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Who Said It Would Be Easy?

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  • Аннотация:
    The Golden Dragons still consider Ancients a threat, even if there's only one left. They decide to get rid of him for good. Surprisingly, Xellos is the only one who cares. But he can't raise a child alone, can he? Xel's POV. Neglect, mild abuse, LX. To be continued.

   Title: Who said it would be easy?
   Category: Anime/Manga " Slayers
   Author: Kikimora
   Language: English, Rating: Rated: T
   Genre: Hurt/Comfort/Romance
   Published: 10-05-09, Updated: 12-06-09
   Chapters: 13, Words: 55,829
   Chapter 1: Chapter 1
   I know I read too many Harry Potter fanfics, especially those Sevitus and Severitus ones with the Abusive!Dursleys warning. But then, I think, making stories travel across fandoms is not a bad idea.
   Here be SPOILERS for my latest Slayers fic in RUSSIAN: since I don't believe that I (or anyone else) will ever translate my epic "Evil Stepmother" into English, I bravely use the main ideas from it in this new, (hopefully) shorter fic. (By main ideas I mean 'Xellos gets Lina to babysit Val' and his reasons for it, not the 'Ancient Dragon resurrection', not the 'tragedy of the Seven Dews city' and not the part where Lina learns Mazoku language ^___^ ). This doesn't mean ES isn't going to be finished, it's just that sometimes I need a change of perspective (and language).
   Then, this fanfic is an experiment for me, and not just once, but twice: I have never tried a POV fic, and I'm writing in the Present tense. I do that not just to make my own life harder, but because a story in 1st person (IMHO) needs a good reason for being told in the Past tense (like being a diary, memoirs, a statement in a legal process, etc), otherwise it doesn't work for me. In present, though, it can be attributed to some kind of mind-reading. ^___^;
   Aaaand finally, a WARNING to Filia-fans... Well, I really tried to make it easier for you, but still, you'll find that Filia here is less than nice. She has some excuses for being so, and anyway she's much better than in ES where she, frankly speaking, goes nuts because of being forced to raise a person she's once killed... still, you might want to skip some passages. ^__^
   I made it. Just a second before it is too late, I made it. They are all there; gigantic crowds, myriads of loathing eyes. All trained on the boy, small and calm with resignation. A brave little one he is, isn't he? That's an odd feeling that I get when thinking of him this way - as if something inside me shrinks leaving a vacuum.
   Those thoughts cross my mind as I rip the air to get to him, grab him and vanish before he even has time to be startled.
   I found out about today's planned event, surprisingly, from Milgasia. The Elder turned out to be the only one with a hint of dignity. He tried to stand up for the boy, but as the other two Elders were in majority, he was locked up in his own house until the sentence was carried out. It was from imprisonment that he managed to communicate their plans to me through Astral. He demanded that I did not hurt anyone, of course, but still it was a desperate gesture on his behalf. I think, he was actually quite surprised that I even considered saving the child. I told him, of course, that L-sama obviously wanted the last Ancient Dragon to live, and I couldn't just ignore her wishes. I don't think I convinced him, though. I wouldn't have been convinced in his shoes.
   What was even worse, Filia did not object. She was there, I noticed her, standing by the wall, all solemn and pale. But silent. Most likely, they gave her a thorough brainwash, otherwise she would have fought tooth and claw for her hatchling. She can be almost as fierce as Lina when it comes to defending someone or something she cares about. Just to think of all those times she found me in the house with Valteria... Oh yes, the latest blows still hurt. But, unlike Lina, Filia sometimes can't tell good from evil that easily. She tends to obey authority too much. Especially since that last time she stood up to her Elder he got killed along with her whole people. That must have given her quite a scare... I can't really blame her for not protecting her ward. She is alone against the world, young, gentle and doesn't do sublte. After all, not everyone has to be as foolhardy as I am.
   That is what my Mistress has made abundantly clear after the latest confrontation with Rezo, the Red Priest. Should've watched from afar, she said. Should've let Lina handle it on her own, she said. Shouldn't have wasted power or get wounded, she said. I nodded like a bobblehead, and apologised, all the way knowing perfectly well that there was no chance I'd have stayed away while Lina was getting hurt. It's Lina we're talking about, after all. Of course, Mistress doesn't know anything yet, but I will soon have to tell her. I have almost finished rearranging and distributing my duties. Maybe in a couple months I will be free. Too bad the Dragons couldn't wait to attempt Valteria's execution until then. Now I'll have to find a safe place for him to stay while I'm still busy.
   Coming out of my reverie I notice that the child in my arms is terrified out of senses. I put him gently to the ground while still keeping my hands on his shoulders - I don't need him to dart away at this point.
   "Val", I say in my best soothing voice, "you're safe now. No one will hurt you."
   He is shaking and breathing heavily, poor thing. I rub his arm a little and he gives a start. He is really tiny, even for his five years. His hair turned out red this time, not teal, but he's still got those mesmerising golden eyes, like faery lanterns.
   "Hush", I say. "I will not harm you. You will be all right."
   "N-no", he finally masters some voice; and I hate the next thing he says. "You are an enemy! Let me go!"
   I stifle a sigh.
   "I know you were told all kinds of things about me", I say calmly, "but look at those who did it. They were trying to kill you a minute ago. Don't you think if they turned out to be bad, then I may turn out to be good?"
   He shakes his head with terrifying confidence.
   "No. It's just that I am bad, too. You should have let them kill me."
   I unwittingly tighten my grip on his shoulders, fighting hard to keep my face staright. No need to scare him further. But what a bloody thing to say! Clearly, they didn't just brainwash Filia. I open my mouth to tell him that, of course, he is good, only to realise that there is no way in the world that he'll believe me. Who would've thought the Dragons could screw him up so badly...
   "Listen, Val", I finally manage, "what do you think of humans?"
   He frowns, clearly disliking my change of topic.
   "They are OK", he says after a moment.
   "Which means... they are good?.." I supply.
   "Uh", he nods.
   "How about... I leave you with some humans. They watch you and find out all kinds of stuff about you and then they decide if you're good or bad?"
   "But the Dragons've already decided I'm bad", he says looking down.
   I expected it.
   "Yes, but I say you're good. And right now it's their opinion against mine. So we need a third opinion to settle it. See?"
   I hope he can understand me. He gives me an appraising look.
   "Okay", he finally says. "If the humans don't mind..."
   I stifle a sigh again. Either he's seen my point or he's still got some self-preservation instinct, anyway, looks like he isn't going to run back to the Dragon lair yet. Good. Now I only have to convince the "humans".
   Lina owns a house in Sailune suburbs. She doesn't spend much time there, though, as she is on the road nine months a year, but she's bought the property anyway and even applied for citizenship - although I think it has more to do with the recently instated stipends for unemployed than with anything else.
   Thankfully, she seems to be at home, even though it is now mid-summer. I wish I could talk to her in private before bringing Val, but I have no place to leave him; and something tells me it won't help building up his trust for me if I asked him to have a walk in the garden while I go through things with Lina.
   So here he is, diligently trudging alongside me, two of my fingers firmly clasped in his small hand. I feel that funny shrinking thing again. I knock at the door.
   "C'min!" she welcomes in her high-pitched voice, and Val startles again. He must be horribly distressed to react so painfully to everything.
   "Lina-san, could you please show yourself?" I ask as we enter the sitting-room finding it empty.
   She runs down the staircase in a clatter of heels against polished wood.
   "Oh, Xellos, that's you!"
   "Yes, and this is Valteria", I say before she can voice a guess. I watch her closely.
   "Hello", she says, smiling in an unsure fashion. "How are you doing?"
   Val stays silent for a second, but I feel him tense, and his face adopts an odd expression akin to grief.
   "I am fine, thank you, Madam", he says quietly.
   "Good!" Lina concludes cheerfully, and then turns to me. "So what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"
   I decide that there is no reason to put off telling her. She will throw a tantrum anyway, and probably hurt Val's feelings, but at least, if I am straightfoward, she will take him in.
   "I was wondering, if perhaps you could put him up for a time being", I say matter-of-factly.
   "WHAT?" predictably, Lina is surprised out of her wits. I repeat my request.
   "Wa- wa- wait," she finally manages. "Why me? Why him? Why YOU? Where's Filia, dammit?"
   I start calmly answering her questions one by one.
   "You - because there aren't many people in the world that I can entrust with a child. Him - because being among Dragons is dangerous for him at the moment. And Filia was at the Earth Dragon King Temple just a few minutes ago, but she is a little bit confused about what is to be done with Val from now on."
   "And how is he -" she points a firm finger at Val, "your business?"
   I cringe a little at her gesture, but Val doesn't seem to be disheartened by it. I don't want to outright lie to her, but telling the truth isn't even in question, so let's compromise.
   "Actually, Milgasia saw it fit to ask me to take care of him."
   "Oh really?" Lina appeares scornful, but I can tell she is surprised. "I should say I thought better of him."
   "You can think of him even better still", I inform her looking forward to her reaction to what I am going to say next. "You see, the Goldens were going to execute the boy."
   Lina blinks.
   "You mean, kill him?"
   "Yes, although... in front of so many people who clearly knew what was going to happen and were quite happy with the idea... I should say that's called execution."
   "But what for?!" she exclaims, and I her voice adops a slightly hysterical pitch.
   "No idea. Why don't we ask the accused? Ne, Val, why do you think they wanted to kill you?"
   "Because I am bad", he supplies flatly. "I will grow up and kill them all."
   Unlike myself, Lina doesn't even try to keep her face straight, and Val actually takes a step back. I take care not to tighten my grip on his hand: I don't want him to feel trapped.
   Finally, she speaks, and her barely audible words lift the weight that was threatening to bury me alive.
   "He's staying here, then."
   I nod, not trusting myself to speak in case something I say might make her reconsider. She looks at me appraisingly, just as Val had.
   "Why do you care about what happens to him?" she asks.
   "Oh, but that is, of course, a secret," I beam, ignoring the metaphorical cold sweat on my metaphorical back.
   She chuckles.
   "I see. Good. That means, it's a prominent reason, at least."
   When did she learn to read me? She hasn't finished talking to me, though.
   "The Dragons will be a pain in the ass. I suggest that you leave me some means of communicating with you, just in case there is an urgent situation."
   I pretend to be a little reluctant.
   "Uh, all right, I'll think of something."
   She glares, which means I was convincing.
   "Okay, Val, let's go get you settled in," she says cheerfully, reaching out to the child. He doesn't even twitch. Lina turns to me once more,
   "Well, Xellos, what are you still doing here? Get out!"
   "Eh, sure", I mumble and vanish, but I don't actually 'get out'. I want to see for myself how things are going to develop from this point.
   Chapter 2: Chapter 2
   "Sssso," Lina turnes her full attention to Val. "You must be starving. I was just going to make breakfast. Let's see what we have here."
   She marches off to the kitchen and becons him to follow. I move ahead to find a place with the best view - I haven't been to Lina's kitchen yet.
   And, oh, it's large indeed. Looks like she's turned half of the ground floor into the kitchen. Well, nothing to be surprised at, really... Anyway, here they come.
   "...porridge still or do you think it's childish?" Lina is saying.
   "As you say, Madam," he answers quetly. Lina shrugs.
   "I guess, you need time to get used to me. I'll just put everything on the table and you eat whatever suits you."
   Lina starts loading the table with foods: a bowl of cereal, milk, remnants of yesterday's pudding, yoghurt, a pie, some cakes and cookies, and finally something yellow and rectangular that I can only guess was made of eggs. She then proceeds to put a sauce-pan on the stove to boil the milk for porridge.
   Val watches her uninterested. From my observation point on the windowsill I can only see his head over a chair, but I know that he is standing perfectly still, just like during my talk with Lina earlier.
   Lina comes over to him and eyes the nearest chair sceptically. She goes out of the kitchen and soon returns with a fat pillow.
   "I didn't touch anything!" Val says quickly as soon as she enters. I am confused. She didn't accuse him of anything, did she? Or is it one of those odd behaviour patterns specific to children which I have no way of understanding?
   Lina frowns, though.
   "I didn't think you would," she says with a stress, as if trying to make a point. Are they using some code language? Do they know I'm here? Now, now, Xellos, old nutter, stop being so pathetically paranoid.
   Lina puts the pillow onto the chair, then very quickly lifts Val and sets him on top of it.
   "Go ahead and eat," she orders rather sternly. I have little idea of how one should speak to children, but her manner seems kind of discouraging. I wonder if it would be too bold of me to mention it to her?..
   Val obeys just like the good boy that he is. He actually starts with the unappetising egg-mass, which makes me wonder if that is some kind of rare delicacy. Lina's frown deepen. Oh, honestly, Lina-san, can't you let the child have a tasty morsel?
   Looking as if she's got a toothache, Lina laddles some porridge into a small bowl, then adds some chopped fruit and puts the whole thing in front of Val who has just finished his egg-jelly.
   He raises his head, eyes still trained on the empty saucer.
   "Eat this too," Lina says firmly.
   "But the-" Val starts saying, but breaks off at Lina's glare. "Thank you, Madam."
   Lina turns back to the stove to load her own bowl, and I am surprised to see the almost tearful look on her face. I feel rage building up in me. Is it so bloody hard for her to take care of one small child? He behaves better than most adults I know! I am definitely having a talk with her later. What kind of attitude is she exercising towards my Val? Hasn't he been through enough already!?
   They eat in silence. I relax a little bit seeing that at least she's making an effort to show some table manners, although it stands no comparison to Val's immaculate movements. Dragons train their young well in that aspect, at least. She is, predictably, the first one to finish, so she has time to make some hot chocolate while he's still busy with this sticky whitish substance they call 'porridge'. I am quite ready to indulge into reminiscenting over 'those amusing humans' when I notice that Lina is lacing Val's drink with someting.
   I check myself before I can kill her in outrage. Silently, I glide to the cupboard where she has put the bottle with whatever poison she's put into Val's cup. Luckily he hasn't even noticed the drink yet, so I still have a few seconds to find out the extent of her crime.
   It turns out to be a mild calming potion. I think I have never been more confused in my life. What on earth does she need to feed this boy a calming potion for? He is perfectly calm! I move over to his side and sniff at the drink. No mistake there, it's the same potion. What the hell is going on here?
   Once they are finished, Lina stretches and smiles broadly. Right, she is supposed to get into a better mood after eating her full.
   "So, Val. I suggest we spend the day this way: first, I'll show you the free rooms in the house and you'll choose the one that'll be yours. Then we'll go to the market to get some clothes and other stuff for you. Then we'll have lunch, get you settled in and... well, an early night is in order, seeing that you haven't quite rested this night. Are you OK with this plan?"
   Val lookes confused for a second, but then blinks it off and nods. I weigh it up and decide that visiting Filia's house at this point is really not the best idea, which is a pity because Valteria has surely left lots of things there that he would miss. And the sodding Dragoness will, most likely, dispose of everything soon. Ah, well, I guess, I'll just have to buy him some new toys. And maybe even support Lina financially, since she doesn't seem to have a job right now, and I know all too well how stingy she can be. That is, of course, if she manages to overcome her displeasure at Val's presence in her life. I am not paying her for glaring and ordering him around!
   Lina offers him a hand to hold on to, and leads him upstairs where there are several unoccupied rooms. I have no idea why she had to buy such a huge house if she is rarely at home at all, and I doubt her hospitality usually extends any longer than for a couple of nights.
   I follow them and then hover over the staircase while they open one door after another. For some reason, Lina insists that they actually come into every single room and explore it thoroughly, although surely Val can make his choice from just a glance! They spend a whole hour doing so, and I'm getting extremely irritated. Finally they emerge from the last room and stop right in front of me (which, again, gives me an impression that my cover is blown). Lina motions Val to turn to her, and crouches down to look him in the face.
   "So. Which one?"
   Val gives her another confused look, but quickly drops his gaze and says, quietly, but distinctly,
   "The first one to the left, please, Madam"
   Lina actually wrinkles her nose. What the hell is wrong with the woman? Is it so hard to-
   "Valteria, this shall be the last time you lie to me."
   I actually jump. So does Val, and the look on his face is that of pure horror.
   "Why don't you try again, then?" Lina asks, calmly for a change.
   "Try what, Madam?" he whispers.
   "Picking a room," she answers with a slight air of exasperation. Well, that's what you get for scaring him like that!
   The boy looks down and gulps, guilt all over his face. But before I have any time to dwell on the reasons, he points in a completely different direction from what he said earlier.
   "That one, Madam."
   "I thought so," Lina nods, appearing satisfied. "Well, then let's pick some furniture for you. As I recall there's only a couple of cabinets in there."
   Val looks at her cautiously as she stands up and heads for the room.
   "May I have it then, Madam?"
   "Sure," Lina beams. "If I ask your opinion, that means, I will do like you say. Better remember that, young man."
   Valteria and I stay rooted to the place and gaping as Lina goes through the rooms once again, picking furniture.
   "Okay, so here is a spare bed... A wardrobe... or not, there's a smaller wardrobe in the next one. Perhaps, a desk will do, can you read or write, Val?"
   "Yes, Madam."
   "Good, desk then, a chair and some bookshelves. Do you need anything else?"
   "No, thank you, Madam."
   "Then we're all set," she marks the chosen items with a piece of chalk, then grabs Val's hand and starts downstairs. I barely have time to move out of their way.
   As soon as they go out of the gate, Lina begins to shout:
   "Fraaaaank! Fraaaaaaaaaank!!"
   In a few seconds a tall guy pokes out of the door of the next house.
   "Lina-san? How can I help you?"
   "I'm having guests, so I need you to clean a room for me. The corner one on the second floor, the one with a huge window. And move the furniture from other rooms there, I marked those with chalk. Everything clear?"
   "Sure, lady!" the guy beams a healthy white-toothed smile.
   "Here you go!" Lina tosses a golden coin into the air, and it flies shining and spinning into Frank's hand. "Another one after."
   "Always a pleasure for me, Lina-san!" Frank waves his broad hand and then heads for Lina's house, each stride twice as big as mine. Somehow, I feel robbed.
   Meanwhile Lina is propelling Val in the direction of the market, but I can no longer follow them: I receive a call from Zellas-sama. Ah, well, if it were not for those calls, I'd be taking care of Val myself.
   I come back in the evening of the next day. I land in Val's room first. He's on the bed, legs covered with the blanket. He's nodding over a book. As I make myself visible, though, he wakes up.
   "Uhoh!.. Sir?"
   "Hi, Val. How have you been?"
   He considers me for a moment, as if calculating the possible consequences of his answer (which I'm pretty sure five-year-olds cannot do).
   "I have been having a good time, Sir," he finally utters.
   "Good," I smile and sit down on the edge of his bed. He tenses, but doesn't say anything. "You should call me by name, though," I say. Maybe he'll get used to me faster if we're on the first name basis, eh?
   "Yes, Sir Xellos."
   Well, nice try.
   "Do you like Lina?" I ask for a change of subject.
   "She is very kind to me, Sir Xellos."
   "Isn't she... a little strict, what do you think?" even as I speak I see his eyes widening and I distinctly feel his horror.
   "She's just right!" he says unexpectedly. "Please, sir!"
   "Please what?" will there be a day when I can understand him?
   He doesn't answer, instead he stares wide-eyed at the door, and then I can hear a knock.
   "Yes!" he answers feebly. The door opens to admit said Lina.
   "Xellos," she states. "Whadda hell are you doing here?"
   "Why, visiting Val. What's wrong with that?"
   "Get out this instant."
   "I don't remember agreeing that I can't see him."
   "You can see him, but right now we need to talk. So get out to the sitting-room."
   I glance at Val who keeps his face uninterested, but I can tell that's only a faГade. The Dragons train their young well indeed. I touch his hand lightly, and he freezes.
   "I'll be right back," I say reassuringly before standing up.
   "No, you will not," Lina says in a no-nonsense tone, and then, turning to Val, "And you are supposed to finish your milk, turn off the light and go to sleep. Is that clear?"
   "Yes, Madam," he replies quickly, then frantically grabs a cup from the bedside cabinet and gulps it down as if his life depends on it. Yesterday's indignation is beginning to take over me again, but I agree that there is no reason to have a scene in front of Val, so I obediently descend into the sitting-room.
   As soon as I am there, I throw myself on the sofa and begin my heated speech:
   "Lina, what the hell do you think you are do-"
   "Do you have any idea what they have done to him?" she interrupts in an equally infuriated voice.
   "They were going to execute him..."
   "Before! Before that!"
   "Well, he's been living with Filia..." I say, slightly bewildered. What could have been wrong at that time? And how did she find out about it anyway?
   "The child is completely bloody neglected!" she screams. Odd, I wouldn't say that Filia ignored or disregarded him. Or is there any other meaning to the word 'neglect'?
   "I'm afraid I don't understand," I say finally.
   She stares at me with mixed emotions, then sighs and sits down across from me.
   "No, I don't think you do. Not your area of expertise, exactly. Well, I just mean that he wasn't cared for..."
   At my blank stare, she waves her hands exasperatedly and continues.
   "At first I thought he was just shy or scared. But in fact they simply convinced him that he hasn't deserved anything in life, and that he only lives at the mercy of others. Remember how he said that he'll grow up and kill them all?"
   "Well, he actually believes it. That he is some kind of future-criminal who is being punished in advance. He would, for instance, if given a choice, pick the worst thing. Like with food or when I suggested he choose his room. He's convinced that no matter what he chooses, the adults will still give him the worst thing, but will punish for the ambition."
   "How do you know what the thinks?" I ask, although now, at last, I begin to understand the interactions I viewed yesterday.
   "I've been there," she shrugs and it takes me a moment to grasp the implications. "Although it must have been better for me because I had some friends. Val, however, seems to have been forbidden to so much as talk to other children."
   I rub my face with my hands. Perfect. My Val has been screwed up once again, and this time right under my nose. Which is worse, my Lina had been screwed up too, and I had no idea. And now one is in the hands of the other. Which reminds me...
   "So why are you treating him like that?"
   "Lika what?"
   "Ordering him, as if he is indeed a prisoner."
   "Because this is the only way to get the message through to him. He doesn't believe me when I am nice."
   I grit my teeth. Someone's going to pay for this.
   "You revenge will wait," Lina reads me again. I must be getting old, indeed.
   "Wait for what?"
   "Until we get him to spill who was actually at fault. You aren't thinking it was just Filia, right?"
   "Why don't we ask him now?"
   She rolls her eyes.
   "Xellos, he doesn't trust us. Trust takes time. And we'll have to wait."
   I don't quite understand her, but somehow now it seems she knows exactly what to do. Good. Let her, then.
   "Is he still... will he recover from their treatment?"
   "I don't see any reason not to, but we must be careful. And your behavior today wasn't a good example, you know," she glares at me.
   "What did I do wrong?"
   "Why, everything! Firstly, you didn't knock before coming in."
   "I just appeared, I d-"
   "Yes, you just appeared, just after I wasted half an hour hammering it into Val's head that his room is his private space and no one can enter it without his permission except in emergency."
   "Oh," I wish I could blush. Maybe I wouldn't feel so stupid then. Damn it, who would have thought that taking care of children is so complicated! And I was actually going to take him in myself and raise him without any help. An ambitious idea, to say the least.
   "Then," Lina continues, "I guess you asked him if he liked me."
   "I did. He said you were very kind, which seemed odd to me."
   "He had to say something like this. If he said that he didn't like me, you might have got angry at him being a spoilt picky little brat. If he said he did, you might've taken him away because he isn't supposed to enjoy himself. See? He had to evade answering you somehow."
   I think I actually moaned. Well, what did I expect? This is what I do when talking to Zellas-sama, almost every day. He isn't your common little boy. Of course he was calculating consequences!
   "Did you ask him anything else?"
   "Yes, if you weren't too strict..."
   "Shall I explain to you why that has been a mistake too?"
   "No. I think I get it. One way he's complaining, the other I'd find someone else, worse."
   "Bloody hell."
   "What am I to do?"
   "Do as I say."
   "Well, say, then. I'm listening."
   She starts listing rules for my behaviour around Val. Half of my mind is listening attentively and memorising all the details. The other, though, is far away, trying to figure out why is it this particular boy who is always so unhappy. When he was born originally, his mother made it quite clear that she doesn't want me anywhere near her son. I agreed, after all, I'm no good with children. But seeing how he turned out eventually, I figured that, maybe, she wasn't that splendid herself. So this time around I decided to stick by him if only because it's unlikely I could make him any worse than what he became at Gaav's hands. And still, I failed him. If only I knew how to tell that he was suffering... Or should I have taken him in before he even hatched? Or would I have been good enough? After all, Filia seemed a good foster-mother. How was I supposed to know she'd neglect him? Oh, L-sama, what was the point of resurrecting him just to make him suffer more? Hasn't he really had enough!?
   "Xellos," Lina's soft voice breaks through my inner rant. "It's not your fault. And we'll fix him."
   Suddenly I realise a horrible thing. I let it on to Lina that I actually care about the child. So much for my reasons for rescueing him being a secret... Well, under the circumstances, maybe it's not the worst thing to happen. At least she'll trust me with acting on Val's interests.
   "Thank you. I'll do anything I can."
   I look her in the eyes, and I think she perceives the unspoken, "for my son".
   Chapter 3: Chapter 3
   Cuteness attaaaaack!
   I enjoyed writing this so much, I couldn't stop!
   There is little of Lina in this chapter, but there'll be more in the next. Too bad FF only allows for 2 main characters in the header, because here I clearly have 3, but I chose Lina and Xellos for the header because people search by pairings more often, and anyway, I doubt anyone would come here looking for Val-centered mentor fic 8))))
   The next day I come prepared, and not only by Lina's explanations yesterday. I have spent the night in the library, which always makes me feel more confident. At first I was really confused with the number of entries for 'child neglect' in Saillun's Great Book Depository, but when I started reading... well, humans clearly have devised much better ways to make themselves miserable than we have ever managed. Some stories actually caused me - the Demon of Demons - to respond in what can only be described as righteous wrath. Honestly, these horrid savage creatures with their misplaced aggression... But then a thought crossed my mind, and I went to look through the 'mental disturbances' sections of a couple of Dragon libraries, those that I could get into without raising much ruckus. Guess what? Not a word! Yet somehow I find it hard to believe that this is not an issue among them. I doubt Val is the first one to suffer, or that Filia is the only offending caregiver in the Dragon world. Knowing Dragons, and how they love to maintain an impeccable facade, they are most likely simply ignoring the issue. Humans may be horrid, but at least they seem to have institutions and laws to combat their disgusting misbehavior. Dragons, however...
   Entering the narrow gate of Lina's house garden, I suddenly realise that just a moment ago I exercised some very uncharacteristic behavior: not only did I pay at the shop, but I actually smiled to the boy in charge and left a tip. That's one thing I never do! And the thought that his father, the shop owner, is clearly too lazy to stand at the counter this early in the morning, so he gets his 10-year-old son to cover for him during the inconvenient hours does not bloody excuse me at all! I feel slightly sick.
   Inside the house I find Val standing wide-eyed in the middle of the sitting room. He was clearly crossing it, but froze when I entered.
   "Hello there," I say with a slightly forced smile. "Why are you up so early? Are you all right?"
   He blinks at me in confusion before dropping his gaze and answering, "I'm fine, thank you, Sir Xellos."
   Many books state that neglect has negative impact on a child's perceptive skills. I wonder if that is the reason for his delayed answers and the confused look I notice so often around him.
   "I don't think Lina is up yet, hm?" I try to sound nonchalant.
   "No, Sir."
   "Have you had breakfast then?" I ask. It suddenly occurs to me that he probably wouldn't go looking for food on his own.
   "No, Sir!" he actually sounds indignant. "I wouldn't, without permission!"
   Oh yes baby.
   "All right, I give you permission. Let's go to the kitchen and see what we can find."
   He eyes me doubtfully.
   "This is Madam Lina's house..." he says quietly. I stare, daring him to continue. He does. "I mean, I'm not sure you can give permission... sorry, Sir!"
   "It's all right, Val, I'm not angry," that was one thing Lina insisted that I say out loud frequently. Makes sense, after all, he can't tell what I'm feeling, and he has learnt to expect the worst. "You are actually somewhat right, we should normally ask Lina about doing things in her house. But in this case I simply know that she'd give permission, so I can do it for her."
   He is still unconvinced.
   "How do you know, Sir?"
   "Because I've known her for many years."
   "But what if you are wrong?"
   Looks like he's mustered some courage. I wonder if it's a good or a bad sign. It could mean that he's overcoming his inferiority complex, or that he views me as an enemy rather than a... what was it? Men-tor, right? Or maybe I just read too much.
   "Then it's my problem," I shrug dismissively.
   "I don't think so," he actually makes a step away from the kitchen door.
   "Why not?"
   "Because it's me being bad."
   It's my turn to blink in confusion.
   "Sorry, I don't understand. If I tell you something, and Lina thinks it's wrong, it's me being wrong, not you."
   He shakes his head slowly, and I want to disembowel Filia alive. I crouch down to appear less intimidating.
   "All right, I understand that it was different at Filia's, but here it works like this: I am an adult, so if I tell you to do something wrong, it's my fault, not yours. Understand?"
   He is frowning, and looks indecisive. What the hell is there to decide? All the books say that neglected children respond well to firmly set rules, like bedtime, mealtime, chores timetable and such. Well, I'm giving him a rule! So what's the problem!?
   Suddenly a door to my right opens and a very sleepy Lina comes in. She's wearing a long and wide many-layered laced night-gown which makes her resemble a wedding cake.
   "What the hell are you doing here?" she demands in a slightly nasal voice. This is becoming her everyday greeting for me, really.
   "Talking," I shrug.
   "Xellos, it's six bloody hours in the morning. Can't you be talking in the kitchen where I can't hear you?"
   I open my mouth to tell her that Val wouldn't go into the kitchen, but then an idea crosses my mind.
   "I'm sorry, Lina, it's my fault. I didn't realise we were disturbing you." There, let him see that I can take the blame. Damn it, it's all so stupid. "But since you're up, I was wondering if you have left Val anything for breakfast?"
   "Of course I have," Lina grumbles, clearly thinking that I'm a freakish fool who completely underestimates her capacity as a caregiver. "Get him some yoghurt from the icebox, and there are cherries on the windowsill. C'mon, Xellos, surely you can find food in the kitchen, you're not that stupid!"
   I chuckle.
   "All right, go back to bed. I'll make sure we don't wake you up again."
   She nods, already drifting off, and closes the door behind her back.
   Val looks at me with anxious anticipation. I motion him into the kitchen, finally, and extract his breakfast from the ice-box. Lina seems to be buying lots of prepared foods, which is good in case she's not there for the meal. My own cooking skills are quite notorious.
   I make us some tea and settle across from Val to keep him company. He is still very tense, not even beginning to relax, and finally I decide there must be a reason to it.
   "Are you all right?"
   He gulps nervously and croaks something unintelligible.
   "You got scolded for me..." he mumbles.
   "No, of course not. I got scolded for me."
   "But you were right... And I was wrong."
   The books all shouted in unison that I should use his own terminology as much as possible, because then it's easier for him to come to terms with things. What shall I say... speaking a foreign language is much easier. After all, I consider myself an educated person and am used to big words. Chopping them for him each time is quite a task.
   I sigh.
   "Val, do you know what is responsibility?"
   "Yes. It means I'm getting grounded for what I do wrong."
   I am all of a sudden bloodthirsty.
   "No, Val, it's not just you. It's everyone."
   "Everyone's getting grounded for me!?"
   "Noooo," I moan almost forgetting not to wake Lina. "I mean, if I do something wrong, I get grounded for it, too. Not just you. See?"
   "But you didn't do anything wrong."
   "Yes, I did, I woke her up."
   "We both did," he points out quite rationally. Here we come to the difficult part. I read hundreds of pages about it this night, but still, it's a piece of human ethics that's rather confusing for me as a Mazoku. Lina would've explained it better, but I still have to try. After all, I am supposed to understand and believe all the good things I'm telling him.
   "You see, I'm an adult, and you are a child. If we do something together, it's my job to see that we do right, not wrong. And so if we do wrong, I am the one to be grounded, not you. Even if we did it together. Understand?"
   "But why is it only you?"
   "Because I'm the responsible one," I really don't know how to put it in small words.
   "And I?"
   "And you are a child, you're not supposed to be responsible."
   "But I can be?"
   "If you like to, but you don't have to," I feel that I oversimplified the concept of responsibility, but I guess it's not bad for starters.
   He takes a moment to think, and then comes up with another quite rational objection.
   "But you got scolded by Madam Lina for both of us, and I didn't because I'm not supposed to. But now that she's not here, don't you want to, well, er, share?.."
   My relief that he'd grasped the idea is shattered into tiniest pieces.
   "No, I don't," I say quickly in case he expects me to actually punish him right now. He's got some courage asking questions like that, really. Well, what did you expect, old instigator? His foolhardiness is no different from yours! And I'm sick and tired of this clenching inside me that I get when I notice another thing we have in common. But what am I to say to him?
   "Val, it's... this rule is for everyone. It's not like when Lina is here, I'm responsible, and when she is not, I am not. I'm not taking the blame for you because someone forced me to do so. It's just the way it is done. I don't want to ground you."
   I wish Lina were here. She's a human, and a woman. She could tell him that she has an instinct not to hurt children, or whatever it is that humans have. Coming from me, it would be a lie, and Lina has emphasised it several times, that under no circumstances am I allowed to lie to him.
   "I see," he says and finally starts eating. I feel squashed and happy.
   Once he is finished (and dutifully washed all the used tableware) I suggest we go outside to the garden. I only have to say "yes, you may" twice before he agrees. That is, certainly, progress. We have a walk in silence around the orchard, and then settle at an arbour where there is a table and two benches. I decide it's time to reveal my morning shopping loot.
   "Actually, Val, I have something for you."
   He looks at me with badly concealed suspicion.
   I reach out to my dimensional pocket and extract an album and a box of crayons. I put both on the table in front of him.
   He stares at the stuff without touching anything. I suppress a sigh and recall what is it I am supposed to say.
   "This is for you. You can have it and use it as you like."
   "May I touch it?" he manages in a weak voice.
   "Yes, you may. You may do anything you like with it."
   Patience, Xellos, patience. No need to go on imagining what one can advise one to do with a set of crayons.
   He timidly reaches out and slides a finger along the album cover, darting a quick glance at me. I do my best to nod and smile, all the way feeling that an orange wig and a fake red nose would suit me much better than my humble priest's countenance.
   He finally masters the courage to open the box with crayons. There are just twenty-four: Lina warned me not to make too generous presents yet, because he'd have a hard time accepting them. He does.
   He pulls one out with a trembling hand, turns it slightly in his fingers, reads the name of the colour and the manufacturer. Then puts it back precisely to the same spot where it used to be. Then takes out the next one.
   After what seems ages to me, his enchantment wavers and he finally becomes aware of the surroundings.
   "Did you say it was for me? Sir?"
   So we are back to 'Sir'. We'll have to address it sometime.
   "Yes, of course it is for you."
   "But wh-"
   "Because you're being good." I pat him lightly on the back, and he doesn't shy away from the touch, although most likely it's because of bewilderment rather than trust.
   "But I-"
   "Good enough for me," I say with a chuckle.
   His eyes are somewhat glazed for a moment. Lina insisted that we get him to trust us on the unconscious level first, and persuade him that he isn't bound to turn to evil later, so that we'd be addressing one complicated issue at a time. It seemed rational then, but right now I so want to tell him that he's the best little boy in this whole screwed up world... Ah, well, I'll just have to remember to tell him so when there is a chance that he believes me.
   "I, um, thank you, Sir," he says uncertainly.
   "You're welcome," I beam, trying to radiate joy (which I basically can do, but not nearly as well as Lina, especially when she's just finished a good dinner). Besides, I kind of expected a stronger gratitude.
   He's looking down again, as if he's done something wrong. Maybe there's something I'm missing. Oh, Lord, I'm really out of techniques to get him to talk. Oh, wait, there was one more listed!
   I carefully place my hand on his back and start rubbing in circles. I honestly have no idea how it can help, but several books mentioned it, especially those written by women. I guess, it's a female thing, but there's small choice in rotten apples.
