -- that was going to be a real challenge.
   Several days later the rising sun found Lina and her gang sleeping in what was left of a bandits' lair. Xellos was the only one awake, semi-sitting on a branch, a limb or two hanging loosely in the air. Last night's massacre provided him with both food and entertainment. He would not require any more sustenance for a week at least, so he was content.
   Lina was feeling self-conscious around him all the time, but he knew it was because she had to let him touch her occasionally. He, in return, limited his physical interactions to avoid intimate contact, and made sure no one was looking. He didn't need her nosy comrades getting suspicious. The group was tolerating him well, and he could wish for nothing better, since the last thing he wanted was Lina's friends trying to prejudice her against him.
   Amelia still nauseated him with her sympathy about his sacking. She also kept jabbering about how she hoped having Lina as a boss instead would make him a better person. That made Lina grimace, and all Xellos could do was smile wanly and save his strength.
   Xellos didn't think Gourry would ever dream of contradicting Lina's decision, moreover, he figured that the only thing Gourry remembered clearly about Xellos was that he was really, really old. The man was raised to respect his elders, which was funny, but useful.
   Zelgadiss was as unfriendly as possible and displayed every bit of distrust, but he didn't actually seem to believe that this whole thing was Xellos's scheme from the beginning. From his side comments Xellos concluded that Zel's reasoning was something like "a fruitcake the mazoku might be, but he wouldn't hurt himself so badly just to gain the trust of Zelgadiss Greywords". And on top of that Zel still had to be completely forgiven after his attempted flight. Of course, everyone knew that if Lina actually had to fight Zellas, he would join in, he just wouldn't do it for Xellos, but still what he did was low. Xellos didn't mind that the chimera ignored him and that his lack of trust forced him to share the night's watch with Xellos. As long as he attempted nothing else. Last night, though, the poor kid was too tired to stay awake.
   Lina woke up with a sneeze and scratched her forehead. She had to invent some anti-gnat spell. There were lots of insects in the Big World.
   "Good morning, Lina-san!" A cheerful voice greeted her from above, and then Xellos was standing right in front of her with a steaming mug in his hands. "Not getting ill, are you?"
   Lina decided she liked how it all turned out. And when Xellos handed her a pack of sandwiches which he managed to save during yesterday's dinner, she decided her situation was damn terrific. That is not to mention that they didn't have to have night shifts since Xellos was always around and awake.
   "Naw, just some midge in my nose," she assured him.
   Xellos was making an effort, really. He didn't even tease Zel much, and that was something Lina couldn't completely refrain from, herself. It must be very hard to be a mazoku unsure of his position, Lina concluded.
   "So did you go through the treasure already?" she asked. She thought it might do him good to see that she wasn't angry with the idea.
   "Nope, I'm not interested in gold." Xellos responded in a carefree manner. "And I don't sense any magical aura from the treasure."
   "Okay, then I'm the first to see it!" she jumped up rubbing her hands excitedly.
   The treasure was... well, treasure. Lots of jewelry with a handful of coins. Lina sorted through it to determine which was to spend and which to keep. The others woke up to her joyful exclamations, and soon the girls were having lots of fun trying the bijouterie on. Sylphiel was cautious at first, as jewels were often cursed or contained various magical powers, but Xellos assured her that this particular set was safe.
   Lina wouldn't normally share her loot, but today everything seemed somehow unreal, perhaps, due to Xellos's uncharacteristic behavior, so the sorceress was apt to games.
   Finally Lina chose a pair of earrings to substitute for her simple round ones. They were gold and shaped into scarabs with a ruby-inlaid wing-sheath. Lina felt that the earrings suited her as if were meant for her to wear them.
   "The scarabs are considered sacred in the Northern regions of Lyzeille and Dils." Sylphiel told her. "They are believed to bring good fortune, and the gods show their benevolence to those who trust in this symbol's powers."
   That finalized Lina's decision. She pushed the scarabs into place on her ears and clasped the snaps.
   The other two girls decided not to take anything. Sylphiel was way too shy to wear just some decoration without the excuse of it being a magical amplifier, and Amelia once dutifully wore heavy decorative state stones back in Seyruun, and wasn't too eager to put on any extra weight when not forced to. Zel seemed to relax a bit once she stated that. It was Xellos, to common astonishment, who asked Lina's permission to take a piece -- a plain thin silver ring.
   "There are some ancient writings inscribed on its inner surface, which I wish to decipher later," he offered as an explanation.
   Lina thought that was reasonable, but noticed that he wore it even so, and watched as he put it on his pinky finger. It was really small. Lina suppressed an excited shudder as she watched the ring slide to its place around the uneven mazoku finger, the sun shining on its sleek surface. `I wish it was big enough for his fourth finger,' she suddenly thought.
   That forced her to sober up. Why on Earth would she picture Xellos married? That had nothing to do with her plans for him. So enough rubbish. They've already spent the whole morning having fun, it was time to go on if they wanted to make it to the next town for lunch.
   Luckily, the weather was nice. It was windy and cool, but the sun made up for that, so on the whole it was warm and bright -- but not too much. It was the perfect weather for travelers. Lina hummed quietly to herself, her eyes half-closed, as she walked along the smooth road in front of the group. Her life was good, for once. It couldn't be better.
   Or could it? Hmm, perhaps having something exotic for lunch wouldn't hurt, she mused. And a hot spring in the evening. Ahhhh. Or, maybe, meeting some new exciting people. Better guys. Lina thought she could do with a little romance, and why not?
   She closed her eyes completely and raised her face to bathe in sunlight, losing herself in her thoughts. So what kind of guy would she want to meet? Well, to begin with, he'd better be rich and handsome. Then, it was preferable that he'd know what's better not to say to a girl. She winced, remembering some of Gourry's inappropriate comments. Why on Earth would Amelia think of them as of a couple, she wondered? No, she decided, she wanted a man nothing like Gourry. She wanted someone thoughtful and caring, and smart. Someone with magical powers would do as well, since with Lina's history a non-magical mate would be vulnerable to attack. So, generally speaking, the guy must be just perfect, she surmised.
   But then why would he need her? Lina frowned a bit. That was a breach in her logic. A perfect person like the one she just imagined must be self-sufficient. Although he might be lonely. Loneliness isn't a flaw, is it? Okay, but then why would no one else want such a person? Meaning, any girl would want to comfort a lonely perfect man! Well, perhaps he'd just choose Lina over other girls. She was the beautiful sorcerer-genius, wasn't she? He'd fall for her charm in no time!
   But wouldn't it be a complicated relationship with all the other girls hanging around and demanding him back? Grrrr. Perhaps it would've been all right if she had a crowd of guys after her as well, but she had no posse of drool-worth hunks.
   So no. There must be no other girls. And killing them wouldn't help. Okay, Lina surrendered, let him have a flaw. A huge one, to repel everyone else, but just one. So what kind of flaw could it be that Lina could tolerate and others couldn't?
   Hmmm, he might be so powerful that everyone would be scared of him, but Lina'd be his equal. That sounded good. Actually, she thought she read a story like that somewhere. Didn't matter. She'd make up one of her own. So this is how it goes: a perfect guy, powerful and fearsome, but lonely meets her at the hot springs and falls in love at the first sight... No, first sight at the hot springs may mean he was peeking on her while bathing. That won't do. He must be perfect. So... let it be...on the battlefield! There, he would be able to admire her competitive powers! Just hope he wouldn't fight her to see who's best. Lina sweatdropped. Okay, then, maybe, `first sight' is wrong. Maybe it's better for him to stick around her for some time to get to know her better. But why would a perfect powerful guy stick around her if he wasn't already in love with her?
   This was getting complicated! Perhaps, he'd have some secret agenda. Oh, great. So, he was planning to use her for his purpose, but then, getting to know her better, fell in love and gave up his plans. But what could be the perfect guy's purpose? An image of Xellos crawled into her mental vision. Well, yeah, she had been through this before and knew better than to wish for some powerful guy to have a secret agenda concerning her. Just think how it could all turn out!
   The mental image of Xellos smiled at her warmly in the semi-darkness.
   "I put a silencing spell on your room, so that you could rest," the image said, then added, "She didn't foresee you would be there for me, though."
   This romantic Xelloss kissed her hand and gave her a cup of hot aromatic tea. He looked unsure and longing for something he couldn't express with words. He held her in mid-air, his arms soft and comfortable, his hands gently squeezing her shoulder and knee, but never touching any sensitive zone. His knotty fingers brushed against her shoulder here and then. His huge hot palms grasped her tiny hand as he wished her good night. Never anything improper... Ne-ver. What a pity.
   Lina relaxed and the images dissolved and vanished under the sun's warmth. Xellos was handsome, she mused. He wasn't acting like a handsome person and wasn't trying to turn his appearance into an advantage, but still he was very attractive. The colour of his smooth skin changed from dark tan in bright sunlight to glowing pale in a dark room lit with candles. His silhouette was perfect and alluring, thin wrists and ankles with large hands and feet, slender waist, but broad shoulders, yet not over-muscular. He used to speak in a soft tenor, yet now that he was wearing an open-necked tunic, his Adam's apple was visible all right, so he likely could speak in a deeper voice. His lips were nobly thin and pale, stretched in his usual mocking smile, but at the rare moments of seriousness they were full and distinct, the colour of a dull rose. Let alone of his eyes which were a proverb and a byword.
   Lina didn't know whether he was rich or not, but she was pretty sure he could become rich in no time with a machination or two. And, after all, he had some `belongings' he asked some servant to take away to his `hut'. That's at least some property! He also said he wasn't interested in gold. Perhaps, he just had loads of it...
   And Xellos certainly knew better than to comment on her cup size! He couldn't even afford to have her angry with him. He couldn't lie to her. He would stay with her to the end of her days doing anything she asked, no kidding! And he was powerful, and, in a way, lonely -- that need to belong was kind of close to loneliness, romantically speaking, wasn't it? And he's as fan-girl safe as possible, being a mazoku and the Demon of Demons. Anyways, she could always order him to dispose of the obnoxious acquaintances. And he didn't have any secret agenda for her NOW, and he already knew her well and...
   And he didn't love her.
   And couldn't really, because he was a mazoku. Damn.
   Suddenly Lina felt completely miserable, as if all the previous joy was sucked out of her. She felt insulted, set up and betrayed all at once. She hated the idea of spending a lifetime with a man who was perfect but didn't love her.
   "Lina-san?" an ingratiating voice called, pulling her out of her musings. "Is everything alright?"
   Lina stared at him, wondering if he had noticed the changes in her emotions. She pursed her lips. The snoop!
   "I don't like it that you can tell my mood at any time," she said trying hard not to sound exasperated.
   The mazoku looked away. "I can't help it."
   "There must be some kind of emotional-shield spell or something."
   Xellos paled (which made him not white in the face, but somewhat transparent). Lina tossed out that idea.
   "Okay, I see that's not an option. But at least don't come up to me and ask stock questions. If there's something I'd like to tell you, I wouldn't wait for your prompting."
   Xellos nodded and inwardly sighed in relief. He couldn't lie to Lina in the proper sense of the word, but a little misguiding didn't count. He sensed how she felt. It seemed she felt she must make an effort to cope. He could also feel her guilt every time she failed to be a good mistress for him -- as if he could choose who his mistress would be! Perhaps it was just her human nature. Humans were more responsible than mazoku. A mazoku in Lina's place wouldn't care about Xellos's well-being at all, as long as he was alive. But Lina cared. She was trying hard not to hurt him with her anger or distrust and that gave him a comfortable feeling of cuddling up in a soft bed with fleece covers. But Xellos wouldn't be himself if he didn't try to exploit her attitude. He didn't really need to sense her emotions all the time. Zellas actually used to shield every single bit of it from him. But he was so curious... and after that scene Lina caused about cooking he preferred to know her mood before it manifested into a Dragon Slave. He couldn't lie to her. But looking hurt and scared wasn't lying, was it?
   Meanwhile, Lina, deprived of her sweet day-dreaming, decided to start a little talk.
   "Ne, Xellos. What are those belongings you were so anxious to get from the Island the other day?"
   "Various stuff. Artifacts, books, dress-up costumes..."
   The Mazoku smiled as if he was anticipating the effect.
   "Those are various uniforms for disguise. Like the priest's one I was wearing before."
   "D'you have many?"
   "Lots. Costumes often come in handy. They are rarely remodeled, so I can track the changes without much effort. I keep the old-fashioned ones, though, too."
   "I like collecting things. Those are history." Seeing that Lina wasn't content with the answer, he continued, "When you live long and learn lots and see many things die out and be forgotten, it starts to bug you. Long-living human magicians are usually optimistic and welcome the innovations, but we don't. So it's not unheard of for a mazoku to collect things."
   "How does that errr, coincide with your purpose?"
   "Simple. Since everything is going to be destroyed in the end, who cares if some little part of it is saved until then!"
   Lina laughed. Xellos was doing a good job cheering her up, not to mention that his voice was sending waves of sweet tremor along her body.
   "So, do you buy that stuff or do you steal it?"
   "Depends on what is more convenient in every particular case. I prefer to have it sewn for me, though."
   Lina cursed under her breath. Her tactics to find out Xellos's financial state failed. He could pay the tailors as well as force them to make stuff for him. And asking about that would sound suspicious, Xellos was astute and might guess where Lina was leading.
   He was astute and smart, all right. Lina didn't recall marking that line in her perfect-man requirement list earlier. Perhaps, `knowledgeable' should be there as well.
   "Does it bother you?" Xellos asked. Since Lina gave him a blank stare, though, he rushed to explain. "I mean, you consider stealing wrong, don't you? So is it about how many wrong things I've done before..?" he trailed off.
   Lina released her breath. She almost believed he could read her thoughts. She nearly said it aloud - `it doesn't bother me that you are knowledgeable!'
   "No, Xellos, it's not about that," she assured him with a wane smile. "I know you are no angel, and I'm putting up with it. It's just that collection stuff. I wonder, how much you could like it?"
   "Ah, I can spend a fortune or two on a rare item," he smiled, his lower lip glittering wet as if he was biting it an instant ago. Lina had to make an effort not to break her pace. "I even found the Ancient Dragon treasury and enchanted it to show its contents exclusively to me. That way I could get myself anything without delay..."
   YATTA!! Lina almost jumped and she couldn't help grinning madly. A handful of stars obscured her vision.
   "You can use it to your pleasure, my Mistress. That is, if you don't mind bloody gold." Xellos added after a pause, in a smaller voice.
   It was only then that it dawned on Lina. She could simply tell Xellos to give her the money and... and for the first time in her life she thought she'd rather leave the money where it was. It was so obvious that he wanted to keep his treasure all to himself! What fun was it to take it from Xellos if he wasn't willing to give it to her freely? He wouldn't even think of giving her a little precious present, would he? And he did know how much she liked gold, all right! He just didn't bloody care! He just wanted his gold to remain his, for that stupid collection of old rags!
   "Keep it!" she snapped grimly. Then, noticing Xellos's wide-eyed gaze, added hastily, "For now! You're better at safe-keeping, I guess."
   But instead of smiling and dropping the subject, as Lina hoped, Xellos asked quietly, "Are you mad that I didn't tell you this earlier?"
   Lina cursed under her breath again. No matter how hurt she felt, it wasn't Xellos's FAULT that he didn't love her. And, a tiny figure with a tail and horns added from behind her left shoulder, he wasn't going to love her if she pains him all the time.
   Lina shook her head, trying to control her temper and at the same time reminding herself that Xellos wasn't going to love her no matter what, since he simply couldn't.
   "I am not mad at you," she stated finally. "It's nothing for you to worry about."
   Xellos nodded slowly, looking as if he was in grief for a dead friend. `Mazoku don't make friends,' Lina told herself firmly.
   "So, is it just clothes you collect?" she said in a fake cheerful voice, willing to break the heavy silence. Frankly speaking, it was no silence, since the birds were singing and the wind was blowing and the stones were chirring under the feet, and the three of the five Lina's comrades were laughing loudly just a few steps behind, but all this somehow didn't seem to exist.
   The only thing that existed in the hollow universe was that soft tenor that said, "No, I also collect art and poetry."
   "POETRY!?" Lina exclaimed, causing the whole group to stare at her. "You collect poetry!!"
   "Hu-uh?" said Amelia at the same moment as Silphiel cried, "This is so sweet!" and Zelgadiss sneered, "To make origami?" obviously failing to imagine Xellos doing anything else with poetry books.
   "Why, old folks do that sometimes," Gourry shrugged. "What's so wrong with collecting?"
   "Je-e-e-ellyfish bra-a-a-ains!" cried Lina, making a flapjack of Gourry with an enormous magical hammer, finally releasing all of her silent rage from earlier.
   "So, how come, Xellos-san?" Amelia asked when the dust settled. "Do you actually like reading poems?"
   "Kind of," Xellos looked smug from all the attention of the group. "It's both entertaining and educative. It's so much fun to compare what people thought important in different periods in different parts of world... But revolutionary poetry is my personal favourite. So much sweet emotion!"
   The group sweatdropped.
   "H-how about love verses?" Sylphiel asked hopelessly.
   "Well, broken hearts are nice," Xellos replied happily. Lina swallowed a lump in her throat big enough to be a heart. The guy WAS a mazoku. Ma-zo-ku. Forget it, girl.
   Put out with his reply as she was, Lina missed the second part of it.
   Xellos mumbled it more to himself than to Sylphiel, "I've grown to appreciate those lately."