   It works in a very unexpected way: he starts crying. At first I barely restrain myself from jerking back, but as I continue rubbing, I sense an enormous wave of gratitude spilling out of him in all directions, mine included. Well. Someone's being too bloody reserved for his five years. As he begins sobbing loudly, though, I feel like I should do something. Like hug him or something. Damn it, Lina, where are you? I wrap one arm around his shoulders and pull him closer. I think, 'awkwardly' is the word. He's taking deep voiced breaths and then pushes the air out in short jolts, his face is red and crumpled and very wet. When (if) it ever comes to an end I am going to have a lie-down for three days with a bag of ice-cubes on my head.
   After some time he is reduced to sniffs, and I produce a handkerchief.
   "Sorry," he mumbles.
   "It's all right," I say, hoping that I'm not sounding as strained as I'm feeling.
   "It's just- can I really take it? I mean I know you said I can, but I'm not supposed to take presents even if people want to give them..."
   "Lina will not mind, if that's your concern," I say as the familiar rage is giving me something to hold onto in this surrealistic situation.
   "Uh, but Aunt Filia..."
   I must have tightened my grip on his shoulder too much because he actually looks up at me.
   "Filia is never going anywhere near you ever again. She is a bloody fool and a monster, and you will not have to obey her for as long as I am alive," I blurt out in a single breath. Something should be done about swear-words. So far both Lina and I have been using them, Val or no Val, but it's generally considered to be wrong, isn't it?
   He stares at me for some time while my words sink in. Then he utters just one word:
   I can't help bursting out in laughter.
   Thankfully, it washes away the aftermath of awkwardness, and Val is smiling too - for the first time since... well, since ever, I guess. As much as would like to have him go on, this thought actually makes me sober up. I have to think of something quickly before he gets preoccupied with something or another again.
   "So, why don't you try it?" I nod towards the present.
   "Try it, Sir?"
   "Well, it's for drawing, you know. I thought you might want to draw something."
   "Children do that. A lot. Normally."
   I wish I had some practice as a parent to a normal child before taking up this challenge of a boy.
   He opens the box and the album.
   "What shall I draw, Sir?"
   No, I can't do this anymore, sorry.
   "Anything you like. And please, Val, please, stop calling me 'Sir'. It's really annoying."
   I hope it's not a very harsh reprimand.
   "But what should I call you then, ehm, gm, gulp..."
   "I told you to call me by name."
   "JUST by name?" he exclaims incredulously.
   "Yes, just by name. Everyone I like call me just by name. You should, too."
   He grins, and I barely refrain from applauding to myself.
   "Okay, Xellos," he says with a tinge of mischief.
   "There, good boy," I have to smile and nod again. I'm so going to kill someone tonight.
   He finally turns to the album, pulls out a crayon and freezes, appearing deep in thought. I decide that I have fulfilled (and probably overdone) my parental duty for today, and anyway, it's likely that he hates it, just as much as I do, when people stare over his shoulder. So I retrieve to the nearest apple-tree and stretch on a thick bough. The sun... slight breeze... chirruping birds... all those cliches work perfectly for me.
   In an hour or so I open an eye thinking that Lina is probably up now, and it wouldn't hurt Val to have a second breakfast - he's way too small and skinny, and in the books they say... ah, well. I stretch noisily so as not to startle him, then jump down.
   "Any success there?" I inquire from afar. After all, I never show my drawings to anyone, and it could just be the case with him. But it isn't.
   "Yes, I'm finished," he calls back, turning the album in his outstretched hands as if fitting it to the surroundings.
   "May I see?"
   He looks at me in confusion again, then says, "Yes, of course." And it dawns on me. He's not confused because he doesn't understand the question! It's because it's odd for him that anyone would ask his opinion! Somehow, with all the success I had with him today, there's still a long way to go.
   I come around the table to his side and glance at the picture. And can't help gaping.
   He's drawn the orchard, the orchard in sunlight, a few flowers here, a few there... a robin in the bush. Patches of light on the grass and leaves, the disorganised threads of branches, the tiny bird's curious look... The fathomless indifferent sky above, the small homey spot on the globe, the celebration of life...
   I shake myself out of it. Of course, his ways are still primitive, those are just colour spots, he has no idea of perspective or stroke shape or formal composition, but still... it's like I can hear and smell his drawing! The annoying shrinking feeling inside me returns, and it's almost painful this time. I think I could weep, if I could. Instead I gasp.
   "Oh but this is fantastic, Val!" I force myself to look away from the picture and at him, as he gives me the all-too-familiar confused look. I pat him on the back. "You are a cool little artist, you know!"
   "You like it?" he asks somewhat surprised.
   "Of course I like it! It's gorgeous!"
   He's blushing in a very gratifying way.
   "Have you tried paint?" I ask eagerly. Damn it, I knew he should be a bright kid, seeing who his parents are, or were, but I had no idea he'd actually be gifted. I want it all, now! I want the whole world to recognise his talent!
   Well, maybe I should slow down a little. He's still got personal issues to resolve first.
   "No, s- I mean, Xellos. I only tried colour pencils at Milgasia-sama's place. He would have a servant give them to me while he was talking with Aunt Filia."
   Milgasia... I wonder if they let him out yet... Anyway, he's going to find out Xellos Beastmaster can be grateful without any irony!
   I bow down and hug Val, surprising us both.
   "I'll bring paint another time and show you how to use it, all right?"
   "But that'll be too much, you already gave me these, and-"
   "No-no-no-no, I'll just bring my paints and stuff. I also draw for fun, see, and we can just do it together!"
   "You do? Oh wow!" he falls silent for a moment, but I know something is coming. Sure enough, "May I see something of yours?"
   Oh. Right. I should have expected it. He's a child, I can't rely on his discretion. But then, he needs something to study from, and although my works can never match even this relaxed picture of his in the power of spirit, I'm still meticulously good at all the formal aspects of drawing, like composition, perspective, proportions... And I so itch to teach him... And, after all, a refusal would discourage him too much, and I really hate doing it... Watching how his face falls at my obvious reluctance makes me want to hit myself on the head!
   "All right," I finally say in a very serious voice. "But you'll have to promise not to tell anyone what's on those pictures."
   His eyes widen, lighting up once again.
   "You mean, it's some kind of a secret?"
   I nod gravely.
   "And you're letting me in on it!?"
   "Yes. But I expect you to be silent about it."
   "WOOOW," he breaths, face wide with the grin. Then, gaining his Dragon-trained composure, he pronounces, matching me, "I promise I will never tell anyone."
   "Good, it's settled then," I wink. I think he really won't.
   Chapter 4: Chapter 4
   Just as I thought, Lina is already bustling around the kitchen. I push Val inside and motion him to sit on the pillowed chair.
   "Morning," we say more or less in unison.
   "Hey there," Lina waves a ladle without turning. "Val, may I ask you whatever possessed you to get up at such an undogly hour?"
   "I usually get up at five, Madam."
   "Usually," she turns and pins him with a glare. "Does that mean yesterday, too?"
   "Yes, Madam," Val cringes a little and I can feel his unease. I pat his head even as Lina continues glaring.
   "And you didn't eat anything before I came out, did you?"
   "No, Madam."
   "Well, that was the last time," she says with resolve. She strides up to us and hovers over Val, who is pressed into the back of the chair by sheer anticipation. "If you are up earlier than me, you are to go to the kitchen and eat anything you find edible. Is that clear?"
   He nods frantically. I understand why Lina is doing this, but I am still not quite happy with it. I decide to change the subject for now.
   "Ne, Lina-san. It turns out, Val here is fairly good at drawing."
   "Really?" her frown vanishes together with steely voice. She is smiling somewhat tenderly and her eyes are sparkling. She ruffles his hair in a fondly motion. "You are really precious, aren't you."
   Val is obviously bewildered by the sudden change, but doesn't say anything. I hope I'll see the day when he feels free to talk his mind.
   Lina piles up heaps of food on her side of the table, and then a cup of hot chocolate and a jam-covered toast in front of Val.
   "But I've already had breakfast, Madam!" he protests.
   "Yes, four hours ago. And I'm not going to make lunch for another three hours. You are not going to be hungry at any time."
   He still hesitates, then, surprisingly, turns to me.
   "S-, er, Xellos..."
   "Yes?" I sit down on the nearest chair.
   "You said, I should not obey Aunt Filia anymore..."
   "That is true, you shouldn't."
   His eyes gain the same mischievous twinkle I've seen before.
   "Does it mean I may have jam then?"
   I feel my fingers itching for a Dragon throat, and I seem to hear Lina counting to ten under her breath.
   "Sure, you may," I say, forcing a smile.
   "Thank you!" the words die muffled as he plunges his teeth into the toast. I like sweets myself. I don't need to eat, of course, and if I have to eat for appearances' sake, it becomes a bother later because I have to clean out the subdimension of my astral body... But I usually put up with it for the sake of dessert. To think that my Val has been denied that pleasure... someone is soooo going to pay for it!
   There was something odd about his question, though.
   "Ne, Val," I say as soon as he's finished (which doesn't take him long). "Why did you ask me?"
   "I can't just do things without asking, can I?" he says, confused. It looks like he is braver when confused.
   "True enough, but why did you ask me and not Lina? She gave you the jam, not I, right?"
   Lina, who has been filling herself on pancakes, rolls her eyes at me without pausing in her chewing. I expected Val to think long and hard of what to say, but he actually has a ready answer,
   "You've allowed me things today already, I thought you might allow one more."
   I snort. A little red-haired fox he is.
   "Lina and I would allow same things. Besides, if she's offering you something, that means she allows it."
   He considers it for a moment, then turns to Lina and says,
   "Sorry, Madam. I will remember."
   "It'sh oukay," she mumbles over a piece of cheese.
   I hope that her antics will help Val relax rather than spoil his perfect table manners.
   I suspect that woman has a subdimensional pocket inside her body too, otherwise it defies the laws of nature that so much food would fit into such a tiny body. Or maybe her metabolism is really fast. Anyway, at last she's done.
   "Lina-san, as I recall you asked for a means of communication," I say conversationally.
   Her eyes light up.
   "Sure I did!"
   "Well, I devised one... and I actually thought it would be better if both you and Val could use it in case of emergency."
   "Yeah, that's good thinking, Xellos," she turns to Val who looks rather lost. "Do you follow us?"
   "Huh, eh, I'm sorry, Madam," he mumbles.
   "It's all right, Val," I assure, pulling out the device in question. "Let me show you."
   The thing that I came up with is not exactly extraordinary. It's a more or less standard magical water-mirror. It looks like a middle-sized drinking-bowl, it's made of pitch-black grouper-stone which provides for the communication over distance. The unnaturally still liquid in it works like a mirror, or a screen to see the person you are talking to. These things are by no means new, if a little rare among humans. I know that both Lei Magnus and Rezo have had several items in their possession. A cheaper version of lower quality of transmission can be found in every Guild of Mages.
   I put it on the table between Val and Lina who move closer to have a better look.
   "It's very simple," I say. "You come up to the mirror, you call my name, you see me."
   They stare for a moment at the shiny black thing. Then Lina asks,
   "Where are you going to keep the other one?"
   I am confused.
   "The other one? Ah!" of course, she thought I need a receiving device as well. "There is no other one. It's just tuned to me, not to another device. I won't see you, of course, but I'll hear you."
   "Oh. That's convenient!"
   "Sure. Now, Val, do you understand? If something happens, if you feel danger or just feel bad, or if something bothers you, anything at all, you are to look into this thing and call my name. Is that clear?"
   He nods. I doubt he understood, though, but hopefully Lina will be there if something really happens.
   Both my present and my enthusiasm at Val's ability help him gain some confidence, so he actually opens his mouth and asks if he could go draw some more. We dismiss him as Lina closes the cupboard door (we decided to keep the mirror among the tableware, after all at the first glance it looks like just a fancy drinking-bowl).
   "Xellos," Lina suddenly sounds stern. "Did you discuss Filia with him?"
   "Not exactly..." I know she wanted to structure the Talk well. Also, the books all stated that the experience of neglect should be introduced into discussion carefully and gradually. But it has to be introduced anyway, or else Val would never get over it.
   "What was it then?"
   "Well... I kind of snapped. I just told him that Filia isn't going anywhere near him, so he shouldn't keep obeying her rules. Is that very bad?"
   "No, I guess not," she shrugs. "We'll have to get the Dragons' teachings out of his system anyway, I just don't want to rush it."
   "Neither do I. I know it might cause him to close up and stop believing us."
   "I see you researched the matter."
   "I did."
   She smiles in an unnervingly knowing way.
   "Why did you snap then?"
   "Filia used to forbid him to accept presents even if someone wanted to give them to him."
   Lina nods sadly, as if in her opinion it fits some pattern. I wonder if that was the case with her sister, too.
   "It doesn't explain why you snapped though."
   "Xellos, don't be so thick. You said you saved Val because Milgasia asked you. Okay, I can believe that you wanted him to owe you. But ever since then you act like a mother-hen to Val. You scream at me for not being gentle, you vow to do anything to help him, you pat him on the head, for Ceified's sake! And now you actually lose the nerve when you learn that he was denied a small pleasure. What's going on with you?"
   I forget everything she said before at this incredible statement.
   "Small pleasure!? He was bowling his eyes out for half an hour because of it!"
   She looks at me with fearful admiration.
   "Xellos... why do you care?"
   I freeze. Damn it, I thought she simply accepted it yesterday and is not going to pry. Somehow, getting off with my usual phrase doesn't seem such a good idea any more.
   "Lina... I don't think it would surprise you if I say that I don't want to tell you my reasons."
   "It doesn't surprise me, Xellos, but you are not getting away with that. I'm OK with your 'secrets' when it's about something your Lord orders you. In this instance, however, I'm quite convinced you're acting on your own motives. You actually take this personally. I even dare suppose that your Lord doesn't know you're hiding Val."
   She's hit a sore spot. She can be quite intelligent, my Lina. I feel very tired. I don't like lying. It's fool's territory. But evading her questions is so bothersome. And I already have to construct another reality for my Mistress who has already heard that Valteria was stolen. Thankfully, they didn't have time to recognise me. And Milgasia wouldn't say for Val's sake.
   "All right, whatever, I have personal reasons. I still don't want to tell you, and you can't do anything about it," I actually drop any pretence and sit there as I am - tired, annoyed, slightly lost. She has the guts to look at me with pity, but I dismiss it quickly as she comes closer and puts her hand on my shoulder. She smells of bakery and fruit. She is warm and soft, and I can see her chest rising and falling as she breathes. A lock of her hair tickles my cheek. I close my eyes and drink in the feeling of her closeness.
   "You're just like Val in this," she says, breaking my nirvana. "You won't let me in even though I could help."
   I look up at her.
   "Help how?"
   "That depends on what's bothering you."
   You, I think. You are bothering me.
   "You already know that I care about Val. That is in itself a problem, no matter why it is so. How can you help me?"
   "I can never be sure about you. You obviously didn't care about him when we killed him."
   I jump. She can't just say it so bloody calmly!
   "Or did you?" she raises an eyebrow. Oh, great, it was a test, and I fell for it. Either I'm getting old or I trust her too much. Or maybe I simply can't think straight in her presence.
   "There was nothing I could do about it that time," I say bitterly. "He'd die anyway, only he was going to take everyone else with him." And there was no way I'd let him kill you. "He wasn't even himself anymore, he was a bloody hand-made Mazoku, he's lost half of his wits on the way.
   She considers me, still in the dangerous proximity. I feel her body warmth on my arm, and this time I'm glad I can't blush.
   "I see," she finally utters. She doesn't continue, so I decide to try and change the subject.
   "When researching the matter, I was quite surprised at how many humans harm their own children. I mean, we don't have feelings towards the other demons that we create, but still, we certainly don't beat up our own creations that often! And humans are supposed to care..."
   She narrows her eyes, staring in the distance.
   "That's the point, see. Not everyone can bear to care. It's responsibility. Some people freak out and start seeing the child as an imposition on their freedom. I think Filia went through something similar."
   I recalled how I defended the Dragoness for allowing for Val's execution. My fists clench. I didn't know then, not yet. I think I've done defending her.
   "Xellos, you're so angry at her as if you haven't done any wrong in your life!" Lina exclaims in amusement. I am so not amused.
   "Lina, I am supposed to do wrong. That is why I never came near Val during his first life. But she is a bloody priestess. She's supposed to do all the right things. So how come that I risk the wrath of my Mistress because I care for the child, and she 'sees him as an imposition on her freedom', huh!?"
   "Indeed, how come?" Lina teases half-heartedly. I don't even bother to answer, but then she comes back to something else I said, "You know what's the funniest thing, Xellos? Luna is the Knight of Ceified."
   We are silent for a couple of minutes. My mind is clearly refusing to work for me. Probably, it's one of those things that the Lord of Nightmares forbade us to think about.
   So it's like She-Whom-The-Hell-Spat-Back-Out and myself, the Demon of Demons, are the good guys, and the Knight of Ceified, a priestess of Fire Dragon King and two other Dragon Kings' temple Elders are the bad guys? How is that even possible?
   And if it is, it's a bloody disaster!!!
   "It's not funny," I finally say. Lina throws her head back, and utters a single "H-ha!"
   And I love her more than ever.
   I come to see Val next morning, early again. I am very happy to find him in the kitchen biting his way through a bun with raisins. He has even made tea himself, which mysteriously makes me proud.
   He freezes as I appear and darts a look to the door, so I feel bound to say something.
   "Hey, Val. How are you this morning?"
   He gulps as he watches me sit down across from him.
   "Fine, Sir, er, Xellos."
   I raise an eyebrow, not willing to chastise him for the slip.
   "May I have some tea?" I ask, anticipating the response. Now that I can predict most of his reactions it's actually quite amusing to watch his disbelieving expression every time I do something humane. And his inevitable joy at being treated like a person is so gratifying.
   "Why are you asking me? It's Madam Lina's house. And I thought you said you knew what she allows..."
   "Of course, of course, but it's your tea," I smile disarmingly as I cut his rant off.
   "You made it!"
   "So may I?"
   "Oh yes of course!"
   I smile again and pour myself some tea.
   "It's very good," I say as he returns to his bun. "Go on, eat, I won't interrupt you."
   He obeys eagerly. I put my forearms on the table and my chin on top of them, and watch him through eyelashes. He doesn't resemble his mother at all, but for his hair. I have only seen him from afar at this age in his previous life, but it seems that he looks different. I suddenly want to touch him, as if his aura is calling out to me.
   "Hold still, there's something on your cheek," I invent quickly and brush my fingers at his thin babyish skin. Sure enough, I feel an astral response like I might from my minions, only much stronger. But it wasn't there yesterday.
   He pulls back slightly at my touch, frowning.
   "It's all right," I say.
   He rubs at his cheek, then stops abruptly and raises fearful eyes to me.
   "Sorry, Xellos, I didn't mean to be rude."
   "I know, it's all right. You felt it too, right?"
   "Mmm, yeah, like from the cat."
   "Uh, there was that cat next-door, she'd come to hunt in the basement. She'd let me stroke her, but sometimes it was like needles or something, and she'd run away."
   "Ah, yes, that happens. It's not your fault, though. It's because the air was too dry." I feel obliged to say it, remembering how he tried to take the blame for everything.
   "I don't think I could explain it to her even if I knew," he muses sadly.
   There is nothing I can do about the truth of this statement.
   "This thing you felt when I touched you, though, is more pleasant, isn't it?" I'm getting increasingly better at changing the subject.
   "Yeah," he smiles. "I was just surprised."
   I put my hand on the table in front of him, palm up. He timidly reaches out and places his small one just at the edge of mine. Here it comes again, a clear resonance of power, a tension at the proximity of someone so similar.
   I can't help smiling, it's kind of ticklish, and the shrinking feeling inside me suddenly isn't annoying any more.
   "Why does it happen?" he asks. "Is it air too?"
   "No," I say. "I'm not sure exactly why, but it only happens for you and me."
   "It didn't happen yesterday," he observes quite smartly, and the sensation intensifies.
   "No, I guess, yesterday we weren't in the mood."
   He nods as if it makes sense to him; to me, it doesn't. I wonder though, if it means that he trusts me now.
   As pleasant as it is, I still have something to show him before Lina wakes up, so I break the contact. He isn't very disappointed, which is good because I don't want to disappoint him, but bad because it means he is fine with being denied pleasant things.
   "Come on, Val," I say, this time changing the subject for my own sake. "Let's go to your room and I'll show you some of my pictures."
   He is so eager he almost overturns the chair, and I wash his cup before he breaks it. He's radiating happiness.
   We go upstairs to his neat bedroom. This time I pay more attention to the surroundings, and quickly notice the most probable reason why he chose the room in the first place. It has a huge tall window, and right under I can see the roof of the terrace. If my manner of assessing the surroundings is any indication, he'd probably seen this as a possible escape route. I think it's good. It makes him feel safer, and also a possibility to escape to the roof is better than nothing, especially when he learns to fly.
   The bed stands in the far corner, and there's a small wardrobe at its foot. The other side of the room is occupied by a massive desk, a cabinet and bookshelves, already partially filled. My presents sit on the desktop, arranged as if they were an ikebana.
   "A nice place you've got here," I comment smiling. He is fidgeting, eager to get to the interesting part. I sit down cross-legged on the carpet, and he joins me, his knee brushing at mine. I open the astral pocket and pull out the first canvas.
   It is a picture of Lina lying in the grass on a sunny hillside, arms spread wide, the ends of her hair raising slightly together with the grass-stems in the wind.
   Val gasps and bends down to the canvas, almost poking it with his little nose. I let him. This is one scenery that I have done and redone so many times, I cannot count. I convince myself that I simply like the combination of red and green...
   "How did you do the grass?" he asks, and I have to remind myself that this is actually a lesson in drawing.
   "You can do this with a thick hard brush. Here, let me show you."
   I extract some brushes, a box of gouache, water and paper.
   "See? If you don't press too hard, it'll leave stripes."
   He tries several times, and quickly catches the required angle. He beams at me like I've shown him a miracle.
   I pull out another picture. This one is a sanguine, Lina is sitting at the seashore, staring over the waves.
   "Did you smooth it with your finger?" he asks incredulously after a close inspection. I honestly don't remember.
   "Finger is fine, but you can use a napkin."
   He nods, making a mental note.
   Then there come: a watercolour of Lina in the battlefield, several oils of Lina in the autumn forest, a gouache of her wearing a chamomile garland, lots of pencil sketches of her simply sitting or lying in different positions (I thought those could be useful in terms of proportions, but I had to go through the whole stack to pull aside anything that's adults-only).
   That is all I brought today. I have many more, but there's no need to rush. At least, these display some basic techniques.
   Val stares at the variety of paintings and graphic scattered around us and sighs deeply.
   "I wish I could draw like that!"
   "I'll teach you. And I'm sure you'll do better than that."
   He grins, and I begin explaining the concept of formal composition. This is so gratifying.
   We're almost finished: the time is dangerously close to Lina's waking. I hide my pictures, leaving the paints on the floor. We should probably get some kind of worksheet before we ruin the carpet. Val's made several acceptable sketches, and I don't mind praising him again and again. He's blushing cutely.
   "Don't you want to take your paints?" he is getting better at changing the subject, too.
   "Nope, it'll be more fun to come here to paint together with you."
   "Oh. Does it mean we'll only paint in the morning while Madam Lina is sleeping?"
   I blink.
   "No, we can do it anytime."
   He switches suddenly to whisper,
   "But you didn't want her to see your pictures."
   "Ah. That's only about the old ones. I can draw something else while I'm here, and it will be all right to show her."
   "Oh," he fidgets a little. "So is it just because you draw her that you don't want her to see?"
   "Yeah," I mumble.
   "Uh, okay. I guess she'd be too proud if she knew," he concludes quite seriously. I snort and nod frantically. Proud, indeed.
   Chapter 5: Chapter 5
   We are both finished just as Lina knocks on the door.
   "Come in!" Val calls quickly. She does.
   "Morning, guys. Everything all right?"
   We both nod, then I notice that Val is fidgeting slightly. I reach out and pat him on the shoulder, which has the desired effect: he speaks.
   "We've been drawing, er, together."
   "Great," she smiles sleepily. "Xellos told me you were brilliant. May I see something?"
   "Yes," he beams, pushing the freshest picture towards Lina's end of the table. It is his first attempt at gouache, and he's done his room. It seemed a weird choice to me, but I didn't say anything for fear of discouraging him, especially since he managed to sketch out a very good composition.
   I realised what he was doing much later, when he was almost finished. Now I took my time watching Lina as she gaped at the sheet of paper.
   As I noticed before, Val is extraordinarily good at capturing the spirit of whatever it is he is drawing as well as his own attitude to it. His room was done in soft warm colours, patches of light scattered across the bed and floor, the great window slightly open, the paints and brushes disorderly covering the table. Every object, line or stroke screamed, "Home!" I honestly have no idea how he does it. Probably it's some kind of magic. Or, maybe, he just knows intuitively what kind of shapes and angles work for different moods... Anyway, I am no art critic, I can't dissect his work to pronounce what makes it so striking. I can simply enjoy, and be happy that he likes it so much here, at Lina's house.
   She actually hugs him, and I can sense that she is deeply touched. Well, she has to be, it's her place after all. I feel a little bit envious as Val hugs her back, although I'm not sure, which one of them I envy more. It's one thing to hug a crying child to make him stop, but it's something completely different to do it just on a whim for no apparent reason. I haven't even considered it so far.
   My reverie is broken by a call. I hiss quietly, but they both turn to me, and Val actually looks scared.
   "Sorry," I say, and I'm really so sorry it almost hurts. "Need to go, some urgent business there. I'll try to come back after lunch."
   "After lunch we're going to the market, so take your time," Lina replies in a business-like fashion, but she looks at me with pity again, and I hate it. I nod to Val and vanish.
   The call however turns out to be a mistake. My Mistress was going to call another servant, but turned to me automatically, out of habit. She dismisses me in a second. I can go back and enjoy the rest of the morning with my Val (and my Lina), but on a second thought I decide it might be interesting to see how they interact between themselves without me there. So far I only did it once, the first day, well, why not repeat?
   So I come back just in time to see Lina staring at my picture. I must say I'm rather predictable in my creativity: I drew Val. It's a pencil sketch only slightly toned with watercolours, but Lina examines it as if it were a famous oil. She can't seem to tear her eyes away from it, even as Val gets up to go downstairs for his second, and Lina's first breakfast. Eventually, though, she joins him, but there's a very odd expression on her face.
   I glide up to the table to have a second look. What is it that caught her interest? No matter how hard I try, I can't figure it out. Val's sitting at the table with a brush in his hand, staring intently at the paper before him, his eyes slightly narrowed. His bangs are pushed to a side, so that it seems like he has an evenly cut fringe. His posture is quite relaxed, but he's ready to spring into motion any time. What did she see here?
   Val has finished his pie and is pondering over his cup of tea, from time to time darting glances at Lina who is still eating.
   "What is it?" she asks between bites. "You don't need special invitation to speak, do you?"
   He blushes slightly and takes a deep breath.
   "Madam Lina, why is Xellos so kind to me?"
   I am amused. Let's see what Lina is going to answer.
   She answers immediately, as if she had it ready for years,
   "Because he likes you."
   I stare. Well, I guess it's true, but... put like that... I have never thought of it that way. But then, what else could I answer? Why am I good to him? A bloody good question!
   "He does?" Val sounds both hopeful and incredulous, and I feel that blasted shrinking thing again.
   "Sure," Lina dismisses easily.
   "But why?" he continues, although it seems like he's talking to the saucer rather than Lina. "I'm not even good."
   "He doesn't have to have a reason to like someone. Besides, you're quite good as far as I am concerned."
   I know that she appears nonchalant on purpose. It is the absent-minded remarks that reveal one's true opinion. Nevertheless, Val drops his gaze.
   "No," he says sadly. "I'll grow up and become bad," he pauses there, and Lina's already opening her mouth to contradict him when he suddenly looks up and continues, "Do you think Xellos will like me still?"
   Lina chuckles.
   "Xellos will like you no matter what. It doesn't matter to him, what you are," she clearly wants to go on, but he interrupts.
   "Then why didn't he take me from there sooner?"
   I barely refrain from a gasp. Is that what he's thinking?! But what am I to do? How do I convince him that I care?
   Lina narrows her eyes.
   "Why do you think he should have? You were in no danger."
   "Yeah, but... they didn't like me. Well, maybe, Milgasia-sama, a little, but Aunt Filia didn't, and some others hated me."
   "How do you know it?" she asks quickly.
   "Well, it's obvious. They called me names, and looked at me like I was some dirt, and never spoke to me, only about me to Aunt Filia. And they would say stuff like that she should be ashamed to keep me."
   "And what did she say?"
   "That she had no choice, because, like, I fell onto her or something. I never really got that part."
   "And who were those people?"
   "I dunno exactly, but she called them something-sama, so they must've been some bosses. They were old. One had a golden chain," Val shivers.
   So those were the two remaining Elders. I know one of them wears a heavy golden chain, indeed.
   "Did they hurt you?" Lina asks.
   Oh dear, I didn't even think about it! Thankfully, he shakes his head.
   "They wouldn't touch me. They went to wash their hands after even standing near. I thought that maybe I should grab one, maybe he'll get sick or something," Val actually giggles, but quickly comes to his senses, "But that would mean I'm bad."
   I'll crush their necks. After I crush every other bone in their bodies.
   "Val," Lina says sternly, drawing his attention. "Have you ever told Xellos how they treated you?"
   He thinks for a moment.
   "Did you tell him you wanted to get away from there?"
   "No! I thought he was bad! That's what Aunt Filia-"
   Of course Filia would convince him I'm an enemy! And now he'll never forgive me for not being there when he needed-
   "Then how do you think he could know that he should have taken you away?"
   Oh. Well.
   "Oh. Well."
   Huh, we actually react the same way?
   "He couldn't," Val concludes.
   "No, and you can't really blame him."
   "I don't blame him! He's great!"
   It's good that I don't have human ideas of ethics which would have made me feel uneasy about eavesdropping on myself being praised.
   "But you see now that he likes you, right? And that he didn't help you sooner just because he didn't know you needed help?"
   "Yeah... I... I'm sorry I thought bad at him. Well, not bad, but..." he continues mumbling incoherently.
   "Yes, bad," Lina states clearly. Does she have to make him feel worse? "If somebody knows you're in trouble and doesn't help, that's bad. If they help, it's good."
   "You are still a little child, Val. Children like you can't be bad, no matter how hard they try. It's a law, like when you drop a stone, it flies down, not up. It's just impossible."
   "But when I grow up-"
   "If you grew up with Filia, you'd most likely go bad. But now that you're here, you won't."
   He stares for several moments. I itch to applaud; Lina has put it just in the right way for him to digest without changing too many beliefs at once.
   "Then why didn't she give me to you?" he finally asks. Lina has an answer for this, too.
   "Because she's stupid. And those two others, they are bad themselves, and actually wanted you to be bad."
   Val's tiny hands are clutching the edge of the table so hard, the fingertips are white.
   "So I won't go bad?"
   "Of course not," Lina says convincingly. "You are a smart and talented little boy and you'll make a great adult!"
   Crocodile (or should I say 'dragon'?) tears start rolling down Val's cheeks, even as he smiles broader than ever. Lina quietly sighs, glancing over her half-eaten breakfast, then stands up and walks up to the child to hug him.
   "It's okay, dear. It's okay," she whispers into his hair as he clings to her, sobbing lightly.
   "You are like Mum," he suddenly says. I startle. I never thought he could remember. Oh damn, what if he remembers something else from his previous life? Like how he died!?
   "You may call me Mum if you like," Lina says without even blinking. I consider worshipping the woman.
   "Yeah, absolutely."
   "Thanks... Mum."
   She kisses his pale-red mop, right where there used to be a horn.
   I hide my face in my hands even though no one can see me. Another pugnacious redhead as Val's mother is a little bit too much for my nerves, especially since this time I'm not indifferent. Indeed, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
   I can't stand the tearful cuteness of the scene anymore and decide to go see Milgasia. I owe him, after all.
   From eavesdropping on younger Dragons I find out that he was freed soon after I took Val. Obviously, no one suspected him in conspiring with Mazoku. After a brief search in Astral I find him in a desolate temple down the northern side of the mountains. I appear at the entrance where the holy aura isn't too strong.
   He turns a little too quickly, and I know he's not exactly relaxed.
   His look is heavy, and he is clearly expecting something bad from me. I wonder why.
   "I am glad to see you liberated," I drawl with a polite smile.
   "What did you do with the boy?"
   Oh, so we're being right-to-business.
   "He is safe," I say and add almost without a pause, "and happy."
   I wonder why I felt compelled to say it. Milgasia must be wondering too, because he narrows his eyes.
   "What are you going to do with him?"
   Hmph! Teach him to draw, to fly and to fight? Buy him a thousand and one toy? Hug him and tell him he's the best little boy in the world? Somehow, none of these seem to be appropriate answers.
   "I'll have him well-raised and educated," I say finally. Not a lie, and nothing personal.
   "You realise he has some abilities no one else in the world possesses, don't you?"
   Yes, quite. One is to draw, the other is to make my emotions swing from one extreme to another in a split second.
   "Such as?"
   "Deep empathy, intuition bordering on prophetic gift... probably, some really advanced healing skills, those were common among the Ancients."
   Yes, I noticed. And your bloody fellows almost erased this gift to the world. They looked at him like he was dirt.
   "I'll see that those are developed. If you have any literature on the subject, this is a good time to share."
   He nods.
   "I'll leave everything relevant here next Monday. But Xellos," he pauses trying to look me in the eyes which are closed. "If you turn him into a Mazoku weapon, I will not owe you anymore."
   He - owe me? Oh, right, he thinks I did him a favor by rescuing Val. Hm, good.
   Val as a weapon? That boy with his sad eyes and broad smile? I'd rather die.
   "You are quite aware, Milgasia-san, that I am never the one to start a fight. As long as Valteria is in my custody, he will not be exposed to aggression or ideas of vengeance, if only because I do not wish any conflict. You should realise though, that I will not tolerate any belligerent actions on behalf of your people."
   I open my eyes, since I know it works very well on Milgasia. Indeed, it does. He nods hastily, dropping his gaze.
   "That is as much as I can ask."
   "Good. Well, then, I'll be on my way..."
   I wait as he's mustering the will to say something.
   "Xellos, I... I don't know your objectives, and I dare not ask, and I thank you for saving him, but... do you think I could see him some time?"
   I am actually quite surprised. Val did say that Milgasia seemed to like him, but for the Dragon Elder to plead so openly... hm.
   "Why would you wish to do so? Do you doubt my ability to find him a decent caregiver?" I actually sneer.
   "No, no! Nothing like that. It's just... he is a very nice child. I haven't seen anyone like him in centuries. It's... I don't think you could understand, it's a personal thing..."
   Oh, yes, I can understand very well, thank you.
   "If you care so much, why did you let the others treat him like he was mud under their feet?"
   "I, uh, um..."
   "I will consider your request as soon as you learn to produce words, Master Elder."
   With that, I leave. I hope he didn't realise how personal it is for me.
   I take my time calming down, and when I finally arrive at Lina's Val is already asleep. I hoped to spend some more time with him, but Lina's company is good too, and I want her to tell me about the scene I witnessed in the morning, so that I could refer to it later without exposing my eavesdropping. Man proposes, God disposes.
   I find Lina in the sitting-room with a cup of tea and a Saillune Guild of Mages' almanac propped on one knee.
   "Hey there, Xellos. Long day, eh?"
   "Kind of," I settle down on her right, carefully 'accidentally' brushing my hand at her hair. She studies me for a moment, then puts down both the cup and the book.
   "He is really your son, isn't he?"
   I blink. Surely she doesn't mean...
   "Yes, Xellos, yes. You sired him, he's related to you. He has never had any other father than you."
   "Uh- I..."
   "There is nothing you can do about me knowing it."
   "There had to be a very good reason for you to care so much. And that picture you drew of him... He really resembles you there. I thought I was seeing things, but then I watched him more closely... he does, Xellos. He even moves somewhat like you. I guess if I had any Mazoku-exposing artifact, it'd go off at his touch. And it makes sense, too, that he's the only one who survived the Ancients' slaughter - if he's half Mazoku, that's no wonder."
   I drop my head. I can't even begin to imagine what she can do to me by exploiting this information. I even feel slightly sympathetic with Milgasia.
   "What do you want?"
   "I want to know why you did it. I'll never believe it was an accident."
   I have nothing left to do but to tell her.