   What Lina did notice was Amelia patting Xellos's shoulder in a friendly manner, assuring him that at some point he'd come to appreciate happy love as well, and, perhaps, even meet his own love. Lina felt her face heat up. That was uncalled for. The last thing she needed was someone noticing how she started to feel for Xellos lately. Trying to preserve her calm, she discovered that it wasn't her cheeks, but her eyes that were burning. She stopped abruptly with a loud gasp, causing Zelgadiss to bump into her painfully.
   "Lina-san? Are you all right?" Sylphiel asked with a troubled look.
   "How do my eyes look?" Lina pattered, her knees suddenly unsteady.
   Sylphiel came closer and examined her eyes thoroughly.
   "There seems to be nothing wrong with them, Lina-san..."
   "Good," Lina said. So she noticed it in time. The group surrounded her, the same unsure expression on each face.
   "Is this about what I think it is about?" Zelgadiss finally inquired.
   Lina nodded, "I felt like catching fire again."
   Gourry looked around.
   "Why, Lina, that woman doesn't seem to be anywhere near," he said. Xellos stared at him, then seemed to understand and looked away.
   "What woman?"
   "Zellas," Xellos said in a flat voice.
   "What, you mean she cursed me into this!?" Lina shrieked.
   Xellos looked as if... oh, Heavens! Was he expecting to be sacked again!?
   Something wrong was going on with Lina that day. First, that overly cheerful attitude to the rather plain jewelry (Xellos was sure Lina has come across much more intricate pieces), then the mood-swings, significantly more dramatic than usual, and without any obvious reason. Xellos didn't know what to think, really -- just when he was sure his little mistress was perfectly content, she suddenly sank into misery and despair. When he thought she was mad at him, he found that she'd forgotten all about his existence... And now her eyes again.
   Did Zellas really curse her? Xellos wasn't sure, as ever since he came to be, it was him who did all the cursing, not his mistress. So he had no idea what Zellas would use. He knew that they needed to establish a pattern to see what caused the burn-ups, but Lina wasn't eager to talk about herself, and her mixed emotions didn't help much.
   He shouldn't have mentioned the Ancient Dragon treasure at all, that was a mistake. He was carried away by the subject. And then Lina said she was putting up with what he was... That sounded almost like hope.
   Wait, hope again? Oh dear. And just when he thought his position was secured! As if he didn't have enough adventure lately, he's just started to hope, again! Ridiculous! There was nothing to hope for. Lina was his mistress, and that was already the best way possible, since he didn't have to choose where to put his loyalty. Now his purpose was to save what he had, not to ask for more. He didn't need anymore, did he? He was a mazoku, after all, and whatever little his kind let slip about mazoku love was something like `don't try to get closer to the object of your passion, you'll ruin it all and accidentally kill the person'. So Xellos was quite eager to stick with that. Lina was there, next to him, all the time, and no one could order him to harm her. That should be enough. That had to be enough!
   And now he knew for sure just how easy it was to ruin everything. When he was trying to be compassionate, and Lina told him off, then he let it slip about the stupid treasure, and thought of nothing better than to point out Lina's infinite greed. No wonder she snapped at him, honestly. He was to wait for her to tell him to give her that gold. Then he'd just lead her to one of the hundreds of treasure-caves he knew of, and she would've been just happy. But no, he had to mumble something half-wittedly, and make it sound like he didn't want to give her anything!
   So the elders were right. It was better not to try to please a human. He did a poor job as a servant; he'd do an ever poorer one as a lover.
   So, as one of those broken-hearted poets had put it, his love was left without hope or faith.
   They didn't talk much for the rest of the day. Lina was trying to unscramble the situation she got in, but soon felt her brain boil, and gave up; instead entertaining herself with watching Xellos's shadow on the road before him. It was a damn handsome shadow. No wonder Zellas wanted him back, heh, heh...
   Lina was surprised to find herself laughing inwardly to cover her own unspoken fear from her own inner sight. It was time to be more honest. And to tell the truth, Lina was afraid of Zellas. The woman was supposed to be weaker than the other two mazoku-lords that Lina has killed, but Zellas was sneakier, and that was scary. She also had enough wit to create this particular perfect man walking to Lina's right. Damn, Lina wanted to know more about Zellas, but if she asked Xel, he would get the idea she was still deciding whether he was worth the fight, wouldn't he? It would mean she was estimating her opponent to decide if she could win or if she'd better surrender without a fight. Xellos didn't seem to have much faith in her lately.
   Lina sighed. It was just way too complicated. But she wouldn't let go of Xellos, ever. The relationship they had was the only way for her to keep him around. And maybe, as time passes...
   They saw an inn. Well, is there a better thing to help with problems than a delicious and HUGE meal? "Hey, waiters! Wait for me-e-e-e!"
   Lina was lying in bed reading the last pages of the prior's book, when Xellos knocked at the door. Somehow she knew it was him before he even made a sound.
   He entered the room. He was still clad in pale shades which glowed in the weak lamplight, and that made him look as if made of two colours -- black and light tan. The soft folds of his shirt outlined the edge of his body, smooth, agile. The soft dimples were visible right under his hip-joints like tiny lagoons of shadow. Lina couldn't help but squirm in pleasure.
   "Lina-san, I believe we need to talk," the perfect man said.
   "Really?" Lina said reluctantly. It was not talking that she wanted to do with him now...
   "Really," he said firmly and moved an armchair to the headboard of her bed.
   "About what?" she asked, unwilling to think, as she watched his fingers grip and squeeze the arms of the chair.
   "About this curse."
   "Yes, the curse, which causes you to burn up. The one that we suspect Zellas has put on you."
   He was starting to sound annoyed, Lina noticed. Perhaps that's because he didn't want to talk either, it was just an excuse, she thought.
   "What are you planning to do about it?" he asked.
   "Me? Dunno. Nothing."
   She was silent. It was time for him to gather from her emotions that talking was out of place.
   "Lina!" he called, in that sweet anxious voice. She wished to hear him cry out her name when...
   "Lina, answer me!"
   "Why do you care!" she scoffed. Why does he always need to bring her to the reality where nothing happens! And in her mind they were already --
   "Tahhhh!" Xellos exhaled loudly, exasperated. "Are you just toying with me!?"
   He threw his head backwards to rest on the seatback.
   Lina swirled a lock of hair between her fingers, waiting for Xellos to move. He didn't. She smoothed her hair nervously and ran a hand along her jaw and down her neck. That didn't help. He was still motionless, like telling her, `come and comfort me'. She hugged herself. Then, gathering the courage, eyes wide and elbows trembling, she crawled across the bed, leaned over Xellos's alluring form and placed a longing kiss on his arched neck.
   As the mid-level mazoku she sent to spy on the group finished his report, Juu-ou Zellas rubbed her hands and burst into classic demonic laughter. Everything was going just like she had planned. Who says Zellas is nothing without her priest? Huh! Just you wait and see!
   She dismissed the servant and danced triumphantly around the hall, laughing in anticipation.
   "He's going to be mine again! Just you all wait! She'll dump him as painfully as one can imagine! Ahhh, I'm going to love the scene... She will never forgive him for deflowering her! And once they discover my curse they are all going to think it was his doing!" she clapped her hands happily, then raised her eyes in a sort of a prayer, "Thank you, my dearest Ruby-Eye Lord, the greatest of the Firstborns, for placing that shrine maiden with Lina's team. She is sure to guess what is going on, and there is my sweetie-kitty-Xellos back in the street again, just for me to come and pick him up! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha! HEY, SOMEONE THERE! I want some CHAMPAGNE, and QUICK!"
   Xellos was dumbfounded to say the least. His mind was clear and empty like the sky above Seyruun, his core was throbbing painfully like never before. His eyes were wide-open and didn't see anything.
   However, the complete absence of response didn't discourage the sorceress. She moved her lips up to his jaw, kissed his earlobe almost sucking it into her mouth, then nuzzled his temple. Xellos squeezed his eyes under her moist hot breath, then shifted a little. There were still no words in his conscience, but his physical body recognized her actions and knew how to respond. He understood her request, he knew how to satisfy it, more than that, he now knew what to do to satisfy his own, mazoku needs.
   He pushed her back onto her bed abruptly, then pinned her down with his own, purposefully increased weight, since mazoku are normally much lighter than humans. He kissed her deep, sucking on her tongue and substituting her saliva with his own illusionary moisture. He knew she would be thirsty in no time and he was going to use it, although he couldn't actually provide her with any real liquid. He squeezed her soft little breasts that barely filled his palms, and she moaned so loudly, so delightfully, so...
   ... unnaturally.
   It was a sound a cheap whore could make. He heard it from a couple of women who tried to get some information out of him by dragging him in bed. He remembered some fellow mazoku making it when telling a dirty joke. It wasn't a sound an innocent girl like Lina would make. Come to think of it, Lina would've never been the first one to kiss him!
   Xellos instantly sat up and almost jumped back. His mind was in full work-mode again. The first explanation he came up with was that it wasn't Lina lying right there before him, excited and confused. But it was with this very creature that he was linked by the master-servant bond. And he knew for sure that it was Lina Inverse who he called his mistress nowadays. So no, it was Lina, his little, cute, destructive Lina, whom he was kissing a moment ago. So the question was -- who had her mind under control and why?..
   Meanwhile Xellos felt a wave of fear and shame coming from his fair lady, which meant she was gaining consciousness. He knew all too well what was going to come, but he had no time to waste on being beaten into a pulp. So he teleported to the corridor just outside the room. He knew only one infallible way to deal with mind-control curses, that was to kill the one who'd performed the curse. But killing Zellas was just a little too bothersome, especially since Lina herself was the only one capable of doing that. So first he needed to establish that the culprit was really Zellas. Thus he knocked at Sylphiel's door.
   Sylphiel was with Gourry in there, although Xellos didn't think he had interrupted something: the priestess was simply fixing some torn clothes for the swordsman.
   "Sylphiel-san," the mazoku started in a voice that wasn't as joyful as his usual tone, but not exactly serious, since he wanted neither to seem happy about Lina's troubles, nor to worry her friends too much. "Do you remember the curse that was mentioned earlier today?"
   "I certainly do, it is quite worrisome. Although Lina-san seems to have gained control over it," she shrugged.
   Xellos came closer and sat on a stool to look Sylphiel in the eyes.
   "I am inclined to think that the flames are not the only manifestation of this curse."
   The priestess blinked, then frowned.
   "What else has happened?"
   "Well, in my opinion, Lina-san has been acting not quite like herself lately -"
   "Yeah, she's been jus' weird!" Gourry suddenly interrupted. "I'd say something's got into her!"
   Xellos raised an eyebrow, thinking something about animals and their instincts.
   "That is exactly my point. I suspect mind control."
   The mazoku winced and cursed silently when Sylphiel started and dropped her needlework. He should have been more tactful.
   "But this is horrible, Xellos-san! Why didn't you say anything sooner!?"
   "Hush-hush. First of all I only came up with this idea a few minutes ago. Second, I don't think it's so horrible, just a little bothersome. Lina is a person of character, she won't let her mind be controlled at any time. She will shake it off eventually, we just need to help her a little if we can."
   "If you say so..." Sylphiel picked up her work and put it away, deep in thought.
   "Do you think you could try and establish who cursed her?" Xellos asked.
   "It is hard to say. You see, I examined Lina-san just a few hours earlier, but I didn't notice any alien aura around her, while a curse usually produces one. Although the more I think of that jewelry she picked up, the less I like it..."
   Xellos raised another eyebrow. In his opinion the earrings were as innocent as any jewelry can be. But maybe that was the most suspicious thing about them. First of all, how did the scarab-shaped earrings end up in the South of the Big World while the only place he knew where scarabs were found was the North of the World inside the Magical Barrier? Second, the ring he picked from the same treasure pile wasn't something common to come across in bandits' loot. It was really ancient. The inscriptions on it were made in the Elvish language, which the Elves themselves haven't been using for centuries. More than that, Xellos had a twin ring in his own possession, and he could never forget how he got that one. It was way too awkward that a thing like this would be lying mixed with some third-rate stuff. And then, again, Lina was so cheerful about this relatively small pile of artlessly wrought gold, as if she'd found a royal fortune. She even shared it, which she never did before, as far as he could remember.
   And finally, why is that he only noticed all this now!?
   "I think the curse might have progressed since you checked Lina last time. Perhaps, you will be able to notice something now."
   The priestess nodded and got up to go see Lina right away, Gourry joined her, and Xellos reluctantly followed. He hoped Lina would know better than to make a scene in front of her friends. After all, it was in her best interests to keep their little interaction a secret from others. Although, Lina being herself was too explosive to consider her own best interests.
   Surprisingly enough, she didn't start screaming at once. As far as Xellos could tell, she was more subdued than angry, which was a sign she wasn't being quite herself, he thought worriedly.
   She was sitting on the edge of her bed, chewing on her thumbnail, paying seemingly no attention to their entrance. Sylphiel sat next to her cautiously.
   "D-do you think you could take your earrings off?"
   "I- I wish to examine them."
   Lina shrugged and reached her hands to her left ear. After a minute or so of struggle she hit the bed with her fist angrily and growled, "I don't get this lock! It wouldn't open! You unclasp it yourself if you need!"
   Sylphiel frowned and shot a quick glance to Xellos. It wasn't really necessary, since Xellos knew without her hints just how bad it might mean. He cursed himself again and again. What the hell was he thinking!?
   Meanwhile the priestess tried to open the clasp of Lina's left earring, but she seemed to have not enough strength to do so. The clasp held firm and wasn't going to move.
   "Let me try," Gourry said, seeing how Sylphiel was rubbing her fingers after pushing too hard. He was growing increasingly worried seeing all the grim faces around, although he didn't understand what exactly could be wrong.
   Lina shrugged again, and Sylphiel stepped away with an even more anxious expression. Xellos winced a little when he saw Gourry's huge rough fingers grab Lina's tiny earlobe, but he was then surprised with the gentleness and preciseness of the swordsman's movements. Yet Gourry failed, as well.
   "It jus' wouldn't come out!" he exclaimed indignantly. "What kind of clasps are those!? Xellos, you try..."
   "I don't think it would make much difference," Xellos drawled. It was already quite obvious that the clasps were held with magic, but apart from that Xellos thought Lina wouldn't want him to touch her again. But then he caught Sylphiel's look that was uncharacteristically calculative, her eyes narrowed, her lips pursed. Least of all he wanted to seem unwilling to help dear Lina, so...
   "All right," he shrugged and approached Lina's right side for a change. The lock unhooked with no effort. Xellos wasted a few seconds staring at the ruby-golden bug on his palm. He then moved to Lina's left and unclasped the other one with the same little trouble. Lina looked up and stared at him with interest as if he was a riddle to solve. He backed off a little, unsure of what that should mean, then turned to Sylphiel to give her the scarabs. However she didn't move to take them, looking at her boots. Xellos scanned her emotions quickly and was surprised to find that she was frustrated and on the edge of tears.
   "Wha-at!?" he croaked, bewildered.
   "What kind of game was that?" the priestess asked in a soft shaking voice.
   "Game?" he stared. He felt like he'd got into some kind of a bad dream, which he never experienced himself, but read a lot about. Words didn't make sense, but sounded quite ominous.
   "I've dealt with this kind of cursed artifacts," Sylphiel breathed. "Once put on they can only be taken off by the curse-caster! Now, you were the one to bring us to that treasury, and you made sure no one touched the jewelry before Lina-san did, and it was you who assured her the earrings were harmless! And you even knew the right one must be removed first! That's a part of the ritual, isn't it? So what kind of game was that - to curse Lina-san, and then to undo your own spell? Were you trying to impress us with your might? Or was it a fake way to repay your life debt!?" She finished almost screaming, but then fell into silence, breathing heavily.
   Gourry was looking at Xellos with a murderous intent.
   Xellos stared at her, gaping. Everything was going so wrong! The soft-spoken priestess was the last person he expected any trouble from; her ideas had nothing to do with reality, they were simply ridiculous, he couldn't even wrap his mind around everything at once, yet her arguments were so sound, that he would've believed her himself, if he didn't know better. But Lina didn't know better! So she was going to believe all this nonsense, and -
   "I don't think my life was in danger," Lina said calmly. "Anyway, it was stupid of me to put something on without a double-check. Must've been part of the lure enchantment."
   "But Lina-san, mind-control is extremely dangerous!"
   "Yes, I know, but in this case it concerned only a particular side of mind, and was very weak. If I knew I was being controlled, I would've never allowed it to manifest at all," she blushed a little, or maybe it was wishful thinking on Xellos's part. "Anyway, I doubt Xellos is to blame here."
   "But -"
   "Yes, Sylphiel, I heard your reasoning, and I know everything points at him. But that's exactly why it can't be him. Xellos is an accomplished deceiver. He would never leave so much evidence pointing to his involvement."
   It was the first time since Sylphiel's angry speech that Xellos felt alive again. This unbidden love was getting to him, and even though he didn't have any human-like nerves, he felt something wearing thin and tearing up inside him.
   "But who else could do it?" Sylphiel was still unsure.
   "As we thought earlier, Zellas. She had all the opportunity to place some treasure in my way, then she was surely capable of screening the curse's aura from Xellos's senses. She also has the motive; she wants Xellos back, but I won't let him go, so she sets him up to make me angry with him, just like you were a minute ago. She probably knows I'm short-tempered, and thinks that I would fire him if he... err... insults me like that."