   "It was an experiment, at first. You know how I am about those... if I find out something has never been done by a Mazoku, I've got to do it. Well, at some point I was obsessed with finding out the possibility of Mazoku parenting children, like Humans and Dragons. It turned out that a Mazoku cannot give birth regardless of gender, and Mazoku-Human halfbloods actually exist, even though not very happily. But I couldn't find any data on Dragon halfbloods, so I naturally decided to try. At the time I was doing a job among the Ancients, so it seemed the easiest to find a partner there. She never knew I was a Mazoku, of course, until Val was born. She noticed then, and kicked me out quite effectively. I didn't care much. I knew he was healthy and provided for. She obviously never told him he was a halfblood, otherwise he wouldn't have agreed to Gaav's terms. He'd have known he'd survive on his own. But it wasn't until he was converted that I realised I cared. After all, it's like he is half me. I think Gaav suspected something and did it on purpose to hurt me; he'd always hated me."
   We are silent for a minute. Then Lina speaks.
   "Do you regret it?"
   "I do, now. I mean, he's suffered more than anyone I've ever known."
   "Then why not just kill him and off with it?" she asks calmly, but I won't get into the same trap twice. I know she's provoking me.
   "Because I want him to live, and to like me. Since the Lord of Nightmares saw fit to give him another chance... maybe this time I can do better by him. At least I must try. Because he is mine, you see? It's a great disadvantage, and my Mistress would kill me of she knew, but... he's mine. I don't know how else to explain it."
   "Well, I guess, if you were deviant enough to produce a child in the first place, there's little wonder you go on acting non Mazoku-like," she chuckles.
   Not particularly funny to me.
   "So what now?" I ask trying hard not to sound too condemned.
   "I guess you should tell him," she says shrugging. My mind races through a number of 'him's' - from Shabranigdo to Milgasia.
   "Why, Val, of course! Who are we talking about?"
   Oh. But how is it his business?
   "Why should I?"
   She stares at me like I have sprouted another head. Then makes a show of sighing and rolling her eyes.
   "For us, creatures of flesh and blood, it is important to have blood relatives. He asked me today why you care. He still doubts you. If he knew you were his father, he'd take it for granted that you won't harm him. Don't you want him to trust you?"
   You have no idea.
   "Maybe, but he's still too small. I still don't know what it will take to buy your silence, and I'm not risking my neck relying on his promises."
   She laughs hard and long, although not very merrily.
   "You're still such a Mazoku," she finally chuckles, reaching out and actually stroking me on the head. I am rooted to the place and can barely catch whatever it is she is saying next. "You don't have to buy my silence. Your well-being is essential to Val's happiness, and I won't do anything to jeopardise that."
   I find some voice and even words, even of the right language.
   "And why do you care?"
   She shrugs.
   "I guess, the answer would be, I'm a human. I agreed to take care of this child, and I can't help being involved."
   I recall how I asked her to look after Val for a couple of months until I am free. Not exactly what I had in mind.
   "Lina, it's... it was supposed to be temporary."
   "Temporary? And what then? You'll find a better nurse?"
   "No... I was going to take him myself."
   "And you feel so sure that you'll cope?"
   "Well, he's getting better. I mean, once he is over all that neglect and stuff, it should be all right."
   "Really," she eyes me skeptically, and I am starting to feel that there is no way I could raise a child alone. "And how exactly are you going to get rid of your daily duties?"
   "Well, you see, siring Val is not my only sin against my people. Zellas-sama will soon learn of another one, and she wouldn't be able to keep me anymore."
   "She'll let you go?"
   "What if she kills you?"
   I shake my head. I don't think Lina would ever understand the kind of relationship I have with my Mistress.
   "No, she won't."
   "Still, I guess, you'll have plenty of enemies after that."
   "Most likely. So?"
   "So it'll be dangerous for Val to stay with you."
   I see red.
   "So you want to take him away fro me? Just like his bloody mother!? Well, you know what, Lina Inverse, this is where your powers end. He's mine and I'm not staying away from him again! If you have any problems with letting me pick him up in two months from here, I won't be too unhappy to use force."
   I notice that I actually stood up somewhere in the middle of my tirade, and am now towering over Lina, radiating malice. Lina is... Lina is fascinated. The blasted woman.
   "Wow, you really love him, don't you," she says in awe, and I want to bang my head with something hard. "But you misunderstood me. I never meant to keep him from you. Only to keep him for you. It's hard to be a single parent, Xellos, even if you are free and good at it. I see no reason why you should expose your crimes to your Mistress, and then constantly watch your back while trying to have fun with Val. He would be an obvious target for anyone who'd want to harm you. I am simply suggesting that we go on living like we do now. Val's staying here, no one would suspect me of keeping him, but even if they find out, they won't be too surprised. I'm human, I'm supposed to like children, and I was just next to Filia when she caught the egg, so why not? And most people of all races are too scared of me to try anything. And you can come to see him anytime, which by itself is no surprise either - as I recall, you had orders to keep an eye on me. I think it's perfect."
   I sit down on the coffee-table right in front of Lina, my knees touching hers. I am so tired.
   "It sounds good, I guess," I sigh. "Sorry for my misunderstanding."
   She pats my hand, like she would Val's, and I feel that I'm losing it.
   "It's just... I intend to visit as often as I can, and that'll be very often. You'll get sick and tired of me very quickly."
   She snorts and squeezes my hand which is trembling.
   "You are just like Val. I won't be tired of you. I actually quite enjoy your company, silly."
   I am very glad I can't cry.
   Chapter 6: Chapter 6
   The next day finds me absent-mindedly following some guy who is suspected of sealing a Pact with one of Dynast's senior minions. If I turn on the necessary application of my mind, I can tell exactly who the guy is, what he has been doing since I started following him and for what reason my Mistress wants the information (other than being utterly bored, as usual). But after centuries of spy-jobs I am so good at it, I don't even need to stay alert, let alone remember all the details. I automatically merge with crowds, take a table in the next cafe, slip into crevices between the buildings in a deserted street, peek through windows and make mental notes of overheard dialogs without even sparing thought to all that. I pride myself on my ability to spy and often do it in a most thoughtless way just to break another personal record, but today I have a much better reason for my mind to stray away from the immediate surroundings.
   I need this time to think.
   The first issue on my agenda is Lina's manner to compare me to Val. Or rather my own feelings whenever she does that. On the one hand, it's not surprising or unusual - after all, he is indeed my son, and we are bound to have things in common; there is nothing unusual to compare relatives, and I do that quite often myself. On the other hand, her remarks make me have this same clenching feeling that I've been suffering from for what now seems ages. It is not exactly unpleasant, rather like the opposite, but I don't like feeling things I can't explain.
   On the third, metaphorical, hand, however, things are much worse (and I hope that this time my inner monster is only three-handed. There were occasions on which I counted six or eight of those useless limbs growing on him). Lina tends to compare me to Val as to a poor neglected child, which kind of damages my self-esteem. But then, I can't deny she has a point there. Val doesn't, unlike most children I've seen, expect people to like him by default, and neither do I. Each time he does something wrong, like drops something or misunderstands one of us, he apologises so desperately, as if he's committed a mortal sin. I don't do that, but simply for the reason that I don't believe anyone would actually forgive me. I prefer usually not to dwell on the issue, for it seems to be way too sappy, but I am not the one to deny the truth. If I have offended someone or let them down, even unintentionally, I would rather pretend it was on purpose, and alienate the person. I simply tell myself that no matter how hard I try, nothing will be the same again, because forgiveness is not for me.
   Lina herself has been the first one to break this rule of mine. By the time she dealt with Fibrizzo and started on Valgaav, I knew there was no way I could get on her good side again, so, as usual in such cases, I decided to push her away as far as possible by showing her what a bastard I actually was. I made sure Filia was within the hearing range when I suggested to sell Lina to Valgaav. It all worked out perfectly... except that she wouldn't hate me. I tried several times afterwards during the whole trouble of Hellmaster's Jars. And again, to no avail. She simply refuses to let me go. I can set her up for enormous trouble, then forget she exists for a year, and when I eventually turn up, she is bloody glad to see me!
   Ah, well, thinking about Lina is pleasant, but not productive. One more thing that Val and I have in common is our disbelief that someone would care or help without asking anything in exchange. I used to be annoyed by such mistrust on his behalf, but just yesterday I realised I was no better. I never so much as considered that Lina would help me if she knew the truth. Why would Val be any different? Actually, unlike me he still can be saved; after all, he has talked to Lina about his treatment back at the Dragons'. But I wouldn't have shed a word if Lina didn't figure it all out on her own. It must be that he is still a child, and not entirely a Mazoku either, so it is quite normal for him to seek understanding and assistance in others. I, on the other (fourth or whichever) hand, am a lost case. Understanding and support is not something a Mazoku can ask for and be provided.
   Or is it?
   After all, this is what Lina has done, or at least promised. And it is to her that I revealed one of my two most-guarded secrets, just like Val. Am I just another lost child in her view? Or not just in her view, but in reality? After all, she is the one who broke the rule of no forgiving me, she's the one who helped me out more than one time without any ulterior motive, and now it is her that I fell in love with... Not exactly surprising, the last one, huh? But is it just that I am so desperate for someone to care, that I'd fall in love with the first person who does?
   I stop dead in my tracks even as the side of my mind which is not engaged in revelations about myself tells me that I'm pinning my suspect to a wall in order to kill him because that is what the situation demands. I decide to take a break from thinking of eternal matters in favour of the here-and-now. I don't really want to continue thinking of my reasons where Lina is concerned.
   I stare at the man on the other end of my staff. His wife has been stolen and sold into slavery. He gave up his soul in order to bring her back, and now he is bound by oath to do whatever the other party to the Pact tells him, thus falling into a grand strategy of Grausherra's. His wife is at home, raped and suicidal, but he can't be there for her; he has to fulfil his obligations to that demon.
   I know that what I am doing next is wrong, but I can't bring myself to care. It causes me that funny shrinking feeling again, to see him fall to his knees, stuttering incoherently, as I withdraw my staff. I shoot through Astral faster than a thought can go through a mind, and at the finish of my journey I grab at the Pledge Stone and crush it to pieces. I then scatter a few signs here and there and watch from afar as the travelling princess Amelia 'accidentally' comes across my suspect and gets him to spill the whole story. She'll provide his wife with due medical care, she'll find him a good job, she'll force the local government to take measures against slave-dealers. This is what princess Amelia does. I am not interested anymore. I have a story to invent for my Mistress. Something tears inside me and I let out a howl into the cloudless sky. At least, that is what I imagine I do: I am not that pathetic yet to actually cry out.
   I come to see my... how to call them together? well, nevermind, Lina and Val in a few days. I had free time before that, but I quite uncharacteristically spent it brooding and sulking and trying to figure out how to move on. I am quite sure that episode is not the last in the line of 'good deeds' I have committed lately. The scale is progressing, though. I don't want Val to see me anything less than cheerful, but as days pass, I am not getting any better, and I can't just ignore him because of my own problems, can I?
   I arrive quite early, but he is not in his room. He is not in the kitchen either, nor is he in the garden. I am starting to get worried when I finally sense his sleeping presence at Lina's side in her bed. To say that I am exasperated is a severe understatement.
   I shake her shoulder, not willing to wake the boy. He'd get scared.
   "Mh-mm?" she mumbles, still hugging my son to herself as if he were a teddy-bear.
   "Lina," I hiss fiercely, "what the hell do you think you are doing?"
   She opens her eyes finally and takes in sleeping Val's ruffled hair as well as my iridescent glare. Then, as usual, she does the last thing I expect.
   Her eyes widen as she loudly exclaims my name, then she jumps up and starts shaking Val, the whole time staring at me as if pinning me to the spot.
   Val wakes up and rubs at his eyes, trying hard to open them. I am, however, too bewildered to even consider telling Lina off for disturbing his peaceful sleep. Especially when his sleepy gaze focuses on me, and he smiles one of his rare happy smiles.
   I have no time to do anything when I find my neck in a dead lock with Val dangling down my front side. I wrap my arms around him to make sure he doesn't fall, and then look at Lina only to find she is staring at me with the same happy sleepy smile.
   "Is everything all right?" she asks evenly, as if she is sure that it is. The whole thing is so unexpected that I almost forget I should answer.
   "Yes..." I finally produce.
   "Where have you been then?" and this time I hear some steel in her voice.
   "I had a job to do and, well... What is this all about?" I finally demand. And, more importantly, "Why are you sharing a bloody bed?"
   "He's been having nightmares," she says as if it was perfectly expected. "After each day you failed to make an appearance."
   For a second I feel desperate and useless - as I can't wrap my mind around what I have just heard. Then I realise that I can, and already have done so, I just don't want to accept the implications. He has bloody missed me so much he couldn't sleep properly. I don't want to believe it. There must be some other reason, something I'm missing. I don't want... I can't...
   I turn away from Lina's penetrating stare and pull the boy closer, shifting his weight from my neck to my arms.
   "There was no reason to think something happened," I say defensively.
   "He said you promised to appear the other morning, but you didn't."
   I promised? Maybe. I was so deeply engrossed into our drawing lesson, I could've said anything.
   "I just had a job," I repeat dumbly. I don't have to tell them that I was sprawled on the grass, breathing in the night wind and gazing at the stars while my son was having nightmares, worrying about me. It makes me sick.
   "That's what I kept telling him."
   She continues staring at me, and I know she doesn't believe me. She knows I was just wasting time. She knows I never even spared a thought to how he would interpret my absence. She thinks I will never be good enough to be his parent, because it's just against my nature.
   "Why wouldn't you respond to the water-mirror calls?" she asks, making me feel even worse if possible.
   Because I closed off all the external connections, so that no one would disturb my sulk.
   "I... needed to concentrate," I mumble, frowning. It is already a lie; my first lie to either of them. But what else can I say? What do I want to say? That I was being a bloody selfish fool and will never forgive myself? There is no point in this kind of pathetic rambling; Val won't trust me anymore no matter what I say, and Lina already knows everything. Maybe I should just leave. They'd be better withou-
   Wait a minute. Isn't this exactly what I was thinking about earlier? I am doing this again, I am trying to alienate Lina. But I know it doesn't work with her. Besides, Val... He is clinging to me, all four limbs wrapped around my upper body, face buried into my shirt. I realise that right now he doesn't care why I didn't appear or respond. He is just glad I am here. And I can't... take myself away from him.
   I sit down on the bed heavily and start rubbing his back, at the same time trying to relax enough to speak. To spill out my apologies. It doesn't matter that it will be humiliating, I don't have a problem with that. It's just that I can't believe that they'll forgive me. Consciously, I know that at least Lina should, because she always does. But I can't even begin to imagine how or why she would.
   The inner preparation takes me too long: I sense that Val falls asleep in my lap. The clenching feeling inside me is actually painful this time, and I know it's the irony that hurts: he doesn't know I could have simply erased his worries, and didn't.
   "Xellos?" Lina's voice startles me slightly. In spite of trying to find words to talk to her, I seem to have forgotten she was even there.
   "Are you sure you are all right?" she asks, concerned. I am sick again.
   "Stop saying that," I plead, looking away. "I am perfectly all right except that I could've appeared any time during these days, and didn't."
   "For no reason!"
   How many times do I have to say it before she realises that I am a... wait, come back, this is not the usual pattern; I am trying to apologise.
   "I mean," I add quickly before she has time to get angry, "I have no excuse, really, but I am very sorry!"
   So? What now? That's the thing with apologising: if you say you had a reason, that'd look like you're making excuses, which is lame. If you say you hadn't, there'd be no reason to forgive you, right?
   "Yeah, I can tell that."
   "That you are sorry."
   Obviously, it's not enough. Damn. What am I to do? I can't bloody lose her!
   "Lina, I was really stupid, but I'll know better from now on," I jabber as quickly as I can. "I never realised he could be worried about me, but I will keep it in mind, I promise, I..."
   Her hand on my shoulder knocks whatever I was going to say out of my mind.
   "Breathe, Xellos," she says. "I know you don't need to, but trust me, it might just help."
   I am so confused that she'd bring up the issue of breathing now that I look up at her and find her smiling.
   "Xellos, it's all right. It's hard to realise someone cares; it's even harder to come to terms with it. Especially when this someone is a small child. It feels like he isn't supposed to care about your well-being because you are the responsible one, right?"
   "Er... yeah, I guess..."
   "Well, my friend, I'm afraid it's part of the responsibility."
   So? So what's the sentence?
   She snorts and shakes her head. She is forgiving me again. As insane as it might seem. She is actually trying to help. That stuff about breathing - she meant that I should calm down, right? And now she is teaching me how to be a better parent. She is actually helping me, again, right after I've been a bastard, and without any prompting.
   And then suddenly I feel like I am going to explode. I have to speak to her, to spill it out. I can't stand it anymore, even though that'd be ultimate cheek on my part... How much of me can she really bear? I don't want her to get sick of me, but then she had said that she actually enjoyed my company, hadn't she? And she is so understanding.
   I carefully untangle Val from myself and let him lie on the bed, covering him with the blanket. Then I turn to Lina and take her hand in mine.
   "Help me."
   She loses her smile, but in favour of seriousness, not annoyance. I glance at the sleeping Val quickly and nod towards the door. I really don't want to have this talk in his presence, even if he is asleep.
   We go out to the sitting-room and sink into one of Lina's fathomless sofas.
   "So what's wrong with you?" she asks in a concerned voice.
   "Actually, it's more like something is too right with me. I am doing good things. Against all reason. And I can't help it."
   For a moment she just stares, then prompts me,
   "Okay, I understand it's odd. Is it very inconvenient?"
   "It leaves me devastated, and sometimes it hurts. But the worst thing is, the scale is growing. At first it was just small things, like leaving tips or just ignoring an opportunity to cause trouble. But that last time it was really big. I actually screwed up an assignment to help a complete stranger without any useful qualities. The very idea makes me sick."
   Lina frowns.
   "Is there a pattern to it?"
   "Hmm, well, it is kind of connected to thinking about Val. I mean, sometimes when I am dwelling on Val-related issues and pay little attention to my surroundings, I would just do something creepy."
   It sounds ridiculous, and I expect her to snort, but she doesn't. Instead she looks thoughtful.
   "How exactly does it make you feel?"
   "Well, this last time... when I didn't appear... it was that very thing. I was just apathetic. And, well, I guess, I was sulking. Or depressed... I don't really know the proper words to describe the feeling; I have never felt it before!"
   "Do you feel anything like this at any time when you are with Val?"
   I think hard, making sure I am honest with myself. Eventually I shake my head.
   "No, definitely not. Not with him, and not with you."
   "What am I to do with it?"
   Damn. It slipped, after all.
   "Just that when I am thinking of Val, I am thinking of you too, naturally, it's hard to separate."
   She considers me for a moment, and I have a funny feeling that she can see though me. Sure enough,
   "Is there anything else you want to tell me?"
   I lean back resting my head on the back-rest, so that I don't have to look at Lina directly.
   "You tend to compare me to Val, which is all right by itself, but... Sometimes it makes some things too vivid. Like sometimes it seems to me that you actually care. I mean, I know you care about him, but sometimes it's like you care about me. I haven't had any such experience before, but now I find that I enjoy it much more than I would prefer."
   I snatch a quick glance of her. She appears deep in thought.
   "Are you just mentioning it separately or are you making a connection?" she asks carefully.
   "I am not sure," I admit.
   "I see."
   We are silent for a while.
   "Well," she finally sighs, "right now there is only one thing I can suggest. That is, if, or when, you do another 'good thing', come here straight away. If nothing else, we would probable be able to make you feel better."
   "I'd do that anyway; I don't want to cause him any more distress."
   "Xellos, you shouldn't blame yourself too much for this. His reaction surprised me quite a lot as well. I mean, there was no way for you to have known that he'd be so miserable if you didn't come. He is much more nervous than kids normally are."
   She is trying to make me feel better again, and succeeding magnificently.
   "Come to think of it," I reminiscent, "his mother was always the one to dramatise everything."
   Lina nods absently.
   "What was she like?"
   "Well, apart from being a racist and a Ceified priestess... she was quite ill-tempered, decisive and powerful."
   Lina chuckles.
   "I guess the last three qualities are the ones you generally like in people, huh?"
   "Yes, naturally..." I trail off, and only then realise that 'ill-tempered' isn't exactly considered a good quality among Humans, or Dragons, for the matter. So I chuckle too.
   It is so good to be with Lina. Even spilling my worries doesn't feel like complaining, it's just a friendly discussion. That is, as much as I understand the term 'friendly'. Suddenly my sulk from earlier threatens to return, and I am desperate to dispel it.
   "You never actually answered," I say, drawing Lina's attention. "Do you care?"
   She looks at me appraisingly.
   "I thought it is pretty obvious by now that I do."
   I edge closer to her and let my head roll onto her shoulder; she doesn't push me off.
   "Thank you."
   "That's a really stupid reply, you know."
   "No, yeah, I mean, thank you for saying it. This way at least I have something to hang onto when things go crazy."
   "You must be really lonely," she muses, but it doesn't sound like she is pitying me, just stating fact.
   "I never thought about it before, but lately I can't but agree."
   "You know, I think that whatever is happening to you must be connected to Val, after all. I mean, it's not just you going crazy or something. It has to be Her."
   "You mean, She what, wants me to turn good?"
   "Would it be very uncharacteristic of Her?"
   "Why are you asking me? You should know better."
   "Because you have pretty much seen the whole history of mankind!"
   "I guess I wasn't paying attention," I chuckle. I wonder how Lina can stay comfortable being so close to me, while still remembering my age. Everyone else freaked out. She turns and stares at me, suddenly as if seeing me for the first time.
   "Xellos, I must be seeing things, but there's an eyelash on your cheek."
   I actually do creep out. With all this parenting, loneliness and good deeds I wouldn't be surprised to wake up human one day. I feel at my cheek rather nervously, snatch the offending short hair and glare at it. Then it dawns on me.
   "It's yours!" I exclaim indignantly. "It's red!"
   "Phew!" Lina pretends to wipe cold sweat from her forehead, and then we both tumble down guffawing like a pair of hyenas.
   After a minute or so of this roaring orgy, I hear a door being open and closed, and then Val comes up to check us out. I guess we woke him up, which is no wonder.
   "Xellos, you are actually back, aren't you?" he says with a smile. "At first I thought it was a dream, too."
   I am too exhausted from the laughter, as well as from the earlier revelations, to sit up, so I stay sprawled on the sofa with my head in Lina's lap, and simply beckon him to join us. He climes onto the edge and I pull him closer.
   "I am back," I say, "and we have to make up for lots of lost time. How about going downtown to get you an ice-cream?"
   He grins and nods.
   "I tried it once," he says. "It was great. Milgasia-sama said all kids like it."
   "He treated you, didn't he?" I ask fishing for more information on Milgasia.
   "Yeah, I told you he kind of liked me."
   "Did he know he was the only one?" Lina intervenes. So she is just as curious about why Milgasia let this all happen, as I am.
   "I'm not sure... But they said, he used to have a kid long ago, and he was too kind and, kinda, allowed everything. And that kid met some bad guys and hanged out with them, and then he got killed. I guess he doesn't know how to be around kids," Val shrugs dismissively.
   Lina and I exchange glances.
   "Actually," I say carefully, "I saw him the other day and he asked if he could meet you, Val."
   "He did?" of course, the poor child is genuinely surprised. "Are you sure?"
   "Yes, he made it very clear."
   "Oh," Val says, and I can't help but start counting seconds. It takes him twenty-six of them. "May I meet him then?"
   "If you want to," I answer, darting a glance to Lina. Val does the same.
   "You don't have to ask me," she waves us off. "I don't even know the guy. I mean, I met him once, but it's not like I actually know him. So if you want to see him, Val, and Xellos approves, I'm okay with inviting him."
   "Inviting?" I raise an eyebrow. I must look really funny, stretched across Lina's lap and making faces. At least, Val giggles. "Do you think it's wise to let him know the location?"
   "C'mon, Xel, don't be so paranoid. After all, he's the one who told you about Val, and he knows you're not above using it against him. That's not to mention he's been terrified of you, like, forever."
   "He is terrified of you?" Val finally catches something he can understand in our exchange. "Why?"
   "Well, not exactly terrified," I correct, smiling. "It's more like he just respects me because I'm very powerful."
   Lina smiles so acidly, that her smile could melt things, but doesn't say anything. Val appears satisfied.
   Between Lina's carelessness and my paranoia we decided after some debate to invite Milgasia inside, but make sure he has no idea where the place is. So I put anti-teleportation wards over Lina's property, the kind that would only admit me and whoever I bring along. And now it is Sunday/Monday night, and I am waiting for Milgasia near that very temple where I met him last time. He has to come here in person to leave the volumes he promised me.
   Eventually he does. Thankfully, it is already morning, so I won't have to schedule another meeting or wait here until Lina and Val have had their share of sleep.
   He jumps at my appearance and visibly refrains from adopting a defensive posture.
   "I do not recall making an appointment," he grumbles.
   "No, but I do recall your request to see my charge," I smile one the nastiest of my relatively humane smiles.
   "You mean, you'd take me to him? Now?" his mood is dramatically improving.
   "If you have nothing better to do..." I shrug, but cross my fingers. Val has been so excited about the planned event, that Milgasia is unlikely to be able to produce a valid reason not to go. Put simply, I'll bring him by force if he refuses.
   "Oh, I- No, I don't. I mean, I'll go," he stutters. I have a strong suspicion that he actually has loads to do, but dismisses it in favour of my Val, and my smile grows more pleasant.
   "Good," I extend a hand to him. He eyes it suspiciously.
   "I'd rather teleport on my own," he says cautiously.
   "Like the wards would admit you," I reply, glad I can avoid the subject of not telling him the location.
   He nods slowly and takes my hand. His one is dry and hot against my ever-cool fingers.
   We arrive deep in the garden where no neighbouring houses can be seen. We walk up to the back terrace where everything is ready for breakfast, including Lina and Val.
   I watch Milgasia as he takes in the scene. The look he gives Lina is absolutely priceless. She stands up and nods to him with ill-concealed amusement. Val joins her, a little uneasy, clearly torn between running forward and hiding behind.
   "Hello, Milgasia-san," Lina says in her most polite voice, which still sounds rather familiar, but that's how I like her, right?
   "Good morning, Lina-san," he replies rather solemnly. "And good morning to you, Valteria."
   "Good morning," says Val feebly.
   "Why don't we all sit down?" Lina suggests, more or less dispelling the awkward atmosphere. "I have some splendid fresh butter cookies!" She proceeds to pour us tea.
   For a few minutes Milgasia and Lina are engaged in small talk, as I watch them, leaning against the back-rest of my armchair, and Val stares at Milgasia mutely, as if unsure he exists. Finally the old Dragon clears his throat quietly and turns to the kid.
   "So, how have you been?" he asks, attempting at nonchalance.
   "Very well, sir," answers Val who was strictly instructed to say the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, because Lina suspected he'd try to put us in a better light for Milgasia, only no one knows what his idea of a better light is.
   "You... like it here?" the Elder continues, and I notice that Lina is fighting hard not to laugh. The corners of my own mouth are strained too.
   "Yes, sir, it is very good here, sir," Val blurts with so much conviction, that Milgasia raises his eyebrows. At this rate he'll think we have threatened the kid into praising the conditions of his stay.
   "Eh, I am very glad for you," the Dragon indeed darts a suspicious glance my way, and then continues sipping his tea, apparently out of useless questions.
   "Oh, I have to check on the cake," Lina exclaims so suddenly, everyone jumps. "Xellos, could you help me with the plates?"
   "Sure," I smile my brand annoying smile. Milgasia nods almost invisibly.
   The thing is, since half of the first floor windows are those of the kitchen, we can, of course hear everything from there. The cake Lina mentioned still has another half an hour to bake.
   As soon as we leave, Milgasia visibly relaxes.
   "Val," he begins in an entirely different tone which actually makes the kid smile. "I am happy to see you well. I wish I could come check on you sooner."
   "Thanks, sir, but they are really great. I mean, they are making sure I'm well."
   "They? Are they both here all the time?"
   "Well, Xellos comes and goes, but Madam Lina is always here."
   Milgasia clearly notices the difference in address.
   "Is, er, Madam Lina strict to you?"
   "Well, she sets lots of rules, but they are good rules."
   "How so?"
   "They are to make things better. Like that one where I should sleep at least eight hours. It means, I can sleep more if I want, but not less."
   Val's evident joy is somewhat lost on Milgasia. After a moment it dawns on him, though.
   "Was it different before?"
   "Yes, before I had to get up at five and no later. And I got tired quickly. But here if I stay up a little late, I may sleep in next morning, so I'm okay."
   "Oh, I see. What kind of other rules do you have?"
   I turn to Lina and whisper, "This seems to be a third degree interrogation, don't you think?" She giggles quietly and nods several times.
   "Let him. He obviously cares, and there is no reason to make him suffer from uncertainty."
   I turn back to the window where Val recites his rules: mealtimes, chores timetable, things he is rewarded for, things that are frowned upon. Milgasia looks bewildered, but approving.
   "And I have toys! And I may even take them out to the garden when the weather is good. Well, when the weather is bad, I can't go out anyway, so it's like I may take them out anytime with me!"
   He is so excited, he's slightly bouncing on the chair. I grin like a madman and remind myself to bring him something new next time.
   "I see, I see," Milgasia has clearly got the picture of Val's daily life and wants to switch to something else. "So, how does Xellos treat you?"
   "He's great!" Val supplies without a pause.
   "I see you don't call him 'sir' or anything?.." the Dragon carefully inquires.
   "I used to, but he said it was annoying," Val says with a tinge of disappointment. Then he lowers his voice to a whisper so quiet, I have to extend my Astral body his way to hear, "I actually like it more this way."
   I notice that I'm bouncing on my feet. Lina pats my back with a mocking smile.
   "Has he been teaching you anything?" Milgasia continues. Ah, so that's what he is worried about.
   "Yes," Val says eagerly. "To draw. He's great at it! And he explains things like he knows exactly how I think!"
   Wow. I never knew. Well, if he's thinking my style, that is surely good for him, since his mother wasn't particularly good at it. Lina elbows me in the ribs and grins. Milgasia, however, does a double-take. Come on, man, you can't condemn the boy just because he is smart!
   "Does he... did he talk to you about the Dragons?" Milgasia finally decides to change the topic. I am a little unnerved. I really don't know what Val might answer.
   The boy takes his time thinking.
   "I am not sure," he says eventually. "I am a Dragon, right?"
   "Yes, of course," Milgasia supplies. Oh, damn, how am I going to bring up this topic without lying to the boy or spilling any more secrets!?
   "Then yes," Val happily concludes. The little fox does think like me.
   "And what does he tell you about you?" ah, the lizard wouldn't give up, huh?
   "That some things are not my fault, that I don't have to be bad, and that I'm good at drawing!" Val recites, the last idea clearly making more sense to him than the previous two. Milgasia blinks.
   "I think it's time for the cake," Lina quietly announces, her eyes twinkling.
   The rest of the party is much less awkward now that the Dragon believes that Val is indeed enjoying himself. However, later on he makes an excuse to pull me aside for a man-to-man talk.
   "You haven't told him who he is yet, have you?"
   I snort. That's a bloody tricky question to address.
   "Of course not. After what your flock has done to him, what we have to do first is to convince him that he is normal, not that he is an exception to the laws of nature, you know."
   The Elder shakes his head, defeated.
   "I guess so... But when are you going to tell him? I mean, all of it? The history?"
   "You mean the part where I thinned out your tribe?" I pierce him with a glare. He flinches. "I rather think this is not a matter of urgency."
   "Oh, right, Xellos, tell me that you'd like him to grow up unbiased and choose his loyalties on his own! I am so going to believe you!"
   "Easy there," I level him with a nasty look. "You don't want to quarrel with me."
   He blanches, like he always does at my threats. But honestly I don't know what to answer. The idea of Val growing up naОve and finding out the extent of my crimes after he's grown used to me seems kind of cruel. But I know for a fact that alienating him now is out of question. The only option left is to convince him that what I did was right, but then I am not supposed to lie to him. Oh fuck.
   "Actually, you'd want to ask this of Lina. She is the one in charge of ideology here," I finally suggest. That might be the wisest course of actions, anyway.
   "Oh really," he grimaces. "As if you'd let a human decide for you."
   I feel indignant.
   "First of all, she is not 'a human', she is the most bloody powerful witch in the world, and sister to the Knight of Ceified, too. Secondly, it was her idea to let you in here today, so you'd like to stay on her good side if you want to see Val ever again. And finally, Humans are supposed to be the neutral power destined to unite the world, if the rumours I hear about the latest prophecies are any good. I told you quite explicitly, I don't want another war. I know Dragon logic is feeble, but even for you it should be obvious that I have all the reason to trust Lina with Val's loyalty."
   Milgasia nods mutely, not exactly convinced.
   After a while he says his good-bye to Val, and I take him away.
   As I come back, Lina gets me in a corner while Val is busy changing into his play clothes.
   "He wanted to know how I am going to put it to Val about you and your crimes," she chuckles.
   "I wonder what you answered," I say, attempting to sound unconcerned.
   "That it makes no sense to try and 'put' it to him. He has a very clear idea that you care about him more than anyone else does, and it's going to take more than two hundred dead Dragons for him to turn away from you."
   "So... you are actually going to tell him what I did... and that it was wrong."
   "Yeah. Trust me, it won't change anything."
   I do want to trust her, more than ever before.
   As for Milgasia's errant son - it looks like no one in this fic can boast a happy childhood, but, ah, instead it's cute 8)) I hope it's not too sappy though.
   Xellos will have issues about sharing Val's attention with Milgasia later. He hasn't realised what's in stock for him at all. Funny how with each thing he learns, another unfamiliar one appears =)
   I hope to develop Milgasia a little too, because so far I only know one good fic where he is a decent character, not paper-figure (I'm speaking of Night Light by Amber Palette, but it's XF, unfortunately. Although I guess Milgasia doesn't normally fit in the landscape of an LX fic 8))) I'm the only crazy one.)
   Thanks for reviewing, I really appreciate it even if I don't write long author's notes and plead for r&r in the summary like normal people do 8)
   Chapter 7: Chapter 7
   The next morning I arrive early again. I don't think I have ever had been so active in the few hours right after dawn before. But since Val routinely gets up four or five hours earlier than Lina, this is a really good opportunity for me to spend time with him without the threat of anyone bursting in in the middle.
   He actually opens the door himself as soon as I knock, instead of just telling me to come in. At my raised eyebrow he explains,
   "I locked the door for the night."
   "Why? Is something wrong?"
   "No, it's just that... Madam Lina said I could do it, so I had to try."
   "You had to," I chuckle. Yup, that little bastard is my son all right.
   He shrugs and turns to a more exciting topic.
   "What are we going to do today?"
   "Hmm, let me see. How about shiny objects?"
   "Like a candle?"
   "No, like glass or metal. Or eyes."
   "Oh, wow! That's great!"
   Naturally, I have brought a number of drawings and paintings of Lina, those in which I managed to do an especially good job on her eyes and hair. Well, in some of them there were also weapons, bottles and cutlery, so we could study various kinds of surfaces.
   "She is really beautiful, isn't she," Val remarks absent-mindedly as we go through the pictures.
   "Absolutely," I agree easily.
   "Oh, wow, that spoon looks alive!"
   "I mean, like real. May I try and copy it?"
   He grabs his supplies and starts drawing the said spoon, meticulously copying the shape and density of shading. I think his copy looks much more natural than the original. After he is done with it, we move on to the other pictures, and he copies several more objects.
   "How did you do this speck on her hair?" he asks, examining a pencil portrait.
   "Actually, I cheated a little. I used a kneaded rubber."
   "Oh, so that's what you use it for? I've been wondering..."
   "Yeah, you can use it for things like that. Or, for instance, see this ray of light? You just put two sheets on top of your drawing after shading, and roll the rubber along the gap. Go ahead, try!"
   He tries several times and is utterly fascinated. He then switches to the issue of hair, making light and shadow pool in the abstract curls of hair in the middle of the sheet. It looks like he doesn't dare to attach a head to them.
   "Ne, Xellos," he says. "Do you think it'd be okay if I draw her?"
   "Eh... well, why not? I mean, that'd be no wonder since you live with her."
   He beams.
   "Great! Because, you know, she must be so much fun to draw!"
   "Sure. But you'll have to wait until she's up if you want reference material."
   "Actually... I think I'll try to draw from memory. I mean, you do that, right?"
   "Yes, but... I've got a very good memory; besides, I studied her carefully before trying to draw her in the beginning."
   "I studied her too. I mean, I was thinking of drawing her for some time."
   I grin with one side of my mouth. So he gave some thought to approaching the issue. Nice determination there, little one. I wonder if he has my photographic memory, though.
   He proceeds to draw Lina, just as I set out for another picture of him. Neither of my models allow for displaying my art anywhere where it might actually be seen, but, ah, what am I if not used to secrets. As his attention focuses solely on the work, I start a small talk.
   "Did you enjoy it yesterday with Milgasia?"
   "Yeah, thank you, it was very nice. I think he is really afraid of you, though, like Madam Lina said."
   "Why do you think so?"
   "Well, he wouldn't really talk to me with you around. I mean, not about anything he wanted to talk about. And when you went away, he asked me, like, a hundred questions about you."
   "Did he annoy you?"
   "Nope, I just hope I got the answers right."
   "Why, didn't you just tell the truth?"
   "I did where I could, but he asked about my opinion..."
   I make sure I don't sound too pressing,
   "That's normal for people to ask for your opinion. Did you have trouble expressing it?"
   "No, just... I have this feeling, like, he wants to think you are bad or something. And he wants me to tell him something bad about you. And then he'll quarrel with you. But I don't want that, so I have to make sure I don't say anything bad about you. I mean, I think he would understand some things wrong, like, on purpose."
   I ponder over this splendid insight into Dragon nature, coming from a five-year-old half-blood. Well, at least I can be sure that he's got my thinking gear.
   "Well, I guess you are right," I say. "But don't worry. As long as you want to see him around, I will not let him quarrel with me. Okay?"
   "Xellos..." he looks up from his work. "Why do you do so much for me?"
   I recall Lina's answer. She is really a reference-book for me lately.
   "Because I like you."
   "But still, it's, like, so much trouble!"
   If only you knew how much trouble it really is...
   "You're worth it," I smile.
   He looks at me, frowning. What's wrong now?
   "It's just odd," he says. "No one ever liked me before, and then, boom, over a week there is whole three people."
   The logical part of me wants to point out that Milgasia clearly was there before the 'boom', but somehow I don't want to add him any weight in Val's eyes.
   "Well, if you recall, I used to come your way quite often before, too."
   "Yes, but I didn't know why."
   I have nothing to say to that.
   "Well, you do now... By the way, you don't doubt that Lina likes you, do you?"
   He cheers up instantly.
   "I don't 'cause I can feel it!"
   "Feel it how?"
   "Hmm, like, in the air or something. Like she has a lamp inside, and it's shining my way."
   I am rooted to the place. He can read emotions off the Astral body! Holy fuck! I barely hear him continue,
   "But I never feel that from you or from Milgasia-sama."
   "Oh, Val..." I try to gather my wits to answer him. There is just too much he has to know and doesn't! "It's... it's because Lina is human, and Milgasia and I aren't."
   "What's the difference?" he stares.
   A bloody good question, just for a quality-time chat over drawing.
   "Well... it's complicated, but for now let's say, humans let their emotions outside, but we, I mean, Mazoku and Dragons, keep them inside so that no one can see."
   "You mean, you can hide it?"
   "Yes. And you can, too."
   "Oh. But can you show it when you want?"
   Oh no-no-no-no-no! He wants me to lift the shields! I am bloody doomed!
   He probably notices my expression and recoils.
   "Is it hard?"
   "Not hard, just... I can't show my emotions to just you. If I stop hiding them, everyone would see. And there are some people I really don't want to know how I feel. So..."
   "Oh," His face falls. "Sorry."
   "Don't say it, it's my problem actually. Nothing for you to be sorry about. And, Val, believe me, if I could, I would. But..."
   "But you'll quarrel with somebody if they know you like me," he concludes my death sentence.
   I wish more than anything else that I could show him. But my Mistress is watching me at all times, and I can' let it on.
   "I am sorry, Val," I whisper, looking down. I don't know how I will ever be able to look him in the eyes again. I crave for his trust, yet I can't even step over the fear of my superiors to simply let him know he is loved. I really hate myself and the whole Mazoku tribe this minute.
   I feel something touch my hand. He has come up to me.
   "Xellos, it's okay," he whispers. "You shouldn't feel bad about it."
   He tries to hug me, I realise, but the table is in the way. I turn to him a little too quickly, forgetting all about my dignity, and embrace him tightly, lifting him off the floor.
   We sit like that for a minute or so. A slight breeze from the window forces the door to open slowly, and it remains ajar. I know that I should close it, but there is a more important thing to do at the moment. Finally, I muster the courage to tell him the inevitable and hurtful part.
   "Val, listen. What you said earlier about how you can feel how Lina feels for you, remember?"
   He nods against my chest.
   "You mustn't tell anyone about this."
   He looks up in surprise, and I find myself actually looking into his eyes again without much trouble.
   "Not even Lina?"
   "Hm, well, I guess, Lina is all right, but not Milgasia, and no one else."
   "Okaaaay," he appears thoughtful. I expect the inevitable 'why?' with trepidation.
   "So it's like if they don't know, they wouldn't hide, like you, right?" he asks in a second. "So I can know stuff about people without them noticing?"
   "Er, yes, sure," well, that's a much more convenient way of thinking. Bravo, my little fox!
   "Yay!" he says, bouncing on my knee. "We have another secret!"
   I let out a breath I didn't even know I was holding.
   My instincts must be really getting worse with all the strain of this situation, otherwise I'd have to admit that probably, somewhere very deep in my subconscious I wanted it to happen. When the next moment I glance up, Lina is standing in the doorway, greedily taking in the whole picture.
   I assess the surroundings in a desperate attempt to find an escape route. Val is sitting in my lap, hugging me for dear life; his unfinished sketch of Lina is on the table, brushing edges with my unfinished sketch of him. Paints and pencils are scattered all around. As well as, unfortunately, a dozen of my most vivid depictions of Lina...
   To be honest, I expect a Fireball. But then it looks like Lina has grown out of kicking the ass of everyone who so much as smiles her way. A twenty-three year old human is traditionally considered mature in all ways, behavior included. Still, I appreciate her reserved reaction.
   "Ooh... well, I'm flattered. Sorry for the intrusion; the door was ajar, I thought to check if everything was okay. Val, I expect you at breakfast in a few minutes."
   She turns and strides off. Val looks at me fearfully.
   "She saw..." he has a bloody talent to state the obvious.
   "Yeah, well, my own fault," I mumble just to make sure he doesn't get any ideas. "I should've closed that door."
   "What's gonna happen now?"
   I wish I knew.
   "Nothing. I mean, you are going to have breakfast, and then we can continue."
   "Oh," he sighs, and I feel slight disappointment. I wreak my mind for a reason and at last find one.
   "It was an important secret," I say. "But now that it's out, we can't change anything, right? So no reason to spoil the day."
   "Uh, sure!" he beams instantly. "Then let's go to the kitchen!"
   I hover in the sitting-room while Lina is putting him to eat. Once he is all set, she comes out and shuts the door tight. I take a breath so deep as if I actually needed it.
   "So," she demands quietly. "I am listening to your explanations."
   I half-sit half-lean on the sofa's back.
   "First of all, you should understand that Val has nothing to do with it," I begin in a very odd voice that I myself barely recognise.
   "Oh, yes, somehow I doubt it was his brilliant idea!" she bristles. Great. I am so going to catch it.
   "I mean, I know it must have looked really weird, but those pictures you have seen were all made by me. I brought them to show him some drawing techniques. He doesn't care much about the contents, and anyway, there wasn't anything inappropriate..."
   I realise my mistake as she narrows her eyes.
   "Am I to understand there are others which actually are inappropriate?"
   I can't deny it.
   "I see," she breathes out a long sigh, then starts pacing around the room. "So that is why those bloody lessons are always so early in the morning, right?"
   I nod. I really don't know what's coming next. She might think it's unhealthy for Val to be around me much. Or she might just freak out at my folly. Anyway, I have to say farewell to the quiet friendly understanding we shared in this room just a few days ago.
   "Do you actually keep them here, or bring with you every day?" the outrage at the idea of those pictures is clear in her voice, although her emotions are quite confused.
   "The latter," I barely hear myself say. Why can't I muster any voice? Why am I so bloody distressed with the whole thing!? "I, er, I mean, they are different each time. Depending on what the lesson is about."
   She stops in her tracks.
   "You're telling me it's just a coi- wait, are they all... all...!?" she obviously can't bring herself to finish the question. I screw my eyes shut and blurt it out.
   "With the exception of the two pictures of Val, they are all of you."
   She stands still for a moment, then carefully lowers herself into the armchair.
   "Xellos," she says clearly after another pause. "You do realise it is obsession, don't you."
   I look away. Obsession? Perhaps.
   "I didn't give it much thought, actually," I mumble. I wish it to be over as soon as possible, but my wishes are never taken into consideration by the powers that be, are they?
   "Let me look at them," Lina demands in a voice that doesn't allow for hesitation. I still hesitate.
   "I'm not sure it's a good idea."
   "It's not for you to judge," she snaps, and I feel as if I was suddenly thrown into ice-cold water.
   "As you wish," I breathe, heading upstairs.
   I never picked them up after she left for the kitchen, there seemed to be no reason to hide them now. I don't know why I am so reluctant to let her see them now, when she already knows the worst part, that they exist.
   "How many are there altogether?" she asks my back as we ascend. Ohhh, fuck, does she have to know?
   "I am not sure."
   "Well, by estimate? Thirty? Fifty?"
   "Svrl hndrd," I gabble.
   "WHAT!?" apparently, she heard. Thankfully (or not?) we reach the room just at that moment. She sends me a dubious look, clearly unwilling to turn her back on me. I proceed into the room and to the far wall, so that not to make her any more uncomfortable. She crouches down to look at the pictures.
   There are fifteen altogether. Six in pencil, others in paints. The one nearest to her shows herself through a frosted window, looking up from a book. Another is of her just coming out of the shower, wiping stray drops from her face, her nails and hair gleaming like a set of jewels. And there, a dark tunnel underground; only a small orb of light in her hand makes it possible to see her. Her Lightings are always of a warm, yellowish shade whereas normally they are quite dull white. In that one she is splashing water at her face; it's a sunny day, and the group has just stopped for lunch at a river-bench. She is smiling, and I know that she was actually smiling at me that moment, which is why the whole picture is so bright, it almost pains me to look at it now. I don't really know how I endured painting something so happy. There is Lina by the fireplace with a glass of wine, in the kitchen fussing over some dish... There are also several scenes which never took place in real life, only in my sick imagination. Such as Lina in some kind of royal dress with lots of jewelry in the middle of a ballroom. Or on a thoroughbred horse, flashing a sword. Or the one where she is looking at me (or any other spectator) over her shoulder with a somewhat playful expression, fingering the amulet on her left wrist, another one hugging her neck tightly.
   The real Lina stops darting from one picture to another to examine and re-examine them, and settles down on her knees, staring at me unseeingly.
   "I really don't know what to say," she utters at last. I shrug. I didn't really expect to hear anything new. She rubs eyes and forehead in such a lovely motion, that I can barely refrain from starting to draw it right now. "Why are you doing this?"
   I blink.
   "Doing what?"
   "Drawing... me..."
   Why is she so uncomfortable with the idea?
   Anyway, as if I could explain. Because I only think of you? Because the whole world may turn upside down, but I wouldn't care as long as I look at you?
   "You are beautiful," I shrug.
   She looks up sharply with a flash of something between surprise, indignation and embarrassment. I am no good at these things, am I?
   She promptly stands up and sweeps out of the room. I am no good at all, indeed.
   Val's unfinished picture makes him speed up his breakfast somewhat, so before I even have time to recover from Lina's leave, he appears in her place, beaming and wiping the corners of his mouth (with a napkin, thankfully).
   "Can we continue?" he asks eagerly.
   "Sure," I nod. "I looked at your sketch. It's quite good, but too much to the left. You'll have to cut off several inches from the right edge, otherwise it'll be unbalanced."
   "Hmmm, but I can put something else there, right?"
   "Yes, but you'll have to think long and hard about what it might be."
   "Good, I like to think," he says, making me chuckle. I go back to my own sheet of paper. At least, drawing Val is fine with Lina.
   I am finished sooner than him, and use the time to collect and put away the offending drawings. Then I check the clock. I have a short appointment with one of my minors in a minute. Val is still smearing colours on his paper, tongue sticking out, personified concentration. He is getting quite good with paints now. He is covered in them, too.
   "I'll be back in five minutes," I say.
   "Uhuh," he nods, even though I doubt he registered the information. I chuckle and disappear.
   When I am back, it is Lina whom I see first. Val is proudly showing her the picture. I feel somewhat envious. I am teaching him, right? Couldn't he have waited to show it to me first?
   My chain of thought is broken as Lina kisses Val and actually runs out of the room. So that is how she is treating me now, huh? Can't stand a minute in my company?
   It hurts. It hurts a big deal. Just as bad as it hurt when I got wounded while protecting her from Ghost Ma-ou. I have to grab the bed's footboard to stay upright.
   Val stares after Lina for a second, then turns to me, a little disconcerted, but oblivious to my poor state.
   "I finished it. Sorry, I should've shown you first, but I didn't know if you were coming back soon, and I really wanted to show somebody..." he trails off, probably, taking in my expression. I school my features and drag myself up to the table.
   The picture is, of course, splendid. Whatever willpower has been keeping me from collapsing, is virtually blown away by the sight of this painted Lina. I have to support myself on the table so that I don't scare Val by falling to the floor. She is everything I could ever wished for. The Friend, the Lover and the Mother, altogether, something totally archetypical, and at the same time so real, tangible, alive. She is glowing with a warm, welcoming love, that makes me melt. And at the same time she is strict, powerful and ruthless where it comes to protecting her own. I can see both the happy laughing woman, and the small lost child. The angry warrior and the enchanting cute girl.
   With a quiet groan I force myself to look away from her. I still have to assess the picture as a teacher, and as I recall, there were problems with composition. I turn to look to the right, and see... myself. He drew me. He bloody drew me!
   Well, come to think of it, it's not that surprising. I am a considerable part of his life, aren't I? And there is nothing unusual with the idea of me sitting on the sitting-room sofa next to Lina (since that is actually what the picture shows).
   In the picture I am... well, me. It's an odd feeling, really, since the only images of me that I have seen were miniatures in the Dragons' chronicles, and those were anything but realistic. In this one, however, there is absolutely nothing wrong. I mean, it's just the way I think about myself. Powerful, ancient, smart, funny, and, well, caring. No denying that anymore... He drew me with my eyes open, although not very wide, and my expression is both a neutral smile and a penetrating glare. He is so talented, my little fluffy Dragon. He was even able to catch the way I look at Lina, like my life depends on her next word.
   Wait a second.
   "Is something wrong?" he asks, anxious. No wonder there: Lina has just run away after glancing at the picture, and now I am barely standing, clutching the edge of the desk. Not exactly encouraging!
   "No, of course not, it's, well... your picture is perfect."
   He doesn't look convinced. I wouldn't either.
   "It's just... I never expected you to draw me."
   "Oh. Sorry, I didn't ask..."
   "It's all right, all right, Val. I am just a little surprised. No one has drawn me so well before, and I am just a little... um, well, flattered, I guess."
   "That's what Madam Lina said," Val points out. As if I could ever forget.
   "Ne, Val..." I know I must go on reassuring him, but I don't have the strength. I have to know. "Do I always have this look when I look at her?"
   He ponders a bit.
   "No," he finally says. I almost sigh in relief. "Only when she is not looking."
   I slowly sit down on the floor. He doesn't understand what he has done, does he... He might be smart for a Dragon of his age, but he is still a small child. An innocent one. He is not supposed to know how... things work... between people. He just wanted to do a good job drawing me, and my... attitude to Lina seemed an important part.
   I hug him, for lack of anything to say. He is quite confused, but I can't do anything to help him. I feel like if I open my mouth I will howl.
   She knows. And she doesn't want to see me.
   I grit my teeth as burning pain shoots through me at this thought. Since when have you deserved nice treatment, Xellos Metallium? She befriended you, she forgave you, she helped you through the identity crisis... everyone has their limits. You have gone too far this time. Of course, Lina is always the opposite from anyone's expectations: she wouldn't turn away from me when I promised to kill her, but she would when she learned that I loved her.
   Now what am I to do about Val? I really doubt it would do him any good to stay with us when she hates me, and I am miserable and defiant (as I know I will be). Well, whatever she thinks of me, she must still consider Val's well-being, right? I have to go and talk to her about it, then. She'll have to bear with me for his sake, at least until we work out a suitable solution.
   "Val," I say, "sorry, but I have to go talk to Lina. It's kind of urgent. Everything is all right, don't worry. You are my precious little boy."
   I kiss him and leave, only then realising that I copied Lina.
   She is in her room, and invites me in as soon as I knock. I stop a few inches from the door, not daring to approach her.
   "Ehem... I am afraid we need to talk."
   She has her back to me, and makes no attempt to turn. Whatever hopes I still had, are totally demolished.
   "You know, it's kinda weird," she says in a strained voice. "It's the second time I learn things about you from a picture."
   She is still angry about her portraits then. I am so tired.
   "I am sorry," I say with feeling.
   "I guess, it's okay."
   Can a conversation get any more meaningless? I have to state what I have come to discuss.
   "About Val..." I start awkwardly. "I don't think it's good for him... I mean, with us so..."
   "Yes, yes, I know," she suddenly sputters, "I should have praised him and all that, I know, I will. It's just that when I saw it..." she makes a brief pause, but I don't dare interrupt her. "He always grasps the very essence of whatever he draws, right?"
   I make an affirmative noise.
   "So... the way he drew you... I know he didn't mean to, but," I hear her gulp before continuing, "that faithful-dog look..."
   I wince. Perfect. Now what, make fun of me?
   The anger gives me the courage to stride up to her, around the bed.
   "Forget the picture. What I mean to say is that if you can't bear with me- why the hell are you crying!?" I freeze only realising that it wasn't at all tactful when it is too late.
   "I don't know!" she exclaims fiercely. "I know it's stupid, and girlish, I just can't help it!"
   I stay still, hovering over her like a scarecrow. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't make any bloody sense at all!
   Now. This isn't going anywhere. I have to get her to explain her behavior to me. I guess, I have to set an example. I am, after all, a man of courage, and I have no problem addressing delicate issues, especially when there is nothing else left to do.
   I sit down on the bed not too close to her and start speaking.
   "Lina, I love you. I didn't want to tell you because it's dangerous for me if the word gets out, and because I was afraid of your reaction. I am sane, meaning, not mad with passion, so I will not harass you in any way. Those drawings are the only way I allow my feelings to manifest. Now, if you feel awkward or insecure in my presence, we need to change the arrangements about Val. It won't do him any good to feel all the tension."
   She snorts. I hate it.
   "Xellos, really. Do you have to dramatise everything every time?"
   "Me? Dramatise?" now, that's simply insulting! "I am not the one sobbing here! I wasn't the one to run away without a word the instant I appeared!" that doesn't sound like correct use of language, but I don't really care at the moment.
   "Ohhhh dear," she moans. Then sighs, "Okay, Xellos, never mind. I gave in to a weakness. Won't happen again. For the record, I ran away because I didn't want Val to see me crying. I didn't even notice you were there."
   Oh. I guess I do tend to dramatise things after all. I don't, however, want to recognise my defeat. I mean, I just told her I loved her, for Ma-ou's sake! Does she have to rub my face into every little mistake?
   "Why did you have to cry in the first place?" I ask, frowning.
   She takes a deep breath, then, after a pause, another one. Is she irritated at me being dense or something?
   "Because," she says slowly and clearly without looking at me, "I was already worried about those pictures and what they meant; because until today everyone who tried to create a piece of art with me for a model ended up making a plush toy at best; because I never had anyone look at me like that; because everything just clicked into place, like why you brought Val to me of all people or why you always act so uncharacteristic of a Mazoku towards me," by the end of the tirade her voice is shaking, but she goes on. "I just got emotional. I mean, it was a great relief, because I knew you weren't crazy, at least, no crazier than you usually are. Satisfied?"
   I don't like her tone at all. And she wouldn't say what she thinks of the whole matter.
   "Lina, I still don't understand-"
   "Xellos, dammit, kiss me already and be happy I didn't fry you alive!!!"
   I stare for a second and then comply.
   Chapter 8: Chapter 8
   Hi to all who reads me! Just to make sure you know I remember about you 8) Somehow big issues don't allow themselves to be written so far, so instead of revenge, jealosy and Milgasia, this chapter features horses, puppies and, oh dear, I never imagined I would write that scene down! Just don't gossip about them, people, okay? I mean, Lina is sensitive to gossips, right...
   Her lips are salty and smell of cinnamon. Ah, yes, those buns for breakfast. She is so soft and timid; I can feel the heat of her flushed cheeks. I don't allow myself more than the slightest touch, a butterfly-wing flutter. I want to grab her and pin her to the bed, and take her here and now. But I am quite capable of strangling my own wishes. It's good enough, I tell myself, that I can get this much. I don't want this to be over so soon.
   She strokes my shoulder, lightly, too, as if afraid that I'll prove to be an illusion. In a sense I am, of course, but right now I am as material as I can get. Ah, but she pulls away.
   "Val," she says. I glance around, spooked. Did he see us? Where is he?
   "I mean," Lina continues acidly, getting up, "now that we settled the amorous issue, we should go to Val. I hope you are not using him as a pretext to hang around me."
   I make a face at her, but she is right. The way we both left, Val must be quite confused.
   I catch his hand just an instant before the tip of his brush reaches my painted face.
   "What are you doing?" I cry out in pure horror.
   "I wanted to change it because you didn't like it," he explains with a straight face.
   "I did like it! I'm sorry, little one, I was preoccupied with other things, but I did like it. Don't change anything, please."
   "Uh, okay," he puts the brush down.
   "I guess we all need a break from drawing," Lina arrives on my heels and stays hovering in the doorway. "How about playing ball outside? It's a shame to waste this splendid weather indoors."
   So we go out and have an hour or two of pure fun filled with running, screaming and rolling on the grass. Finally we settle down to catch a breath near the strawberry beds. My flesh-and-blood companions immediately turn to feeding, which is so characteristic and amusing.
   "I can't believe it's okay to eat something that grows!" Val exclaims.
   "About a half of everything you normally eat had been growing at some point," Lina replies in a lecturing voice which is though slightly muffled by a handful of berries she's sifting into her mouth at the same time.
   "Really? Which half?" he is so excited that I can't help laughing. Lina just rolls her eyes, and then proceeds to explain where different foods come from. He listens as if his life depends on it.
   "Ne, Xellos," Lina turns to me once she is finished with the most common dishes. "Don't you think we ought to teach this little guy something else too, er, more relevant than drawing?"
   "Yes, of course," I have been planning for it. I have already prepared some materials and considered the best way to structure his lessons in magic. Milgasia's scrolls should come in handy too. "Ne, Val, how about learning some magic?"
   To my horror he is looking at me like he did the first day, scared and distrusting.
   "Vaaal," Lina drawls. "No one is going to make you read adult books day and night. Learning is fun, especially with Xellos for a teacher!"
   I almost miss the compliment as Val mumbles,
   "I am not good with studies..."
   "Nonsense," I assure him in my most convincing voice. "You just never had a good teacher."
   He murmurs something even I can't hear, so I have to prompt him to repeat.
   "I can't do magic," he says.
   Lina and I exchange glances. Well, that is the most nonsensical nonsense I have heard in ages. He is Mazoku enough to read emotions! How can he not be capable of magic!?
   "They just didn't show you how to do it properly," Lina supplies.
   "Yes, they did," he seems very stubborn about it. "Several different people showed me, and I tried, but nothing happened, only it hurt."
   We exchange glances another time.
   "How about trying once more with me?" I suggest. "I promise it won't hurt."
   He nods, but looks desperate.
   I go through the theory with him briefly, using the smallest words I know. Then I ask him to cast a simple Lighting spell. I myself can't do it because it's White magic, but that doesn't mean I don't know how.
   He raises his hand in front of him, palm up, stares at it intently, and nothing happens.
   "Now, Val, let's go through it once more. Think of how you want light. Got that?"
   He nods.
   "Now, let that thought flow into your hand. Can you do it?"
   He nods again, and I hear a quiet sob. There is no light.
   Lina, who has been watching us skeptically, decides to interfere.
   "Let's try another one. Here, put your hands on the ground. Okay, now the idea is to make a toy."
   "A toy!?" Val looks up so sharply, that his hands get in the air again.
   "Yup," Lina smiles. "We're having fun here, aren't we? So. Hands on the ground, and think of a toy. Now say 'Vu Vraimer'."
   'Vuu Vraimer!" he repeats, stressing the reverberating 'r's. I can only gape as the soil under his palms rises and takes shape of a teacup-sized puppy. Val stares at it fascinated, then looks at his own hands, then again at the puppy.
   "Wow. A toy," he says disbelievingly.
   So what does it mean? He can't do White magic? That is possible if inconvenient. But how do I explain it to him?..
   While I am musing, however, the little naturalist sticks his hand out into the air and demands, "Lighting!"
   And light comes forth.
   Lina chuckles and stands up.
   "Well, since this issue is resolved, I think I'll go downtown to do some shopping. Our friend Milgasia has quite an appetite, we're out of most foods."
   "Oh, yeah, of course, and you didn't even touch a single dish," I laugh.
   "I'm the cook, I don't count," she grins and sticks a bright pink tongue out at me. It's supposed to indignate me, but I only feel somewhat lustful. I quickly search for a change of topic.
   "Ne, Lina, shall I give you money?"
   She ponders for a second.
   "Nope, thanks, I have plenty at the moment."
   "I just mean that... since you've got to share..."
   She gives me a sour look.
   "I won't have you pay me for keeping Val, if that's what you mean," then her tone suddenly changes, "But if I decide to do a major buy, I'll remember your offer!"
   With that she takes off for the house, and I can only snort at her antics. As if I could deny her a couple of gold pouches!
   I turn to Val who is still waving after Lina.
   "All right then, little one. Let's make your toy move a bit."
   "Move!? How is that?"
   "Hm, for example, tell it to sit."
   He stares at the puppy intently, then carefully, as if afraid to break it, breathes,
   It does.
   I think his 'wow' is becoming my favourite word.
   I use this piece of Shamanistic Earth magic to start the talk about the kinds of magic in general, and then summon some sheets of paper and bright pencils. Soon we set out drawing colourful diagrams. Just as I expected, learning through drawing works for the best with Val. He decorates the standard patterns with symbols of elements, frowning and laughing faces and such. I let him take his time playing around with these complicated concepts. It will pay off some day.
   Lina is in no hurry either. She returns in the twilight, accompanied by a small pony laden with goods. At my raised eyebrow, she explains,
   "This's Butter, I borrow him from the baker's for shopping. You didn't expect me to bring all that on my back, did you?"
   I didn't really think about the food shipping at all, but this seems a nice solution. Any kind of comment that I could make, however, drowns in Val's shriek,
   "Oh wooooow, he's so cuuuute!"
   Lina grins with a knowing look, and I get the idea that transport wasn't the only reason for Butter to appear here this evening. I stand aside as our smallest friend darts across the yard to hug the unsuspecting pony. I glance at Lina questioningly, I'm aware that horses can bite; but she waves me off. Clearly, this one is quite tame.
   He proves to be, as he lets Val pat his, er, face? what do they call it with animals? Then, as Lina is finished unloading her bags, she helps Val climb on top of Butter and leads them around the corner of the house. There is no saddle, and I am slightly worried, but Lina seems unconcerned, so probably it's all right. And Val is shining with joy so much, I think I can hear it buzz. I follow them at a distance.
   "Hey, Xellos!" comes Lina's voice. "Keep an eye on them while I take this stuff to the kitchen, okaaay?"
   "Actually," I say quickly before she goes, "I'd rather you stayed here instead."
   "Huh? But you don't know where to put which food. What's wrong anyway? It can't be that you're afraid of horses, right?" she sniggers.
   "Nope," I smile, "but horses are usually afraid of me."
   "Oh!" she claps a hand to her forehead. "Right! I forgot! Hm. All right then. Val, if you could climb off for a second..."
   He is very unhappy to do so, but I can only tell it from his emotions in Astral. On the physical plane he simply nods and slides off.
   "Okay," Lina takes a firm grip of the reins. "Now, Xellos, I should say Butter is the most indifferent issue of cattle that I have ever met. Get some sugar from that bag and try to approach him."
   I don't really see the point of the whole thing - I know perfectly well that every horse rears up as soon as I get on its windward side, and then gallops away in front of its own neigh. Besides, this isn't even Lina's horse, it belongs to someone in the town, so why test its tolerance of me? But, whatever, if she wants... and since Val is safely on the porch... Why not.
   I pick up several uneven pieces of brown sugar and start slowly walking toward the pony. He is chewing at the curb and seems to care less about me than he does about Saillune's charter of laws. As I come closer, though, he clearly smells the treat and bucks his head, sniffing loudly. Val giggles from between the sticks of the porch rails. Finally, I get into Butter's reach and immediately find his large lips groping at my hand. the sugar is gone in an instant. Butter sniffs at me seekingly, then returns to chewing the curb.
   "See?" Lina exclaims, pride shooting in all directions from her in dangerous beams. "I told you he wouldn't care."
   I have to agree.
   So as Lina proceeds filling the kitchen with foods, Val and I entertain the pony. I wonder if there is a limit to how much sugar these things can eat; I'm quite confident there is no limit to how much sugar a boy of five is willing to feed to a pony. Luckily, at some point Lina takes away the bag with sugar altogether, and we switch to a more harmless riding. Butter is to stay here until morning when he will find his own way home. Lina doesn't even tie him, because 'he knows better than to go wandering at night'.
   Val falls asleep at the table without having finished his pudding, and with his sweet tooth it's saying something. I carry him to his room with Lina following, and then I get a lesson in how to tuck a child in. Thankfully, my precious boy is fast asleep and flexible like a ragdoll, otherwise I'd be probably embarrassed. We tip-toe downstairs.
   "Ne, Lina," I decide to ask a question that's been puzzling me for some time. "Why did you buy such a big house?"
   "I kind of thought that at some point I'll have a family to store," she blushes slightly.
   "A family?" was she going to invite Luna?
   "Yeah, like husband and children, you know."
   Now she is deep red.
   "You're quite foresighted," I say, meaning that it's unusual for a girl to plan so far. She blushes even deeper if possible.
   "You know, Xellos, I don't like this kind of hints. If there's something you want of me, just say it in plain words."
   I blink at her, not exactly comprehending what she means. She sighs,
   "I thought not."
   "Sorry," I say because it feels like it should be. She waves me off.
   "Anyway, how was the rest of the lesson in magic?"
   "Great, he is very capable. How did you know he'd do better with Shamanistic spells?"
   "I figured he'd do better with anything that is not stock beginner's stuff. It looks like his so-called teachers wanted to make sure he doesn't even try learning magic, and for that they probably cursed him lightly so that the simplest spells wouldn't work. Remember he said it hurt?"
   I nod.
   "Well, that's a well-devised way to drive him off magic. I am sure they meant it. Put the glass down before you break it, please."
   She says the last sentence in exactly the same voice as the others, so it takes me a second to realise what she's going on about. Indeed, I have a glass of wine in my hand, and indeed, I'm squeezing it as if it were a Dragon throat. I do put it down.
   "Lina. I want to pay them back."
   "I know. So do I."
   "What are we waiting for?"
   "Well, I'm not sure. On the one hand I don't think Val will be happy at the idea that someone was murdered on his behalf. So if you set out to mince some reptiles, make sure you don't mention it to him. Then I kind of think we need Milgasia as an ally, just in case. I mean, we probably have no other allies, do we?"
   "What about your friends?"
   "Ah, yes, I almost forgot to mention. Zel and Amelia are having their official wedding this week. I am, of course, invited."
   "Yeah, they actually married a month ago, but it takes time to bring all the honour guests together. What I mean to say, though, is that they are kind of preoccupied at the moment. Not exactly in the mood to protect the innocent and such. Besides, Zel flat out hates you, and Amelia might have her considerations about both you as a father and me as a mother. They can provide protection to Val, yes, but they are not exactly allies."
   "Funny, I kind of thought human friendship..."
   "Yeah, yeah, you thought right, usually it is above all. And if it comes to a fight or something, they will help us. It's just that... they won't be quite a relaxed environment for Val in case he has to stay with them."
   I agree with a heavy heart. My poor boy, do you always have to face the whole world of enemies?
   "What about Gourry?" I ask suddenly, even for myself. Something immediately tells me that I shouldn't have. Lina looks away with a seemingly indifferent face.
   "What about him?"
   "Isn't he a friend too?" well, if I tackled a painful topic, then tell me so. Otherwise I will pry.
   "You must have missed the whole thing," she mumbles. Hm, that's possible. I haven't been around much after our last adventure together. What has that asshole done, anyway?
   Lina sighs and proceeds to tell me exactly that; I can see the effort she makes to get over it.
   "It's just that at some point it progressed from friendship to, you know... We got physical and all. At first I was all happy that I'd managed to get him into a relationship. We were seeing each other for several months, we actually almost married. And then, like in the flattest joke, I find out he was cheating."
   I can't help gasping. Who in their right mind would cheat on Lina!?
   "Yeah," she shrugs. "He was, like, you're good, but I like chicks with boobs too. Well, it wasn't like I could go on being his girlfriend after that. Although I don't think he ever understood what he did wrong. Like, he's a real man, he's allowed to have several women."
   I feel sick. How could anyone... my Lina... with any stupid ugly bitches... How could he touch her with the same hands!?
   "Okay, Xellos, come 'round. It's ancient history, you know. I'm just saying that I'm not exactly looking forward to meeting him."
   She pats my arm in passing, then starts making tea. I can't even bring myself to respond; the whole idea seems too alien to even begin to come to terms with it. I still feel compelled to react somehow, so I come up to Lina from behind and hug her lightly around the shoulders. She snorts but doesn't pull away.
   "Xellos, I'm fine, really. It was long ago."
   "Then I am sorry for making you remember," I say. At least that I can discuss.
   She draws her head back and onto my shoulder in an attempt to look me in the face, but I don't think she can see much; we are too close.
   "Xellos, you of all people should be glad he hasn't married me," she says provocatively.
   I consider it for a moment.
   "I would have been, if he never broached the subject with you. But this way I simply can't understand how he could have anyone else on his mind when he was in love with you!"
   There, at least I managed to blow off some of the indignation threatening to drive me violently mad.
   "He never actually claimed to be in love with me," she says calmly. "He isn't exactly eloquent, as I'm sure you've noticed."
   I have no idea why I suddenly feel week in the knees.
   She finally pulls away to pour the tea for both of us, and we settle down at the table in silence broken only by the clatter of cups and teaspoons.
   "S-so," I finally say as the silence becomes too unpleasant, "you are going to that wedding..."
   "Yeah, I'm the maid of honour after all. It's Friday night. Will you be here to stay with Val?"
   "Yes, I think I should be."
   "Uhh, good. Although I kinda wish I could ignore the whole occasion."
   "Why? Isn't it going to be entertaining?"
   "Maybe, for most people."
   "And you are, as usual, an exception?"
   She snorts.
   "Yeah, sure. It's just this whole dress-up issue. Fancy dresses are never comfortable, and vice versa. And the shoes... you know I hate heels, right? Besides, I am quite aware that my taste in clothes isn't exactly great. No matter how hard I try to pick something stylish, I still end up somewhat embarrassed. Of course, here, in Saillune they are used to me being eccentric, but still... I guess I'm getting too old for these things."
   I smile a little.
   "Someone's being grumpy," I tease. It's so odd that in some four or five years a human can change so much. She is still my Lina, of course, it's more like some of her characteristic features are giving way to others.
   She shrugs and heads for the shower. I don't peep. There is nothing about her body that I haven't already seen. Or drawn. It's been a bloody trying day.
   I am still in the sitting-room, leafing through Milgasia's scrolls, when she emerges in clouds of steam, wrapped tightly in a thick dressing-gown and several towels.
   "You still here?" she is somewhat surprised.
   "Yeah, I don't have anything better to do at the moment, and it doesn't really matter where to sit and read."