   Xellos leaned against the wall for support, since his physical body was a little out of control. He felt like melting butter. Although he never knew how exactly melting butter felt, but he was sure that was hot and relaxed. His core was throbbing wickedly, but that was just the aftermath of his earlier panic at Lina's alleged reaction. Sylphiel was still arguing, and Gourry didn't comprehend a word of the discussion, but Xellos tuned them out and slid down to crouch on the floor, his mind empty once again.
   At last Sylphiel and Gourry left and the room fell into silence. Lina sighed tiredly. Who would have thought that the gentle priestess could be so insistent. The sorceress threw herself onto the pillows and pulled the blanket up to her chin looking forward to a nice dream, untampered by any curses. But then she heard a faint rustle coming from a corner, and remembered that Xellos was still there.
   Lina tensed a little. After all it was only half an hour since she was cured from her unnatural obsession with the man. She didn't want to stay alone in the same room with him, she realized. But that, she thought, didn't make sense. It wasn't that he was the one to sexually harass her... More like the opposite. That, surely, was the reason. She was ashamed and unsure of how to behave around Xellos now. However cheerful she appeared before her friends, in truth she was as upset as ever. What happened was actually the worst thing to happen: she has lost her first kiss to a most inappropriate guy, and it wasn't even his fault! She appeared in a most shameful way before someone who wasn't even a close friend, and he stopped first, perhaps, disgusted... And after that she was supposed to be his mistress (damn this word!) while he, perhaps, would be laughing behind her back. He could even blackmail her, if he hasn't told the others everything already!
   Lina took in a deep breath, remembering to control her emotions. She had to talk to Xellos, and immediately.
   "Oi, Xellos!" she called a little hoarsely.
   "Yes?" came the soft answer.
   "I think we need to talk."
   "Good." He sounded relieved, so Lina thought he must have guessed what she was thinking. That cheered her up a little: the more understanding they had, the less they had to call by its proper names.
   "Shall I come to you?" Xellos asked. Lina didn't understand the question at first, but then she did.
   "I'm not afraid of you!" she said quickly. Perhaps, even too quickly.
   "I know, I just thought..." he stammered, "I wish you to be comfortable."
   Lina liked his answer. It seemed he really knew how she was feeling. Well, actually, he did know that indeed! So there was no point to hide her blushing face if Xellos could sense her every fiber trembling with shame.
   "Come out," she said.
   He stood up and walked across the room, finally taking the same armchair at her bed's headboard. He kept his expression neutral, but Lina could tell that was just an act. She didn't want to muse on what he was really feeling. She didn't want to think at all. It was now or never.
   "Why did you stop?" she demanded in a raised voice. Xellos cringed, obviously not expecting this kind of question.
   "I- I thought something was wrong with you," he mumbled, "you were... well, it wasn't like you to act that way, so I thought something was wrong."
   So what to make of this, Lina asked herself? It was certainly unusual for her to throw herself at anyone kissing them in a most shameful way. At the same time, his answer seemed incomplete.
   "But you didn't back off at once." She didn't manage to make it sound like a question, and that was bad, since he didn't have to answer it.
   "I was shocked," he said, but it came with difficulty as if he was struggling not to say it. Or not to add something.
   "What are you not telling me?" Lina pursued immediately.
   Xellos's eyes widened, but then he relaxed.
   "There are thousands of things, I believe," he said almost with humour.
   "No, Xellos, when I say that we need to talk, I mean it seriously, and you won't weasel out with your jokes. Somehow the idea that you were shocked into climbing all over me doesn't seem plausible. So why?" Lina allowed herself to get a little more angry: Xellos should know better than to play games with her at such a time. Worst of all she was afraid that Xellos was secretly laughing at her. Once it seemed to her that he was hiding his reasons, she immediately suspected that his reasons were actually to make fun of her. Some part of her mind understood that such a way of thinking was completely ridiculous, but on the whole she was too scared and ashamed to think straight.
   Xellos seemed to draw his own conclusion from her scrutiny. He straightened and schooled his features to adopt a more formal appearance.
   "Every demand you make is an order to me, even a non-verbal one, unless you tell me otherwise."
   Lina pursed her lips. This was going nowhere. She still remembered his hot, passionate kiss very clearly. There was no way Xellos was driven by an order alone. On the other hand she wouldn't bet on it. Xellos was by far a better actor than anyone she ever met. He knew how to be convincing; after all, he had had over a thousand years to practice. Still... If he was acting completely aware of what was going on, like he would when carrying out an order, then why did he suddenly back off? Or, from the other end, why did he start acting on the order, if he thought it was unnatural for Lina to behave this way? And why did he then say he was shocked and try to turn the whole thing into a joke? Lina was getting more and more unpleasant ideas concerning Xellos's reasoning. This was going all wrong. She needed to get a broader view of the situation, if she was to trust Xellos ever again. There was one simple way to get rid of her suspicions.
   "How exactly do you feel towards me?" she asked in a clear voice.
   A hint of panic glimpsed on Xellos's face, but he disguised it with a look of uncertainty the next moment.
   "I don't think I can describe it... It might take really very long, you know, human language lacks specific terms to address a master-servant bond..."
   Lina sighed. Well, what did she expect, trying to outsmart a thousand-year-old demon? But, on the other hand, she has just outsmarted a five-thousand-year-old one... At once she knew what to do.
   "You know, Xellos," Lina started in a sugary voice, "I have recently read in that old priest's diary that there are ways for humans to learn to tell emotions of others. He himself didn't know how to achieve it, but he mentions that a mazoku surely can provide a human with this ability..." she trailed off.
   Xellos took his time before responding.
   "I think I know how to do it. But the problem is that it might disagree with you... You see, once I open your astral channels to interact with the outside world, you will be flooded with all kinds of emotions and auras, and it will be quite disturbing. Imagine a world-wide cacophony so loud that it's almost palpable."
   Lina wrinkled her nose.
   "But can't you make me feel only your emotions?"
   "I was just getting there. Yes, I can. But there is another problem. Being able to sense people's emotions is one thing. Being able to tell them apart is another. I just told you that I can't name what I feel myself. Therefore I don't think you will be able to tell even if my emotions are positive or negative."
   Lina felt her spirits rolling downhill, but then a side thought interrupted her thinking.
   "I thought mazoku can't have positive emotions."
   Xellos sighed as if he was tired of destroying this particular myth.
   "This is not exactly true. We are not created with the ability, but most learn with time."
   "Ahh. So young ones can't and old ones can."
   "Most old ones. Dynast can't still, for which Zellas and Dolphin ridicule him all the time. It's everyone's personal choice, to learn or not to learn."
   The subject of ridiculing set Lina back on the track of their talk.
   "So are you saying there's no way for me to tell your emotions?"
   "Not right away, but you can, gradually."
   "You need to practice on someone more obvious than me. Newborn babies are the best - it's usually pretty obvious when they are happy and when they are not," Xellos smiled, and Lina suppressed a shiver. She couldn't help but wonder how many babies became unhappy at Xellos's hand.
   "That means sticking around a baby for some time, doesn't it?" she grumbled to give some words for her own disturbed emotions. "I don't like them, you know. I'm actually no good around babies. I don't want to delay the journey, too. Why don't we try someone closer at hand? I bet, Gourry's emotions are no more complicated!"
   At that Xellos frowned and didn't answer for several long moments. Lina thought she'd pay a round sum to be able to tell his emotions right now. And thoughts as well.
   Finally he nodded.
   "Yes, Gourry is a good choice. He doesn't support more than one feeling at a time, and it's always easy to tell its quality from his appearance and words. Very well then, let's start with him."
   "Okay. Then I can shift to, say, Amelia, and then to the others, until I'm ready to take a closer look at you." Lina grinned broadly. Her new entertainment sounded like fun.
   Xellos nodded again.
   "Go to sleep now, I can't chant over your astral body when you are awake. In the morning you will be able to sense Gourry's emotions as soon as you can see him."
   Lina looked at him searchingly.
   "Xellos. Does it bother you?"
   The mazoku tried biting his lip, but he couldn't avoid a direct question.
   "Yes. But that shouldn't be of any concern to you. There are things that are bothersome for mazoku."
   As the morning came, Xellos was sitting at Lina's bedside, undecided. The conversation he has just had with his mistress caused him to think he knew what `cold sweat' meant now. There were several moments when he barely got away without telling Lina what was going on with him.
   He wasn't shy or self-conscious about how he felt. No, that was not what kept him from blurting everything out. Xellos was afraid deep in his core of what would happen if she found out. He couldn't imagine how she'd treat him then. Perhaps she wouldn't want him around anymore. Xellos knew all too well how annoying it could get when a person you dislike stares at you with loving eyes and purrs at your every touch, and compliments your every stupid movement! He was good at seduction - his main trade being espionage, and he knew how a person in love could get to you. Neither did he want to seduce Lina. He was afraid to ruin their weird friendship with just one wrong step, and that was too important to risk. He was also pretty sure she wouldn't believe him if he told her the truth. Most likely, she was expecting him to advance on her for some ulterior motive, and she'd never believe him to be sincere.
   At the same time, the way things were starting to look now, she was going to figure him out pretty soon. Lina was a baby compared to Zellas, she had less experience and was a human, but Xellos still thought she was in many ways smarter than his former mistress. And she paid much, much more attention to her surroundings. So, Xellos assumed, if it took Zellas a little more than three years to notice that he was in love, it might take Lina several days after she had become his mistress.
   But that was the point - if he was to be discovered at all, then he wanted Lina to guess his feelings on her own, without his help. To find some evidence, to read it in his eyes at least! He didn't want to say it. Words would sound stupid and insincere. But Lina had to be confident at reading other people's emotions before this could work. Also, it was better for her to forget yesterday's events, otherwise she still wouldn't believe her senses and perhaps even agree with Sylphiel about Xellos's purposes. To show her his feelings as if unwillingly was a good strategy, but Lina could also guess that it was a strategy, and a convincing act, and still not believe him.
   Perhaps, he was reflecting too much, though. Lina has just proved herself to be able to see through obvious assumptions.
   So he finished enchanting. After all, he couldn't disobey his sweetheart. But he was firmly going to waste as much time as possible before opening his own emotions to her. He actually thought it was too bad that her gang was only four people strong.
   And one of her comrades was Gourry, who was in love with Lina himself, and if she managed to decipher that...
   Well, what would happen? Xellos had no intention to claim Lina all to himself. There was no way he could do that, if he wasn't even going to tell her he loved her. And he wasn't, no, he wasn't going to act like a squabbly human teenager, being jealous over a love he never admitted to feel. But then, he wasn't sure if he could survive seeing Lina and Gourry together, or Lina with any man for the matter!
   Xelloss had another disturbing thought. If Lina figured out Gourry's attraction to her, then that might give her enough clues to deciphering Xellos's feelings, and too soon. That was not good.
   So, Xellos decided, his mistress's first encounter with people's emotions was to be very brief. He just had to invent a half-true reason for that. He laughed sadly.
   - -
   Lina woke up not yet remembering what was so special about the coming day, but already looking forward to it. Xellos was not in the room, so she did a lot of stretching, not afraid that it would look awkward since she was wearing a semi-transparent gown. She didn't remember where this thing came from (it was nothing like her usual wardrobe), but she liked the ruching and lacework and the the soft hand of the material. Her spirits, in fact, were so high, that she wasted several minutes with her morning exercises, something she couldn't remember doing at all. After a quick shower she ran downstairs skipping several steps in a jump.
   The dining room smelt with all kinds of most amazingly delicious smells. Lina grinned broadly and went to the table already occupied by her comrades. Xellos was nowhere to be seen.
   "Hi everyone!" she greeted happily. "Where's Xel?"
   Zel shrugged, others made different noises with the same meaning.
   "Never saw him today," yawned Gourry who was usually the first one to get up, except Zel who didn't go to sleep at all some nights.
   "Oh," Lina felt vaguely surprised, but that didn't diminish her cheerfulness. "Well, he'll arrive later, I guess."
   With that they started eating.
   The food was really great, Lina wondered why she never noticed that yesterday, but then she remembered being cursed. Actually, she had to catch a couple of Sylphiel's worried looks to be sure that it wasn't all a dream. She felt grateful for the priestess for helping her out, and for worrying so much even now, when everything was over and dealt with. She thought that Sylphiel, perhaps, was her best friend after all, even though they met rarely compared to her other comrades. The girl was also talented in healing and many other complicated things. Lina thought that perhaps she should pay more attention to the shrine maiden, since she was extremely useful, but too shy and needed friendly support. Together they might become an even greater power, Lina mused.
   They left for the road engaged in a friendly chat. Today was a rare morning without a meal-battle and Gourry-smashing. Lina felt so happy that she didn't really want to smash anyone. That was good, because she couldn't bring herself to hit Gourry now, when she knew she was supposed to feel his feelings. She was a little unnerved to know how he usually felt when beaten.
   So she entertained herself by chatting with Zelgadiss, who seemed not so grim today as well. Lina was a little surprised that she had never noticed his way of saying some words, an aristocratic way actually. She always thought Zel to be rather rude and rustic, but now she thought he was simply pretending to be a street thug. There was more to him than his rough voice and cold eyes. She recalled hearing several foreign words he let slip here and then, some of them came from ancient languages. Those along with some succinct and clever quotes from literature could only mean he was well-educated, and that was most common in families belonging to the gentry. Lina became a little sad for her friend. She wondered now if, before he was turned into a chimera, he was a desirable alliance for a number of noble maidens. She imagined what it was like for him to have to quit the high society, skip balls and feasts, leave his home, probably a castle, with all the conveniences and servants... No wonder he hated his stone body! Lina knew just how vane young nobles were, and if Zelgadiss was originally of that ilk, the change must have been the worst thing he could imagine. Somehow all that made Lina like the Chimera even more. Now she thought she'd make it one of her own aims to find a cure for him. She would ask Xellos about it later, he must know something humans usually don't. And if he helps to find the cure, Zel wouldn't hate him so much, would he?
   That conclusion made Lina happy once again. She looked around, taking in the view, which was beautiful - all those mountains covered in dark green moss and white lichen against the cloudless sky, and the white-sand road visible to the very horizon... Lina loved the world with all its inhabitants, more than that she loved her friends, and trusted them.
   Suddenly the idyllic scene was ruined by Sylphiel's scream. Lina turned to the sound only to see the priestess disappear into a dimensional hole. Lina felt as angry as never before. Not even when she summoned the Giga Slave last time. Fear and rage washed all over her. It was something savage, like the primitive anger you would feel if one of your kin were stolen by a hungry forest creature.
   She threw an Elmekia Lance towards the place where the priestess had disappeared. That didn't work out well, since Lina was way too angry to use White magic. She straightened. Sylphiel was gone. She must have been taken by a mazoku. What possible reason could there be? Did they need her to use Black and White magic together? How long did Lina's gang have before "they" whoever they were, finished their business with Sylphiel and kill her as no more useful?
   It was too hard to think through all the rage. Lina pressed her palms to her temples and walked to the side of the road. It was unusual for her to be overcome with an emotion to the state when she couldn't think straight. Only yesterday...
   But Sylphiel lifted the curse, didn't she? Or was it back again because she was taken? Did Zellas take her? What was she to do?
   Lina wasn't paying attention to her own movements until she was quite a bit away from the rest of the group. Her emotions seemed to settle finally. She felt slight surprise. Turning to her friends, she saw Gourry waving to her, surprise all over his face.
   "Lina! Where are you going?" he cried.
   Lina blinked. But of course! It was Gourry's emotions she was feeling throughout the morning! The cheerfulness, the love for friends, the rage... It was so greatly exaggerated because that was the way Gourry felt things!
   Lina sighed.
   "Nowhere!" she cried back, not yet returning to Gourry's side. She had yet to learn how to separate his emotions from her own, and quick -- they needed to find Sylphiel as soon as possible. And, man, the swordsman cared for her a whole lot! Lina froze, biting her lip. She wasn't sure if it was romantic love that she felt, but she understood Gourry's rage over Sylphiel's disappearance clearly. It was something one doesn't feel about just anyone's disappearance. It was something that could crush worlds. Hot and savage... Lina tried to gulp down the lump in her throat. She always had a hunch Gourry and Sylphiel were a couple, didn't she? Anyway, this was no time to think about it!
   She tried concentrating on her own emotions. Here is fear for Sylphiel, and her own anger at the culprits... Here is the disappointment about Gourry... Here is... oh, where is Xellos? Lina felt it all of a sudden -- the stinging lack of something that belonged with her. The worry -- if there was a mazoku attack, did they choose the moment when Xel was away or did they get rid of him?
   "Xellos!" she called in a tiny voice. She was shaken. She needed him desperately right now!
   And then, there he was.
   "Yes, my mistress?" the mazoku said, appearing right in front of her.
   "Xel!" she cried happily. "You all right?"
   "Of course, Lina, why?"
   "Someone took Sylphiel, teleported her away!"
   Xellos frowned.
   "Where exactly did it happen?"
   Lina grabbed his elbow and dragged him to the spot where she saw Sylphiel disappearing. She made a large detour around Gourry, whispering "His emotions are way too strong, I'm not myself around him!" to Xellos. He nodded his understanding.
   At the spot where the kidnapping occurred, Xellos squat low and made some gestures over the ground.
   "The soil can save traces of aura," he mumbled to curious Lina. "Here, I can follow them. Wait."
   He disappeared again.