   She enters her room, and one of the towels falls off her head. I teleport there and pick it up for her.
   "Here, you dropped."
   "Oh, thanks."
   She sits on the bed drying her hair in that graceful posture of hers: head bent to one side, hands lost in the hair. I linger in the doorway, unwilling to tear my eyes off her. Finally, I bring myself to turn away and start walking back to my sofa, when her voice reaches me,
   "Don't you want to stay?"
   I process it for a second.
   "There is nothing in the world that I want more," I say truthfully.
   "Ah, then who am I to keep you from fulfilling your desires," she chuckles, and my whole essence tenses. She can't mean it, can she? Since when is she so casual? But the more my mind struggles with the idea, the more my body wants to believe it.
   "Is this some kind of revenge on Gourry?" I try to get her to talk. I don't want to be used, even if I get to touch her for that. I have my dignity.
   "Honestly, Xellos, do you have to spoil the moment?" she throws up her arms, exasperated.
   "Sorry. It's just not exactly your style to..." I trail off.
   She makes a face.
   "I guess it isn't. But then, how would you go about it?"
   I consider it. The most obvious answer is - I wouldn't. I don't trust myself to be gentle and thoughtful enough to please her, and I wouldn't risk losing the pleasure of her company for the sake of a few minutes of ecstatic delirium.
   "You wouldn't," she answers for me. I guess I'm too obvious.
   "No, I..." I have to say something reassuring, and quick! "I'm rather convinced I'm not good enough for you." Perhaps, I said it too quickly. She rolls her eyes.
   "Honestly, Xellos, there is a difference between modesty and cowardice."
   She thinks I am a coward!? I slam the door, staying inside the room. She giggles.
   "Quiet, you'll wake Val."
   Oh great. I allowed myself to be provoked.
   "You know," she continues casually, meticulously spreading some herbal cream over her hands, "I had to do several public speeches on various occasions, and learned that the first and basic rule of a Master of Ceremonies states 'never begin with apologising'. I kind of think it applies. I mean, I have some idea about the risks involved in..." she can't help blushing "sleeping with you, but I'd rather you behaved like you have everything under control. Ne?" she shoots me a quick questioning glance. "After all, I don't have eternity to wait until you learn all the tips of proper bedtime behaviour."
   I feel twisted inside out and washed with soap. I love this blasted woman.
   "Fine," I shrug nonchalantly, adopting the role-play attitude I use with women whom I need to lay for business reasons. The one I used to make Val. "The lady's wish is my law."
   In a matter of minutes we are entwined in a hot little burrow under the blanket, her feverish and wet skin resilient under my palms. There is only one thing on my mind, let the world go to pot, I don't care as long as I have her.
   Chapter 9: Chapter 9
   I wake up as the eastern horizon starts turning from black to gray. Something is wrong.
   Well, the first and obvious thing is that I slept at all. Not that it's completely impossible, but rather odd. I wasn't bored, was I? Nor extremely exhausted. Lina is quite good in bed, actually, if a little traditional. Besides, it is quite different with someone who you sincerely want to please.
   But something is off somewhere other than in me. I take in the surroundings, a little disoriented, like I usually am after sleep. Lina is here, locked in my arms, a couple of her limbs here and there on top of me. I can hear her breathe, which always fascinates me in humans. To be so dependant on something so ridiculous as air! Unbelievably vulnerable.
   All right, so what the hell is wrong? I'm fine, Lina's fine, V-
   Val. Something's wrong with Val. Damn it!
   I vanish as slowly as I can manage under duress, so that Lina's body parts sink gradually through me and she doesn't wake up from the sudden motion. Whatever it is, I can handle it, and she should sleep. I don't even know if she's going to be as nice to me in the morning as she was in the evening.
   I appear at Val's door, already wrapped in a dressing-gown. I knock.
   He doesn't answer, but I can hear stifled sounds coming from the room. It doesn't seem that he's being attacked or kidnapped, though. I can tell there is no one else in there.
   "Val?" I call. "Are you awake?"
   No response.
   "Val, what happened?"
   "Val, answer me, please, because I'm worried about you. If you don't, I'll have to enter."
   A sob. Absofuckinglutely perfect!
   I push the door; it's locked.
   "I'm coming in," I give the last warning and teleport inside.
   He is awake all right. Sitting crouched in the far corner of his bed, covered in tears.
   "Val," I say, bewildered. "What's wrong?"
   He sobs again. I approach him slowly, not to scare. I fail; he actually moves away, pressing himself further in the corner, shaking his head violently. I stop.
   "Val, it's me, Xellos. I heard you crying and came to check. There is no reason for you to be afraid of me."
   Or is there? I check my appearance quickly. I don't look scary, or anything unusual, if one doesn't count the dressing-gown, but that is no big deal, and everything is appropriate. Maybe he can't see me well in the dark? Unfortunately, I can't make it light up.
   "Val," I call a little irritated. "Come around, talk to me already."
   I make another step towards him, and to my horror he darts for the window. I grab him across the belly before any coherent thought has time to enter my mind. He instantly goes limp in my arms, and I get scared that I scared him too much, and at the same time I can't help feeling how ridiculous the whole situation is. I am quite willing to make an offering to any god who kept me from laughing out loud.
   I shift the child into a more comfortable position and sit down on his bed, keeping him in my lap. He is trembling slightly.
   "Val," I say, beginning to rub his back in soothing circles, "what are you afraid of?"
   "N-nothing", he stutters. Great.
   "Now that is ridiculous," I say while hugging him more tightly. "Was anyone here before I came?"
   "No," he sobs.
   "Did you hear something scary?"
   Fiiine, Xellos, patience.
   "Did you have a bad dream?"
   I can barely make out his whisper,
   "K-kind of."
   All right, at least that makes some sense. But why would he have one? I mean, I was here all night, so what other reason?..
   "What was it about?"
   He shakes his head violently,
   "I can't tell you!"
   "Was it that scary?"
   "Listen, Val, I know it's hard, but actually telling about a scary dream makes it less scary."
   His trembling actually gets stronger.
   "No, no, no, I can't tell you!"
   Oh. So I am the wrong person? Splendid. Well, no, darling, I won't take you to Lina. I'm your bloody father, after all. And I want you to trust me at least as much as her.
   "Why, Val?" I say in a slightly disappointed voice. "You know I love you, right?"
   The word feels odd on my tongue. Yesterday with Lina I was too preoccupied to think of it, but now I can. I have never said this word without irony before. It's so weird, to confess to something you always sincerely thought ridiculous. Not exactly hypocrisy...
   It actually works a little. At least he looks up at me. I want to consolidate my success.
   "I love you, little one, I do. You can tell me anything, it's all right."
   I hope there is some meaning to these words for him. I don't really understand how the phrase 'you can tell me' can be reassuring. The 'you may stay silent' one works much better for me, really. But I need him to speak...
   He relaxes a little bit, but still stubbornly repeats,
   "I can't tell you."
   All riiight, let's squeeze it out drop by drop.
   "Was I in the dream?" I ask quietly and flatly while stroking his back.
   "Yeah," he sighs.
   "Were you there too?"
   "Yeah, of course," he sounds surprised. Good, it's a distraction.
   "Why, sometimes people don't see themselves in their dreams. Or they can be someone else entirely, like looking out from another person's eyes. Are you sure it was you?"
   He actually hesitates. Oh, I'm starting to have a bad feeling about it...
   "It was me," he finally pronounces, "but, like, a very bad me."
   "How so?"
   "Well, like, as if I decided to do everything wrong."
   "But you understood it was wrong, didn't you?"
   "Well, not really... I mean, like, I did, but I knew that I didn't... And I couldn't stop the me who didn't from doing things..."
   Well, if the sense it makes is the sense it was supposed to make, we are all in big blasted trouble. And don't tell me I caught onto Val's manner of expression.
   "I see. Was there anyone else?"
   "Yeah, Madam Lina and Aunt Filia," he is silent for a second, then adds, "and some other people whom I don't know, but I think they really exist."
   I feel like banging my head on the nearest wall. What the hell am I supposed to do!?
   Well, get him to spit it out completely, suggests the reasonable 'me who did' or whatever.
   "So... what were we doing?"
   "Fighting," he whispers.
   I press him closer if possible just as he starts shaking worse than ever. I don't know how to get him to say the last bit. Probably I should suggest the outcome myself, as if I deduced it. I mean, when people are fighting, one side has to win eventually, in most cases, right? But won't it be to hurtful for him?
   Suddenly everything stops. He relaxes and sits up straighter, then takes in a deep breath. Before I have any time to process the sudden change, he looks up at me right in the eye, and clearly states,
   "I wanted to kill you."
   "And that's it?" I blurt out before thinking.
   He stares at me as if I were mad or stupid. Then his lower lip starts shaking.
   I finally gather my wits somewhat and proceed with caution.
   "Oh, Val, there is nothing to be scared of. Most of your life you were told that I was an enemy. No wonder you'd see such dreams. Don't take it seriously, sweetie. Dreams are weird sometimes."
   "You aren't mad?" he asks even as tears start rolling down his cheeks. I kiss him lightly.
   "Of course not, there is nothing to be mad about."
   "But... it felt like I wanted..."
   I decide I should, after all, start introducing this subject.
   "It wasn't exactly you, Val. It was just a character in your dream. You could see and hear what he saw and heard, but on the inside, you are different."
   "But I could feel..."
   "You can feel what Lina feels, can't you?" I remind him. It's good that I have such a reference.
   "Yeah," he sighs, and suddenly switches to full-bloom crying, this time sobbing loudly, and with tears everywhere. I take it for a good sign. Hopefully, his returning memories won't be such a problem.
   Lina and I have discussed the possibility that some of Valgaav's memories may surface at some point, although we were both convinced it'd happen closer to coming of age. Besides, we knew that we'd have to tell Valteria Valgaav's story anyway as he would grow, simply because otherwise there'd be no way to explain how he ended up to be the last surviving Ancient Dragon. Also, there is always a possibility that someone unfriendly reaches him and tells him the story in an inverted way, just to break him.
   So we decided to keep it as follows: once upon a time there lived an Ancient Dragon called Valteria, but he was killed by Gaav, and a demon named Valgaav was created, somewhat resembling the former Dragon. But this demon was a different person, and bad, and we had to kill him. And then L-sama decided it was too rough on poor Valteria to die so young, so he was given another chance. Unfortunately, many people don't understand that the new Valteria has nothing to do with the old Valgaav, hence all the bad treatment by the stupid Golden Dragons.
   Well, now we have to make this tiny correction: the new Valteria also has a trouble distinguishing himself from Valgaav. Hopefully, we can get him to do it.
   We sit there for a long time. Val has ceased crying, but doesn't fall back asleep, which isn't very good. It's already sunny outside, and the chorus of birds is deafening. As Beastmaster, I can understand what the raptorial ones say. They are glad they survived the night. Yeah, I am glad too. Shall I chirrup?
   My noticeably idiotic chain of thoughts is interrupted by a knock on the door.
   "Yeah," Val rouses, rubbing at his eyes.
   Lina opens the door with an annoyed face, taking in a breath to say something, and freezes that way. I have the pleasure of watching her irritation fade away in favour of surprise, relief and worry - an odd mix, really.
   "Oh Xellos," she says instead of whatever she was going to say. "What happened?"
   "Just a nightmare," I reply, trying to sound calm but not too careless.
   "Oh Val," she says in the same voice as when she addressed me. She then crosses the room in a single motion and lands at my side, instantly warming me up with the heat of her sleepy body. She pats him on the head. "Are you all right?"
   He nods, looking down.
   "Did you tell Xellos what it was about?"
   I nod, but he hesitates. She looks up at me questioningly.
   "He said it was like, he was fighting us and wanted to kill us," I say in such a voice, as if it were the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.
   Lina's expression changes for a second, but she quickly gets a grip on herself and turns back to Val.
   "And what then?" she prompts?
   Why, but that was it, wasn't it?
   He doesn't look at her, though.
   "Ne, Val," she says in a slightly uneasy voice, "you can't just hate us for something we didn't do."
   He looks up sharply, horrified.
   "It's stupid to keep it quiet," she continues. "If you do, you will never be able to trust us ever again. You don't want that, right?"
   His eyes produce a fresh stream of tears, and he shakes his head violently.
   "So?" Lina presses. "What happened?"
   "I... You..." it looks like he can't squeeze the words through his tightened throat. I start rubbing his back again, just to remind him that everything will be forgiven.
   "We," Lina echoes, "killed you?"
   I don't jump, but it takes me an amount of power sufficient to slay a dozen Dragons. Val nods sharply and mutely. And then suddenly the dam is broken.
   "You killed me because I was trying to kill you, and I really wanted to do it, and it wasn't a dream, it will really happen, I know, 'cause these people, they all exist, and you exist, and you'll have to do it, 'cause I'll go bad and-" the rest drowns in sobs, and then he tries to squeeze out of my lap, so I have to get a better grip on him, just as Lina is saying,
   "No, Val, it won't happen. It will never happen, I promise you that!"
   As if he cares what you promise.
   She continues to repeat the meaningless phrases, at the same time trying to grab his hands, which proves to be quite difficult. I am staring to be afraid that I'll hurt him if I grab him a little harder.
   Finally she succeeds.
   "Val, listen, let's make a deal," she says, and that actually draws his attention.
   "What deal?" he whispers, shying away.
   "I promise you that I will never try to harm you, and you promise to me that you will not try to harm me."
   "And then what?" he asks, clearly not trusting promises. Someone is so going to pay for it.
   "And then it will never happen," Lina replies promptly, as if it were self-evident.
   "Oh," he says and his eyes lit up somewhat. "Like for sure?"
   "Uh, okay, then, I promise..."
   "No, we should do it right. Here, hold my hand this way, and repeat after me."
   He shifts his hand into the correct position. I can't believe what I'm seeing. Is Lina seriously getting a five-year-old into a real vow!?
   She starts talking,
   "I swear never to harm you...
   Val repeats,
   "...never to harm you..."
   "...and enjoy my life and skills..."
   "...life and skills..."
   "...or else let the Sun..."
   "...let the Sun..."
   "...never set her eye on me."
   "...on me."
   "Xellos, if you would?"
   I come out of my paralysis to realise that that I haven't stopped her. It's too late now anyway, so the only thing I can do is to split them, which I do with the sharp of my hand.
   "Now, Val," Lina says softly, "you understand? We both love you, and we'll never hurt you."
   He nods, his face pinched, yet another annoying set of tears flowing down.
   "Yes, Ma- Mum," he says in a small voice, and I am suddenly so weak with relief, I almost fall back on the bed.
   "Of course, baby," she ruffles his hair and kisses him, as he reaches out to hug her. I am trying to be angry with myself for not providing him with the necessary support and understanding earlier; or at Lina for the oath and for the trust he gives her, but I really can't. I simply know all too well that I can never be as good a parent as her. I'm not designed for it, after all, right? So my job is just to protect him from ill-wishers. Lina is there for inside problems. But she can fight for him, too. I'm really useless, aren't I.
   "Well, sunshine," she says finally, "why don't you go wash up a bit, and then we'll have breakfast."
   "Yup!" he agrees cheerfully and is gone in a split second.
   I sigh. Of course, she always does the right thing, doesn't she. It's stupid of me to doubt her. I feel tired again, as often lately, and somehow spent.
   She ruffles my hair, which makes me exclaim indignantly.
   "Xellos, that was no real vow," she laughs.
   "It wouldn't be a good thing to get him into a real one, and you are quite right to think so."
   Great. Since when can she read me with such precision?
   "I thought we couldn't lie to him," I grumble.
   "No, but I didn't lie. I said we should promise, and promise we did. I didn't say it was a real vow."
   I moan. And this woman said on multiple occasions that she wouldn't do any business with Mazoku because they were too cunning and round-about!
   She pats my back in a friendly gesture. Of course, I deserve the pity.
   "Fine, what was I even thinking trying to become a father," I mumble.
   "You are a great father, Xellos," she says as if she can convince me with a flattery.
   "You know that I am not."
   "I know that you are. You heard him crying first."
   "I didn't. I just woke up because I knew something was wrong with him."
   "But exactly, Xellos! You felt his distress through sleep after sex and went to check, dumping me after the first night. He can't wish for a father who cares more!"
   I gulp.
   "Uh, sorry."
   She rolls her eyes.
   "It's all right, Xellos, you did the right thing! It was stupid of me to think you just left for no reason. I may know better how to handle him, but I slept like a marmot through the whole thing while you were there to comfort him."
   I feel awkward being praised like that. I am used to the idea that a person who can achieve result is always better than the one who desperately wants to be good, but fails.
   "I actually violated his privacy two times," I say defensively. "I entered without permission and then grabbed him when he clearly didn't want me anywhere near."
   "So I was correct assuming that you had to do the hardest part. He won't begrudge you these minor things; it's important that you kept him out of harm's way and managed to convey the message. I say, well done. Really, Xellos, well done."
   I feel a little dizzy seeing how she looks at me - well, fondly, actually. That's a bloody praise on its own!
   "Eh... Lina... do you... somehow... like me or something?"
   She rolls her eyes again.
   "Xellos, I'm a decent girl, you know! I wouldn't have slept with you if I didn't love you!"
   Chapter 10: Chapter 10
   She raises an eyebrow at me.
   "I never noticed you were aurally challenged."
   It takes me some time to figure out that what she means doesn't have anything to do with an aura. Losing my head, indeed. Speaking of auras though...
   "But... I have never noticed anything like that coming from you," I reason.
   "Hmph! As if you were looking!"
   "Xellos, you never notice how I feel at all!"
   "Of course I do!"
   "When playing a prank on me, perhaps. Definitely not when it's important for me!"
   I itch to answer that there is no way I can predict what she'd deem important, but at that instant I notice Val peeking from behind the bathroom door, clearly uneasy with our row.
   "Val, come out, it's all right. We are just having a stupid adult fight.
   "Wh- what did I do wrong?" comes his trembling voice. Oh fuck.
   "Nothing," I snap, feeling the rage building up in me. I clearly have overdone my daily norm of good deeds. "It's me, I have done it all wrong, like I always do!"
   At this point the remains of my reason come together for one last effort - to kick me out of here before I ruined it completely. I teleport to the other side of the world, high to the mountains. I find a stream breaking it's way through snow, and lie down to feel myself surrounded by gurgling, icy-cold water. I need to cool off.
   The Goldens are enormous bastards with their intolerance of other folks. In that they actually surpass me in evil. I have never been a racist; I can extract my pleasures equally from any kind of creature.
   But then, as bad as they are, they still can do good, too. Probably unlike me. I'm starting to think that Val's mother was right not letting me anywhere near him. It looks like no matter how much I wish him good, I still end up doing bad. Perhaps we don't have free will. After all, no one has ever proved that we did. It's just assumed, since the Dragons clearly are free in their decisions, so it must be that the evil that we do, we do intentionally. But what if not? What if anything we do is evil by definition? What if at the time of Creation we weren't given a choice?
   I extract myself from the stream and teleport away, leaving the water that has soaked me to hang like a cloud in mid-air.
   Contrary to the common belief, Zellas Beastmaster doesn't spend her days in her dull and empty throne hall. In fact, it is only used for unwelcome visitors (to intimidate) and festive occasions (to fit a lot of people). Today I find my Mistress in a hammock not far from the castle with a coconut cocktail in one hand and a gossip magazine in another. Oh well, I haven't seen the fresh issue of 'The Queen's Maid' yet. I wonder if they cover the Saillune marriage...
   I sit cross-legged on the grass by the hammock and wait to be acknowledged.
   "Oh Xellos," she says, turning a page. "Anything new?"
   "No, rather something old."
   She looks up, or rather down at me.
   "What, more eternal questions? Honestly, Xellos, I appreciate your interest in the ways of this world and I know it yields fruit, but you should remember not everything is within your reach!"
   I nod. At the moment I am way too aware of how much is completely beyond me.
   "Do we have free will?" I ask simply. She snorts.
   "How should I know?"
   Oh yes you do. Or at least you wasted a couple thousand years trying to find out. I know you.
   The silence is not exactly pleasant. At last, she speaks.
   "So what are you now, bent on doing some good? Why else would you wonder if you could?"
   "I have a duty to fulfill. It is a requirement."
   "A duty."
   She puts down the magazine completely and empties her glass in one gulp.
   "What kind of duty?"
   I look up straight at her.
   "You don't want to know."
   She hisses, as from a burn. I wonder if it's in my nature to hurt everyone I don't want to hurt.
   We are silent for another stretched painful while.
   "How long do we have?" she asks quietly.
   "It depends on other people's discretion. At best, a dozen years. At worst... well, could say farewell now."
   She nods absently.
   "Do you want to?"
   I shake my head slowly.
   "Even when I am no longer in your service, I'll still be there to help," I say with conviction. She chuckles, and I think the air warms up somewhat.
   "I see. Well, at least there is still some benefit in your insanity."
   I smile weakly. It's just like Lina said; I am too deviant for a Mazoku. This is how my Mistress created me, though. She wanted a very anti-mainstream servant with a set of values and abilities very different from anyone else. Unique and unliable to second-guessing. So here I am, a total success. In love, and having sired the most unfortunate child in the world. There is no limit to perfection, is there?
   "Xellos," she calls. "There is no one opinion on our freedom of will. It all depends on how you define good and evil, or rather what exactly you classify as such on practice, and whether you count only actions or intentions too. But something tells me that if there is one Mazoku in the whole Universe of Four who has it free, that's you."
   I nod, using the gesture to look away. It seems that we are doomed.
   Zellas picks up her magazine again.
   "Run along, my gorgeous knight; something tells me there is some place where you need to be at the moment."
   I stand and bow all the way to the ground, not trusting myself to speak.
   Well, it went much better than I expected. I mean, in terms of screaming and punishments, or rather lack thereof. However, in terms of emotional turmoils, well, I've been better. At some point soon after the end of the war, I was bent on studying the environment of this world, and did indeed contribute to the human natural science, especially in the area of those minuscule creatures whom humans can't see. I remember wondering how a daughter-hydra feels after gemmating from the main thing. Well, it took me about a thousand years, but now I know.
   I stride lazily along a path leading from I-don't-care-where to an equally vague destination, when my way is suddenly obstructed by Milgasia, of all people.
   "Uh!" he exclaims, startled.
   "Yeah?" I say, no less startled, but much less willing to have a conversation.
   "Erm, ehm, were those... er, was the literature useful?" he manages, clearly oppressed by my unwelcoming countenance.
   "I haven't applied it yet," I sneer.
   "Is... is something wrong?" he asks, and is genuinely worried. That warms me up a bit.
   "You were married once, weren't you?" I suddenly ask.
   "Yes," he is clearly as bewildered, as I am by my own antics.
   "And then?" I ask, continuing down the path.
   "S-she passed on, unfortunately."
   Is there a single happy and lucky person around me?
   "What was the worst wrong you did by her?"
   Come on, tell me you broke her favourite cup. Or forgot her birthday. Or called her another name in bed. Come on, I know I'm a failure as a lover, I just need a reference.
   "I failed to keep our son safe and happy," he says after some consideration.
   "And she?" I ask the already prepared question, while still processing what he said.
   "She never blamed me," he says in a shaky voice.
   I hide my astonishment, pretending to gaze far ahead.
   "That's love?" I ask, purposefully not specifying, whose love to whom.
   "Yes," he shrugs dismissively. Then he seems to realize something, "There are better instances, if you'd like to get an idea..."
   "Oh no, thank you," I cut him off. "That's the last thing I need!"
   We walk in silence for a minute or two. I have a feeling that Milgasia is building up the courage to say something. At last, when my patience is running short, he voices his concern.
   "Are you letting me see him again?"
   "Hmm," I pretend to be deep in thought, "so that you could restore your authority with raising children?"
   His rage flashes at me like a shot of fireworks, bright, loud and spiked. I drink it in quickly, giggle drunkenly, and vanish.
   Fireworks, indeed. I appear in a park in the suburbs of Saillune, where there is some festival going on. Right, it's the anniversary of the current royal family coming to the throne. Crowds and crowds, all happy, fill the vast lawn so tightly, as if it were a narrow corridor. Here and there I see brightly lit stalls with sandwiches and tea, swings and trampolines covered with kids. Looks like everyone who has a kid has brought him here.
   I get myself a beer for the sheer pleasure of not paying for it (as well as to frustrate the long queue which I ignored). The show starts, and there is music, and there are fireworks. I find a good spot in the front row and watch the old man in a pointed hat perform all kinds of fire magic. He is quite good at it, but then this is Saillune. A small child keeps sticking its elbow into my calf. On my right a couple is snogging so enthusiastically, they don't give a damn about the fireworks. I turn back to the show, forcing myself to concentrate on having fun and cheering together with the others. Behind me a group of youths are laughing their heads off over some silly joke.
   I think I am the only one alone here. And I bloody feel like it.
   The glass crushes in my hand just as another majestic accord tears through the air together with a flash of deep blue sparkles. I feel desolate, abandoned and useless. I have torn all the threads leading to other living creatures. All in one day.
   I push out of the crowd, unable to keep a straight face. I am so lonely, it seems to hang around me like a black cloud, making sure everyone is aware of my misery. By the time I get away from the stares and lights, I start feeling off even physically - something akin to suffocation makes me double as I crouch on the grass. It hurts. It bloody damn hurts. I am alone and no one cares. My eyes burn and I can't help making odd hoarse sounds, even though I am sure I wouldn't be able to produce any words at the moment. I roll up in a ball and rock lightly, letting the odd fit to pass. Normally I can push any pain away into a corner of my mind while still acting normally. But this is clearly not your usual injury. The more I am trying to ignore it, the more acute it becomes, the more it stings. Sparkling firework'y letters run under my glued-together eyelids: you are alone and will ever remain so. No one will ever want to share their fun with you. No one you like will ever look you in the eyes and smile.
   I realise that I'm writhing on the ground, moaning like winged game. Can I get any more pathetic? I gather the last remaining powers and collapse through the matter of the existence into Astral.
   I honestly don't know how it happens that I end up in Lina's house. Must be my craving for company...
   They both sit at the huge kitchen table, sticking together, their backs toward me. They have just started their dinner. At the sound of my appearing Lina turns to look, and her expression is sad and displeased. Don't tell me to get out, darling, I can't. I'll die on the spot.
   I really want to fall on my knees and plead for forgiveness, but somehow that seems a very wrong way to get in Lina's good graces. So instead, acting on a whim like I have done too often lately, I grab them both under the arms and teleport back to the on-going festival. I set them on foot in front of a sweets stall and get each an ice-cream almost immediately.
   "Wah," Lina finally utters. As the old funny-hat chooses exactly this moment to resume the fireworks after a short break, the next thing I hear is Val's "WOOOOW!" Lina is somewhat taken aback too. She stares at the beautiful multicoloured sparkles, fascinated, her huge eyes reflecting the gorgeous display in detail. She almost lets her ice-cream leak a drop. Almost.
   "Xellos," she says after catching the drop with her cute agile tongue. "I'm not even dressed for party, you know!"
   I assess her outfit. It's a dressing-gown actually, but I only know it because I've seen her don it in the morning. It can easily pass for an overly bright and a slightly eccentric dress.
   "Darling, you are so beautiful, no one will notice what you are wearing," I kiss her temple lightly, holding a metaphorical breath: who knows if she is still all right with our shared intimacy.
   She rolls her eyes.
   "I'll get cold soon."
   "I'll lend you my cloak."
   She snorts, and then we are silent. Val is glued to the rickety fence that surrounds the fireworks area. He is so small among all those darks shapes of other people. I glance around: there must be some kind of watchpoint for kids, right? I'd squeeze him there. But there isn't. Instead I notice that many parents are straddled by their children, on the neck. I imagine it to be horribly uncomfortable for both, but they seem fine. Hm. But how can he climb there?
   "Ne, Lina," I decide to ask, "how do I get Val onto my shoulders? For a better view, that is."
   She giggles.
   "You stoop and lift him over your head."
   I glare at her. It can't be real! What kind of acrobatics is that?
   She laughs.
   "Okay, just crouch down, I'll put him there."
   Well, that sounds more reasonable. I do as instructed, and she puts Val onto my shoulders. It's not that uncomfortable, really, although Val is clearly taken aback - literally, alas. Thankfully, Lina catches him and pushes him upright.
   "Val, it's all right, look around, everyone's doing that. Just grab onto his ears and stay put."
   "I c-can't," he stutters. Oh, of course he can't do something that awkward.
   "Onto the collar then," I supply, at the same time pulling his hands to grip the collar of my turtleneck.
   He mumbles something incoherent, but at that time the fire-wizard produces an especially spectacular bunch of colours, and the child is distracted enough to stop whining. Lina looks at me approvingly, then disappears.
   Fortunately, I suffer from uncertainty only for a minute, and then she returns laden with bags of nuts and candy. She props something sweet into my mouth and then reaches up to Val. The rest of the show we are happily chewing, and I feel Val relax in his awkward position.
   Once the featured fireworks are over (while some amateurs continue shooting simpler ones around the park), we head for the swings and merry-go-rounds, all brightly painted and lit, and I catch the best seats. We take several rides together until Lina complains that her head is spinning, so we leave Val to jump on a trampoline with other kids, and settle on the grass, using my cloak as a rug.
   I hug her from behind and rest my head on her shoulder, so that she wouldn't see what she called 'faithful-dog look'.
   "Sorry for the morning."
   "I was going to give you a right beating, you know, but with all the fireworks and sweets, I'm no longer in the mood. So consider yourself forgiven."
   I kiss her on the neck. I love her so much. Someone else, perhaps, could just tell me it's all right, but keep the offence in their heart. Lina wouldn't. She'd beat me up, but afterwards it'll be all back to normal.
   "I love you so much," I say, short of words to communicate to her my relief and eternal loyalty.
   She looks at me cautiously, as if afraid to scare me away.
   "I love you too," she says quietly. I bury my face in her hair, not even trying to come to terms with this flabbergasting concept of someone - let alone Lina - loving me.
   "You know, I'm really screwed up," I mumble. She seems to understand I mean my general state lately.
   "I'd say you were screwed up if you were a human. As it is, you're just venturing into a new territory. One feeling tugs another along. You'll just have to get used to the whole spectrum."
   She turns to me and allows me to kiss her on the lips. As usual, she tastes sweet. This time it's toffee apple flavour.
   Val comes running, making us break up abruptly.
   "Mom! Dad! May I go pony-riding, please?"
   "Sure," Lina says while I gape, "here, take the coins."
   And he is off before I can utter another sound.
   Lina strokes my arm.
   "Well, that's progress. Shall I congratulate you?"
   I want to say that it is damn dangerous for me, but then I realise that it isn't anymore. Zellas already knows.
   "Yeah... But why did he?.."
   Lina shrugs.
   "Ask him later."
   I do, as we settle at a small table in an improvised cafe for a late snack - my sweeties haven't finished their dinner, and are now quite hungry.
   Val stutters something, hiding behind his bowl of noodles, so I have to clear things up.
   "It's perfectly all right, Val, you may call me 'Dad'. I just wonder why you suddenly decided to do so?"
   "Because of how you carried me," he provides. "That's what only Dads do."
   "Oh," I look at Lina uncertainly.
   "Yup," she nods. "A totally Dadly thing."
   I reach out and ruffle Val's hair. Maybe someday I will be able to understand the way he thinks, but that day is yet far away.
   Eventually we decide to go home: Val is asleep in my arms, and Lina is somewhat dizzy too, clutching the edges of my cloak (which she is wrapped in) as if it could steady her.
   "I'll teleport us back," I say shifting Val into a more comfortable position.
   "Shall I grab onto your arm?" Lina asks sleepily.
   "No need, you're grabbing onto my cloak already," I chuckle.
   "Ah," she is slightly exasperated. "Isn't it annoying to make all your clothes of your own body?"
   "Not all," I smile broader. "The rest of what I'm wearing is real. But it's convenient to have the cloak that way, it's like an extra limb."
   She rolls her eyes at me for the umpteenth time today, and off we go.
   After I tuck Val in, and Lina has had her standard forty minutes of bath, I allow her to make sure herself that most of my clothes are real - by pulling them off. She wasn't half as sleepy as she seemed, really.
   Guys, do you know what it feels like when you stay late just so that you could finish a chapter and post it before going to bed, so that in the morning you could see reviews, and there are none... and then the day passes, and still there are none...?
   Chapter 11: Chapter 11
   A feedback-booster (c) me. The first reviewer gets to name an event to happen in the next chapter. The prize was already once conferred to Leafwhistler whose wish was 'Val and Xelloss having their bonding time in the morning'. Here you are =)
   Go ahead, people, compete =)))
   This time I only sleep for an hour or so, which is still odd, but at least doesn't feel as surreal as being out of it for the whole last night. The first thing I do is checking on Val - without going there, just through our mental connection. He is sleeping peacefully and, as far as I can tell, is watching a mildly pleasant uneventful dream. Good. I cuddle up to Lina who mumbles something about hating to sleep naked and then falls silent again. Hm, is she going to put on the pajamas afterwards next time? Well, it won't be unlike Lina to be practical even in this. Especially since she's getting more relaxed with me turning her anyway I like. Perhaps next time I'll get her on top... After all, the whole point of having Lina for a girlfriend is to pass her the control. She determines my son's life, she decides when to spend time with me, she is there for me to help with my mental bugs... Well, now I only have to get her to set the rules of our bedtime games, and it'll be a perfect relationship for me.
   I lie there, musing like this, for several hours. I notice Val waking up and hear him get down to the kitchen. I want to go to him, but I don't want to leave Lina alone. Yesterday she made it quite clear that she forgave my morning absence only because Val was in a state. But now there is no clear necessity for me to be somewhere else, so I should stay. I don't want to upset her anymore.
   At last, she wakes up. I watch her as she shifts her position several times, pretending to still be asleep. Then she reaches out and flaps her hand on my shoulder a couple of times, as I stare at her antics with anticipation. She grabs my arm and pulls. I shift closer to her, if possible. Only then she finally rubs her eyes open and looks at me with a dreamy, unfocused expression.
   "Hi," she says. "It's good to see you here."
   "I thought it might be."
   "Wow, your self-esteem is running skywards today," she chuckles.
   "Thanks to you," I smile and kiss the tip of her nose. She wrinkles it.
   "Oh, Xellos, don't do that! Yesterday I found some chocolate icing on my nose when we came home, and I don't know how long it had been there!"
   For some reason I imagine Lina's nose covered in the icing on purpose, as if it were actually a cake, and can't help laughing out. She sticks a finger into my side right below the ribs, which doesn't help the matters - I am actually rather ticklish. I can only counteract her in her own way: I lick her neck right under the chin. This time she cringes away and giggles like a three-year-old. We roll on the bed in a mock-fight, and end up on the floor - in that perfect position with her sitting atop of me. Unfortunately, she is in no mood to resume evening activities - well, she isn't exactly a morning person, is she?
   "Wah, I hate sleeping naked," she says standing up and rubbing her arms. "I always stick to myself in the morning. Sorry, Xellos, it might be not exactly romantic, but I'm going to get dressed after the fun from now on."
   She collects herself from my spread-eagle form and heads to the bathroom.
   "As you wish, dear," I say, also pulling myself up. She turns on the water and starts filling the bath.
   "I'm going to have a wash now, sorry," she says, coming up the door. Then she shuts and locks it. I gape.
   "Hey, Lina," I say. "You don't have to lock me out of your bath!"
   After a couple of seconds she opens the door just a little and peers out, face pinkish.
   "You mean, you'd like to join?"
   "At least I see no reason not to," I say, pouting.
   "Okay," she shrugs and leaves the door open this time. I follow her and slide into what is more like a small pool than a bath. She busies herself with soaping the bast wisp. I watch her steady, knowing movements and wish they were applied to something else...
   "So you have kinky pictures of me as well?" she asks evenly. My relaxation is broken beyond repair.
   "Eh, yeah, but I don't think you should see them..."
   "Mmm, perhaps, you'd find yourself somewhat... out of character, you know."
   "Like with that kind of dull face and in a physically impossible position?"
   "No! I'm not that bad, you know! Just... doing things you wouldn't do."
   She gives me the Look, but drops the subject.
   "How often are you letting Milgasia to come here?"
   I like the way she puts it. So it's my decision. However...
   "I'm not sure, really... I'm afraid I quarrelled with him yesterday."