   Amelia, Gourry and Zel came closer, their faces displaying worry and hope in equal measure. Lina noticed that these, more complicated emotions, were harder to recognize. She thought it was strange that she could recognize Gourry's surprise earlier. Perhaps, it was very strong. Now she knew what Xellos meant the day before. It was only Gourry's emotions that she was feeling, and she was already so confused! And it were just hope and worry he was feeling, but she would've never guessed that if she didn't see his face and know how he should feel under the circumstances. There was no hope that she'd understand Xellos's feelings at the first glance!
   "Don't you think..." Zel started saying, but at that moment Xellos returned with the priestess.
   Lina breathed out and raised her hand to pat Xellos's shoulder while Amelia screamed and hugged Sylphiel. Relief washed all over the sorceress's body, but she knew that most part of it was Gourry's, not hers. At least, she assumed it was relief, although she suspected there were other feelings in that tsunami of emotions. Too bad she still couldn't tell love.
   "I killed the guy," Xellos was answering to Zel. It seemed they already started a conversation while Lina was engrossed in her emotion-analisys. "They were planning to use Black and White magic to destroy a temple. I believe the girl is unharmed."
   Lina pulled at his elbow again to get him away from the damn Gourry with his overflowing bath-tub of feelings. Her underling began looking guilty at once.
   "I want to get rid of Gourry already!" she hissed when they were a couple of dozen feet away.
   "Sorry? Oh, his emotions, you mean?"
   "Yes! There are too much of them!"
   "Well, actually, you emit more," the bastard dared to smile.
   "'Tis not funny!" she roared, causing Xellos to cringe. "I wanna snap out of it!"
   "Sorry," he mumbled, sounding hurt. "I need you to sleep for several hours to turn off your senses. But I can switch you to another person immediately."
   "Do it."
   "Who --"
   "Sylphiel!" Lina thought that the screaming princess wasn't the right choice now.
   "Very well."
   The mazoku raised his hands and gently touched Lina's temples, as if not sure he was allowed to do that. Lina felt the world twisting around her, but then everything settled down. She felt a little shaken and scared, but she could easily tell that those were Sylphiel's feelings. She also felt relieved, tired and grateful, and those were her own. She squeezed Xellos's shoulders lightly in a hint of a hug and ran back to the group to see how the priestess was doing.
   "Do you know who sent them?" Lina asked her minion when they settled to have some lunch and rest until Sylphiel recovered.
   "They're Zellas's," Xellos answered, staring in the cloudless sky as he lay on his back in the grass. The blue dome reflected in his eyes, making them bluish, almost like Gourry's. Lina frowned. So Zellas decided to wear her down, threatening her friends. Well, fine, she thought. The times when Lina Inverse plunged into face-to-face battles with Demon Lords have passed. Lina was eighteen already, so enough with this childish straightforwardness. This time she's going to accept the challenge of invisible fight.
   "Lina..." Xellos called quietly. She moved her chin upwards to prompt him. "You are not asking where I have been..."
   "Should I?" Lina said.
   She was still thinking in the same terms as when Xellos only visited her group when planning something. But that had been when he belonged with his mistress, and Zellas, perhaps, wanted to know where exactly he spent every minute of his time. Xellos must be expecting Lina to be interested in the same. Judging from his astonished stare, at least, he must be thinking she forgot all about him and doesn't care any more if he's around or not. Lina hurried to convince him it was not the case.
   "Oh, I just was so preoccupied with other things... But I was really worried earlier. I mean, they had good timing, those guys, to come right when you were absent! But then I thought they might be the reason you were absent, so..." she trailed off seeing how Xellos's eyes grew even wider. She was obviously saying something wrong.
   "What is it?" she surrendered.
   "It... I... What do you mean `they were the reason'?" Xellos finally managed.
   Lina thought it was bad that he was back to stuttering. That meant they didn't have an understanding. And that meant she had to tell him more embarrassing simple truths.
   "I thought they might have, er, removed you. I was worried about your, hm, health." she blushed a little.
   Xellos closed his eyes for a long moment, then breathed out as if a death sentence was lifted from him.
   "Was that the only thing you were worried about?" he asked after a pause.
   "Huh? Yes, should there be more?"
   "Aren't you angry that I left?"
   "Hmmm... Since you're not hurt... Well, I'm not happy you weren't around when you were most needed," Lina started carefully. She'd love to smack Xellos with something heavy for worrying her, actually, but she knew that if she gave way to her anger, Xellos would collapse in pain before she ever raised her fist. And hurting him from the inside was way different from hurting him on the outside. The latter was normal everyday practice, while the former was something wicked and scary, and horribly wrong. Lina paused in her musings to check that it was the way she felt, not Sylphiel. Very well then, back to tactful negotiating. "That looked like you went back to old patterns, disappearing like this. You're lucky I had too much on my mind, or otherwise I could be more angry with you for worrying me. It's good you managed to bring Sylphiel back, though," she added quickly. Man, it was so hard to scold the guy without actually scolding him!
   "Well, to tell the truth, I'm pretty surprised you are so not angry. When I returned and learned that one of your friends was taken by my kind during my absence, I thought, you'd kill me..."
   "Like I said, I had too much on my mind for that. I barely managed to separate Gourry's emotions from my own by that time! It wasn't nice of you to leave right when I was supposed to receive my first emotions-reading experience! I thought you'd be there for me to explain things!" her voice grew louder as she spoke, and so Xellos grew paler. Lina gritted her teeth, turned away and Fireballed a nearby tree. Once the explosion settled to quiet crackling of flames, Lina relaxed. "You never told us you needed to go, you didn't leave me a note, so I assumed it was urgent..."
   "I can explain everything, Lina! It wasn't that urgent, but I needed to attend --"
   "I don't care what you needed, you can leave whenever you want, just --"
   "Perhaps it's better for me to leave and not return, then?"
   - -
   They had settled to rest a few yards away from the group, since Lina wanted to talk to Xellos more or less in private, and not too close to the trembling Sylphiel. So Zelgadis only heard the intonation of the screams, not the content. He came closer to check what was going on. Lina turned to him at once.
   "Zel! Could you please explain to this Mother Nature's mistake that..." she broke off, then brushed it aside, "no, I guess, you couldn't."
   "So... are you already quarreling?" asked Zel calmly.
   "We're not quarreling!" roared Lina. "It's just that he needs to understand everything inside-out! Wait, what do you mean `already'?"
   "Well, I was pretty surprised at how smoothly it went up to now. I thought you'd kill him the first evening."
   Lina made a grimace.
   "Fine. Now you're siding with him."
   "HUH!?" Zel almost fell over at the idea.
   "Well, you think it's not going to work, don't you? Well, Xellos here thinks the same. And to hell with both of you, because I am going to make it work no matter what!"
   With that she turned on her heal and strode off to the stream to wash her face and cool off a bit. Zel looked around and put out the still burning tree.
   "What did you do?" he asked the dejected mazoku, trying not to show much interest. It was weird to see Xellos this way, but one should never trust a mazoku's appearance.
   "She doesn't want to know where I had been."
   Zel raised what he had instead of an eyebrow. The Mysterious Priest being so down about not being asked? Really!
   "It is important?"
   "Wherever you'd been and whatever you'd been doing there, does it concern Lina directly?"
   "Er, no, I think not."
   "Then what's the difference where you were if you were not here when Sylphiel was stolen?"
   Xellos stared at him, confused.
   "Does it mean I have to be stuck here all the time?"
   "I think it means you have to warn before leaving," Zel shrugged and walked away, noticing that Xellos stood up and started towards the stream. `Fine', Zel thought. `Now I'm helping them out! As usual, Lina can't create trouble just for herself, she has to spread it over everyone in her reach!'
   - -
   Xellos approached the turn of the stream where Lina was splashing water at her face frantically. She was still angry, but Xellos was ready for that. He was ready for that from the very moment when he finished enchanting over her in the morning, planning the kidnapping. He knew Lina would be livid about his absence, but that was the only way he could make it look plausible. No minor mazoku would ever dare to steal from under his nose. He arranged an urgent meeting with some of his, well, not really friends, but something close to that. He made sure they asked him to come over, so that he could tell Lina so. He passed the order to kidnap the priestess through several hands, so that Lina had less chance to dig up the connection. He was ready to endure any kind of pain in order to make Gourry turn his attention away from Lina.
   What he wasn't ready for, though, was Lina's complete lack of interest in the whole matter. All of his preparations were in vain; she didn't ask a single thing. At first he had panicked into thinking she saw through him. But her behavior indicated otherwise. He was preparing to explain himself so hard that he missed her emotions at his arrival completely. Now that he thought back, he recalled relief and joy, and later gratitude. There was no way Lina could know he was behind the kidnapping. Those emotions were unusual to feel from both his mistress and Lina, and they made him want to settle the matter as quick as possible.
   Before he ever decided what he was going to say, Lina spoke up.
   "Look, Xellos, I do understand you're bored to death hanging out with a group of human teenagers, and I think it's fine for you to go have some fun sometimes. Just warn me beforehand! And tell me, at least, if it's going to be gone for an hour or for a day."
   Xellos decided it was best to simply nod at that. His former mistress never demanded that he tell her his plans beforehand, she just wanted a detailed report afterwards. It was now that Xellos started realizing somewhere deeper than just his conscience how much his life was changing with entering the domain of Lina's law. It wasn't easier this way, as he thought at the very beginning, when he realized he didn't need to choose who to side with. But neither was it harder, even with all the misunderstanding. It was just different. So, perhaps, he should drop the patterns of servitude he was used to and adopt completely new ones, the ones Lina would be comfortable with. Even though Lina didn't order it explicitly, she surely meant it. She had to learn how to treat him, too, and Xellos couldn't deny that she was trying. Before, he thought he wouldn't live to see Lina Inverse suppressing her temper, even attempting to do so. Yet here she was cooling her head off in a stream, making sure that Xellos lived to see many other mesmerizing things.
   So starting from this point he decided to treat his situation not like an onerous personal problem, but like a new engaging project to work on. The environment demanded him to change his habits and reactions. Oh, well, fine; he would work on it. He would use every bit of his knowledge about humans' psychology. He would learn from experience and ask Lina well-formulated questions, and eventually he would succeed, as he always did when he saw his goal clearly.
   "I am sorry, Lina. This situation will never happen again," he said softly and felt Lina's slight irritation. He hurried to finish. "Next time I have to leave, I'll inform you of my purpose and the approximate time of my return beforehand--"
   "I don't care about your purpose if it doesn't concern me! I just need to know that you are all right, that is, alive, healthy! Your life is more important than your service!" Lina cried, exasperation oozing from her every pore. But this time it wasn't directed at Xellos, it was just the steam she let off not to explode. Her cheeks were flushed, but otherwise she was rather pale from the cold water. Her eyes were glistering in the noon sun like crimson diamonds.
   Xellos couldn't concentrate on her words, this vision was taking all of his power. Should he have tried to spare some to think, he would've lost his composure and end up in much more trouble. So he did the only thing that was always appropriate, something he used to do automatically, without thought. He fell to his knees, grabbed her wet hand and pressed his lips to her chapped knuckles.
   Sylphiel made a strained sound in her throat when she saw Mr. Xellos move so unexpectedly. Dear Gourry wasn't going to notice that, he never paid attention to unnecessary things. Right now he was staring at the sky, such a philosophic man he was.
   But Miss Lina wasn't doing the right thing, really. Dear Gourry accompanied her for years, yet she chose a moment and snuck away and interact with Mr. Xellos. She didn't seem to encourage his feelings either...
   "What the hell are you staring at!!" cried Miss Lina, rudely as usual. She was rubbing her hand frantically. That must have been pretty insulting for Mr. Xellos.
   "At that thundercloud," answered Dear Gourry. He always knew how to soothe the tension. Fortunately, Miss Lina decided not to hurt him, she just made a face.
   "Really, I think it's going to rain soon," Mr. Xellos took up. Sylphiel knew he wasn't going to thank Dear Gourry for the change of the topic later, and the thought saddened her. No one could see the true value of her gorgeous knight.
   But then Dear Gourry put his huge manly hand on Sylphiel's shoulder, and her worries were wiped away.
   "We should move to get inside before it starts," he nudged and pulled her to the road. Sylphiel was still a bit unsteady in the knees, and Dear Gourry's touch didn't help her with getting better. She was melting at the very thought that his arm was touching her bare neck. As a priestess, she tried to restrain herself from a certain kind of fantasies, but today she was already so shaken that she didn't have enough will. She just melted, and melted, and melted until she clung to her hero openly and let him guide her among the rocks. She'd happily let him guide her through her life, actually...
   - -
   Lina hated feeling Sylphiel's positive emotions so much that she began to suspect she was turning into a mazoku. They were not as hurricane-strong as Gourry's, instead they were nauseatingly sweet. But what was worse, Lina could recognize them very well, because those were the same emotions she felt towards Xellos the day before. And then she was under a love-curse. Since she doubted that Sylphiel was under a Gourry-directed love-curse, Lina could only assume that the girl was really crazy about the guy.
   The problem was, Lina couldn't really classify these emotions, so mixed they were. Some of them had to be positive and some negative, but Lina only knew it because she remembered being happy or sad the day before. She also supposed that love had to be somewhere there. And, as much as she hated to admit it, lust was there too. But again, those were conclusions she drew from her own experience, and Sylphiel's soul still remained a mystery. It was so weird -- Lina could feel another person's emotions, as if they were her own, but didn't know what thoughts were behind them, and thus couldn't determine them! She needed to consult with Xellos.
   That was a troublesome issue. She was still angry at Xellos for kissing her hand. She had told him not to do that, hadn't she? And it was so embarrassing that he did it in front of the others. A horrible, unforgivable deed! But Lina knew she couldn't let things stay as they were now. She reminded herself time and again not to be angry at Xellos. Put the pity aside; she needed him, and not just to learn this emotional stuff, but to watch out for her and her friends now that Zellas was on the warpath. And, after all, that kiss had nothing to do with sexual advances, right? It was simply another Master-servant thing... right? And Xellos was already doing a great job adjusting to what Lina needed and what she forbade, even if she never voiced her preferences. He was making a huge effort, wasn't he? And she still had to spend a lifetime with this guy. A really long lifetime, considering her magical powers and Xellos's compelling interest in her longevity.
   So she had to break silence, again. She only hoped Xellos would learn to show the initiative soon, since Lina was no saint to have an ever-lasting patience. She slowed her pace to draw up to him.
   "Xellos," she called when the rest of the group passed her by. "It doesn't suit you to be depressed."
   "Why do you think I'm depressed?" he smiled nonchalantly.
   "Because you are dragging behind. You only do that when you're depressed."
   "Ah, but I simply didn't want to join the conversation. Like you've said, it's pretty boring to hang out with a gang of teenagers day after day..."
   Lina winced. It looked like Xellos was more hurt than she expected. And that was really bad, because... well, she had dwelled on this subject thousands of times, she should finally say it aloud!
   "Look, Xel, I'm not trying to hurt you on purpose, and I'm sure neither are you. We have a long way to go together and it won't help if we start quarrelling over any situation that is not completely calm..."
   "I understand," he interrupted. "And I know I shouldn't have touched you, I actually disobeyed your direct order..."
   "That was no order! I just asked."
   "I told you already the other night, there's no difference."
   "And like I told you the same night, there is!"
   "Anyway, I'm not a lower dimwit creature to punish myself for my misdeeds. If you want to punish me, then do it without admonitive prolegomena..."
   "I don't!" Lina cried before she even tried to understand the last word. "That's the point, Xel, you constantly expect me to punish you for something or another, but I have no intention to do that! It's okay to make mistakes when you are new to something, and even when you are not. I'm not an embodied perfection myself!"
   The mazoku eyed her doubtfully, then he sighed.
   "You see, I used to think that our relationship was going so wrong because I didn't have succinct instructions and acted mostly on my own account. But this time there was a direct order, and still I broke it. I'm losing confidence when such things happen, and... well, do I need to..?"
   Lina rolled her eyes.
   "But this is why I need you to understand the difference between an order and a request. You knew it wasn't a complete taboo, I just didn't encourage it. And you were confused, I couldn't help being angry, and you needed contact and all that!" she gritted her teeth not to blush.
   "Not exactly... It just seemed that everything I said made you more and more angry, so..."
   "So you automatically did something that used to work perfectly before, right?"
   "R-right." Xellos was staring at his feet with huge round eyes. Lina felt proud. Even being his mistress, she didn't get to surprise him too often, especially with her wit.
   "See? No reason to fight at all!"
   Xellos sighed, surrendering.
   "Very well. I think I can understand this logic. It doesn't increase my confidence, though, but at least I wouldn't be constantly expecting for the worst to come."
   Lina nodded, noticing that this time their conversation didn't tackle the subject of firing, and that had to be a good sign.
   "So now, Xel, I need your guidance in this emotions-reading thing." she waved her hand towards Sylphiel who had wrapped herself around Gourry so tightly that it wasn't obvious which one of them some body parts belonged to.
   "I'm listening," Xellos offered.
   "You were right about the hardships of interpretation," she smiled. "With Gourry it was annoying, but easy. He feels only one thing at a time and his face shows it very distinctly. But with Sylphiel it's such a mess, and she only displays a stupid grin on her face!"
   "Do you recognize any single emotion?"
   "No... but I recognize her state in general."
   "How is that?"
   "Well, her emotional mess is exactly the same emotional mess I felt yesterday, under the curse."
   "Ah-... huh..."
   "Xel, it's okay to talk about it."