   "Huh? You what, didn't find anyone better to take out your bad mood on?"
   "Not really... I mean, it wasn't exactly bad mood..."
   "Oh yes, it was," she glares at me, and I'm suddenly afraid that she's going to beat me up now for yesterday. It would hurt, and not physically. So I drift up to her and put my arms around her, and my chin onto her shoulder.
   "Don't be mad at me, please," I whisper. "Please."
   She sighs.
   "Xellos. What happened yesterday?"
   "Well. I think it was because of all the positive emotions here. I'm sorry, I can't help it. Next time I'll make sure to get out peacefully before I start a quarrel. But it's my nature, and I can't..." my ramblings are cut off with a splash of water into my face.
   "I understand that part," she says irritably, but she feels amused. "After I thought about it, I was actually surprised you endured that much. And it was even somewhat good, because it provided an opportunity to show to Val that people don't always quarrel about him, and he is not the prime cause of all misfortune."
   I breathe out a sigh of relief, hiding my face in the curve of Lina's neck. Her hair is put up and fixed with an elaborate clasp, and the whole construction looks so unstable, that I'm afraid to touch it in case it falls down into the water, and then I'll get smacked and drowned.
   "So what happened next?"
   "I went to Zellas."
   "Oh dear. And what did she do?"
   "Nothing, really. I kind of hinted to her that she shouldn't be relying on me too much from now on, and I think she's got the message."
   "How dangerous is that?"
   "It isn't dangerous, Lina, she even expected it. She wouldn't stir up trouble. She actually took it better than I expected."
   "You seem to be defending her," Lina looks at me suspiciously.
   "That's my primary job, you know," I shrug.
   "Really. And she is just letting you go?"
   "She has no choice, she can't keep me against my will."
   "How about going after me and Val?"
   "She won't! It won't change my mind, you know. If she decides to harm you, I'd still leave, and on much worse terms than now."
   "So you kinda think she is all good?"
   "I don't know what exactly you mean by 'good' here, but, as I said, she isn't a threat."
   "So you are quite a defender," she muses. What the hell? "I wonder, imagine, she gets attacked, say, by another Mazoku Lord. And at the same time the Dragons go after us. Who would you save?"
   I glower. What the hell is wrong with Lina today?
   "What kind of question is that!? Do you have any idea, what's the probability of two such attacks happening at the same time? Besides, the Lords won't start anything among themselves as long as you are around, they prefer to keep a low profile. And the Dragons don't even know-"
   "Xellos, my only question is, who would you choose, I don't care about probability!" she snaps, and is quite angry. Oh fuck, what the... oh... wait... is that jealousy? Oh wow, I never thought she would... and to Zellas of all people!
   I sit up straighter and look her in the eye.
   "Lina, listen. Love isn't considered a mortal sin among Mazoku for nothing. It's all about that once you're in love, you can't stay loyal to your immediate superior. By definition, Lina, love is a state of mind in which one would choose the benefit of their beloved over their master's. Of course I'd be at your side."
   "Oh," she mutters, looking away. "Sorry, I didn't know." I kiss her.
   "It's fine, it's not exactly common knowledge. And, though it's a selfish thing to say, it made me quite happy that you, er..."
   "Am jealous? It should," she nods and smiles through a beetroot-deep blush. I kiss her again, pressing her back into the bath's edge.
   "You sure are affectionate," she mutters as we break.
   "Do you mind?" I hope I'm not overdoing it... or asking for too much...
   "Nope," she strokes my cheek, letting a water drop run down it. "It's just odd that someone wants me all the time. So you never got to the part where you quarrelled with Milgasia."
   Uh, all right. She doesn't want to talk about her previous unfortunate experiences, and that's just fine with me, otherwise I might kill the swordsman.
   "I am not sure why it happened. I wasn't angry or anything. It must have been..."
   It must have been me trying to alienate everyone in order to get rid of all the positive emotions flowing my way. It's against my nature to be good. It has to be. I don't have free will, after all.
   "Xellos, I'd rather you continued before the water goes cold."
   "Uh, yeah, sure. It is just this thing... It's happened before... I don't take it well when someone likes me. I want them to turn away and mind their own business. I mean, I don't want that consciously, but I act as if I did. Usually I can control myself, and with you and Val I am really trying to be good, but sometimes it gets the best of me, and I start a fight. I am sorry, Lina, but I am really not designed for being good. No matter how much I try, I still end up ruining it all. I think Milgasia was just a scapegoat, or maybe he was simply too polite. I only remember that I really wanted to hurt him. To make him hate me. Just because he didn't." I glance up at her serious face. "I can't control myself, Lina."
   She pats my naked shoulder with a wet clapping sound.
   "Did you feel bad about it later?"
   She thinks I'm not beyond salvation yet? How optimistic of her...
   "Not about it. But I did feel bad later in the evening. It was like a fit of some human disease. It hurt, and I was all strained so much that I couldn't stand. I think I scared some people around. They must have thought I was epileptic or something."
   "Oh dear," she breaths into my ear while hugging me. "Didn't we agree that you should come to me if you need help?"
   "I was convinced you hated me."
   "Just a few hours after I told you I loved you?" she chuckles.
   "Well, I handled it quite poorly, didn't I?"
   "You did, but I didn't expect you to take it well."
   "Am I that obviously pathetic?"
   "No, it's just not in your nature."
   "And you are just fine with having a lover who ignores your feelings and then throws a tantrum when you point it out?"
   "You'd be surprised how many people do exactly that, no matter what race. But, ah, do you agree now that you ignored my feelings?"
   "It would make sense if I did. I stumble over every stone on this way, don't I?"
   "No, you don't. You are actually very good, you just lack confidence. But that will improve with time."
   "Yeah, if I don't ruin it all before that. And the problem is, part of me wants to ruin it. Just to be free from the necessity to be good. And I know that one day I'll hurt you so much, that even you won't forgive me."
   "Ah, well, you should consult Zel on that. He's been trying for, what, nine years? As you know, we are still friends."
   I push away slightly to look at her.
   "What does he have to do with it?"
   "Just that he's been following the same pattern. You see, it's not because of being a Mazoku that you have these fits of breaking up with people. Zel is the same. And I am sure there are many more unfortunate people who prefer to be alone because love seems unnerving. It doesn't necessarily mean they are bad to the core. Just that they are not used to be liked. You have spent more than a thousand years alone - of course you'd have trouble letting someone into your life! There is nothing wrong with it. You will get over it eventually, because you want us to be together, right?"
   I nod several times and very quickly. She smiles wider and strokes a wet line from my cheek down the neck and on.
   "What am I to do about it now?"
   "Try to keep aware of your desires at every moment, and tell me if I'm pushing too hard."
   I don't quite understand her, but nod. I'll try. I'm used to learning on my feet.
   "Do you think that kind of epileptic fit can happen again?"
   "You are just swaying between wanting love too much and wanting out of it too much. I think if you manage to check your repulsion for care, the desire for it won't be so strong as to hurt you either."
   "So it's like, all the pain I caused to you, Val, Zellas and Milgasia hit home? Was I really that bad?"
   "Not the pain itself, but your idea of how much pain you caused. See?"
   Well, that makes perfect sense. We already established that I have a flair for drama. So I caused this whole torture myself? Great, Xellos, your Mistress should be grateful that you are leaving before going completely crazy and destroying the island in one of your remorse-agonies.
   "Yup," Lina summarises my dwellings. "Are you feeling better?"
   Surprisingly, I am. And I am also suddenly aware that Val is alone somewhere in the house, while I could be with him.
   "Okay, let's go get your offspring to do something more useful than sulking on the porch!" Lina concludes cheerfully, getting out of the now cool bath.
   Indeed, I find him on the porch, sitting on the rails and staring unseeingly through the garden. I come up to him and put a hand on his far shoulder, so that he doesn't fall off, startled.
   It turns out to be a wise precaution because he jumps and I barely manage to steady him on the rails.
   "It's just me, Val," I say soothingly.
   "Oh, Xellos... I thought you'd come from there," he nods to the garden gate.
   "I usually teleport directly into the house," I say. "But today I stayed the night."
   "Errr... well, I didn't have anything better to do..."
   "Then why didn't I see you when I came down for breakfast?" he is simply interested, not accusing. Stop seeing your fault everywhere, unless you want another 'loneliness fit'!
   "I was in Lina's room. I needed to talk to her."
   "Oh. Ne, Xellos, may I ask you something?"
   So he dropped the 'Dad' thing. I wonder if it's good or bad. It was awkward.
   "Sure, sweetie."
   "Why do you spend so much time with me if you can be with Lina?"
   This time I am not imagining things. He does sound hurt. Oh blast this world!
   "How about - because I like to spend time with you?" I try the simple thing first.
   "But you like it with her better," he shrugs. "It makes sense; you're both adults."
   Oh no, he isn't going to make it easy for me.
   "Do you have any idea how old I am?"
   He eyes me critically.
   "A couple hundreds?"
   That's Filia's age. I guess I look the same with her, which is disgusting.
   "I'm over a thousand actually."
   "Huh!? Oh wow! You sure look young! Oh sorry..." he blushes and looks down. I rub his shoulder.
   "It's all right, I know. And how old is Lina, do you think?"
   He sends me a quick suspicious glance.
   "Eight hundred?"
   "She's twenty-three years old."
   He stares wide-eyed.
   "Is she even an adult then?"
   "By human standards, yes, she is. But you see, from my point of view, there is not much difference between you and her in terms of age."
   "Uh," he scratches his forehead. "I guess not."
   "So, did I answer your question?"
   I could have let it drop; he wouldn't probably remember his concerns after all the age-shock. But I really prefer dealing with things once and forever rather than bit-by-bit.
   He hesitates.
   "It's just like... when we are together, Lina can come up and join us. But when you two are together, I can't just join you. It feels like I don't belong."
   Oh noooo, did I fail him yet again? Why haven't I made sure that he is welcome whenever I am around, Lina or no Lina? Can't I even stay in bed for a bit longer without hurting his feelings?..
   I look at him, lost for words. He is so small, so pitiful. And he wants to belong, just like I do. So why does it have to be so hard for the two of us?
   Maybe, because we both share a flair for drama. Hm. How bad can it make him feel, really, that I wasn't there directly as he woke up? I mean, most people manage to enjoy there lives without being constantly shackled to their children, right? And they aren't all neglectful monsters. And Lina is perfectly all right with sleeping in while Val's left to himself. Hm.
   "Ne, Val, you know, I love you very much. And I am very happy to be with you. But I have a right to spend time somewhere else without upsetting you, what do you think?"
   "Sure," he shrugs. It didn't work. I rake my memory for a comparison.
   "You remember how you wanted Milgasia to come to visit?"
   "Yeah... Is he going to come again?"
   "What if I say 'so you'd rather spend time with him than with me!' and make that offended face?"
   He blinks and then suddenly bursts out crying. Am I that emotionally unstable too?
   "No, Xellos, I want to be with you, please, I didn't mean to offend you!"
   "Hush, hush," I hug him and pat his back until he calms down. "Well, now you have an idea of how I feel when you say that you don't belong with me and Lina."
   "Oh... I'm sorry..."
   "You are our kid, you know that, right?"
   "Huh? But my parents are dead and..."
   "It doesn't really matter who your parents were, or what was in the past. Now you are our kid. You called us Mom and Dad yesterday, right?"
   "I-I did. Sor-"
   "Too late. It's a charm, you know. Like, a spell. You spelled us. Now we are really your Mom and Dad. Understand?"
   He stares at me with saucer-like eyes.
   "Yeah... is it okay?"
   "Absolutely. It's very good. It makes me feel much happier."
   "Oh," he finally smiles. "I really like it when I can make you happier."
   "Well, then why don't we sit under that tree and learn something about magic, eh? That's the easiest way to make me happier," I chuckle.
   He jumps off the rails and runs bouncing to the appointed tree. Well, looks like we better start with some practical exercises, otherwise he won't be able to sit still for a minute.
   The funniest thing is that I have a strong sense of deja vu. It's like Lina helps me get rid of my bugs, and then I help Val get rid of the exactly same bugs of his own. I wonder if the children of Mazoku inherit acquired features as well as the, er, inborn ones (simply because it's rather hard to draw a line between those for a creature who was never born). If they do, I wish I dealt with my bugs first, and started making children later.
   After lunch Lina declares that Val doesn't have enough clothes, besides, autumn is in the offing, and anyway it's been ages since she last went clothes shopping. I make up an excuse not to go with them, then ensure that Val realises how sorry I am not to go, and leave them to it. I have my own shopping to do.
   My first stop is at a toy-store. I suspected before, and Lina has confirmed it today, that Val doesn't play when he is alone. He just sits still, staring into a spot. I have no idea what he is thinking, but today's conversation shows, that he comes up with the most unpleasant ideas. So I think I should get him some games to occupy his productive little brain before he comes up with more disturbing observations.
   The store provides all kinds of the so-called developing games, and that's exactly what I need. I take my time reading through the rules and requirements of all of them, and finally pick fifteen boxes of mysterious clanking contents.
   Then I have the needs of the other member of my, hm, family to see to. Well, it should be called family now, right? It just sounds odd: my - family... I have never associated myself with a group so small and so tightly bound. Well, every new experience is welcome, wasn't that my motto once? Yeah, that's when I fathered Val.
   Anyway. Here I am in the middle of a ladies' evening dress shop. (I have wisely changed my own outfit to something neutral. At this point the last thing I need is a rumour about a priest buying an evening dress for a woman). I pick one quickly. I have drawn Lina in so many different imaginary outfits, I know exactly what would suit her. Then, after some consideration, I also take stockings and wedge-heeled shoes to match the dress, and then, gathering all my courage, I go for underwear. Of course, now that I have explored every curve of her body with my hands, it's unlikely that she'd get mad at the idea of me buying her underwear. But with Lina you never know...
   "Do you know the size?" asks a fussy woman behind the counter, whose own size exceeds anything displayed in the shop.
   Of course I do. Do you really think I'd buy underwear for a girl whose size I don't know?
   "Sorry, dear," she smiles amicably, "It's just that men usually know the cup-size, but not the chest."
   I snort. Not the case with me. I know everything about my Lina's build.
   When I come home, they aren't back yet, so I go to the city to look for them.
   Home, huh. I call Lina's place home now. I don't think I have ever used the word before. And it's been, what, two weeks?
   I find them in another children's store. Lina is trying to get Val to choose a stuffed animal.
   "Any three, Val," she is saying to the anxious kid. I appear at her side.
   "Hi, I'm back."
   Val jumps, but Lina doesn't. Looks like she's got used to me by now.
   "Okay, Xellos, maybe you'll have more luck with it. I've tried everything, but he just wouldn't take them!"
   Well, if Lina failed, what can I do? But if she thinks I can succeed, I won't refuse to try.
   The boy is standing in front of a huge set of shelves stuffed with fluffy toys. He is looking at them with glazed eyes and a slight pout. I crouch down by his side.
   "Well, what do we have here?"
   "Toys," he says flatly.
   "Anything you like?"
   He shrugs. Maybe he simply doesn't like them, but is to shy to say so? I check his emotions. Hm, no, that's not the case. What's that now, longing... pride, despair... betrayal? Ceified's horns! I have to hug him and rub his back, but it doesn't seem to help.
   "Now, Val, don't just stand here. Come up, touch them, see if they suit you."
   As he makes no move, I reach out and pick a life-sized kitten, then slowly place it into Val's hands. He takes the toy as if it were a piece of especially fragile royal jewelry. At my gesticulation, he turns it around, and then almost happily places it back into my hand.
   "Why, don't you like it?" I ask. A nice kitten, in my opinion. Quite realistic.
   "I do," he says feebly.
   "So shall we take it?"
   He shrugs.
   "Ooooh no," Lina moans behind me. "That's it, Xellos, let's go."
   "But wait, maybe-"
   "It's been going on like this for forty-five minutes. I'm done here," she turns and stalks away. Well, no one has limitless patience, right?
   "C'mon, Val," I say briskly. "Pick two more, and we'll be going."
   He still hesitates.
   "Well, shall I pick for you then?" I ask, not really meaning anything. But he gives me a rather dirty look, and quickly grabs some kind of ferret, also quite realistically made. Good, I hate those pink-and-green bunnies. He then walks up to a toy wolf who'd be taller than Val himself if put on its haunches. He glances up at me with a clear challenge. I snort. Does he really think I'd forbid a toy because it's too big? I'd put up with an elephant for you, darling. So I nod and swoop the wolf with my left arm, while swinging the kitten in my right. Val catches up with me as we proceed to the checkout where Lina is still having all her items registered.
   "I don't believe my eyes," she says at the sight of me. I wish someone of the high-levels were here to appreciate the view, actually. Me with a stuffed wolf and a kitten and a kid, happily standing in the middle of a children store. Sherra would've kicked the bucket.
   "This isn't the end of it," I mouth to Lina. Clearly, we'll have to go through something about these toys.
   The foreboding doesn't mislead me. As we come home, Lina and I make a point of dumping Val's new stuff chaotically onto his bed so that he'd be forced to arrange it the way he likes instead of following our set preferences. Then we have to answer 'yes, you may put anything anywhere' about five hundred times each, and then he finally starts on the task.
   The result is quite neat. Either he was still afraid to be punished for wrongly chosen places, or he just has it in him to keep things in order, but anyway, all the clothes ended up in the wardrobe, books in the bookshelves and toys... well, on top of bookshelves. He probably had to stand on the table to reach there. Out of sight, out of mind?
   On the one hand, that's clearly not good. On the other, I can't reprimand him for it because I just wasted a considerable amount of nerves convincing him that he could arrange things to his liking. Besides, the gigantic wolf didn't fit with the small toys, so it's standing on the windowsill, projecting a shadow that even I find scary. I run a hand along the toy's back. Its fur is surprisingly soft. Do they make them of rabbits? Whatever.
   Val has had his bath, and climbs into the bed, still not quite happy.
   "Ne, Val," I say, trying not to sound too pushy, "don't you want to take one to bed with you?"
   He Stares.
   I am a little confused.
   "I mean, kids do that... I thought you'd like..."
   He stares as if he's forgotten how to speak. At last he croaks out some words.
   "May I?"
   "But of course, they are your toys! You may do anything you want with them."
   He sits up and timidly reaches out for the wolf. I kind of thought he'd prefer one of the smaller ones to share his space with, but ah, kids. I pass him the monstrous gray creature. He hugs it for dear life, and then disappears under the blanket together with the life-size toy. The whole scene is so ridiculous in its seriousness, I burst out laughing. Val sticks his nose outside and sniffs.
   "Sorry, child, it's just so funny to see you with such a big toy," I manage.
   "May I really sleep like that?" he seeks confirmation.
   "Sure, sweetie. You may sleep with all of them together if you want. As long as there is enough space on the bed," I pat his head through the blanket. Surely, he'd realise by now that we mean things when we say them. Unless this is something specific...
   I crouch by the bed to be on the same eyelevel with him.
   "Ne, Val, did Filia forbid you something about the toys?"
   "Uh," he mumbles. "There were lots on the shelves, but I couldn't touch them. They were there just in case someone came to look at my room."
   I keep my rage firmly locked away.
   "That's not the case here," I say quietly. "Your toys are for you to play with. Is that clear?"
   He nods eagerly, and relaxed, immediately adopting a very sleepy expression.
   "Da-ad," he calls in a whisper and I resist the temptation to grab him and throw skywards several times.
   "You don't mind me picking the wolf then?"
   "Why should I?"
   "Uhm. Well, you know why."
   I blink. No, I definitely don't. I mean, there is no way he can know of Zellas's pack, right? He has never been there, and even if, as Valgaav, he had heard some rumours, the wouldn't remember that now.
   "Sorry, Val, I don't know what you mean."
   "Just that... you smell like a wolf... So it's like you're with me even if you aren't."
   I hug him together with the splendid, magnificent, beautiful toy.
   "I wish I could have something that'd make me think you are with me at all times," I mutter into his hair. And he is asleep.
   Chapter 12: Chapter 12
   As I descend the stairs to the sitting-room, the warm sweet feeling Val presented to me gives way to mad rage. That lizard!
   I let myself fall onto the sofa in front of Lina.
   "That blasted bitch!" I say. "Bent on torture. All decorum. All the lies. We have to do something, Lina, we have to."
   To her credit, Lina hears me out first, and then calmly leads me to coherency.
   "What was it with the toys?"
   "He wasn't allowed to touch them!" I explode. "They were there just for appearances! Do you have any idea what he must have thought about us when we suggested to buy toys!? No bloody wonder he felt betrayed!"
   "Oh dear..." she rubs her face and sighs. "Well, I'm glad you sorted it out so quickly. You are really a very good father."
   I snort, but don't deny anything. I did manage to get Val through another challenge without hurting his feelings (more than they were already hurt, that is). Lina moves over to my side and leans on my chest in such a natural gesture, as if that were exactly what she did every evening for several years. I feel oddly comforted by her directness. She is, indeed, my steadying column, as they put it in ancient manuscripts. She is at my side, everything else be damned.
   Oh right. I almost forgot.
   "Actually, Lina, I have something for you."
   "Really? Like what?" she looks up over her shoulder.
   "Well, remember you were complaining about that huge event you need to attend on Friday?"
   "Oh yes... Damn, it seems like we had that talk weeks ago."
   "Well, I thought... I hope it's not too presumptuous of me..." I trail off. Wow, I never thought it'd be so hard to give her my present. It was never hard for me to give a woman a trinket before. So why now?..
   She looks at me expectantly, suspicion creeping into her expression.
   "Don't tell me you got me a dress?"
   "That's exactly what I did," I blurt.
   Her eyes lit up.
   "Wow! Great! Show me! May I try it on now?"
   Well, I like that kind of response!
   I produce the long flat box in which the dress is spread full-length, although the fabric is crease-proof. She pulls it out with an expression of pure joy and surprise on her face, and she is as good at it, as Val is.
   "Wooow, that's absobloodylutely beautiful!" she runs up to the large mirror in the hall and puts the dress to her front to see the effect. "Is it okay if I try it on?"
   "Of course it is. Really, you're like Val. It's your dress now, you know."
   "Yeah, I just thought... you know, it's for a special occasion, right, so perhaps I shouldn't. Nevermind," she shakes off her slippers, then pauses momentarily. It's very amusing to watch her inner battle: if she should ask me to look away or not. She decides in favour of a little exhibitionism, although her cheeks are quite flushed.
   "Really, after two nights, Lina..." I reprimand her slightly, smiling.
   "It was dark," she retorts.
   "It wasn't dark in the bath."
   "There was water."
   As if it hides anything. I just chuckle watching her get rid of her slim tight pants as quickly as she can so as not to tease me with the sight of her bum too much. That's quite some speed of unclothing. Well, I won't let her tear at the dress like that.
   Finally she is safely within the new shell. It is quite chaste, actually: a long-sleeved, turtle-necked gown with a godet skirt, It's black and just a little bit glistering. It embraces Lina's adorable slimness in a way that provokes a number of sexual fantasies on my behalf, especially when she runs her hand down her side and hip.
   "Judging from your expression, I should be afraid of single males at the ball," she giggles, blushing hard.
   "Ah, don't mind me; you excite me no matter what you're wearing," I reply quickly, trying to school my features. Really, Xellos, aren't you too old to let a girl notice your arousal from the way you look at her?
   "He-he," she says, twirling in front of the mirror. "Well, then tell me how I look."
   "Like fine jewelry," I say, grinning like an idiot. I can't help it, it really suits her. Well, I knew it would, right? "I have done a few pictures of you in that outfit, but the real thing is simply stunning."
   She raises an eyebrow.
   "You have? Show me."
   She glides over (since the skirt restrains her pace somewhat, which is also planned since I know that she lacks somewhat in aristocratic grace) and comes to a halt at my side, expectant. The warmth of her body is like a sun-patch on my arm. I have no choice but to reach for the pictures through Astral.
   "Well, these, for instance," I mumble lamely, holding out a few sketches and watercolours. I like that one where she's with an umbrella in a crowded street in the rain. All the other people are blurry gray, and she stands out in a strict black dress, slim and graceful, like an ikebana. The picture seems to have caught her eye, too.
   "Erm, Xellos, did you say the real thing, er, looks better than this?" she nods at the picture.
   "Of course," I assure her. "Nothing I draw can ever rival with how you really look."
   She blushes even more if possible and blinks several times, looking away.
   "Well, that's a nice thing to say," she mutters in a strange voice. "Because what you draw is really beautiful."
   She turns away completely and rushes to the sitting room as fast as she can,
   I frown. What was wrong this time?
   I follow her to see her tucking away a handkerchief. Oh no, not more tears today!
   "I know, sorry, Xel, just hate to let people see me crying. I... know you like me, but sometimes it just hits home all of a sudden." She turns to me, sniffing lightly. "Thank you. For the dress, I mean. I would have never picked it myself for fear that it'd make me look too thin... you know. But it doesn't, and I really like it. And that picture."
   She makes a vague gesture towards the watercolour.
   "You are welcome," I shrug, not entirely sure what I should do.
   "May I..." she seems to be suffering from the same problem. "May I have it?"
   "What? The dress? Of c-"
   "The picture."
   "Oh," I stare. She wants it? "Yeah, sure."
   I pass it to her, and she heads for the bedroom. I follow her curiously. She comes up to a low-hanging shelf on the wall where she keeps a few trinkets and a clock. And places my work there, side by side with... another one, that one, the one Val painted, the one with us together, the one that started everything...
   "You keep it here?" I say, flabbergasted.
   "You never noticed?"
   "It was dark..." I repeat her excuse, shrugging.
   She chuckles.
   "Well, I guess I should change back now..." she makes it to pass me in the doorway, but I catch her.
   "Let me do the first part for you," I say, putting my hands on her hips and pulling slightly at the stretchy fabric.
   "Xellos," she exhales, staring at me with, well, with admiration, actually. "Sometimes I can't believe you exist."
   On Friday, as Lina starts getting ready for the party, I quietly lay all the accessories to go with the dress on her bed, pick up Val and get lost in the city under the excuse that we'd rather not be in her way while she's rushing around. I still don't know how she will react to me buying her underwear.
   The city is celebrating too. There is music everywhere and the streets are decorated with glowing slogans along the lines of 'Gods save the Princess!' as well as wedding carriages, flowers and hearts. I am a little sickened by all the joy, but luckily the sweetness in the air is compensated by sweetness of cakes and candy both Val and I consume in industrial quantities. I am just glad he isn't allergic, but then I don't think Dragons can be allergic, let alone Mazoku. I wonder though, if he'll go pimply as a teenager, for that is most common among all Dragons. I hope he'll take after me in that aspect, but then he's bound to have something from his mother, and it'd better be skin than temper or thinking capacity.
   I catch him staring longingly at a stall with chocolate rabbits.
   "Wanna chocolate?"
   He makes a face, turning away.
   "Yeah, but let's find another kind."
   "What's wrong with rabbits?" I ask, puzzled. What kind of trauma can be connected with a rabbit?
   "I don't like food in the shape of animals," he says gloomily. At my blank stare he explains, "You have to bite their head off."
   "Er... you can start with the other end?.." I supply, not entirely grasping the problem.
   "And stare into its eyes?!" he exclaims, clearly horrified.
   "Oh dear." I never even thought about it, really... "But Val, they are just sweets, they are supposed to be fun... I mean, everyone eats them without thinking like that."
   "Yeah, but everyone doesn't have nightmares about killing people," he mutters, looking away.
   Oh Lord. Of Nightmares, for the matter. Damn you.
   I stop in my tracks, take him by the shoulders and turn him to look at me.
   "You are not going to go bad, I've promised you that. And you are not going to kill anyone," I say hotly. I am not exactly so sure about the latter, though. Lina is not a bad person, but she has killed. And Val already has more enemies than her, let alone than her when she was five.
   But what am I to tell him? I can't predict future exactly, so basically it's not a lie... But what would he feel like if I prove wrong?
   "You mean that I won't want to kill anyone?" he asks quietly.
   "Definitely," I say with all possible conviction. He nods with a small smile.
   "Yeah. But I still don't like those chocolates."
   I almost collapse with relief. Am I not just lucky with him?
   After tucking Val in I spend the rest of the evening leafing through Milgasia's scrolls and taking notes of what might be useful in Val's education. I force myself to accompany my activity with coffee rather than whiskey because I am fully aware that I am in a bad mood because someone else and not me is enjoying Lina's wonderful presence. Technically, now that she sleeps with me I have all the right to be jealous, but I'm afraid to scare her away. Besides, she had to go to the wedding no matter what, and I don't want her to feel bad about it. After all, she deserves to have fun sometimes, and I am not the best company for a 23-year-old human girl, no matter how much she thinks she likes me. We are too different. I'm sure there are lots of things she feels embarrassed to discuss with me because they are too transient.
   My insincerely calm solitude is broken somewhat after midnight when Lina finally comes home. By that time I have to keep my stare from burning the pages.
   "Xellos!" she exhales, stepping into the room and shaking off her shoes. She is tired and smells of perfume, ballroom and wine. "I missed you every single bloody minute of this horror!"
   It takes me a few seconds to grasp what she has said.
   "Was it that bad?"
   She crosses the room and sinks into the sofa at my side.
   "I think most guests enjoyed it. But it was pretty dreadful. Amelia can be so embarrassing! I know she's home here, and in charge, and everyone knows her, so I don't have to feel embarrassed on her behalf, but I can't help it! And Zel wouldn't bend his pride for even small things, so eventually he ends up humiliating himself completely. It's good they are used to weird kings here, he doesn't stand out too much among Amelia's relatives..."
   "What exactly happened there?"
   "Nothing out of the ordinary: they had those usual contests, you know, where you have to sing, dance or scream "I love you" across the hall. Imagine Zel doing that! It was painful to watch. At some point I simply couldn't stand it anymore," Lina stands up again and heads for the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water which she gulps down loudly. "I went to the palace potions storage and got him some relaxant. You know, that stuff which kills the moral stoppers. I really don't understand why they didn't slip it to him before the party even started."
   I shake my head, trying to imagine Zelgadiss in a wedding suit, blindfolded trying to bite a hanging apple - or whatever it is they do in those contests. Too bad I wasn't there...
   "Too bad you weren't there," says Lina, pouring herself another glass. "Although it's not like you'd be the only one to enjoy all the awkwardness. Most of Amelia's relatives seem to enjoy negative emotions even better than you do."
   "The more I hang around you, the more similar our races seem to me," I chuckle. "I hope it was better after you sedated him, though?"
   "Not really. The dancing started. Guess who was there to ask me for a dance?"
   I grit my teeth.
   "What, Gourry was there?"
   "Ha!" she rinses the glass and puts it away with a wide swing, almost crushing it against the shelf. "Of course he was! It has even occurred to him to make a compliment. I told him to go to hell."
   "I hope he didn't bother you too much."
   "Oh, relax, Xellos, I told you he's ancient history. And I actually meant someone else."
   "Huh? You mean, another unexpected man asked you for a dance? Who?"
   "Ahhha. Amelia invited him to the ball for old times' sake."
   "Great," I make a face. "Does he dance well?"
   "Much better than me which he made sure I noticed," she snorts. "He was all courtesy, of course."
   "Well, it seems, you offended him."
   "Was he trying to convince you not to deal with me?"
   "He was, but he had to shut up after I told him that at least you don't rub my face into my rustic upbringing in the middle of a royal ball."
   My rage is building up.
   "And you still think we should consider his interests?"
   Lina walks up to me and puts her hands onto my arms.
   "I think you should apologise."
   "Did he slip you a love potion or was he just so enchanting?"
   "He told Amelia everything."
   "He cares about Val. I don't know what exactly you said to him last time, but he seems to think you've lost it. He also thinks that you have some kind of power over me. So he's concerned. And it's not like he doesn't have any reason to be. After all, neither of us can boast a perfect record," she raises her eyebrows in a making-a-point way. "I don't want to justify Milgasia's actions, but, well... he cares about Val. And, guess what, he is one of the three people in the world who do so."
   And, more importantly, I promised to Val not to quarrel with him. Damn.
   "Anyway, what's the point of telling the Princess?"
   "She knows where I live."
   I curse, using a Mazoku expression, but Lina's vivid blush tells me that she knows the meaning, so I needn't have bothered.
   "So what, we are expecting guests?"
   "Most likely, yes."
   "You do realise Zelgadiss is the last person I want to see here?"
   "No, I think that's Filia," she answers calmly. Oh yes, very funny.
   "Come on, Xellos, you can't keep him locked up forever!"
   "I just don't want these people to tell him what's wrong with me."
   "I know, but he won't believe them."
   "Why not?"
   "Because he doesn't trust people easily."
   "Ah," well, at least, some good may come from his misery.
   I suddenly notice how close Lina is to me, how my whole body is warmed up by her presence.
   "Did you really miss me?"
   She snickers and kisses my shoulder.
   "Yes. For a couple of years, I think."
   Chapter 13: Chapter 13
   I waste several hours trying to establish Milgasia's whereabouts. It looks like he decided to make it difficult for me on purpose, the old mean geezer. But I really need to talk to him, and just the fact that everyone in the temple seems to think the Elder is at home while he isn't - is not enough to discourage me. I simply have to look through Astral.
   Normally I avoid it, because this way he can sense that I am looking for him, and my appearance won't be a surprise. But, well, this time, I guess, he has a right to be prepared. Maybe it's even better this way.
   However he doesn't seem to have noticed me. He turns out to be on the premises of the abandoned Fire Dragon King Temple. Now, that's interesting. Does he always do some community work the day after a party? Really, the Dragons sometimes are so unbelievably against all logic...
   I arrive at the edge of the temple's grounds, assessing how much damage it will do me to walk straight in - when I realise that the holy aura is almost gone. Looks like, having lost all the inhabitants, the temple stopped being such a strong white-magic fortress as it used to be. Well, all the better for me.
   I cross the invisible border and stride to the entrance of the main building, marvelling at the grotesque but at the same time impressive Dragon architecture towering over me like a burnt-out candle covered in wax-streaks. I have never been here before, not so close at any rate. I wonder if perhaps this place should be turned into a museum...
   I ascend the enormous staircase with a sense of irrational trepidation that doesn't allow me to teleport to the doors (which are simply gigantic). The right leaf is open, and I peer inside. It is dark in the temple, and the strong great sunbeam that passes through the door envelopes me in light, and I feel, oddly enough, like I am the source of it.
   Milgasia is there all right - but not alone. Too bad, I didn't foresee that. But, ah, I'll invent some pretext to... wait. Two of the three of his companions are actually of my folk. And they seem to be fighting. Oh great!
   Dropping the reverence, I teleport directly to the group. The fourth person on the scene is a young spotty Dragon obviously craving to prove himself to the Elder - he has just tried to shield him from an offensive spell. Naturally, Milgasia shoved him to the back, cursing under his breath because now he doesn't have time to cast a proper shield.
   I stop the spell for him. The scene goes still like a good mime-play: I can hear the rustle of dust in the breeze and the sniffing of a mouse in the basement. The two Mazoku turn out to be from my own pack, which is good because it means no rumours will leak outside about my 'association with Dragons' or whatever. Zellas's folks are used to my antics.
   "Just what do you think you are doing?" I ask them in a friendly voice.
   "Why, sir," one of them masters words, "this one is a Dragon Elder. We just caught him here alone. Doesn't happen that often, you know. They are always hiding in sacred areas with guards and such..."
   "That doesn't answer my question," I press lightly. No need to scare the boys; I don't want them to think I want to protect Milgasia.
   "Well, we thought we could get rid of him while he's alone, that's what we were doing," clarifies the other one with an air of stating the obvious.
   "And to what possible consequences would that lead?" I ask like in a school lesson. I actually conduct lessons in strategy and tactics for the younger mid-levels, but these two seem to have missed every single one.
   "It would weaken the Dragons."
   Oh how naОve can one get!?
   "No, sweetie," I smile unpleasantly watching him wince at my word-choice, "it would be a casus belli. Rings a bell?"
   "Yes, sir, but... isn't that a good thing?"
   I make a thoughtful face.
   "With two Lords missing together with one-seventh of Ma-ou, and Lei Magnus still locked up? Well, if you are suicidal, here's your green street, but I still haven't finished a couple of books in this world."
   "Oh," they breathe almost in unison. Poor devils. "What are we to do then?"
   All right, this one is obviously smarter. I should keep an eye on him.
   "Get lost and learn your lessons," I say in a fatherly voice (which lately has been very easy for me to adopt, and why would that be...)
   "Yes, sir!" they chorus and vanish.
   I stare at the empty space for a moment, then turn to Milgasia.
   Who uses this moment for an educative wakener to his companion.
   "Never try to shield me," he growls. "Never again!"
   The boy is so scared (presumably, of me), he doesn't even reply. Milgasia turns to me.
   "Are you watching me?" he starts out with an attack.
   "No, you are just lucky. I've been looking for you for a talk."
   "Really, Xellos. As if I don't owe you already."
   A gasp on the side of the boy shows that so far he didn't know who I was. Well, nice to meet you too. I purse my lips.
   "Actually you don't, but that is not the issue here."
   Milgasia is clearly tired, I wonder how long this has been going on.
   "Are you intact?" I ask conversationally, even though I have to keep my Astral body from churning at the ridiculousness of the question. Milgasia stares which doesn't make it easier.
   "What do you want?" he demands, rather unnerved.
   "It's not about my wishes," I say.
   "Really? Whose then?"
   I look at him closely, trying to communicate the idea, but he wouldn't receive. I sigh.
   "Who's the boy?" I nod at the Elder's companion.
   "My apprentice."
   I look away and swallow all the hurtful comments that spring to my mind. Milgasia has found himself another kid to care about, well, that's none of my business. No wonder he was so livid when the kid tried to protect him - to be a cause of another adolescent death is just what Milgasia needs. And since when do I relate to these things?
   "How trustworthy is that?" I turn to practical matters instead.
   "Which means he knows about the mysterious disappearance?" I smirk as Milgasia looks down.
   "Not yet."
   "Then how am I supposed to talk?"
   "Oh come on, Xellos. I am sure you can state your reason for seeking me out without causing a local earthquake."
   Wow, he actually wants me to speak in hints rather then tell his apprentice that Val is innocent? Cool. But, ah, perhaps it's all about discretion. I shouldn't work myself up now. That wouldn't make anyone happier. Let's summon some humility.
   "Last time when we talked, I was in a state. I would've said anything to make you miserable. You should have ignored me."
   The Dragon shrugs.
   "What you said was true, even if unpleasant."
   Oh no. Oh no no no! Don't tell me I'll have to convince you now that your presence in Val's life won't harm him! How am I supposed to do that!?
   "Come on, Milgasia, you should know better than to agree with the insults of an angry demon."
   "You didn't seem angry."
   "We both know that I did. Otherwise you wouldn't have told Lina that you think I'm going crazy."
   His eyes snap up.
   "Ah, so Inverse has already reported our chat, hasn't she?"
   "I am part of her life, and you are just an acquaintance. Of course she told me."
   "Xellos, she is just one of your obedient marionettes, nothing else, and you know it..."
   Milgasia continues mumbling some nonsense, but my attention is drawn to the youngster at his side. The boy's stomach hurts like hell, and he is almost driven out of his wits hiding it.
   "Hey, are you injured?" I ask, cutting across Milgasia's rant.
   "No," he manages in a rough voice.
   "Missed lunch then?"
   "What do you want, Xellos?" Milgasia is getting irritated. He hates to be interrupted.
   "He's hurting," I nod at the boy.
   "And you care because?.."
   Oh damn these creatures. Of course he is more concerned with my reasons to care than with the boy's state! Okay, Xellos, you are not going to rub his face in it...
   At this moment the young Dragon can't stand it any longer, and collapses to the ground with a heart-rending scream. Sure enough, now Milgasia darts to his side trying to figure out what's wrong. I know what's wrong. Obviously, my guys had sent a curse like the one I stopped, even before I appeared. Milgasia is checking pulse, but that is useless. As well as the healing spells he tries to apply. This curse makes one impervious to white magic. The old Dragon is sweating; he doesn't know what it is and how to deal with it. The young one is going to die in less than half an hour. And I care because?..
   "Check if his eye-whites are bluish," I say heavily. There is a 'must do' and a 'want to do', but I don't know which is which.
   "They are... do you know-" he turns to me, all hope. He is going to try and buy the information, but it won't help, he won't have the time.
   "Wait," I spit. I have a potion for it. It takes me a couple of seconds to teleport there and back again, with a small bottle. It takes all of my willpower, and I feel raped.
   "Here," I dump the contents of the bottle into the young Dragon's mouth. He still has the nerve to fight me and scream something about poison. They are so predictable.
   It takes effect in a minute. The boy is spread on the temple floor, breathing heavily. I feel his pain recede. Milgasia's hunched form lifts a haunted face up to me. Of course. Now he is going to go on about how even I am better than him when it comes to children. Now way, I've had enough for one day. I speak before he has a chance, taking advantage of the poor state of the youngster: with luck he isn't listening.
   "Val misses you. Whatever your qualities are, he wants to see you. Lina is there to make sure he is well, so no need to freak out. I promised to him that you'll visit again, so save both of us the trouble of kidnapping."
   With that I vanish, knowing that the amount of good I have done today is just going to hit home.
   Firstly, I try to take it out on some innocent people. After all, it helps splendidly when you have an overdose of positive emotions. I find a local-scale feud and join in, increasing the bloodshed by an order. A brother stabs a brother, the captives are tortured, the wives and maidens are raped... but nothing seems to help today. No matter how much negativity is in the air, I can't relax and enjoy myself. And when one of the front-line warriors breaks into a house of an enemy and raises a hand to his preteen son... I kill the man before he has time to be surprised. No way. I can't do it anymore. I flee the battlefield.
   Perfect. So now I can't even enjoy someone else's misery if there are children involved. And what next? I continue dating Lina and then I can't stand seeing a woman being harassed?
   And still the wave of some cruel, self-destructive energy is threatening to descend upon me and pull the remains of my conscience away into a deadly whirlpool. I am balancing on the edge. I have to do something, and quick. Why didn't it help to absorb the negative emotions of those people?
   The answer was obvious even before I tried - I just didn't want to accept it. It wasn't the positive emotions of others that brought me into this state. They were my own. And my good deeds. Does it mean... to get over it I have to make myself miserable somehow? Or at least angry? But that is exactly what I am trying to avoid! I don't want to have another seizure like that time... I wish I could just skip to the next stage where I can get Lina and Val and have some fun!
   Oh, but didn't she tell me to come to her if I do any good again? I shall do exactly that.
   Today is simply not my day. As soon as I materialise at Lina's estate, I know that the threat of guests has become reality all too soon. Both Zelgadiss and Amelia are comfortably settled in Lina's armchairs, engaged in small talk. I grit my teeth and muster my brand idiotic smile, not betraying a bit of my inner vortex.
   "Ah, Xellos-san!" Amelia jumps to her feet. "It's been such a long time!"
   "Indeed, Princess, indeed," I bow lightly, feeling like I can explode any second. "Shall I express my congratulations?"
   Her cheeks grow warm.
   "Oh thank you!" she beams. If I could vomit... but better not to think about it.
   "I am kind of surprised," drawls Zelgadiss, "that you didn't come to the party yesterday, to enjoy all that humiliation."
   "I don't recall being invited," I shrug.
   "Oh, really. As if it stopped you before."
   "Did you miss me?" I smirk at his pursed lips. Unfortunately my little victory is spoilt by a pounding pulsation that suddenly seized my whole being. I can barely maintain a calm decorum.
   Zelgadiss is getting used to my taunting: he doesn't even budge.
   "I just wonder what you are plotting this time."
   "Zelgadiss-san!" Amelia is rightful, as usual. "You shouldn't say such things!"
   "Why not, Amelia, isn't it a pattern? I see Xellos - I know trouble is coming."
   And finally the pain comes. I don't know how I manage to stay upright.
   "Is Lina at home?" I ask not very smoothly.
   "Do you think we came in through the window?" Zel sneers. Damn you, bloody git!
   "Where is she?" I won't be able to stand it for another minute. I can barely see at all.
   "What's with the rush?" he smirks.
   I wish I could kill him, but now I don't think I can raise an arm. Thank Heavens - Lina comes into the room.
   "We need to talk," I say without any preludes, and make a dash for the nearest door, meaning for her to follow. She does, without a word.
   "What's up?" she asks as soon as the door is closed.
   "It happened again," I breathe, sinking to the floor. "Like that time... with doing good... It hurts like hell, and I'm almost blind."
   She crouches down and hugs me.
   "Did you quarrel with Milgasia again?"
   "No, I actually helped him. I did some extremely good things. I think I'm going to black out..." I am feeling so weak, and the pain is so strong...
   "Stay with me, Xellos! Did you want to do those good things?"
   "Not sure..." my lips barely move. "I could do it... or ignore it... one I wanted, the other... the other I had to do. I don't know which was which... and which was right."
   "I can tell that you wanted it, and it was the right thing to do."
   "No... Lina... It's... I..." I don't know if she understands me any longer. "We don- 'ave freewill."
   "That's crap, Xellos, of course you have free will! If you didn't have it, you wouldn't suffer now!"
   I don't remember anything else.
   Lina has a very nice and elegant night light in the shape of a dancing crane who holds an orb of light in its beak. I wonder if it's the light that makes my upper body so unnaturally hot. But then I feel some movement - around my left shoulder. Something slides down my arm, then returns to the collarbone and repeats its way down. Vision and astral senses are fighting about which one should be applied first to find out what's happening to me, and vision wins, simply because I have to know if I can see yet.
   Turns out, I can. I see a mop of hair glowing orange in the dim light. I smile and catch Val's hand with my own. He jumps - of course, he was probably dosing off.
   "Dad!" he gasps, face splitting with a smile. "Are you okay!?"
   "Yeah," I produce in an unconvincing hoarse whisper. It's really embarrassing that I fell sick here and made him worry about me. I don't want him to worry about anything in the whole world, and I myself should be ever-powerful and unfaltering. I wish Lina didn't let him in here.
   "I knew you'd be okay!" he says firmly. "I mean, you wouldn't leave me, right? So I knew you'd come back no matter what."
   Well, that faith is damn really reassuring. I clear my throat making it sound like laughter.
   "Thanks, Val. I'm glad that you trust in me so much."
   He hugs me, threatening to suffocate, and I know that he was dead worried, but doesn't want to show it. I wonder if Lina told him what to say when I come to my senses. It would be just like her to try and convince me that it's all right to black out and make your kid dose off patting your shoulder and praying for your health.
   "You should probably call your mother," I say absently.
   He stares at me with round eyes, and then it dawns on us simultaneously.
   "You mean, Lina? Okay!"
   "Yeah, sorry for confusing you," I smirk. There is no way back out of this whole thing.
   Val is off and then back again before I can blink, and Lina is at his heels.
   "Hey, how are you?" she asks joyfully, as if I don't know she was worried.
   "Awake," I make a face.
   "How many fingers?" she shows me her hand in a fussy middle-aged-healer-like manner.
   "Three. Do you have to do it now?" I really don't want Val to know I was partially blind. I mean, why not just tell him that I'm a total psycho wreak who can't take care of himself, much less of a small child!
   I expect her to tell me that I shouldn't hide things from Val, and brace myself for an argument, but instead she strokes my hair and kisses me on the cheek. How am I supposed to interpret it?
   "Relax, hon, better tell us what happened. You see, Val had to go without a bed-time story tonight, so now is your chance to make up for it," she chuckles.
   I smirk, although I still don't feel very humorously, and sit up a little straighter against the pillow.
   "Milgasia has got himself an apprentice," I begin, watching Val closely.
   "Yeah," he says, "Khalia, he's very good with water magic."
   Well, good that this is no shocking news. Or maybe Val doesn't know that the old Dragon cares about his apprentice. Or maybe no one but me can see grounds for jealousy here.
   I also wonder if it would have made any difference if I knew the kid's name.
   "Well, the two of them were visiting the Fire Dragon King temple which is now no longer protected by holy powers, and got in a fight with two Mazoku. The boy got cursed."
   "Is he okay?" Val asks instantly. Well, at least he has the right priorities, unlike Milgasia and me.
   "Yeah, I... I gave him a potion for it."
   Lina seems to gather what stands behind my hesitation, and nods.
   "What happened to the Mazoku?" asks Val, not allowing me to continue my silent communication with Lina.
   "I told them to go away."
   "And they did?" he gasps disbelievingly.
   "Of course they did," I rather snap than say, "they have to obey me."
   He doesn't notice my sharp tone.
   "Wow, that's cool!"
   "No, Val," I sigh. "It isn't. It's just the way things work. I am a high-level Mazoku, and they are lower. They do what I say because they have no choice."
   He thinks about it for a moment while Lina reaches out to pat my knee.
   "But it's still better than if you had to kill them," Val says.
   I snort.
   "Well, yeah, naturally."
   "But Milgasia-sama couldn't just tell them to go, he had to fight them, right?"
   "Right. But he isn't their boss. I mean, if I needed to shoo away a couple of Dragons-"
   "-You would've just told them to go away, and they'd obey," he continues with conviction.
   Well. Damn, yes.
   "It's not necessarily a good thing, you know," I shrug. "They are just afraid of me."
   "But you saved Khalia," he points out. What is this talk about, huh?
   "I did, but it doesn't mean I-"
   ...wouldn't kill him tomorrow if need be? Ha! I couldn't see him die from someone else's curse, and I'm so sure I can raise my own hand to him? No way. And I don't even care about him personally.
   "It means you are great," Val concludes, and I am forced out of my thoughts with such an impact that I actually sway forward a little.
   "I know you love me," I squeeze through gritted teeth.
   He beams like a late spring sun after a rainy morning, there is so much emotion in his face. He isn't even a bit embarrassed to admit how much he depends on me. He doesn't want to stop depending. He is actually looking up to me, even after all the worry I caused him.
   Uninvited, an image of Khalia shielding his master surfaces in my mind - he didn't stop respecting Milgasia just because the man couldn't cope with two Mazoku, each of whom can slay a couple dozen Dragons without much trouble. He hated me, like all the Dragons do, but he didn't hate his Elder for using my help. I'd be very surprised if he accused Milgasia of turning dark and associating with me. So why do I expect Val to accuse me? And of what exactly? Of saving a life? Or of hesitating to do so? Or of not knowing which one is good or bad?
   But I know which one is bad. It's just against the code of my race, to do good. It is even more against the code of my race, to want Val to love me. The line is crossed. there is no going back. I can as well take holy orders, and start running a healing practice. I mean, aside from the rules, there is nothing to compel me to do evil anymore. I don't have the need. I actually have the need not to do evil.
   The only question is, how am I going to sustain myself if negative energy isn't working anymore?
   A/N: Hi! I'm speeding down due to exams. The end of December is going to be a dead period, sorry.
   There wasn't much of the old gang here, but there will be more in the next chapter. Also, Lina and Val are starting out on the road!
   I remind you that the first reader to review gets to define a thing to happen in the next chapter. Please don't disappear! I like it interactive.
   Chapter 14
   You may not believe it, for hardly could I (c)... I wrote another chapter o_O It's kinda angsty because Xellos can't stand everything being so good and ends up imagining trouble for himself 8)))
   I was so lost in thought that I didn't notice falling asleep, and it's becoming evident to me only now, when I finally wake up. I'm not sure what time it was when I came to last time, but now it feels like afternoon. It's raining outside, and the thunder is murmuring comfortably; the rain is noisily splashing against the leaves, the trees are swaying and stroking the windowpanes with outstretched branches. I feel well.
   Then I notice that I am not alone in the room. On the carpet between the bed and the door there are two human shapes sitting cross-legged. I open my eyes for just a peephole and find out that those are Milgasia and Val hunched over something on the floor. I can't see what they are looking at, and they don't make a sound, but after some time I figure out from their movements that they are playing backgammon. Interesting. I wonder if Milgasia is playing full-strength or if he holds back so that Val could win. I wonder which way is right.
   It is not very dark in the room, still I would rather they had some light on. I've read that playing board games in semi-darkness is bad for eyesight; besides, I'd like to see Milgasia's expression. Val has his back to me, so there is no way I could see his face, but I imagine he is deep in concentration and his tongue probably sticks out if Milgasia hasn't reprimanded him.
   Here goes a flash of lightning, and I can make out Milgasia's face. He is smiling, his eyes sparkling with love and content. He is actually looking at Val, not at the board, and he's so proud of the progress the child is making, as if...
   I am suddenly bitterly angry. How dare he be proud of my child!? What, taught him a game and now you think he's all yours? Like hell! I can teach him hundreds of games of all nations and times, I am the one who's making him happy, the one he needs...
   I must have made some kind of sound because Val turns sharply and beams my way.
   "Dad! You awake? How're you feeling?" he jumps up and onto the bed in a split second, attaching himself to my upper arm. Milgasia jumps too; obviously he hasn't heard the way Val addresses me lately yet. For a moment he stares at me with disapproval and horror, but then quickly schools his features. There you go, old lizard. I still matter more!
   "I'm fine, baby," I say kissing his fiery mop. My voice sounds oddly sleepy; I don't think I have ever tried talking so soon after waking up. Milgasia looks very uncomfortable. Good. I wonder, who's idea it was to let him into the room with a sleeping me? It's not like I am afraid of him or like sleep is anything disgraceful, but still... Lina could have guessed I wouldn't be overly happy to see the Dragon first thing in the morning.
   "Where is Lina?" I ask Val who is still cuddled up to me.
   "She's gone to the market," he says, his face adopting a worried expression, "but then it started raining, and she's probably decided to wait in a cafe..."
   Oh. So it might be she has no idea Milgasia is even here.
   "All right, Val, I'd like to get up now, so if you'd be so kind as to let me..."
   He is very unhappy with the idea of letting me go, but still complies. I get up easily and check my state all over once again. I am totally and absolutely well, like I haven't blacked out at all. I wonder if it was sleeping that healed me or something else. In spite of my earlier anger at Milgasia, I am now in a very good mood too. The Dragon is fidgeting and taking one deep breath after another, but failing to turn it into speech. His indecisiveness makes me smile and crave for mischief, so I grab Val under the arms and lift him sharply, letting him fly up a few inches into the air, hear him gasp happily, then I clutch him again and announce:
   "Let's go join her then, I'm sure she's missed us!"
   "How are you gonna find her?" he asks, eyes bright with curiosity.
   "We'll go check out her favourite tavern first, and if she's not there, then I'll have a quick look around the city while you'll be having bubble tea."
   At that Val whoops and bounces in my arms, I laugh and wink to Milgasia who is still completely lost. Perhaps, I should've taken care not to display so much affection in front of him. But then, I no longer know if I have anything to lose or to gain, and which information can be used against me, and which can help.
   So I teleport, with Val on board, to the tavern, and Milgasia follows. Obviously, the anti-teleportation wards collapsed when I lost consciousness. A quick glance around the dining hall tells me that Lina isn't there. Ah, well, I'll find her anyway. Milgasia arrives when I am already ordering the bubble tea for my eager charge, and I leave them together, promising to come back as soon as I find Lina. Of course, that means they'll spend another while together, but then I really doubt Val would ever decide to call Milgasia `dad', and anything else is fine with me. I am indeed in a good mood.
   After a few minutes of poking into various buildings where Lina could be waiting out the rain, I get tired and decide to take a proper glance from the Astral. I should've done that from the beginning: Lina turns out to be in the palace. She is having her afternoon tea with the princess and the chimera. Hm, I wonder what they are talking about. Something tells me it can as well be my humble person... I glide up to the window and hang there in mid-air. The Seyruun Palace is well warded from my kind, but if I don't actually penetrate the building, the wards don't go off.
   "...insecure for the capital," Zelgadiss is saying in a stern voice. I don't know if prince Philionnel has expressed a decision to retire any time soon, but Zel-kun is clearly already preparing to take over.
   "Zelgadiss-san!" the princess gasps. "How can you say such things!? That is horribly unfriendly of you!"
   Lina looks alert and shifts her expectant gaze from one spouse to the other.
   The chimera sighs.
   "I am not saying they must leave or anything like this. Just that it is dangerous to keep a person hunted by most powers that be ten miles away from the palace. We should either move him inside the palace, or set up some security measures around your house."
   Ahh, so they are talking about safeguarding Val. There is a point to it, of course, but I'm not too happy with the suggested decisions.
   "You don't think I am a sufficient security measure," Lina observes.
   "You are here," Zel says. "And he is -- where? Right, at home. With whom? A syncopal Xellos?"
   "With Milgasia, actually."
   So she knew he was there.
   "Oh yeah," Zelgadiss stands up and starts pacing. "Milgasia is a secure guy number one! I don't recall him even trying to fight a rather low-ranking Mazoku. If you ask me, healing is the only thing he's capable of."
   "Still can teleport," Lina disagrees.
   "As well as the enemy."
   Lina purses her lips.
   "So you insist on locking him up, don't you?"
   "It is for his own good," Zelgadiss says with conviction, but from the way Amelia looks down I can tell Val's good is not the only or even the first of his considerations.
   "Zel, he is bloody five years old," Lina presses, losing her temper, "and he has already been locked up for those five years! There is nothing good about it!"
   "So you insist on putting him in jeopardy, don't you?" the chimera echoes her.
   They glare at each other over the princess's head for a long moment, and I can feel Zelgadiss's indecision. He almost gathers up his courage to say something rigorous, and I half expect him to tell Lina to leave Seyruun, but in the end he falters and shrugs.
   "I'll think of something else," he says without much hope, looking away. It seems, this time friendship won over duty. Then he looks up and continues, "Perhaps, your sodden Mazoku will come up with a solution if he gathers his wits."
   "Zelgadiss-san, you don't have to speak about him like that," the princess inserts. She is also clearly torn between friendship and duty, and jumps at the opportunity to demonstrate her loyalty to Lina. Lina snorts.
   "Amelia, you shouldn't defend him if you don't want a family row," she says.
   "Why do you even keep him around?" Zelgadiss asks with badly concealed disdain. "How is Valteria his business? Have you even wondered what plans he has for the boy?"
   Lina leans back into the armchair, adopting a very attractive position.
   "I keep him around because I like him, and so does Val. If Xellos has any plans for us, then so be it. You know I have long since given up any attempts to screw his plans; it's useless. The only way to keep Xellos from spoiling my life is to become the kind of engaging toy he wants me to be."
   "And let him buy your clothes!" Amelia explodes. "Don't you think he's gone a bit too far? What next, he'll demand that you sleep with him!?"
   Lina raises her eyebrows in an innocently surprised way.
   "I've been sleeping with him for some time already, I'm not so stupid as to wait for him to demand it!"
   Both her companions freeze at this, and I can't blame them...
   The princess makes some incoherent sounds reminding of morality and honour, while the more pragmatic chimera asks,
   "Are you sure it's safe?"
   He looks really concerned.
   "Oh but you don't think he might be carrying a disease?" Lina laughs. "And he wouldn't gain anything from killing me in my sleep."
   "How about..." Zelgadiss hesitates but continues, "what if he can get some power over your mind through this? It's not unheard of, you know."
   "Of course it's not unheard of," she nods, "but you see, it's me who's getting power over his mind through this, and would've noticed if there were a countercurrent. So far, he is totally unaware, and the best part is, when he gets confused about some odd new behavior pattern he follows, it's me he runs to for advice. And naturally, I of all people can soothe him the best."
   "So... you are basically turning him into your own toy?" Zelgadiss pronounces disbelievingly. Lina shrugs in the sense of agreeing.
   "Aren't you disgusted to sleep with somebody for such a purpose?" the princess gasps, screwing her face.
   "Ah, but he's quite cute, and very good in bed, too," Lina says. "It's not unpleasant."
   After a long silence they switch to small-talk, and I stop listening. I wish I stopped existing. Really, things were going way too well to be true. Why would Lina all of a sudden fall in love with me? Why would she be so happy to babysit Valteria after all the trouble Valgaav caused her? And I always knew she were a good actress... Suddenly it all clicks in place. Perhaps, I would have still doubted it if I heard her tell this to Milgasia, but these are her closest friends... They were her friends before I even knew she existed... Of course she'd confide in them.
   My first whim is to collect Val's belongings, grab him and take him away to some remote corner of the world where there'd be only the two of us and no room for lies and hypocrisy. But then I realise that, whatever her reasons, Lina was right, I can't take care of him alone, and I need someone else to help me protect him. And Lina apparently treats him very well, otherwise he wouldn't be so happy around her. A child like him would've reflected any mistreatment, any wrong word or glance she could've sent his way. But he likes her, and I have no reason to take him away from her.
   I can confront her, of course. But that would only mean a quarrel, and that is really bad for Val as well. Even worse, if she realises her game is lost, she might refuse to take care of Val any longer, and then it's no different from option number one.
   The only choice I have is to pretend I haven't heard anything. This way Val still has two loving parents who can protect him, and Lina is content, which is still important for me because the fact that she is using me doesn't make me love her any less; come to think of it, I am even more fascinated with her than ever. And I... I will have to allow her to turn me into her toy, to possess me and use me to her liking.
   I rub my face and realise I've been biting my lower lip so hard that it needs fixing. I wonder how hard I would have laughed if someone told me when Val first hatched all those centuries ago, that I would sacrifice my freedom and my personality in order for him to be happy.
   I shake myself out of the cold despair that is creeping into my core and appear inside the room, cutting short Zelgadiss's lecture about unemployment rates.
   "Good day to you, dear friends," I drawl as sweetly as I can.
   The royal couple looks at me with ill-concealed alertness and pity while Lina seems to relax. I wonder if she was afraid that I'd eavesdrop.
   Neither Zel nor Amelia are in the mood to talk to me, and it's so evident that very soon Lina suggests leaving. I take her by the hand and teleport to the tavern where the two Dragons have already had a three-course lunch while waiting for us. They don't complain about the delay though, which makes me think they were quite happy together, which makes me think I'm useless and it's good that Lina is turning me into her slave because I don't seem to make a decent person on my own.
   Lina says she has eaten at the palace, but it's not a valid reason not to have a second helping of dessert at least, so she orders a huge assortment of sweets, and soon she and Val are engaged in exterminating them. I take a couple of bites of a caramel bar simply because I know Lina expects me to like sweets. I don't want to eat. I don't want to do anything at all, save, perhaps, for sobbing a couple of pillows wet, but, ah, still can't cry. So instead I allow Milgasia to lead me out to the terrace under some pretext I haven't even heard.
   "First of all I must thank you," he says deadly earnest, "for saving my apprentice".
   I nod absently. Hopefully, he doesn't know what it cost me. Or even if he does...
   "Secondly," he continues determined to get over all the unpleasant stuff as fast as possible, "I apologise for disrespecting your choice of Valteria's caregiver. Lina-san is an extraordinary person, and her beneficial influence on Valteria is already showing."
   To that I can't but laugh sadly. I wonder if she teaches him to be a manipulative jerk. Although he can as well inherit it from me. Lina and I are really birds of a feather. So why am I so utterly crushed?
   We land at a table on the deserted terrace, The rain doesn't reach here, but it's cold and wet. Perhaps if I go out under the rain and let it fall onto my face, that'd feel like weeping, perhaps some of the tension will go away. Humans say, crying helps with getting over unpleasant events. But I still have the Dragon to entertain. It won't do to cause him to suspect me of insanity twice over a fortnight.
   "Xellos... can we talk seriously?" he asks.
   "We can try," I sigh.
   "Val keeps telling me that Lina-san and you are... lovers?" he looks at me anxiously, waiting for an approval or a denial. Does he really expect an honest answer?
   "What exactly is bothering you?" I ask.
   Looks like he isn't sure himself.
   "Well, I am rather concerned that if that is some kind of scheme you are running, and Lina-san finds out, she would get very upset, and that will be bad for Valteria."
   I nod curtly and slowly several times and it makes me dizzy.
   "If you must know," I produce after a brief silence, "it's a scheme Lina is running, and I found out. But I am making sure this isn't bad for Valteria, so please, don't discuss it with Lina. It's more convenient for me if she believes I'm unaware of her games."
   He looks extremely confused, but nods. And then he asks the sacramental question.
   "Why do you care so much about Val?"
   As I don't answer, he feels bound to explain why he is sure that I really care.
   "He senses insincerity, all children do, but Val has a natural gift for empathy. Even if he can't see your emotions through Astral, like your kind can, he still is always aware of other people's attitudes to him. But he trusts you enough to call you..." he falters, "to call you `dad'! I can't even begin to imagine what one should have done to get that kind of trust from this poor betrayed child! So it's obvious that you care like no one else does! But why?"
   Usually no matter how upset I am, I can close it off and act normally when need be. But today it's all wrong. I can't even bring myself to invent a decent excuse for my odd behavior. But then, what kind of excuse can there be for love? A love potion? Very effective on Mazoku, yeah.
   "Do you have any ideas?" I ask hoping that he might supply me with a version he'd easily believe.
   "I thought," he says in a low voice, then glances around and continues, "that maybe you were going to revive the whole race of Ancient Dragons through him. I mean, there are rumours you were not indifferent to one of them..."
   Well, at least that draws my attention. Unfortunately I don't check my surprise in time, so it's way too obvious that this version has nothing to do with reality.
   "Wow," I say in Val's brand style. "I always knew you people think I'm much creepier than I really am, but this breaks all record!"
   He blushes vividly and apologises in a mess of sounds. As fun as it is, I am rather disturbed about that rumour. This way it's too easy to figure things out.
   Despite the embarrassment, Milgasia still waits for me to answer something. So I say,
   "I haven't been around a small child much before. It turned out to be a lot of fun, and I... got carried away, I guess. But in this case it's for the best. If I care, I'll do a better job of looking out for the little guy."
   Milgasia seems more or less satisfied with my answer, so we finally part, and I go to fetch my family and take them home. Damn it, how much I want to hug Lina and tell her everything I feel, but what would be the point? Damn me for eavesdropping! It would have been so much better if I were unaware...
   I spend the evening teaching Val to summon water and fire. He does very well, but I can't hide my low spirits from him. He wonders if it's Milgasia's fault, and I rush to reassure him that the Elder has nothing to do with it. It's just that life isn't turning out the way I want it, I say. He hugs me, and I so want to cry. But then I tickle him, and he tickles me back, and soon we are rolling on the floor guffawing with laughter.
   Then he has dinner during which Lina and I don't meet gazes, and then I tuck him in. It's my first time when he is still awake during the procedure. I feel compelled to tell him a bed-time story. I tell him the one about nettle coats and were-swans. I don't know which one of us takes the story closer to heart. He falls asleep hugging the stuffed wolf.
   When I come down the stairs, Lina has already washed and is reading something in the sitting-room. I want to touch her and kiss her wet hair -- and at the same time I want to never see her again. But it's required that I do the first.
   Her gaze is heavy, like she is bothered by something. Did I let it out after all? Oh, she's going to talk now, so I'll find out soon.
   "Xellos," she says, fondling with my fingers, "I talked to Zel and Amelia today."
   "I figured that out," I smile.
   "I think it's time Val and I went on a sightseeing trip," she says, catching me completely unawares.
   "You mean... you want to hit the road? With him?"
   "Yeah. After all, you know, it's a shame to waste a summer at home. I only stayed so far because of the wedding, but now it's over, and I can go."
   "But Lina... he's small, he can't go far or fast!"
   "I am in no hurry. Besides, you'd be there to help us out if we can't make it to the next village by nightfall. I just don't want to be stuck at home like a housewife."
   "Are you sure it's safe for him though?"
   "Actually yes. Simply because no one will know where to find him. Even if somebody suspected me of keeping him so far, as soon as I hit the road, they'll start looking elsewhere. People tend to underestimate my insanity," she winks.
   "But... what about his drawings and toys and books? He is just now getting used to all that!"
   Lina considers it for a moment.
   "Can he make Astral pockets?"
   "Not yet..."
   "But he can learn, can't he?"
   "Well, teach him! That, and flying, and teleporting. And then we're all set!"
   Actually, it's starting to make sense to me. I am a good toy, am I not?
   "Fine," I say. "I'll see to his learning."
   She beams and kisses me, and I almost forget she is only doing it to make me obey. I can't even sense her true emotions behind the ones she wants me to sense. She must be really good at convincing herself. It's odd she didn't convince herself she was concerned about me when I fainted. Must be that she knew why it happened and that it wasn't dangerous. Still, I'd rather hint that way before someone else points it out to her. She knows I am not stupid, and if I miss something obvious she might suspect me of knowing more than I should.
   "Ne, Lina," I say. "Weren't you a tiny bit worried about my state the other day?"
   "I was worried like hell," she sighs, "but I couldn't let Val feel it. He was already horribly distressed, and if he knew what I was going through, he'd be crying still. I had to appear calm."
   So she even admits she can conceal and display her emotions at will.
   "Oh, I see, sorry," I mumble, hiding my face in her wet hair and imagining those are my tears.
   Chapter 15
   Val's fascination with flying lasts two days, right until we have the teleporting lesson. The excitement about teleporting is even more short-lived, exactly the time Lina needs to pack.
   She expertly ties her hair into a pony-tail (something I have never seen her do in preparation for a journey ever before, but then, humans tend to grow up and realize that some things are more convenient than others) and gives me a long assessing look. I wonder what that means.
   "Xellos. Good you're still here. You know what, I thought it wouldn't be too great if we were seen simply walking around Seyruun. I suggest you drop us off at some remote place where at least not every street vendor knows me by sight. How about Zelein, for instance?"
   She has a good point. Here, in Seyruun every single person knew her at least by description, and even if she manages to pass Val as her own child (of whom no one has ever heard) it will be news number one for every bored spinster. Zelein, on the other hand, lies beyond the Desert of Destruction, and as far as I know, Lina has yet to poke her freckled nose into that country. At the same time, Zelein is a rather civilized state, and just a few months ago they signed a few treaties with Seyruun to promote international trade and ensure military support. I've been present at the summit, unseen, of course. Zelein is also a nice green country with a lot of forests and lakes. I am sure Val is going to enjoy the scenery.
   "Fine," I say. "I'll get you to a quiet place near the capital. That way you'll get to Zelein-Kmet right in time for the Yule Festival. I am sure that will be a lot of fun."
   And so we are off.
   I leave the two of them on the outskirts of a village and let Lina decide what she wants to do next. I have some things to take care of.
   First of all, Val's flying lessons were quite a surprise. The thing is, neither we, nor the Dragons can levitate like human wizards. We simply don't care where to position the physical body -- on the ground or in midair. It is often a problem for young or weak Mazoku to learn to keep their feet on the ground, because they lack precision. The Dragons, however, can't levitate at all, they are way too heavy for their own magical powers to support them. If a Dragon falls off a cliff, it has to transform into the winged form, otherwise it'll crash. I have, of course, calculated and experimentally proved the exact height of a cliff that would be lethal for each size of a Dragon. I mean, the cliff should be high enough for the human form to crash, but low enough for the Dragon not to have time to transform. It is also interesting that even while the winged form is generally much tougher than the human form, if a Dragon manages to transform bare inches before hitting the whatever is under the cliff, it still crashes at the impact as if it were still human-shaped. Seems that the velocity increases in proportion to the size of the body, which would only make sense if we assume that every power, magical or other, increases if applied to a Dragon during transformation, which leads us...
   Ahhhh, that wasn't what I should be thinking about!
   So, back to my initial topic. Val can levitate using human spells for that. I searched Milgasia's manuscripts, but they mention nothing of the kind. Which probably means that the reason for this phenomenon is lost. Which is bad because if I don't know how something functions, I can't fix it in case it stops. So I have to try and get Milgasia to search for more data on the Ancients. Unfortunately, I know for sure that I never collected any pieces of information even remotely relevant to my problem. Even more unfortunately, the reason for Val's levitation might lie not with the Dragons, but with me, and then I am risking Milgasia finding out the truth. Then, again, he already knows too much, and should another piece of puzzle be put in its place, I would have either to kill him or to confess everything to the public at large...
   Then there is the matter of Val's teleporting. He does it Mazoku way which is good because it's faster and he can appear and disappear in any position and cover any distance in a single jump. It is also bad because anyone familiar with both ways can notice that he skips the movements necessary for the Dragon teleportation. And here I thought I would never hate secrecy.
   Milgasia turns out to be at home, but his blasted apprentice is with him. The brat still looks green in the face, but otherwise healthy. He jumps when I appear and looks at me with a mix of horror, admiration and shame. My guess is, the third is the result of the second.
   "Xellos," Milgasia stands up to greet me. He is slightly surprised, but otherwise calm. Got used to me lately, didn't he...