   "Um, sure."
   Lina was surprised to know that what she just said was true -- it was really all right to talk about it! But well, she'd think it over some other time.
   "So, my point is, how do I know which emotions are mixed in there?"
   "Wait a second, I'm afraid I don't understand you. How can you know you've been in this very state of mind if you can't define what emotions she exactly emits?"
   "Because it feels same way."
   "What do you mean `feels'? Your own emotions and someone else's emotions are felt by different means."
   "I dunno about means, but it's like I feel her feelings. That was the problem with Gourry, when he got angry, I became angry together with him, and his emotions were so strong that I couldn't think straight through it. And it was pretty exhausting."
   Xellos looked her directly in the eye with a puzzling expression on his face.
   "I'm really sorry I wasn't there for you, then."
   Lina felt she was melting... no, damn, it was Sylphiel! Still, Lina felt somehow better about today's events. She patted Xellos's upper arm.
   "It's past now and no big deal, but thanks. A sincere `sorry' is much better than all that formal talk you did earlier."
   Xellos made a point of closing his eyes and schooling his features as if saying "I'll make sure to remember that always." Lina giggled.
   "So do I understand correctly that you guys, that is, mazoku, don't, er, `co-live' a person's emotions with them?"
   "Of course we don't! You don't frown when you see a person frown, do you?"
   "Depends on the person... But I get it. So, you think, it's a human-specific thing?"
   "Most likely. I can't say for sure since I never heard of a human who could read emotions. It must be really disturbing for you."
   "Yup, the hardest part is to tell which emotions are mine and which are hers," she nodded towards the priestess. "I can't imagine what it would be like if I felt everyone's emotions at once!"
   "So what is it," Xellos started slowly, "that you feel towards Gourry right now?"
   "That's what I'm trying to figure!"
   "Can you tell me what she feels?"
   "Sure. Ehm, let's see, lust, embarrassment, jealousy, slight indefinite worry..."
   "Anything positive?" Lina scoffed.
   "Er, sure. Excitement, delight... hmm, I'm not sure what to call it... she feels happy that she is chosen."
   "How is that?"
   "Well, it looks like Gourry pays her considerably more attention today than usual."
   "Ah, true, he was really worried about her earlier."
   Xellos nodded absently.
   "So is that all?"
   "Yes, I think... there are some shades to worry and lust, but nothing significant beyond what I named."
   "How about love?"
   "Love? Why do you think it should be there?"
   Lina was speechless for a moment, and then she had to make an effort not to shout out loud,
   "But everyone knows she loves him!"
   "Oh... well, love can be tricky. It's the most complicated emotion to identify. Each person has it their own way. So... I may be missing it. Perhaps, in this case, I take it for lust."
   "Do you usually take love for lust?"
   "Considering that humans often take lust for love?" Xellos chuckled. "It's easy to mistake. There are also different kinds of love. You know, brotherly and such."
   "And you're surely an expert in the issue," Lina laughed.
   "No, I never claimed that!" Xellos snorted.
   "I guess, Zellas isn't either."
   "She's as far from it as you are from suicide!"
   "Oh, sorry, mazoku saying."
   This time Lina laughed really hard. It was good to have a moment like this with Xellos. She should store it in her memory to recall in case hardships came again.
   "Well, then it all fits," Lina said, catching her breath. "There was no way I could feel love under Zellas's curse. And since Sylphiel's emotions feel exactly like mine did yesterday, there must be no love among them. Although it's really puzzling. We all thought that she had a crush on him, really..."
   - -
   Xellos bit his lip. Ages of tricking Zellas made him good at it, but Lina was still more acute and also it was twice as hard to trick the one you love, Xellos concluded to his own surprise. Anyway, they've decided that he would shift Lina's senses to Amelia during the night, so Lina wouldn't question Sylphiel's love for Gourry any more. It was good, because the truth was the priestess was almost nothing BUT her love for the swordsman. It was just that Xellos didn't want Lina to recognize the feeling yet.
   There was only one thing that bugged him now -- why did it seem to Lina that her feelings under the curse matched those of Sylphiel completely? There was no way Zellas could put real selfless love into a curse!
   Xellos was meditating over a glass of some tasteless liquid in the common room of the inn they chose to spend a night in. The rest of the group were already in beds, so he had the whole night for himself to think things over. His musings were interrupted by Gourry who emerged from the bathroom, tightly wrapped in a long white dressing-gown.
   "Thanks for Sylphiel," he said, passing by.
   "Nodadall," Xellos mumbled.
   "Why, I never thought I liked her so much before you stole her today."
   Lina woke up to a mug of steaming tea with a fresh hot bun -- something she got used to very quickly. Xellos was there, right next to her, bidding her good morning. Lina checked her feelings. She was in high spirits and ready for the new day, Amelia too. Lina wondered if Zel was usually cheerful in the morning like the rest of the group, or if he woke up as moody as he normally seemed to be. But then, she was going to learn that pretty soon. Speaking of Zel, though...
   "Hm, Xel, I wonder, do you have any idea about how to cure our stony friend?"
   Xellos raised an eyebrow.
   "Are you already so synchronized with the princess?"
   Lina snorted.
   "No, actually I was planning to ask you that for some time already."
   "I see. Well, I personally never studied the subject of making chimeras, but I could give it a go. The problem is, though, Zelgadiss would hardly be willing to share the current results of his own research with me, don't you think so?"
   "I doubt he has any results at all..."
   "But he's been searching the subject for years! Surely he has come up with something."
   "Yeah, the list of manuscripts that do not contain the recipe."
   "Wait, do you mean he's not trying to figure it out? Just looking for a ready solution?"
   "I'm afraid that's the case."
   "Yare-yare. At this rate I doubt he'd ever succeed."
   "That's why I'm asking you even though Zel hates it when I meddle with his business," Lina snickered.
   "Very well then. I'll need to study some reference literature, and then there was a couple of mazoku who used to do some favors for Rezo, while he was researching chimeras. I'll have to leave you for a few hours though. Will it be all right?"
   "Sure. I think I can handle Amelia," Lina smiled. "Just make sure whoever you're going to meet do not provoke you to start a fight."
   "Oh, rest assured. I only fight when ordered to."
   - -
   As Lina predicted, Amelia wasn't troubling her at all. The princess was cheerful, but her cheerfulness lacked that sickeningly sweet quality that Lina hated so much in Sylphiel. Amelia's mood was also a constant; she just went on and on with the same smile and the same shining eyes. When Lina thought she had identified each separate one of Amelia's emotions, she started experimenting. She made sure the princess was engrossed in their small talk and gradually pushed her to Zelgadiss's side. After what she discovered about Sylphiel, she was curious if there was any love in her team at all.
   "So where is your new pet again?" asked Zel gloomily from underneath his shiny bangs.
   "Pet? Ah, you mean Xellos? I let him go for a walk." Lina didn't miss how Amelia instantly toned up at the sound of Zel's voice. So there was something to it, after all.
   "Just you wait till he sells you to the first one interested."
   "Hey! He has no such intensions!"
   "Oh and you know for sure what's on Xellos's mind!"
   "Well, maybe not everything, but I know for sure he doesn't want to be out of a job again."
   "Really? And why is that?"
   "Actually... that's between him and me," Lina stated. She was a little surprised at her own words, but she found that she didn't want Zel to know Xellos's weakness. Well, the last thing she needed was Zel bullying Xel about his "need to belong" to pay him back for all the teasing.
   "Oh, great, so now you share his secrets," Zelgadiss remarked indifferently.
   Lina was close to burning the Chimera to ashes when the near-forgotten Amelia suddenly interrupted,
   "But Mr. Zelgadiss, that's what a sacrament means! It's like in White Magic rituals, you can't tell anyone what you do and why, because then the enchantment will fade."
   "If it fades, it's all for the best," Zelgadiss grumbled, but Lina wasn't paying attention. Instead, she tuned all of her senses to Amelia, who continued arguing with Zel.
   The princess was feeling proud and nervous. In a few minutes Lina managed to figure out what that meant. Amelia was proud that she for once had enough knowledge to make profound conversation with Zel, yet she was afraid to push too hard, to make him think she was overconfident and annoying.
   That was unusual. The most annoying thing about Amelia, in Lina's opinion, were her justice-speeches, and she never hesitated to seem overconfident in that subject. Lina decided to provoke her a little.
   "Say, Amelia, Xellos is acting way different from back when he was in Zellas's service, right? I think, he's changing, like you said, for the best. So isn't it unjust to treat him the same way as before?"
   Zelgadiss cast such a look at Lina as if he was an elderly dame and Lina was a country hussy who didn't know how to use the cutlery. He certainly saw through her move, but that didn't discourage the sorceress.
   Amelia hesitated. Lina felt the princess being torn apart between two reactions: to agree with Lina readily and to protect Zelgadiss's position.
   "You are certainly right, Miss Lina," she began cautiously, "one who has just stepped on the road of Justice needs to be encouraged, and it wouldn't help if his good beginning isn't noticed or is considered fake... But at the same time it's unjust to demand a change of attitude from someone who has suffered from Mr. Xellos's earlier self!" she finished quickly. Lina chuckled.
   "I'm not as faint-hearted as you might think," Zelgadiss replied barely opening his lips. "Fine. I'll trust him from now on. And if he leads us into a trap, well, I'm not a weakling to be afraid of traps."
   Lina sweatdropped, but then she felt something coming from Amelia. It was a strong emotion, but not a very pure one. More likely two or three of them merged together. Lina looked at Zel and he seemed to be several inches taller than usual. `Admiration', came the word to her mind. But not just admiration. Pride, too. `My Zelgadiss is as great as that', that was surely pride. There was something else, vague and evasive, that Lina couldn't quite define. She had her suspicions, of course.
   - -
   The golden leaves in the slight breeze whispered an ancient song of infinite sadness and doom, the thick dry grass was soft, and the sea that crawled slowly back and forth just a few feet away was calm. Xellos stretched on the ground leafing through a thick book. As usual, this scenery made him relax so that he could concentrate on the reading. After his brief talk with Gourry yesterday, Xellos spent the night almost insane with panic, until finally seeing Gourry again in the morning and asking the guy never to share his ideas about Sylphiel's disappearing with anyone. Gourry beamed and assured him that he never was going to share it anyway, since male solidarity was in the top ten terms in his dictionary.
   Xellos was glad he had this place. Its sad beauty was the only thing he needed at times like this. Although today there was one very cheerful beauty he needed as well, but she'd promised to wait for him until he collected all the information to help her overly proud mate. She was going to be glad to see him; she would never wonder what he had been doing all day long, and then she would be grateful to him when he found the medicine for the Chimera. Xellos felt a wave of sweet trembling pass through his body and warmth settle in his core. He smiled and resumed working with double enthusiasm.
   Lina didn't get to taste Zelgadiss's emotions for the next few days, because Xellos was mostly away and when he returned deep in the night he looked so tired that Lina didn't want him to do any more magic. They made sure everyone's sleep was aided by a sleeping spell, and sat by the fire together to leaf through Xellos's copybook-hand notes. He smelt of sea and leaf litter and could solve complex equations mentally. First couple of evenings Lina used to ask lots of questions, but then she realized there was no way she could remember all the answers, and anyway Xellos's ideas always made sense, so she stopped questioning every step. At some point she even felt a little useless, since the mazoku seemed to simply waste time retelling his speculations to her. Xellos noticed her doubts immediately and assured her that even if she couldn't add anything to his discoveries, their evening sessions helped him structure the information in his own mind and that when they had a better idea of how Zelgadiss was constructed, it was more likely that Lina, and not Xellos, would suggest a better solution for the problem, since she was human.
   Eventually Lina turned out to be of another use.
   "And this is where I'm currently stuck," Xellos tapped a piece of parchment with his nail. Lina took a second look at a half-page-long formula that was supposed to explain why Zelgadiss could be healed with White magic spells, when neither golem nor brau demon could. Lina rubbed her forehead trying to recall what each variable represented.
   "And your problem is..." she drawled, "that it's not supposed to work?"
   "According to these calculations there is not enough human in him to provide for the necessary resonance. He shouldn't react to White magic at all."
   "But he does."
   "Exactly. So there must be a mistake in my logic somewhere."
   Lina made a face. In her opinion it was highly unlikely that Xellos could make a mistake. Not only that he seemed to be a real guru in the subject, but also Lina came to a conclusion that Xellos's own mind was working on a mathematic basis. On top of that she really didn't want to go through all this stuff once more.
   "Maybe it depends on who's casting the healing spell?" she suggested cautiously. Xellos looked at her expectantly, so she continued, "I mean, in those rare cases when Zel gets scratched, it's usually Amelia who heals him. That must provide for the resonance."
   "Excuse me, I don't see the connection. For healing spells to work on him, his body has to emit enough White magic waves­--"
   "Love," Lina interrupted, grinning. It looked like she'd found the breach in Xellos's logic.
   "What -- love?" he looked really confused.
   "What do you think those White magic waves are?" Lina grinned even broader, if possible.
   "Huh!? No, wait, Lina, it can't be! Love isn't a purely positive emotion..."
   "Really? What is love in your opinion then?"
   "Well, it's... letting someone else inside your own selfishness... something like that?"
   Lina took her time rolling on the ground in mad laughter, although a good part of it was an act to cover for her surprise. She never expected Xellos to have a ready and original answer to that kind of question.
   "Like you said earlier," she panted, standing up and dusting off the duff, "there are different kinds of love." She sat down near the dumbfounded Xellos and patted his back with a heavy hand. "As much as you might hate the subject, healing spells are formed with the kind of love when you wish to give away all the joy you had in life, as a gift. That's why only accomplished priests can heal their own enemies. How come you didn't know all that?"
   "I usually tend to avoid the subject," Xellos said with an acid look. "But does this mean anyone who can love can also heal?"
   "If they can do magic, sure... Although actually it's not enough to be able to love, you need to have experienced it. You see, for instance, Amelia is a better healer than I am, though she's a far weaker sorceress. That's because she's so full of love. And I... well, I don't remember my parents and I never loved Luna, so I can only use the love for my friends, but that's sometimes not enough," Lina shrugged.
   Xellos started chewing his lower lip, but then noticed it and braced himself.
   "I see. Well, back to the subject of Zelgadiss..."
   "Yeah, back to that. You see, love doesn't have a constant volume, it's expandable. So it should take a single drop of human essence to provide for the resonance. That is, if that human has experienced love. And trust me, Zel has."
   "Uhhuh, I remember you mentioning his friends dying for him or something like that..."
   "Anywa-a-ay," Lina yawned. "Why don't we continue tomorrow?"
   "Sure. Er... I was thinking... It looks like I understand the process of making chimeras now... so I was going to experiment a little..."
   Lina stopped in mid-yawn and shut her mouth with a loud clop.
   "Not with humans I hope!?"
   "No, no!" Xellos raised his hands assuring. "Nothing bigger than a fruit-fly for the beginning."
   Lina spluttered with laughter.
   "A chimeric fruit-fly... You're so fun to be with. Fine, so, d'you need my consent?"
   "I was actually wondering if you'd like to come along to watch."
   "Oh, sure! Tomorrow?"
   "I'll need to make some preparations and then I'll come and fetch you."
   "Great. Good night then."
   "Rest well."
   - -
   The next day Lina wondered just for how long Xellos has been planning their trip. About the noon they reached a road-fork, and the mazoku who had appeared just a few minutes before that, made a real meal of describing the town to the right as a place where people make most delicious foods and have morbid fear of anyone who looks not exactly human. Lina and Gourry both only heard the first part and took off along the right road, while Zelgadiss bridled up and turned to the left, Amelia dragging behind. Sylphiel didn't pay attention to Xellos's words at all, she just watched the whisking figures of Lina and Gourry with tearful eyes. Xellos decided he'd done enough mischief today, grabbed the priestess and teleported to wait for the distance-runners at the town's gate.
   "Where are the others?" Lina asked as the four of them settled around the table.
   "They decided to take another way," Xellos said with his trademark smile.
   "Huh?" Lina suddenly narrowed her eyes. "Xellos. You know, the other day Zel promised to trust you."
   "Really?" Xellos's voice was oozing with sarcasm.
   "Really. At least he promised to act as if he trusted you..."
   "Anyway something tells me, his nerves will be safer if he isn't informed that I'm going to take you no-telling-where."
   "True," Lina sighed. "I just wish you'd treat him a little better. He does care about me, you know."
   "I know." Xellos said in such a tone as if that was the worst thing about Zelgadiss in general.
   After the meal they lost the dovie couple in the crowd and sneaked into a deserted street. Sylphiel and Gourry seemed to ignore everything apart from each other lately.
   - -
   Lina used to think that teleportation was a means of instant traveling, but this time it took them almost a minute to get wherever Xellos's lab was situated. She felt the enormous cloud of Xellos's being surround her, and it was so warm and puffy and comfortable, that Lina didn't really want to go back to the Physical Plane. She remembered her childhood dreams about living in the clouds where you can swim and dig and sleep on the softest of all duvets, and talk to the birds. She sighed, sorry that she didn't have any childhood friends to share the new experience.
   Xellos finally emerged to the real world and put her on the ground.
   "Sorry for the long journey, we are really far away. How are you feeling?"
   "Fine, why?"
   "Well, most people I've teleported got sick from being wrapped into my Astral body..."
   "Really? That's weird, I actually enjoyed it a lot!" Lina stretched, beaming. Xellos made a chuckle-like noise and adopted a very pleased expression.
   "Where are we?" Lina asked curiously, turning her head from side to side. The scenery was more likely northern, but the shape of the mountains ahead did not resemble anything Lina's ever seen.
   "At the opposite side of the globe. I own a house in that village down there."
   They were standing on an upland meadow that ended with a steep slope to a narrow quick river. Lina went closer to the edge and saw a small gingerbread village on the river-bank. The houses were so cute and tidy that it was hard to imagine that people actually lived in them. There was also a tiniest shrine with a white dragon head on the spire.
   "So sweeeeeet!" Lina finally said. "Just the right place to make chimeric fruit-flies!" she giggled.
   "Those will never leave the lab," Xellos assured. "And my house isn't exactly as sweet as the others. Come on," he waved her to follow and started down the opposite slope of the meadow which was rather easy.
   "Is this the hut you mentioned to that Lantz guy earlier?"
   "Yeah. You see, when the Barrier fell, all the remaining Lords sent their servants to explore the Big World, and Dynast's folks seemed to find something interesting in this area, so I needed a watchpoint to keep an eye on them."
   "What did they find?"
   "Manticores. No one knew they were found in our world at all."
   "Manticores!? Do they just live here in the wild!?" Lina turned her head from side to side nervously.
   "Not really," Xellos chuckled. "Locals keep them for guarding, instead of dogs. There seem to be no dogs on the continent at all. Anyway, no reason for you to be afraid -- I'm not a Beastmaster for nothing. Any manticore turns belly-up and starts purring at the very sight of me."
   "Wow. You'll definitely show it to me!"
   "Sure. Here we are."
   The house was rather large and rather old. It stood away from the village, almost out in the wild, surrounded by the forest on three sides. It looked abandoned and needed renewal, but otherwise Lina thought it was a good house.
   Instead of walking in through the front door, Xellos led her around the house to enter from the summer terrace. Now Lina saw that what she took for forest earlier was actually a neglected garden with fruit-trees, flowers and vines, just like in a fairy-tale.
   Inside the house was warm and clean. Lina recalled Xellos mentioning "making preparations" for their work. They passed a room stuffed with books and separate parchments and entered the lab which seemed to have every magical device ever invented. Lina stood there motionless for several moments, taking in the sight and wishing she could stay there for ages to come, with this person who was smiling proudly and bathing in the rays of her delight.
   "You knew where to take me," she said hoarsely. "Damn, Xellos, can it be that our tastes are really so much alike? I love every bit of this place!"
   "Ah, well, perhaps it's just when I was choosing the place I was thinking of y-- I mean, that was right after I spent so much time at your side, and your preferences are catching," he finished, sweatdropping heavily. Lina thought she heard him curse under his breath, but decided to act as if nothing happened. Although when she took a test-tube with some precious stones in a reddish solution, her hand was shaking and her heart pounding with nervous joy. She made an effort to ignore that, too.
   "So. Where are our dear little subject fruit-flies?"
   - -
   The rest of the day passed really swiftly. Lina turned away from the work table only once, when she was rolling on the floor with laughter after seeing the tiny golem fruit-flies that Xellos made with lots of magic from some special kind of clay. She was grateful that the fruitfly-sized brau demons were invisible, because her stomach really hurt.
   They finished deep in the night, both tired like hell and happy like paradise. The three stone-covered fruit-flies with shamanistic powers were fatefully walking in a double dish. They could only fly by using magic.
   "Ahhhh, why don't we go to the village to eat something?" Lina stretched on the living-room floor before the fireplace which was on the other side of a huge white northern stove. There was no furniture in the room.
   "There's no inn in the village and the locals are already asleep. I suggest we return to the town where we left your friends."
   "Oh. Really. That town. It feels like I was there a month ago. But you promised to show me a manticore!"
   "Sure. I'll take you here some other time. There's still lots to do. First we need to take these flies back apart."
   Lina crawled to the center of the room where the double dish sat lit by a Lighting. One of the flies stood on its back legs and was trying to push the lid off. Lina thought she actually heard the grunting.
   "They seem to be fine this way."
   "Perhaps, but your friend isn't."
   "Our friend."
   "Oh, yes, of course. Now that he trusts me, he is my friend too." Xellos was deadly caustic.
   Lina eyed him thoroughly.
   "I thought you simply enjoyed teasing him, but now it seems like you really hate him."
   "I don't. I just don't like his type of people. First he wishes power, then he wishes beauty... Like he doesn't think of consequences at all. And then he dares to warn you against me as if he knows all the results of all the actions. If that isn't arrogant, then what is? Does he have any idea that one has to make choices?"
   "It's easy for you to talk when you have both power and beauty. He may be saying that he wants to reverse what Rezo did, but actually he doesn't want to lose his magic. It's normal, every human wishes to sit on two stools. As for his attitude to you, well, I'm not happy about it either, but you're the only one to blame for it."
   Xellos watched her attentively while she was talking, then sat on his heels in front of her.
   "Lina. Did you ask me to help find his cure to make us friends?"
   Lina made an indistinct noise. She didn't want to have this talk yet.
   "Because you should know," Xellos continued, "that gratitude is one emotion I hate the worst. As far as I am concerned, charity should be anonymous."
   "D-do you hate my gratitude too?"
   "No, I can't hate anything that comes from you. And no, I actually enjoy your gratitude, but that's that."
   "Fiew!" Lina sat up making a point of wiping cold sweat off her forehead. "Don't you scare me like that! Fine, if you want to stay an unknown well-wisher, let it be so. Anyway, I doubt Zel would be magnanimous enough to be grateful to you. He'd rather think that was another prank or something."
   "It's good that you understand that."
   "I understand more than I want to, sometimes." Lina pulled closer to lean her back against Xellos's shoulder. She was surprised to feel his normally steady body pulsate under her weight. "Nah, Xellos, we should at least bring a sofa here next time."
   "You wish to stay here for the night?" Xellos said, for some reason in a whisper.
   "I wish to live here... Not now, but some day. You know, I never had a home to return to from all the journeys," Lina mused, then it dawned on her, "Oh, but if you want to keep this place just to yourself, it's fine! I'm not pushing you out or anyth--"
   "My home is wherever you are. You know, the locals think I'm a ghost that haunts this house, and that's how I feel when I'm here alone."
   Lina snickered. She imagined the thick darkness outside, the rustling sounds of the garden and hooting of the owls. Probably, white, polar owls. She pictured the black windows of the tiny tidy village and the scared villagers who urged their manticores on the lone cottage's ghost, and the stars over the swift-flowing mountain river, and cool dark night world. And the only thing to oppose all that was the warm pulsating piece of energy in the form of Xellos's shoulder, supporting her here, in the middle of nowhere.
   Lina felt like she had it all. Not exactly power and beauty, but certainly something that was more than normal people had. Her sister kept telling her that she didn't deserve anything in life, and that one has to fight to gain things. Lina did fight and did gain. But this was different. She never fought for it. She never even knew she needed it. She was pretty sure she never deserved it. Yet there it was. And it was so unjust (oh, was that a distant Amelia's dream?), so dreadfully unjust that everyone else didn't have it!
   "He must have both," she muttered.
   Xellos made an inquiring noise.
   "Zelgadiss," Lina explained. "He deserves to have both. And these flies, too. They deserve to have both!" she sat up, eyes shining.
   "Xellos! We don't need to take the chimeras apart! We need to integrate their elements, to merge them! We need to learn to make better chimeras than Rezo could! The ones that won't look like chimeras!"
   Lina couldn't understand how it came to this. Instead of trying to solve the situation, she was standing there, speechless, searching her memory for a clue to what was going on. She remembered Xellos being worried that he might disappoint his new mistress and end up all alone again. She remembered trying to comfort him, in vain, and hugging him desperately, hoping that a warm touch would do the trick. But she couldn't reach him through the material clothes he wore lately, and anyway, she had already figured out that for a mazoku words would always mean more than any physical signs. Lina felt his life leaking through her fingers - or was he wounded? Or was it something only Zellas, as his creator, could do to him, make him dissolve into entropy? Lina was stiff and agitated, her eyes so dry they almost hurt. So it had to be words after all.
   "Xellos, I will never ever tell you to get lost, I swear. I've come to depend on you, to need you all the time. I miss you when you are away. Things you do for me make me happy. I have thought it over, and I'm positive that nothing you do can make me dislike you!"
   She barely remembered her words, just the general idea that she told him something as special as she could manage, and that was still not enough. What she remembered clearly were his huge, begging shiny eyes, transparent slightly pinkish gems, like the ones she always sold and never kept. Xellos's look made her think he was expecting to be sold, too. Honestly, such an ironic inversion, Zel would've liked it, he likes everything ironic, he would love to see Xellos in this state...
   "Do you like me?" came the question, although Xellos's mouth wouldn't open. But then those eyes and mouth were just a guise; mazoku don't need them to see and speak, do they?
   Lina was both shocked and pleased that he managed to notice her implied meaning, even if it was embarrassing.
   "I... I do. Sure I do! Why would you even question my feelings? Can't you read my emotions? Ah, of course, you said it was the most complicated feeling? Well, I think I can explain. It's like... It's like I'm no longer me, but we. It's like there's a second volume of my life somewhere out there, and there are all the annotations to which my references lead... It's like I am of no use alone any longer. That's it, I think."
   Again, her own words were blurry. She could have listed many more similes, but she was so eager to shut up and hear the response. Did she pass the exam? Would he stop disappearing? Would he... say something back to her?
   "Gotcha," he said, hiding his eyes behind his girlishly-straight cut bangs. He smiled, his teeth so even, no sharp fangs. He stood up very straight, eyeing Lina from above. "It was really annoying to tolerate you all this time, you know. But I'm going to get the reward now."
   Lina knew she was supposed to be shocked and furious at his betrayal, or, maybe, she should not believe him, like a na?ve little girl in love that she was. Or, perhaps, she should not be na?ve and see through his act that he pulled off for her sake...
   But instead she was stuck trying to recollect how it happened that her Xellos suddenly doubled and one of him turned into Zellas, and the other into Luna, both laughing madly. Lina didn't listen to their scornful words, it suddenly became clear to her that this was all Zellas's game to begin with. And that Luna was on it, since from Lina's early childhood Luna used to repeat that she knew Lina's destiny for many years to come and thought that it was too dangerous for anyone to be Lina's friend. That's why she always taught her to be strong, and alone, and independent. That's why she made sure every single kid in Zefillia knew Lina was a freak. That's why she kept her sister busy day and night, allowing her no time to socialize. But that didn't help, Lina still managed to have company, unaware of what that might lead to. So now she had to pay for disobeying her sister. Luna must have made a deal with Zellas, and Xellos was assigned to take Lina away from her friends, and embroil her with them, and then woo her, and then throw her affection into her face.
   Luna was standing there, talking non-stop, describing how Xellos enjoyed the mission, and how he really hated the ill-mannered underdeveloped little witch with self-conceit of a goddess.
   Lina knew this speech was designed to hurt her, and thus she didn't listen. Instead she was doing her utmost to recall anything from the past two months that would be an evidence of Xellos's insincerity. And she couldn't, and couldn't, and couldn't! She never once had a chance to doubt him... That was terrifying. And when did the pleading look of his transparent eyes, pinkish as if from crying, turn into the grimace of scorn? Where was she looking at that moment?
   Luna pushed her to where Xellos stood, in one piece again, and he slapped her, and Zellas laughed, and there was a boy in the neighbourhood who pretended to hate Lina with all his being, but late at night they would both sneak out to the river and play and bathe...
   - -
   Lina woke up in an empty room, slightly disoriented. In a few moments she recalled that this was the living-room in the cottage that Xellos owned. She was still on the sofa that Xellos had brought the day before. She was still covered with the afghan that Xellos had covered her with, because she was too sleepy to get up and find something to cover herself. In the fireplace burned the fire that Xellos had lit. In the house that Xellos bought thinking of her. There was no Xellos.
   Lina felt so cold, she couldn't even tremble, although it was obviously warm in the room. She felt hot liquid streaming past her nose and grabbed a handkerchief, afraid that tears would burn her. Tears rarely came out of her eyes, which was good in a way, but they would always cause her to blow her nose a lot, which was embarrassing. She gulped the rest of them, trying not to think that there was no one to be shy of.
   She called him, even though she knew for sure that he wouldn't answer. She sprang up and rushed into the library, stumbled over some books, opened the door to the lab and called him again, feeling dead inside. There were so many rooms in the house; why didn't she notice that before? But all of them were empty. Lina never once wondered if she was still dreaming or if what she had just seen was reality. She just needed to find Xellos, to scream at him for leaving her alone, for letting her feel so desolate. At the same time she somehow knew he was not around. Perhaps, because otherwise he wouldn't have let it come to this. Or maybe Luna was still close...
   Finally Lina tumbled out of the door to the terrace. The night wind brought dry leaves and bestrewed the terrace - a wicked sign of doom it seemed for Lina, since it was late spring. Lina's long night-gown flapped around her bare feet, but her skin was colder than the air. She called again, sobbing, and then she saw one red eye in a tree. Lina was desperate enough to cast a summoning spell on the creature, whatever it was, and order it to find Xellos, when the eye glowed a little more and turned out to be the tip of a cigarette in Xellos's fingers.
   Lina gasped. At once she thought she was cursed into constant waking.
   "Why the HELL are you SMOKING over THERE!?"
   She wasn't really sure if she was more stunned with the activity or the place, or with finding him there at all. At least the tears dried out, though she never even noticed she was weeping.
   Xellos crashed through the branches to the ground with so much noise that Lina thought he must have fallen down. He came running up to her.
   "Lina, why are you here? Go back to the house, it's cold, you're not dressed... What?" he fell silent as she grabbed his elbow like grim death, and only then he felt her distress, which was turning into anger really quickly. He still had a moment or two to wonder how come that he never felt she was even awake, not to mention her hysterical state. Then the pain caused by her rage blurred his mind.
   "You damn bastard. I'm having nightmares about you, and when I wake up you're nowhere in the house, instead you're SMOKING in a TREE! I'll kill you one day! Didn't you hear me calling you!!"
   "Sorry, I didn't..." Xellos managed, wincing from pain. He did his utmost to push his mistress into the house -- freezing wouldn't improve her temper. The pain faded a little and he noticed her struggle to keep her temper under control. He knew she hated hurting him and was not surprised that she was merciful even in her current shaken state of feelings. He knew he was mistaken, though, as once she calmed herself enough for him to relax, she seized a heavy book from a shelf and smacked him on the head with all her strength. His painful howl delighted her and even made her a tiny little bit sorry.
   "When you're done whining, please, explain yourself," Lina said, striding across the room and settling on the carpet before the fire, though her voice lacked the necessary threatening quality.
   "What is angering you so much about me smoking?" Xellos asked cautiously, crouching down on the same carpet, just a little further than she could reach with her outstretched arm. It was the first time Lina managed to hit him since she became his mistress, and he didn't want to provoke her again.
   "First of all, I have never seen a mazoku smoke!" Lina exclaimed indignantly.
   "Really? Oh, right, you haven't seen much of Zellas..."
   "So is it HER bad habit that you inherited?"
   "No, it's... it's not really uncommon... And it doesn't harm OUR health, so..."
   "And it isn't supposed to affect you chemically, so why do it at all!?"
   "It helps thinking..." Xellos shrugged. Lina breathed out a long sigh.
   "But why in a tree?"
   "So that the smoke wouldn't be blown into the house... I didn't want to disturb you."
   "You ended up disturbing me a great deal."
   "Yes, I understood, I am sorry," he lowered his head apologetically and fell silent for a few moments. It looked like the scolding was over. However he was anxious because now he knew Lina could hide her emotions from him, and that was a great disadvantage of his position. He decided he should show more concern.
   "You said you had a nightmare about me? Anything I can help with?.."
   Lina sighed again. She tried to recollect the scattered images of her dream and felt her cheeks flush. Yet she knew the only way to get rid of those images was to talk through the whole dream's situation with Xellos. Otherwise it wasn't going to be the last nightmare of the sort.
   She tried putting her fears into words, but it only made her blush more and feel foolish. She immediately wanted to dismiss the matter, to laugh at herself and wave it away, because it was nothing. She knew that if she managed to voice her dream, Xellos would just laugh and tell her it was nothing. Yet she knew it wasn't nothing.
   "Oi, Lina, are you there?" came Xellos's voice.
   "Yes. I'm trying to find the words to tell you about this dream, but I can't, because it's foolish and embarrassing."
   "Perhaps I don't need to know it then?"
   "No, I want you to know. I want to talk to you about it, but I can't find the words!"
   "Hmm... Well, if it's important... and if it's still fresh in your mind... you can try sharing a memory with me through our bond."
   "Oh?" Lina thought it might be better. Although letting Xellos actually see everything in the dream... Well, he wasn't going to see herself tearstained, and it wasn't her fault that Luna was such a bitch, so there wasn't much to be ashamed of! "Okay, how do I do that?"
   "I'll touch your forehead and you just allow me to see what you are seeing," Xellos said, crawling closer. Lina nodded and then jerked in surprise as Xellos bent over her, their noses almost touching. It wasn't his advance into her personal space that unnerved her, more the fact that she couldn't hear or feel his breath. She still hadn't gathered her thoughts when their foreheads collided.
   Lina was surprised at how perfectly preserved her dream was. She never remembered her dreams too clearly. Yet now once she relaxed and closed her eyes, there it was in full bloom. She watched it once again, in all the detail, and by the end she had completely forgotten that she wasn't alone this time. She woke up with the strongest intention to find Xellos and was really taken aback to see his face just an inch away from her own. He drew back quickly. He wasn't laughing.
   "So?" she panted. Why would she be so short of breath all of a sudden?
   "I am sorry," he said. Very sincerely. He was looking down at his hands fingering the edge of his shirt.
   "What are you sorry about?" Lina asked, staring at his hands, too, hypnotized. At once she thought he was going to confess working for Zellas.
   "I was... arrogant. I was so concerned with your reasons for taking me in, that I never thought of proving my loyalty to you. It was so obvious to me... I was worried if I could trust you and I never wondered if you could trust me."
   "I didn't wonder that either," Lina said quickly. "I mean, I didn't suspect you of anything... until this dream. At least, not consciously."
   They were silent for a minute or two, Lina still staring at Xellos's fingers. She thought it was the fourth thing she could watch eternally. Finally she spoke,
   "I am sure you have noticed that I hate forcing you to do things."
   He nodded.
   "Then you should understand that I would only do that because it is very important."
   "Of course. And don't you think I'd be insulted if you actually order me something," Xellos supplied. Lina smiled inwardly: her General-Priest was getting better at understanding the human way of thinking every day.
   "I want you to vow your loyalty to me."
   Xellos smiled dreamily.
   "Of course, Lina! I am surprised you never demanded that before. Would I have been thinking straighter back then, I'd have pledged you my loyalty right away..."
   "Don't misunderstand me. I don't need the special loyalty vow that is part of the official ritual. I need a real Black Magic vow that I can recognize. One that has considerable magical impact in it."
   "Oh, I see... It's past the hour of the ox now, though. But I think I know a vow that is most effective at this time."
   Lina nodded shakily. She knew such a vow too, and that was the most horrible vow she knew. Yet there was no way back now. If Xellos was really hers, there was nothing to be afraid of, and if he wasn't -- then why worry about him? So now the only thing left for her to do was to listen carefully and make sure he didn't trick her.
   She rose to her knees and so did he. She felt a little uncomfortable placing her little sweaty palms into his large, smooth and handsome ones; but then he started chanting, and the floor vanished from under her knees, and then everything else vanished too. They were in the darkness, in the middle of Chaos, where movement was scarce, as all the matters were already mixed up to the state of eternal evenness. Xellos chanted on, and Lina knew that their world was just an illusion, it has never existed and would never exist. There were no people, no fruit-flies and no horsedrawn carts, no manticores and no Ceiphied's temples, and no Ceiphied, and no L-sama... And certainly, no Lina Inverse, and no Xellos the Beastmaster. There were just tiny particles, of both of them, scattered around in the eternal Chaos, with no force to unite them.
   And then there was movement. Xellos's essence was increasing magnetism, pulling them together. And thus the Chaos was no longer the Chaos since there was ordered motion in it. And Lina pulled with all her being to where the center of the disturbance was, to Xellos.
   They crushed into each other almost painfully as Xellos said the last verse in a hoarse voice. It was dawn, and the fire died away, and the cold aurorean light outlined the black mountains -- Lina was staring into the west window over Xellos's shoulder as they were both on their knees on the carpet, holding each other. She breathed out and pulled back lazily. Xellos was intact, so his vow was a success, otherwise he would have stayed dispersed in the Sea of Chaos right outside L-sama's worlds, or at least that was what the textbooks promised. He smiled a calm smile, then raised an eyebrow.
   "Were you scared? You came rushing so quickly... I thought you'd wait for me to come all the way up to you."
   "I was really anxious to see if it was a success. And it wasn't pleasant to exist in, like, several billion pieces."
   "Oh, for a human, it must be awful."
   Lina rubbed her face and shook her head. She wanted to tell Xellos how happy she was with this outcome, but couldn't build up her strength. At the same time Xellos looked so smug it was obvious that he saw her feelings clearly.
   "Are you going to sleep now?" he suggested.
   "Sleep? No way! I need to shake this all off! No, I think it's time for you to introduce me to the manticores. It's the fifth night we're spending here, after all! And then I hope we'll get something for breakfast in the village. Come on!"
   She jumped up and stormed to the bathroom to change.
   Xellos sat on the floor for a few more moments, unconsciously rubbing at his solar plexus for no apparent reason since his core was absolutely intact. After all, his loyalty to Lina was almost the only thing he was sure of in the current situation. It was really no big deal for him to complete the vow, the more surprised he was at Lina's fear of losing him. It was a pleasant surprise though.
   An unpleasant one was that he never noticed she had a nightmare before she told him herself. Their bond was supposed to keep him aware of her emotional and physical state, and she wasn't supposed to know how to shield him off. It didn't seem like she wanted to shield him off actually! He tried thinking it over, but his thinking gear wasn't working too well this morning.
   Xellos got up, went out to the terrace and lit a cigarette. The importance of what he had done just dawned on him, and he couldn't yet wrap his mind around it. He was pretty sure he had never experienced what Lina meant by trust. Yet now he somehow knew how it felt -- to trust someone even when you don't know how that person feels. Also he suddenly knew there was one more kind of love. The one that is like glue, that sticks you to another person, and floods over both of you and engulfs you into one entity, into the `we' word. The kind of `we' that is much, much more than the simple sum of `I' and `you'.
   As Lina emerged out of the house, he blew smoke into her face, and she wrinkled her nose and slapped him, and grabbed his shoulder and pulled him at top speed down towards the village. And he finally was at ease with her.
   "Please keep your voice a little lower, Miss Lina," Xellos whispered. "I believe I mentioned that the locals are a little afraid of me. Really, there's no need to spook everyone right now."
   Lina nodded discarding the thought that Xellos was saving the villagers' fears for a later occasion. After all, she couldn't and wasn't going to prevent him from feeding.
   The two of them were walking hidden in the hedge higher than their heads and blooming with insane turquoise flowers. Finally Xellos stopped at an almost invisible gap in the hedge, crouched down and hissed, "Puss-puss-puss!" Lina snorted, covering her face with her hand.
   But then there was a faint rustling and a cat's head appeared from the hedge. It looked almost perfectly like an average cat, just about five times bigger. Xellos stretched out his hand and let the creature sniff it. It looked like his smell worked on the enormous cat like a drug -- it came out from the hedge in one jump and after quick rubbing against Xellos's legs stretched on the ground, padding the air with all four paws. It straddled its leather wings so as not to roll onto one side. The long and thick tail was curled into a ring and motionless.
   Lina watched in slight astonishment as Xellos started scratching the purring manticore's belly. She'd always imagined a manticore more lion-like and rather unattractive. Yet this fluffy large-eared kitty has won Lina's favour the instant it appeared.
   Xellos turned to her, "Hm, isn't she gorgeous?"
   "Uh-huh," Lina nodded, slightly lost.
   "Come, try," Xellos encouraged, so she knelt and stroked the silken fur. The manticore was three-coloured with red dominating over black and white.
   "Nah, Xellos," Lina said as the giant cat shifted a little, prompting her to scratch its snow-white throat. "Do you think we could take a kitten?"
   Xellos smiled, amused. "Love at the first sight, eh?" he chuckled and continued before Lina could retort, "We will need to take a kitten because manticores are the only chimeras who, once made by humans, managed to find their place in the wild nature. They are the perfect example of what we need to create."
   Lina didn't answer, engrossed in petting the cutest chimera in the world and, again, admiring just how far Xellos could think ahead.
   - -
   Lina and Xellos appeared on a side road just a few yards away from the main one. It had been two weeks since they parted from the rest of the group; it was time to meet with everyone once again. The two researchers exchanged the final knowing looks and started up the road.
   The weather was dreary and threatening to rain. Judging from the condition of the road, it had rained the whole night through; Lina thought she was so happy to have spent most of that night on the other side of the globe, playing with her manticore kitten.
   As soon as they stepped on the main road, they saw Zelgadiss and Amelia walking up to them from the left. Lina cheered up and waved her hand madly above her head. She heard Amelia say something to Zel and then they both came running.
   "Where are Mr. Gourry and Miss Sylphiel?" Amelia asked after the greetings.
   "They seem to prefer no more company than each other's lately," Xellos hummed. Lina noticed he seemed to enjoy this situation, although she couldn't come up with a single reason for that. She herself was still uncomfortable with how it all turned out, but her initial severe disappointment was fading away, and anyway she wasn't going to show anyone that she cared. So she just smirked with one side of her lips and shrugged as if saying that their childish behavior was of no concern to her.
   Lina was prepared to be moody today -- her emotions-reading ability was tuned to Zel. He didn't make her wait for bad temper.
   "For how long are you going to have him follow us around?" he said, glaring at Xellos, as the group started walking on.
   "He is following me, not you," Lina replied, pursing her lips.
   "Perhaps we should take different paths then," Zel said, and it took all of Lina's will not to agree immediately. Xellos and Amelia were trailing behind them engaged in careless chatter.
   "What's your problem with him?" Lina finally managed. "I thought you promised to trust him!"
   "I did, but I didn't promise to like him. And I really dislike the way you hang out with him all the time."
   "Oh, and why is that?"
   "His company won't do you any good."
   Lina bit her lip not to say something like `and yours surely will!' or `didn't you know what good Rezo's company would do you, Mr. Expert?' or any other hurtful thing. Of course, by now she wasn't angry just because she felt Zel's anger, but `hanging out' with Xellos had taught her that plunging into rage was not a way to achieve happiness. She almost smiled at the idea that it took a mazoku to teach her that.
   "I never thought you would care about my well-being so... aggressively," she said in a neutral tone.
   "Look, I'm just saying what everyone thinks!" Zelgadiss snapped suddenly. "You couldn't possibly have chosen a worse guy to have an affair with!"
   "A-affair?" Lina felt her eye twitching.
   "I understand it's not that," Zel added quickly. "But that's what it looks like. Really, Lina, that son of a bitch is going to ruin your reputation without you even noticing!"
   Lina gulped. She felt that Zel cared about her, even though his concern was weak compared to his hatred. Still, it was so insulting that he thought her incapable of defending herself from Xellos, and he assumed such things about her Xellos, that she almost cried. Almost. Perhaps Xellos's personality was really influencing her; anyway her reply wasn't the kind of thing she would usually say.
   "What if I am having an affair with him? What if I, hm-m, say, love him? What would you do then? Stop being my friend?"
   Zelgadiss started back, gasping.
   "Lina! That can't be true!" his astonishment was shattered against Lina's sarcastic stare. Behind them the two others fell silent, but Lina waved her hand telling Xellos that nothing serious was going on.
   Zel evened his pace, blushing a little. He felt like a fool, having taken Lina's teasing for the truth. Lina snickered.
   "Why would you ask me something like that?" he murmured.
   "Because you promised to trust him. That includes trusting him with my life and reputation. I know you only said that to show off, but that's how words work in this world."
   Zelgadiss gritted his teeth, but then Lina felt something tingling in his mind, something similar to a gleam in one's devious eyes.
   "Speaking of promises," he said flatly, "how soon are you going to demand a service from Xellos to cover for his life debt?"
   "Excuse me?" Lina blinked.
   "Well, if you are now such a good friend of his, you shouldn't make him wait for an opportunity to save your life. You know, they say, mazoku hate to be indebted. If you want to be nice to him, you should ask him to do a favor for you that would cancel his debt."
   Lina scratched the back of her head. What Zel had said made sense. She wasn't very good with all this honour-related stuff, it was guys' territory after all. She was also pretty sure Xellos wouldn't bring it up even if it was eating him. And he was so eager to do things for her...
   "That's a little complicated," she said finally. "You see, as my, er, minion, he is obliged to do anything for me anyway."
   "Perhaps," Zel made a pause, stressing the first word, "but it's the attitude that matters. If you think of some task as of a pay-back for the debt, and tell him so, then it would work."
   "Hm." Lina gave it some more thought. "What kind of task should it be? Are there any limitations?"
   "Well, first of all, it should be really important to you. Second, it should be troublesome for him. Better dangerous," Zel finished.
   Lina felt him smirk inwardly, even though his expression remained blank. It was Lina's turn to grit her teeth. Unfortunately she couldn't disregard Zel's information, because it was something she actually expected. She decided to make a point of consulting some uninterested source later, though.
   The houses started appearing on both sides of the road. First abandoned, wretched huts, then brightly painted and wealthy-looking mansions. The rain finally started, providing Zel with a good excuse to pull on his hood and mask. Lina kept her eyes on the right side of the road where there were more houses and occasionally a pedlar or two stood hiding from rain on the nearest porch. Finally she spotted one vendor with a bunch of brightly coloured reed umbrellas. She ran down to the elderly seller and bought two fancy ginghams for herself and Amelia, since the guys claimed they were fine.
   They had a hard time finding an inn with available tables and rooms. It looked like the rain shooed everyone inside. Finally they settled in a cafe, too hungry to continue the search of an overnight stop. After they made their orders, Xellos volunteered to go look for rooms while the rest of them ate. Lina followed him out to the summer terrace, empty due to the rain.
   "So?" she urged.
   "She is perfectly happy with the idea." Xellos smiled. "I told her the right spells and she came up with one more. I think it's going to go smoothly."
   "Great! I'll just keep her busy so that she wouldn't give us away." Lina felt excited with what was going to come. The rain began to pour. "You sure you want to go knocking at doors right now?"
   "I don't care, honestly," Xellos said, rubbing his arm through his sopping sleeve.
   "They won't let you in unless you look presentably. Here, you can stand under my umbrella."
   Xellos took the bright orange thing, making sure that his fingers brushed over Lina's hand. He lingered a couple of moments holding the umbrella over both of them and then vanished.
   Zel and Amelia who were sitting at the table inside could watch the scene through an enormous terrace window.
   "Isn't it sweet, Zelgadiss-san?" Amelia said dreamily. "Sharing an umbrella is such a romantic gesture. My great-aunt told me in her times it was only an engaged couple who could walk under the same umbrella together..."
   Zel growled under his breath.
   - -
   Xellos found a hut for rent, which suited their plans much better than rooms in an overcrowded inn. Lina kept her hand in her pocket, fingering the ring nervously. The ring was that very same ring Xellos asked her permission to take from the cursed treasure. This time, though, she herself made sure that there was no magic to it. Xellos turned out to own a very similar one, just a little bigger. He said he used to know the ancient goldsmith who made both ones. The pair was designed to channel energy between the users so that a very special magical field could be created. That was exactly what the pair of plotters needed to keep Zelgadiss in place and catalyze the merging process.
   If Lina was nervous and excited, it came a poor second to Amelia's state. The princess was shaky and jumpy, and her voice, normally rather high-pitched, was slipping into scream every now and then. Lina advised her not to talk so much, but that was pretty useless. Amelia loved the idea that she could help her precious Chimera make his dream come true. She wasn't happy about the necessity to keep it a secret from him that his cure was found. Yet she understood that Zelgadiss was too proud to let anyone help him become human once again. He would certainly never tolerate Xellos meddling with his body. There was a chance that he would forgive Amelia, though. Such a blue-eyed, naОve and cute little thing she was, that it would take more than stone skin to protect Zelgadiss's heart from melting.
   So that's how Xellos had put it to her. She would stand in front of Zelgadiss and chant healing spells without breaking the eye-contact, to ensure that the transformation didn't hurt too much. After all, it seemed that pain was the only thing Zelgadiss remembered from the time Rezo turned him into a chimera.
   Amelia couldn't keep it in herself, so much she was looking forward to playing her role. Just to think of it, she would be the one to calm Mr. Zelgadiss's pain, and she would get to stare into his eyes for the whole time! It was like the show was finally about her, excluding anyone else. Even if afterwards Mr. Zelgadiss was having a hard time accepting the fact that she helped him, she couldn't care less. After being a star the way she imagined it, she was ready to confess her love for him right away, and let the losers care about etiquette.
   - -
   Xellos moved the last chair out of the living-room as Lina finished drawing magical signs on the floor. He eyed her work and corrected a couple of shaky lines, ignoring the faces Lina made at him. He was used to work with perfect preparations. Then they heard Amelia knocking into Zel's door and asking in a trembling voice if he could join her in the living-room for a talk. Xellos cast a slight invisibility charm over both Lina and himself, and they moved to take their places. It was not too hard to become invisible in the dark room.
   Zelgadiss stomped into the middle of the room, obviously annoyed.
   "Don't tell me it's Lina and Xellos you want to talk to me about!" he said, turning on the heels of his slippers. Amelia mumbled something about that her sleeve had caught onto the door handle, and that was when Xellos activated the rings.
   Lina had completely forgotten that she was still open to Zel's emotions. The first few seconds she was absolutely overwhelmed by his surprise and frustration, his desire to escape the shining mandala in the middle of which he was standing, caught by luminous chains that emerged from Lina and Xellos's rings. There was too much light right after pitch darkness, and that didn't help Lina concentrate either. She missed a couple of quatrains of the spell they composed together with Xellos for this transfiguration. That was already bad enough, but at least she heard Xellos chanting and managed to catch up. But then she was almost bent down by fierce pain that Zel was experiencing, and so she guessed Amelia must have got disoriented as well. For a few moments, which seemed to last eternity though, she could only growl the incantation trough her gritted teeth. Then she heard Amelia's frightened scream `Recovery!' and the pain subsided.
   Just in time. The preliminary incantation was over and they needed to move. Now she saw that Zel was kneeling and Amelia was gripping his hands, weaving a chain of healing spells, one after another, link after link, as many as she knew, and then from the beginning, in cycles. Lina's head was slowly filling with cottonwool-thick mist. She shook her head and found her way across the glowing pattern on the floor to a small circle at Zel's left. She noticed that Xellos was already at his right, waiting for her. She concentrated on his image, not letting her mind slip into the protective cocoon Amelia was making for Zel. `Xellos, Xellos, Xellos,' she repeated inwardly. `It's Xellos who matters, I need to synchronize with him. Xellos, Xellos, Xellos, Xellos...'
   It worked. She spread her arms, took a deep breath and cast two rays of pure blue light directing them into the centre of Zel's chest -- one from the front and the other from behind. At the same time Xellos cast two equal dirty-brown ones. They have exercised that move so many times with fruitflies, there could be no miss.
   `Xellos-Xellos-XellosXellosXellosxellosxellosxellos!' she gibbered madly, clutching at the straw, not to drown in the sickening vortex of Zel's feelings. Even with all the concentration she was still experiencing the changes in him. She felt his skin melting and being absorbed into flesh, blood flooding the previously stone veins, the brau-demon spirit fighting over the place in the heart with the human soul. She felt his nails soften and the stones on his chin turning into scrub.
   "Lina! Release!" she heard Xellos scream in whisper. She dropped the spell instantly and almost jumped back. She heard Amelia's tearful chanting -- it seemed, after all, that the princess didn't possess the required amount of power...
   "Shall I join her?" she whispered, feeling her head swim. She shook it to get rid of Zel's feelings, but it just became worse. Then she understood that it was her who was drenched and barely standing, not Zel.
   "You can't!" came Xellos's answer, but she already knew that she couldn't.
   Xellos disactivated the rings -- Zelgadiss wasn't going to run away anymore, so there was no need to waste extra power. The merging was done, they just needed to cast the final, sealing spell, but Xellos knew that Amelia wouldn't last long enough. And without her Lina would be overwhelmed by Zelgadiss's pain and wouldn't be able to chant. How could he make such a mistake, how could he forget that Lina was still emotionally bound to this stupid stone git!? Oh how he hated himself for it! And didn't the elders say that love was bad for thinking? He should have remembered to switch her emotions-reading ability to any citizen instead of recalling the feeling of her hot hand all the evening long...
   "Xellos! He's going to die like this! They both are!!"
   Right. He will chastise himself later.
   "I'll pull Amelia out of it."
   "But what to do with Zel!?"
   So desperate.
   "Do you have a plan B? You do, right?"
   So much hope in the voice.
   "You always have!!"
   Such confidence.
   There's no way he could let the damn chimera die now. But should he try to switch Lina to any other person, she'd lose concentration and the bloke would surely die, because that man would do anything to spoil Xellos's life, wouldn't he...?
   "Sure. You finish the sealing spell alone, I will take care of him."
   "Huh? How!? Well, if you say..."
   And she started the incantation, ignoring Amelia's moans from the corner where Xellos had pushed her to break the link.
   `Healing spells are formed with the kind of love when you wish to give away all the joy you had in life, as a gift...'
   He was doing it for Lina. For his Lina. For Lina to become his. Whatever... If there was a way to get her to trust him this was it. To prove. To explain without words. Forget the words.
   Remember her hands, since you wasted so much time memorizing their touch. Remember her flushed face with water streaming along her temples and dripping from the tip of her snubby nose. Her glittering joyful eyes and wet-stuck eyelashes. Her piercing voice and subtle body with the enormous, inhuman power hidden within. Her intelligence. Her decisiveness. Her never exhausting energy...
   His hands hurt like hell, although most likely it was his whole body, but he couldn't tell. He thought he made a tiny sound, but probably it was a loud scream, he just couldn't hear. It felt like death itself came to torture him the last time. There was no way he could manage this...
   "Xellos! Damn you, crazy bastard! It's working!! Please, please, please, you can do it! If anything could account for your frigging debt, that would be it!!"
   Well, perhaps, he could manage this after all.
   - -
   Lina tried to open her eyes, but she found that she was lying face-down on something soft that smelled of Xellos. Most likely, Xellos himself. She gathered the remaining strength and pushed up. Right, Xellos that was. And the living-room floor. And dawn.
   She looked around to see the gone-out mandala pattern on the floor, partly erased by feet and knees. At the far wall Amelia seemed to be fast asleep. Right in front of her, spread out on the floor... well, had to be Zel. His skin was pale with pinkish spots that looked like sun-burns. That must have happened when his skin was changing... Lina shivered at the memory. Humans are very earthly creatures, after all. Even such a purely spiritual thing as reading emotions turned into co-living physical experiences when it was applied to humans. And all the emotions got lost in pain and sickness.
   Though, maybe, not all of them. After some digging Lina managed to recall gratitude and hope that she felt during most part of the ritual. That was to Amelia for pain-killer spells. There was fear, too, when Amelia exhausted her powers so recklessly. And then the sweet feeling of life being poured in. Of health and joy and... Funny, it looked like Zel thought it was Amelia who took him through the final part of the transformation. Lina remembered very well how he felt that his inner eyes suddenly opened, how he saw Amelia in such a different way all at once...
   Lina blushed from the effort of recalling and the fact that she was peeking into her friend's private emotions. She shouldn't be here when he comes to. Amelia will take care of him.
   And Lina needed to take care of someone else, still motionless face-down on the floor. Her mind quickly supplied her with an image from the not so ancient past; Lina really hoped she wouldn't have to save his life once more. She turned him by the shoulder and pulled his upper body onto her lap, nervously stroking his forehead. Xellos was so light it felt like she covered her knees with a thick blanket; only he wasn't warm. Lina bent down to whisper his name into his ear, unwilling to wake the others yet. She was still dizzy and stiff from yesterday's activities and a night on the floor. Since Xellos gave no response, she put her arms under his and dragged him outside into the early morning sunlight.
   "Xellos! Oi, Xellos!" she called, staring into his blank pale face. "Bloody hell." She giggled hysterically, realizing she had no idea what to do. She was on the edge of screaming for help, the only reason that kept her from doing so being that it was unlikely to find anyone in the neighbourhood who knew how to revive a high-level mazoku who had attempted healing... Most likely the locals would finish him off and throw her out of the city. She needed someone who could understand how much Xellos's well-being mattered to her, someone who would notice how sticky her shirt had become on the back from cold sweat. Her friends... two of them still unconscious, the other two nowhere near, probably fast asleep after an eventful night... And even if any of them was at her side right now, they wouldn't know what to do any better than she did. And they wouldn't care.
   As wouldn't Filia or any other Dragons. Or healers, or priests. Lina was all alone in her misery, desperately hugging her demon's limp body, praying to L-sama for his life. She absently rubbed her nose only to find she was weeping. She felt broke and drained and she knew she couldn't for the love of Ceiphied repeat the ritual that initiated her relationship with Xellos. She sobbed and pecked his forehead and then his lips, leaving a wet trace and wishing the fairy-tales to come true. But they wouldn't, not for one little lost genius sorceress. She hugged him, sobbing loudly. It turned out Xellos had enough love in him to sooth Zelgadiss's pain, with all the hatred between them. How come Lina couldn't muster enough to wake up her precious treasure, her ancient guarding spirit?
   She continued stroking him nervously, recollecting all the instances when he made her feel warm inside. His unsure expression when he tasted the strawberry from the hot-chocolate mug, his astonishment that she was eager to take the responsibility for him... Much good it did him in the end... It turned out, his peers had good reason to laugh at him, after all. He's got a mistress who forced him into healing and couldn't help him recover. Lina bit her lip in shame. She was, probably, less knowledged than his lowest-ranked subordinate. And she never even thought to ask...
   Something along this silent blameful speech made her pause and think back. Subordinate... Xellos had a faithful subordinate... What was he...
   "LANTZ!" she screamed into the sky at the top of her lungs. "LAAAAAANTZ!!"
   One, two, three -- and the miracle happened. He appeared. He looked surprised and opened his mouth to speak, but then halted, having taken Xellos into view.
   "He's attempted healing!" she breathed out through sobs, tears blurring her vision. "What on Earth am I to do!!"
   Lantz made an unintelligible sound, then quickly looked around to see people peeking out of their windows, disturbed by Lina's screams.
   "This is no place for this," he murmured, squeezing Lina's shoulder with what seemed like iron fingers.
   She was thrown into the Astral Plane, she recognized it from their journeys with Xellos. She saw (or rather just felt) his Astral body all around her, like before, only now it wasn't tightly wrapped to prevent her from damage, but spilt in space inanimately. The spot that was Lantz carrying them both seemed just a tiny speck on the vast surface of this ocean. Lina knew he was having a really hard time propelling them to such a far destination.
   "Wait! Stop here!" she said, although it didn't come out as words, more like just some impulse. She received a return impulse with a clear question in it. She couldn't for the love of Xellos explain what she was up to, especially by weird means of communicating in the Astral Plane and to a mazoku whom she didn't know at all. She only had a vague idea that Xellos was more at home in the Astral Plane than in the Physical one, so if something was to be done, it was to be done here.
   She did her damnedest to ignore the awkward surroundings and Lantz's suspicious attention and tried to concentrate as if for a major spell. She recalled the sensations from the time Xellos shifted her emotions-feeling ability from Gourry to Sylphiel, then to Amelia and, finally, Zel. The spectrum of emotions was different each time, yet there was something in common when the shifting occurred. Even here, in the world of auras and shadows, she felt dizzy as she forced her own Astral body to encompass Xellos's core and link to it, fiercely crushing into his inner space. What she felt after that she then described as `when you're transfigured into a stone in the desert. Not just dead, but never having been alive, yet having seen myriads of others pass away...' At first she thought she completed one rite too many for the last week. But then she figured the dreadful feeling she's got was coming from Xellos. She also noticed he hurt all over. It didn't seem like he was going to die the next minute, yet, he showed no sign of so much as willing to recover.
   Lina bent down (at least that was what she imagined she did) to his very core and slid inside along the link she had established earlier. She felt her surroundings throb a couple of times randomly, then gradually the pulsation grew to resonate her own heartbeat. To think she still had a heart in this state!
   "Xellos!" she called softly, and this time the impulse radiated from her in every direction, and she felt him react to her for the first time today. Weekly, almost reluctantly, but still.
   "Xellos," she took a deep breath of something that played the part of air around here. "Come back to me. I need you."
   "So?" came the rustling reply, inaudible it made her shiver with his coldness. Right, it was her fault that he was so badly hurt. He was rescuing her friend whom he resented. She had to go all out to win his respect back.
   "So I... I will grant you with all the power I have!"
   She felt a sad chuckle on her back and thought her sweet turned into hoarfrost.
   "Xellos, I will never force you to do anything you don't like!"
   "No, you won't, if I stay here."
   She noticed he was feeding on her despair and in some crazy way that gave her hope.
   "I'm nothing without you!" she shouted, sinking lower in her angst. "I was never any good actually, and my sister was quite right that I shouldn't have any friends, because I only bring pain and death to them, even when I want to help!" She felt very real sobs shake her Astral body; Xellos's core shrank a little to encircle her closer, absorbing every bit of her humiliation. She went on. "You know, you were the only one who was nice to me, ever. The only one who truly cared. And this is how I thanked you! I should have idolized you for agreeing to stick with me at all, but instead I was arrogant enough to expect more! I was so desperate knowing that no one would ever want me as a woman... I know you'd never feel anything other than disgust to me, even if I told you I loved you, you'd just laugh at me, especially since you'd know at once it was true..."
   The world turned upside down. Lina shook her head, not even trying to recollect what nonsense she just spoke to provide Xellos with the negative emotions essential to his recovery. Cautiously, she opened her eyes.
   She was in Xellos's house, in the living-room, sitting on the carpet, her back against the sofa. She felt shaken and her cheeks were wet, but on the whole she was fine.
   Two muffled voices were coming from the kitchen. One was talking very quickly and anxiously, the other interrupted every now and then with short questions. The sound of it filled her with joy as she recognized Xellos. She sighed with relief, but for some reason it came out as a moan, and the voices died down instantly. The next moment she was staring into Xellos's wide-open eyes.
   A warm tide of concern and care washed over her as he came close, and then it grew hot with desire and passion and...
   "Oh bloody hell," she managed weakly. And this man had the guts to tell her she wouldn't recognize his emotions at the first touch! Well, may be back then she wouldn't have, since he was doing a good job concealing his intensions. But now that he was holding her shoulders with fear and joy clearly written across his face, she could hardly believe there was a time when he didn't love her.
   "Here," he said, pushing a cold glass into her hand. "Drink. You must be thirsty."
   She drank without thinking, still floating in the ardent-hot stream of his love, its surface golden from the brightest sun she's ever seen. The cold water seemed boiling to her as she gulped it down hastily, as if her life depended on it.
   "Lina, are you hurt? You look pale. What have you done to yourself? Lina, talk to me!"
   "I'm fine," she murmured, annoyed. Wasn't he feeling her? Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Lantz who looked as if he had just shattered his mother's favourite vase. Lina snorted. They thought she was feeling bad. But she was feeling good! As good as ever!
   "Can't you feel me?" she asked softly.
   "No! You closed up completely. I can't break through your emotional shields!" he sounded hysterical.
   "Oh," Lina was surprised. She didn't mean to close up. She furrowed her brow, trying hard to relax and smiled at the paradox. And then she saw Xellos's eyes widen even more so that now whites were everywhere around the irises. It must have meant he finally felt her.
   They were staring at each other for several eternities until Xellos hoarsely whispered, "So it was true?" and kissed her without even giving her a chance to answer.
   - -
   They were walking hand-in-hand beneath the shadow of the orchard, bowing to low branches and carefully pushing away the vines like curtains in an oriental shop. It was a hot day of early June, and Lina could barely breath from the heat and the exotic flower aromas and the mesmerizing sensation of Xellos's love flowing into her and her own flowing out. Their manticore, still the size of a squirrel, was flapping clumsily around in pursue of a huge butterfly.
   Lina buried her nose into Xellos's shoulder, trying to get away from all the smells but his.
   "How come you smell of leaf-litter in early summer?" she exclaimed, suddenly remembering one windy night several weeks ago and the terrace floor paved with brown leaves.
   "Ah. You must see it."
   "See what?"
   "Come on, here starts a path down the northern side of the hill."
   The orchard turned into a park of oaks, ashes and blackthorn (those were, according to Xellos, the worshipped plants of the region), then into a pine-wood, and then, Lina had to cover her eyes with her hand as everything around her turned golden, blinding light radiating from every tree. She rubbed her eyes and finally managed to make out the weeping birches with leaves the colour of evening sunbeam. It smelled of autumn here, and the floor was covered with withered leaves like old copper coins. Xellos still pulled her ahead and soon she felt a salty breeze and they came out on a sea shore.
   Xellos sat onto soft dry moss beneath a fat crooked birch and tapped his hand near him, suggesting Lina to join him.
   "What is this place?"
   "The locals call it The Ever-Fall Forest. The legend says there was a mountain-spirit who lived nearby, whom the villagers worshipped. During the long and snowy winters that are usual here they would sometimes bake breads and pack nuts and dried meat and take the offering to the nearest mountain plateau. And he would make sure the mountains held off winds in summer. And so it went for many generations until he happened to fall in love with a girl from the village. She used to come here to pick flowers, for this was the place where the most beautiful flowers of this land could all be found. So once he gathered a gigantic bunch of flowers and appeared before her and declared his love. But she wasn't listening, so much she was outraged by the way he tore the plants out of the ground, stumps of roots and crushed leaves sticking in all directions. She yelled at him for ruining the poor flowers, called him names and said she would never contribute to another offering. And then she left. The mountain spirit was so frustrated that he wanted to curse the forest so that no flowers ever bloomed in it again, but the soil here is so mighty and fruitful that it took all of his powers to complete the curse, and thus he died. So now it is always autumn here, nothing moves and nothing grows. The villagers are afraid to come here, but I like it. I like sad beauty."
   "Dear me, Xellos," Lina breathed. "You know so many of those fantastic legends... I wish I could just sit here forever and listen to you telling them."
   He pulled her closer.
   "That's fine by me, if we're going to alternate the stories with some other activity," he smiled playfully.
   "You simply have to pull me down from the clouds, don't you?" Lina growled.
   "But darling, I've waited whole three years to kiss you! Have some sympathy! I understand you haven't yet so much as felt jealousy, but I--"
   "Actually, I have."
   "It took me some time to figure it out, but... Remember how my eyes and hands burned?"
   "Well, I didn't realize it back then, but now I know it was jealousy."
   "Huh!? So self-destructive?"
   "Well, jealousy is always self-destructive... But you'd better not give me any reason."
   "Oh, pet..."
   He lay down on his back and pulled her on top of him, hugging almost desperately. Lina laughed and blushed at his concern and kissed him long and cozy, speeding up the whirl of their mutual feelings. She pulled away to do her favorite thing -- kiss and bite him on the neck, so sweet and vulnerable. She couldn't decide if she liked it or not that there were no marks left on his skin afterwards. She licked the bitten spot, but Xellos wasn't letting her to get too excited -- he tickled her ribs and she squirmed, giggling. As she moved her lips up to his ear something cold came in her way. She drew back immediately and then snorted.
   "No flowers, you said?"
   "Hmm?" Xellos turned his head to see what she was looking at.
   There, just a few inches high, fragile but firm, stood a tiny pale-violet crocus with a bright orange pistil.

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