   "And here I thought we could enjoy some of your special tЙte-Ю-tЙte tea," I drawl with a sugary smile.
   "Yes, I think we can arrange that," he says pursing his lips and giving his pupil a meaningful looks.
   "Right," croaks the boy glancing my way. "I just... er... just wanted to thank you, sir..."
   Both Milgasia and I wince.
   "I told you not to do that," the old Dragon hisses. Clearly, the lesson didn't stick to that liquid brain. I think the Elder can do with some assistance. I walk up to the youngster who is just a little taller than me, invade his personal space and look him directly in the eye.
   "By this simple statement you have disgraced yourself at least twice," I say in a maliciously serious tone. "Firstly, because the Dragon Code, as far as I know, forbids to accept help from enemies, and I remember clearly that you have called me one. Secondly, because by saying the words of gratitude, you have shown how little you have learnt despite having a very knowledgeable teacher. Clearly, the simple idea that positive emotions are unpleasant to my kind hasn't lingered in your empty skull. Unless, of course, it was your objective to anger me?" I raise an eyebrow and enjoy the speed at which the youth blanches. Well done.
   He stutters something apologetic, but Milgasia quickly sends him away before he makes things worse.
   "Really, Xellos," the old Dragon sighs, "did you have to scare him into oblivion?"
   "I thought you could do with some help with getting ideas through to him. He is obviously disregarding you."
   "Now let me handle my pupil!" Milgasia snaps.
   "I will, once you teach him to behave around me."
   The Elder sighs and sinks into an armchair. He looks so defeated, I am almost touched.
   "I am guilty of that particular misdemeanor myself," he reminds me.
   "Penitence is not my favorite flavour either," I scowl.
   He suddenly laughs.
   "Why, don't you want to dwell on my disgrace?"
   "It's funny that you would suggest that," I say raising my other eyebrow. "I gather, you are unaware that you have never actually called me an enemy?"
   He shrugs.
   "It was too obvious for words, I guess."
   But he looks bewildered. Most likely, so do I.
   "Was?" I ask.
   He looks up at me through his fringe, obviously trying to figure why he said that. I decide to stop tormenting him before he lets any other compromising thoughts slip.
   "I have come to you because I need more information on the Ancients," I say. "Especially in the matter of their aerial magic. Do you think you could get me anything else?"
   He shakes his head slowly.
   "We have some more texts in the Main Temple Library, but the access is restricted. I can read things inside the hall, but even I can't take them out. And there is no way you could get in, it is sealed, of course. I could try to search the archives for you and copy things out, but I don't know what exactly you are looking for, and it'll take ages, so..."
   "Come on, Milgasia, do you really think I am so naive?" I wink at his confused expression and pull out my splendid self-devised copying machine. It is a tube the length of an average scroll's width and has two chinks in it. "Here. You take the scroll with the text, put in on top of a clean one and then you push them both into this chink, see, it's marked `in'. Then you turn the butt, and both scrolls go out from the other chink. Here, try it out."
   Milgasia does try and then gives me a very dirty look.
   "No wonder they say Juu-ou Zellas's library is the largest in the world," he mutters.
   "Just be careful with it," I instruct. "It's unique and fragile. Remember, I want everything about the element of air. And if you find something on teleportation, that would be great, too."
   He immediately brightens.
   "Oh, you want to teach him to teleport! That's great news. Although... are you sure you can? I mean, your way is different..."
   "If you want him to learn from you, that's not going to happen," I say with a sudden flash of jealousy. "He has already learnt. I simply want to check if he is doing everything right because there might be subtle differences. After all, Ancients were extraordinary big creatures, and there might just be problem with that."
   Milgasia nods, slightly disappointed. No way I am going to let you teach Val something so exiting. Don't you even dare voice it!
   "How... how does he look... in the Astral Plane?" the Dragon asks after a pause.
   One hell of a good question. He definitely doesn't look like a five-year-old Dragon.
   "Odd," I say, failing to conceal that it bothers me. "There are... several separate pieces."
   Milgasia pales.
   "You know that means mental disorder, right?"
   For physical creatures, yes. For us... could be other things, too. For him -- only L-sama knows.
   "I hope it is just the result of two reincarnations. But then, abuse tends to cause certain psychic conditions too."
   Milgasia looks like he is dead or dying or willing to.
   "I... am not sure I could heal him..."
   Well, that is one lovely confession from the second-best healer in the world. Anyway, he'd better not even try. Val is still half Mazoku. Oh L-sama, WHAT was I thinking back then!?
   "Do you..." Milgasia clearly has a problem saying phrases in one piece today. "Do you think he has retained his old personality somehow?"
   If I refuse to answer, he will suspect Val gradually turning into Valgaav. No, thanks. And I don't want to lie, as usual. Well, why not just tell him.
   "He had a dream once. Seemed like the last memories of Valgaav." I make a dramatic pause to examine Milgasia's horrified face. "He clearly didn't relate to the emotions and objectives of his prior incarnation. And Lina seems to have managed to make him distinguish between himself and the person he was in his dream."
   "Oh", Milgasia whispers.
   Indeed, oh.
   "Xellos... What is going to happen if he remembers it all? I mean, you and Lina-san are responsible for his death as Valgaav. I took part in the extermination of the Ancients, even if I have come to regret it. Who will he turn to?.."
   Do you have to bring it up, old lizard!?
   "We are trying to convince him he has nothing to do with his prior incarnations."
   "But that is not true!"
   "We don't know."
   "But Xellos... if his Astral body looks like you said, it has to be that he still keeps parts of those two with him!"
   "Or just that he is schizophrenic."
   "Does he show any signs?"
   Apart from being an incredible mixture of creatures, having a hysterical mother and a father who is both General and Priest?
   "Not yet."
   "You don't wish he were, do you?"
   "You don't wish another round of Valgaav, do you?" I tease him. I am not amused.
   "No one does," he shrugs. "Does he have any memories from the first Valteria?"
   "Again, I don't know yet. I haven't really met him then. Sometimes it seems to me that instead of learning spells or moves, he recalls them, but I can't tell for sure, and he doesn't feel any difference."
   "I see. I... met him once. He and his mother were at an official reception, back when we were still trying to retain some civility. He seemed distraught and subdued, but then the atmosphere wasn't exactly relaxing."
   "Neither was his mother," I murmur.
   "Oh, so you've met her!" Milgasia says with uncharacteristic passion.
   "Yes..." I frown. "What's wrong with that?"
   "Nothing." He stands up and takes a few steps around the room. "I am just glad you've seen for yourself what she was like. Perhaps you don't know, but she was one of the reasons we decided to attack. Her father, the Supreme Elder, was very old already. It would have taken less than a century for her to take his place. And then the world would have been cleared of all Dragons, not just us. We had to prevent that!"
   I blink. Who would have thought...
   "She couldn't have made the Elder's position!" I say.
   "Yes, she could," he nods with conviction. "Don't you know the Ancients allowed both male and female Elders?"
   "Yeah, I know that, but she wasn't clean!"
   "You mean, she's committed crimes? Well, I am sure, she would have convinced everyone those were acts of justice or something..."
   "Really?" I laugh. "And how would she have justified sleeping with me?"
   Milgasia stares. No, STARES.
   "You... she... WHAT!??"
   I can't help but burst out at that astounded expression. Hell, I haven't laughed so hard for a while! Not since Filia sent Zelgadiss flying, I think.
   "Wait, are you serious?" the Dragon tries to get through to me while I'm rolling on the sofa, punching the pillows with my fists. Finally, I manage to even my non-existent breath.
   "Deadly serious. She actually was quite kinky. Shackles, gags... err, too long to explain."
   Milgasia shakes his head violently, obviously trying to make the news settle. But shaking makes something fall into the right place. Suddenly his face goes blank, and his eyes flash with all the tired wisdom of his age and experience. His hands hang uselessly along his body. He seems both old and feeble, and eternally young, free from all worry. He finally looks at me, and I can read peaceful resignation in his eyes.
   "Xellos... I don't think it makes much difference to you," he says quietly. "If you would do me a final favour... leave me in the sea when you are done."
   I try to blame my sudden nausea on the mention of sea.
   "You don't even ask for it to be painless or quick?" I ask just to say something. I am oddly rigid.
   "You know I'd prefer it that way, and there is no point in pleading."
   It's my turn to look up at him through my fringe. I feel sick to the core. I am not even surprised. I always hated killing others for my own mistakes. It's a waste. And this mistake was mine all right. I shouldn't have let it slip about my contact with Val's mother. Milgasia was never satisfied with the excuse I gave him for taking care of the boy. He just made an obvious connection. And it is more obvious to him than to me because among Mazoku sex and reproduction have nothing to do with each other.
   I stand up, and he doesn't even flinch. He just stands there, totally relaxed, waiting for his fate to swoop down on him. My imagination diligently supplies me with a series of images of me killing him in different ways. The remnants of my dutiful conscience struggles to get me to move. Here, darling, raise your hand. Just one word, honey, it's so easy. And it's right, too. He has discovered a really bad secret. He'll rat you out. Val will be in danger.
   Val. I can make it so simple to decide. Will I be able to break the news to him? What will I say if he asks how it happened? There you go, sweetheart.
   Milgasia must have noticed a change in my seeming because he suddenly looks anxious. He probably thinks I actually decided to give him hell, literally. Oh, I shouldn't have thought that -- it makes me double sick. I almost moan, actually. Oh, Lina... what have you done to me!?
   "I won't" I squeeze through gritted teeth. He bloody doesn't understand!!
   "It's really not much to ask," he says in a high strained voice.
   "Live, damn it!" I snap. Why the hell did I stand up? Now my head is spinning, I have to grab the back of the sofa. I think he thinks I am trying to contain my rage.
   "Are you giving me time?" he ascertains.
   "I'm n't gonna kill ye never!" I force out. I am so sick like I'll turn inside out next moment. And the problem is, if I think I should kill him, it makes me sicker, and if I think I should let him live -- it makes me sicker just as well!!!
   I must get to Lina. She did this to me, she'll know what to do.
   I put my best and last effort into teleportation.
   Chapter 16
   Thankfully, tracing Lina in the Astral has become second nature for me, so even in my current state I do it automatically. I stumble out of an inter-dimensional crevice and spot the flame of her hair already falling down. At least this time I don't black out. I can feel her grabbing my shoulders, her voice comes from underwater...
   "Xellos! What the hell is wrong again?"
   "Milgasia," I say. Her presence does make it a little easier to speak. "Found out... Val... me..."
   "Did you kill him?" she whispers in genuine horror. Ah, that feels good...
   "No," I say. "Should've, but no."
   "Good!" she gasps with relief. Didn't know she felt for him that strongly... "Is that why you are sick?"
   I think I nod, anyway, she gets the message.
   "You've done the right thing," she says with conviction.
   And suddenly -- it's all gone! No more nausea, not a remnant of the feeling of being twisted and tied into a knot. I am back in prime condition.
   "Well," I say, seriously bewildered, "that's good. And thanks for telling me."
   She looks no less surprised and mutters, "Sure."
   I glance around. We are on a river-bank under a shady tree, sitting on the grass. Down in the water a number of small children are splashing in the bright sunlight, shrieking with joy.
   "Are you OK then?" Lina asks. The light coming through the tree-crown covers her in small rippling patches of shade and glister. It's been a while since I've drawn anything.
   "It would seem so, yes," I answer in many rambling and unsure words.
   "Great!" she says. "At least now I know what to do when this crap happens!"
   I am somewhat angry at her for that. It means, she was experimenting with my soul while having no idea how to help me in case something goes wrong. She could've at least tried it out first on someone less important! Although, how do I know how important I am to her?
   I look away so that she does not suspect what I might be thinking. There is Val among other children, obviously having the time of his life. The water is shallow, but when he gets at least half-submerged, he switches from running to swimming. I wonder when he learned...
   "Why aren't you bathing?" I ask to break the silence. I think she senses that I am unhappy about something.
   "Can't," she shrugs. At my stare, she elaborates, "for the same reason you'll have to stay out of my bed for a couple of days."
   Ah, that stuff. Humans are really so inconveniently structured.
   "So..." she clears her throat, "what are you gonna do about Milgasia?"
   "Clearly, no harm," I sigh. "I guess I'll just have to ask him to keep quiet. After all, it's about Val's safety as well. I mean, Zellas won't touch us, but she won't protect us either, and I know too many purists who make it their reason for living to ensure that the Code is fulfilled in every instance. And the Code demands that both I and Val be eliminated."
   "I think you'd better run back to Milgasia right away then," Lina points out.
   True enough.
   So I do.
   During the few minutes I was away, Milgasia's chambers suffered a significant change. Now they looked anything but neat; papers are scattered everywhere, sometimes covered in spilt ink, several broken teacups are resting on the carpet and on the sofa, all drawers are practically torn out of their boxes...
   First of all I get anxious that someone could have been eavesdropping on us, and came for Milgasia after I left, and then searched his place. But then I hear urgent rustling from the next room and quickly find Milgasia there ripping another drawer out of his desk.
   "What are you doing?" I ask, totally puzzled.
   He jumps and turns in the air, no really.
   "I just thought I could use the time... to... you know... make some arrangements..."
   "What arrangements?" I snap. I hope he hasn't spread the news...
   "Will," he says and gulps. Will what? Or is that a name? Or... ah, he decides to go on, "Recommendations for appointing the next Elder..."
   I breathe out a long breath and rub my face with my hands. It's only midday, and I am already tired like hell. Lina may have her catamenia, but I am definitely getting into her bed tonight simply to sleep.
   "Milgasia," I say in that careful tone I use on Val when he shows another sign of unhappy childhood. "I said I was not going to kill you."
   He considers it for a few seconds.
   "Well," he says finally, "you never said it quite clearly, so I preferred to expect the worst." He blinks several times and looks away. I sense that he feels offended. Now why is that?
   He puts the now not-so-urgent papers on top of a pile on the table, takes in the whole mess. Either I am seeing things, or his hands are trembling.
   "You know," he says in an odd voice, "you could've actually told me explicitly."
   "I did."
   He shakes his head,
   "You just mumbled something, I didn't understand a word. I mean, Xellos, I understand that my life and death are not of much significance to you, but lately... I thought perhaps..."
   Ah, so that's what he finds offensive.
   I carefully pick my way among the papers and come up to him. Without thinking I touch his elbow, he flinches, but doesn't pull away, although it can be for fear.
   "I didn't mean to leave you in doubt," I say earnestly. "I was having another fit, like the one which had me lying flat for two days. I tried to tell you, but what you heard was my best effort."
   "Uh oh," he quickly switches to sympathy. You blasted humanitarian. "Have I done something to cause it?"
   "No," I say, getting annoyed. I think I am getting dizzy again. "Look, how about dropping by Lina and Val? They are in a much more pleasant place right now."
   "Erm," he looks around, obviously imagining what anyone would think if they visit this place in his absence. "All right, I'd be very glad to see them."
   So I pull him along to the patch under the tree.
   "What, you failed to convince him?" Lina giggles.
   "No, I'm just tired," I confess. The grass here is so fresh, soft and welcoming. I spread out at Lina's side and out of the corner of my eye watch Milgasia settle across from us cross-legged. He must be in a contradictory mood, indeed.
   Lina chats away on some insignificant topics, and then Val runs up to us, wet and flushed, and totally happy. He drips on me a little, which is oddly comforting. Milgasia brightens too and helps Lina wrap a huge towel around the kid. I feel slightly left out, but then, these two are such a couple, really... It's a shame to be bothered by their understanding.
   Oddly enough, this reminds me of the talk Milgasia and I had earlier... about who Val will turn to if he remembers that everyone who cares about him had done him some great harm in the past. But that thought doesn't linger for I drift into sleep.
   Usually I do not dream, but when my sleep is not very deep, the real surroundings creep into it and transform a little to become suitable for the dreamland landscape. Especially sounds, especially sounds of speech. That is what must be happening right now.
   "Mom, I think he is asleep again," says a cute, large-headed feathery and furry creature at my side and strokes my arm with a wing.
   "He said he was tired," shrugs a beautiful vivid flame which sprouts out of the ground right next to my head.
   "He also said he had another fit," mentions a great and sad gleaming dragon who is curled comfortably a few feet away from my feet. That is why he mentions the fit, I think, because of feet. Or was it feat? He said I had it...
   "Oh no!" gasps the beastie at my side. I can tell he is really worried. But why? He has two times as many feet as I do, and that doesn't worry him!
   "It wasn't anything serious," the flame waves one of its spurts. "And it was useful in a way because now I know what to do when it happens."
   "You... didn't know that before?" the dragon asks rather exasperated.
   The warm furry ball at my side looks lost and miserable, and I can't stand that. I reach out and pat his soft paw.
   "I'm alright," I mumble. "Dun worry. Ain't goin' anywhere..."
   The cub brightens and sniffs at my cheek with a wet nose.
   The flame starts talking again, after she and the dragon exchange meaningful glances. She talks about something boring, and the cub soon asks if he could go back to the river. They let him, and he leaves. I want to join him, but instead I have to stay here, and I feel sad and abandoned.
   "As for your earlier question," the flame says, "no, I didn't know. Did you?"
   "Of course not," the dragon frowns. "That is none of my business. But it is your game, and you should really be a little more foresighted, Lina-san."
   The name clinks like fine crystal glasses at a feast. The flame is warm, too. But it is not for me even if I can touch it. Although today I can't, actually.
   The flame blurs. I think it is confused.
   "I didn't force him into it," she says. "He came to seek my help, led by his own will."
   Will is something the dragon was in no need of. I wonder if it means he has no future. Or does he have no means to get it? I probably look blurred too.
   "No," the dragon agrees. "But he had no idea what he would have to go through."
   "Neither had I."
   "And that is exactly what I am saying. You should have had that idea."
   The flame leans the upper part of its main stem onto one of the spurts.
   "Val was my primary concern back then. It was only much later that I realized Xellos was influenced by the whole thing at all."
   "Oh. So you didn't plan it?"
   "Of course not!" the flame giggles sending sparks skywards.
   The dragon moves his head from one paw to the other.
   "Could you tell me what exactly you subjected him to?"
   The flame shimmers.
   "Err... like what?"
   "I mean, what have you done to him so that he started having these fits?"
   "What I have done!?" the flame rises a few inches. "You think, I, what, made him suffer on purpose?"
   The dragon looks sour.
   "You claim that you didn't?"
   "Of course I didn't!" the flame roars. "Where did you get such a crazy idea from, I wonder?"
   "Why, but aren't you trying to get him under some kind of control?" the dragon asks.
   The flame pauses it its burning, then speeds on.
   "Ah! I am beginning to understand," she smiles. In the shades of her dancing body I can make out a rough rock and a jewel who made all of us take this trip. A tiny image of the gleaming dragon crawls up to the stones and they exchange a few lines. The flame shimmers again, and the images inside it disappear. "Uh, well," she says. "It's not like I know exactly what I am doing, but, er, I have to do something about his, hmm, bad habits, if he is to hang around for the best part of day and night. Just... don't tell him this. You realize he'd be furious at being tricked into such trouble."
   She changes her shape several times and grows colder. The dragon stares at her intently, then glances at me, but I can't make any sign or sound. He turns to the flame again.
   "He knows."
   "Huh!?" the flame gasps as if some water was poured onto it. "No way! I mean, he's been a little down lately, but if he really knew, he'd have killed me by now!"
   "I understand, he decided it was for the best, meaning, Valteria benefits so much from your care that Xellos decided he could sacrifice himself to your plans for the child's sake."
   The flame freezes.
   "He told you that?"
   The dragon nods sadly.
   "He wasn't explicit, of course. He just said he was aware you were scheming around him and that it was harmless for Valteria... But I could decipher the rest. He has obviously been under a lot of pressure lately, and he has this air around him... a bit fatalistic, if you understand my meaning."
   The flame rolls up on itself, and then suddenly springs into action. She jumps onto me and shakes me violently, screaming,
   Chapter 17
   I am yanked out of sleep by a furious Lina who is bellowing something acuusatory while thrashing my limp body around on the ground.
   "Wha- What's goin' on?" I mumble, trying to get my speaking application work for me. I've been sleeping and dreaming some crazy stuff which is now rapidly escaping my memory as I am being pulled into reality so roughly.
   "Xellos, this isn't true!" Lina continues, shooing the birds off the nearest tree. "It wasn't meant for you to hear, you blasted old fool!"
   "All right, all right!" I try to crawl away, but she catches me by the clasp on the cloack and shakes me so violently, my head threatens to fall off. It's been a while since I last saw Lina so mad. "O-o-i, Lina, calm do-o-own!"
   She pushes me away with such force that I make a somersault on the grass and land with legs leaning vertically on the bark of a tree. Lina's shadow covers me; I lift my clouded gaze up to see her breathing fire. I can swear I see steam coming out of her ears.
   "You didn't have a problem with it before," I manage feebly, at the same time trying to get my still sleepy body to move out of harm's way. I never make it in time.
   "Right, but since then we got to trust each other! Does THAT make no difference to you!?" she bellows, and I feel being kicked up into the air. "You bloody scumbag, you overhear what you're not supposed to, and then sulk for DAYS thinking HELL knows what about me!?"
   "I didn't think anything!" I squeak, making my best effort to sneak off to Astral.
   So much for my efforts...
   "You didn't even try to find out if that was true or not!" she continues while I'm collecting my burnt faqulties together. "Now, you've decided to sulk, and what if you had decided to kill me instead, huh? Without checking? HUH? FIREBALL!!!"
   "Lina, but I didn't DO anyth- OUCH!"
   That was a Digger Volt, I think. I have to get out of here and quick. Unfortunately even when I manage to break out to the Astral Plane, I'm still electrified, and the local magnetic field pushes me back out, just a few feet away from where I was before. And Lina is way too close.
   "Has it even brushed your pathetic useless mind," she switched from bellowing to growling, that's actually even worse, "that I might have made it up? Because I had to tell them something that wouldn't make them think I'm nuts?!"
   "I kinda thought you don't lie to your friends!" I blurt out, dodging a swish of Balus Rod. It must be that I'm not yet fully recovered after the unfortunate talk with Milgasia, because my feet refuse to support me properly, and I end up stumbling over a root.
   "I kinda thought my friends don't kick me out of city because members of my family are threatening the state security! And if you heard the conversation, you should have heard that too!"
   "I have!" I put in. "But how the hell am I supposed to know how friendship works!?"
   The phrase was too long -- I realise that as I hear the last bit of incantation she is murmuring, "...may deep darkness be vanquished..."
   Oh no. Oh no-no-no-
   This time I succeed at changing Planes. Finally, I can take a deep breath. After a minute or so I feel fully awake and rested enough to continue what Lina started, only on my terms. Let's see... Here she is, looking for me with a spell at her fingertips. All right, here comes a bucket...
   Lina screams murder as cold water pours onto her out of thin air. Of course, it doesn't take her too long to figure out who is to blame.
   "XELLOS!" she roars blasting Dislashes to all directions. I dart to Val's side, but Milgasia has put up a shield already. Good, at least I don't have to worry about them as long as Lina doesn't start on a Dragon Slave. Unfortunately, I get distracted and an aptly thrown Elmekia Lance fries the edge of my cloack. Fine, just you wait...
   Lina with a smug expression is leaning on a thick oak, waiting for me to appear or strike back. It takes her almost a minute to notice that the oak is no longer an oak, but a giant slug. It works very well indeed. She doesn't even scream, she seems completely dumbfounded. The slug isn't particularly interested in her, so the scene lasts for some time until I get bored. If you can't attack a peaceful slug, darling, I'll make him bloodthirsty. As the monster extends its tentacles towards Lina, she shows the full extent of her success in magic over the years I haven't met her. She sends three spells simultaneously, two of Black magic and one of Shamanistic, that much I can tell, but I can't even dream of naming them. The slug is reduced to fine mist and then evaporates.
   "You bastard," she spits glaring at me.
   This time I am on guard, and when the next spell flies my way, I'm already in a completely different place, summoning some banana skins into Lina's way. Now it's her turn to make somersaults. Unfortunately she can do magic in an upside-down position too. She goes at me with Goz Vu Rou, and it's so powerful that I get hit twice before I banish the shadow. I send a binding spell Lina's way, but it crashes into one of her extended Fireballs and causes a great explosion. Too bad we are too close to the river bank. As the ground gets hit by the exploson, it crumbles into the water, and we both fall down. I dart to Astral only to realise that Lina has put a leash onto my foot, and so I have no choice but to go down with her.
   As I surface in the turbid water, the dust settles down. Lina's head comes up in front of me and starts spitting and sputtering. Her wet hair is a mess, and her face is all crimpled with disdain. Then I notice some other people around -- those kids who were bathing with Val earlier. Looks like they witnessed the whole thing from the water.
   "Cool fireworks," says one.
   I chortle, cackle and can't help bursting into mad laughter; so does Lina and in a minute I have to support her before she drowns from laughing underwater.
   Laughing and clinging to each other, we come out of the water using what is now a sloping bank. The Dragons are waiting for us right where we have left them. Milgasia is bedsheet-pale, Val also looks anxious.
   "Are you okay?" he asks us both.
   "Fine, don't worry," I say, grinning.
   "Just right," says Lina, casting a drying spell on herself.
   "Can you dry me too?" I ask, taking off the cloack.
   "You haven't deserved it," she huffs and then giggles.
   "Fine," I grunt and proceed undressing and hanging my clothes on the nearest tree to dry.
   "Man, I missed it," says Lina loudly, flopping down on the ground.
   "Yeah, me too," I snort. "Good old days, ne?"
   Milgasia seems to have developed a habit of staring at me in bewilderment.
   "Listen, Xellos," he says anxiously and quietly. "I really don't think it is a good idea for the child to witness so much violence. Perhaps it would be better to rearrange things somehow if you and Miss Lina hate each other so much..."
   The rest of his speech drowns in our guffawing -- oh L-sama, he is such an outsider to our little gang! Even Val cackles.
   "Oh honestly, Milgasia," I manage after some time. "You haven't seen us some five or six years ago, when Lina would try to strangle me, like, every five minutes."
   "Still, this time there was some very serious magic employed," Milgasia shakes his head.
   "Serious?" Lina snorts. "Pshaw! I haven't even gone with Ra Tilt, not to mention that Xellos only sent one spell directly at me, and that failed miserably. C'mon, we were just having fun! Although," she darts a nasty look at me, "the slug thing was low."
   "Well, you know, you almost hit Val with your Dislashes," I argue.
   "You fool, I knew Milgasia-san's been shielding since the moment it started, I wouldn't have endangered Val, I'm no longer fifteen!"
   "Okay, whatever," I sprawl on the grass, hoping that the sun will dry my pants.
   "Why did that explosion happen?" asks Val carefully.
   "Because two spells collided," I answer. "By the way, did you see anything you'd like to learn? I mean, some of them can be quite useful for real life, not just for fooling around."
   "I think I'll start with shields..."
   This gets both Lina and me into another fit of laughter.
   "Back to business, though," says Lina when she can finally speak again. "Why did you feel compelled to eavesdrop on me?"
   "Honestly, Lina, like I need a reason! Eavesdropping is what I do. I see someone I know talking to someone else, I eavesdrop. I don't spare any thought to it."
   "Well, you better do from no on, because you really scared me. If you believe all the lies that I'm telling people about you, one day you'll really scrag my neck. Imagine I overheard some stuff you told your Mistress and acted on it, huh?"
   "Well, I don't lie to my Mistress or to any other person who is of any importance to me."
   "You know, I'm not that good at dancing around the truth. I have to lie sometimes."
   "Oh yes, you are that good, you're just lazy," I chuckle. "Besides, if you were planning to tell fairy-tales about me to the royal couple, why didn't you warn me beforehand?"
   "I wasn't planning anything, I made it up on the spot!"
   "Then why not tell me later?"
   "When you appeared in the room? Or when we were sitting in that cafe with Milgasia-san? And later I forgot all about it!"
   Well, that's Lina to you. How could I even doubt her straightforwardness? She might be a good actress, but not in intimate matters. All this fuss with pictures -- she wouldn't have cried about it if she were just using me. I am so relieved to know everything is fine, I am myself, and she loves me -- I actually forget when I start believing her again.
   Lina, oblivious to my changing worldview, continues her rant. I sit up and pull her into a hug and kiss her on the temple. She quickly relaxes and leans into me.
   "And here I was wondering what's happened to your affection lately," she grumbles lightly. "How could you even think I could be such a bitch?"
   "Sorry," I kiss her again. "I'm rather disoriented lately.
   "Ahem," Milgasia coughs. "Miss Lina, I would really ask you not to use so many obscenities in front of the child. I do not expect any kind of high language from you, but I am sure even in your family there was some idea that certain words are not to be taught to children!"
   Lina huffs, and I'm immediately indignant. I haven't forgotten how she complained about the Dragon's manners after the ball.
   "You know, Milgasia," I say sternly, "this is really a bad time for you to instruct Lina on manners. Right now lexicon is not the primary issue on the agenda of Val's upbringing. Besides, he is a smart kid and knows what not to pick up. So why don't you leave Lina alone with her word use and dancing skills, ne?"
   "Really, Xellos, but it makes me sick to hear this!" he argues.
   "Oh?" I raise an eyebrow. "By the way, Lina, how did you know that I eavesdropped on your conversation with the royal couple?"
   "Milgasia-san said you told him what I told them, so naturally..."
   "Exactly," I sneer. "Milgasia, do you care to explain why you saw it fit to let on to Lina something that I explicitly told you should be kept from her?"
   "Well, I thought," he gulps, "I thought there was some misunderstanding..."
   "Oh yaaa? So you think you are in a position to judge whether to keep my secrets or to disclose them?"
   "But... Lina-san," he appeals to her rather desperately, "I've done the right thing, haven't I? I mean, who knows what would've happened if Xellos went on thinking..."
   Lina raises an eyebrow copying me.
   "If Xellos told you to stay silent, you really had no right to speak. We will forgive you," she sends a stern look at me, "this once, but you better don't make the same mistake another time."
   "I won't!" he says all too quickly, slightly sweating.
   "Good," we say in unison.
   "Ne, Val," I say to the kid who is long lost in our adult matters, "since I'm already wet, why don't we go bathe some more?"
   He jumps up immediately.
   "Okay, let's!"
   And off we go.
   Chapter 18.
   Strange as it may seem, Val swims like a fish. He proudly demonstrates several styles to me, as well as diving, and he can hold his breath for a really long time. That once again makes me wonder if he could maintain any knowledge of his previous incarnations, since I rather doubt Filia used to give him lessons in swimming.
   "Ne, Val," I say when he surfaces from under my arm after swimming in circles around me underwater. "You are really good at it. How did you learn?"
   "Learn what?" he blinks and grabs my arm for support, brushing back his long wet bangs.
   "Oh..." he looks puzzled. "Does one have to learn that? I mean, I kinda thought it's like you get into water -- you swim. Isn't it?"
   "Not really," I scratch my head. "Actually both humans and Dragons have to be taught how to do it, and those who weren't taught tend to drown."
   Val looks doubtful for a moment, then opens his mouth as if to say something, but reconsiders.
   "What is it?" I encourage him. Instead of answering he narrows his eyes at me.
   "Can you teach me to hide my feelings? I mean, you can always tell I wanna say something, and everyone else can too, I think. But what if I don't want people to know?"
   "Well, you should work on your expression first," I say while trying to get over the astonishment. He is five damn years old! I wasn't that reticent at his age!
   "Oh," he frowns. "Right. Can I have a mirror then?"
   I pretend to faint by submerging and blowing bubbles. Val makes several attempts to pull me back up, but all his strength is consumed by the effort not to laugh underwater, so he fails. Finally we both surface and find a tree that's half-growing half-floating to sit on.
   "So what was it you wanted to say?" I prompt.
   "Ah, well... It's just some things about me are strange," he shrugs his tiny shoulders. "Like flying human-style or being the last Ancient Dragon. And now swimming too. It's cool because I'm kinda special. But it gives me the creeps sometimes."
   I consider him for a moment. He is pale like all red-heads, and his body is still babyishly soft, his head is large in proportion to his body, with big naive eyes and a tiny nose. I don't interact with children this small often, but something tells me he shouldn't be worried with such matters yet. But he does, and I have to deal with it somehow. Perhaps I should find a Mazoku-human halfblood for comparison.
   "Actually," I say slowly, "it's a good thing that you are thinking about these things. You see, every advantage- you know what `advantage' means, right? Good, so, every advantage is power. And you have many of them, therefore a lot of power. And a lot of power means that you can influence other people's lives. But before you do that you must think long and hard about which way you want to influence them. Are you following so far?"
   He nods gravely.
   "Good. So what I mean is, it's both good and bad to be special. Good -- because you get to decide. Bad -- because it's responsibility. Also, other people might disagree with your decisions. Get that?"
   "Yeah," he nods vigorously. "It means, I can do a lot, but I have to be careful."
   "Absolutely," I beam. "You're a smart kid, you know that, don't you?"
   He smiles shyly.
   "Ne, Val, why did you doubt bringing this up?"
   "Um, well, I kinda thought I shouldn't whine about, er, advantages."
   I laugh at his unsure word-use. For some reason it's very funny to hear him say complicated words.
   "That's not whining, that's just thinking aloud," I say and wink at him. He winks back and then switches his attention to the tree on which we are sitting.
   "Let's jump on it to make it swing!"
   And that we do.
   It isn't before I notice that Val's lips have turned blue that I manage to pull him out of the water.
   "I was starting to think you two dissolved in there," Lina says as we sit down by her side. She fusses around Val a bit, drying him thoroughly with a towel and a spell. Then she extracts some foods and proceeds to fill hers and Val's stomachs. He still eats anything you give him without any preferences. I really don't want to think of the implications right now. I stretch in the sun, preparing for an afternoon day-dreaming session, but Val is far from tired yet. He crawls up to me on all fours and whispers into my ear, which is quite ticklish,
   "Can we have a drawing lesson now?"
   "Sure," I smile. "Why are you whispering?"
   "I feel whispery," he says and giggles, the familiar sparkle of mischief in his look.
   "All right," I get up in one motion. "I'll go get the supplies."
   Back on the island I also decide to change into something more suitable for plein air than black woolen trousers and traveling boots, especially since they are still wet and the drying spell pertains to the White magic.
   Back at the river I set up two easels and instruct Val on how to fit the canvas onto his. It's his first time, and he is really excited; some time passes before he even chooses the object (which happens to be that very tree we were sitting on), then we have to turn the easel to the right angle, some paints get spilt... Finally Val is all set and loses himself in painting. I, on the other hand, find myself at a loss. Without thinking, I put my easel just right to have a most pleasant view of Lina. But unlike all the previous times I drew her, now she is aware of my presence. She seems to have put up with my weird hobby and even enjoyed some of the pictures, but how will she react if I actually start painting her from life? With Lina you never know.
   Maybe I should find myself another object. Val would be an obvious choice, but the way he is sitting right now, nose into the canvas, he won't look very well on the picture. I turn around in search of a scenery or anything at all I can concentrate on, but even without looking I know I won't find anything. I never had a desire to paint before I met Lina. All the skills I had by that time I got from sketches for scientific purposes, like those of different animals. Or from the portraits I did when I wanted to put a person on the wanted list. I was never inspired to draw anything, and it looks like my sense of beauty hasn't changed after falling in love.
   "Are you waiting for an invitation?" Lina drawls.
   "Huh?" I'm not sure what she is talking about.
   "You're standing there, staring at me like you seem me for the first time," she clarifies. "Normal people ask permission when they want to make a picture of somebody, you know."
   "Oh, eh, sorry, I... May I then?"
   She rolls her eyes.
   "You should've asked that several years ago, and now it's a bit too late."
   "I'll... stop if you don't like it," I say, deeply disappointed. These pictures have become second nature for me over the years, and giving them up feels like ripping something off. But if she says...
   She looks at me with the most charming smile I've ever seen her produce.
   "You idiot, I'm just saying go ahead."
   I grin and grab a pencil.
   "Thanks, then, just for a minute, keep that expression, please, please!"
   The pencil is set to work at the speed of light.
   Lina can't stay still for more than thirty seconds even if she is half-sitting leaning on a tree with a book in her lap. She just has to move all the time. She tucks her hair behind her ears, shoos away stray insects that are not affected with her anti-gnat spell, rubs her eye, fingers the pages of the book, scratches her head, looks around, shifts her back against the tree-trunk... In a nutshell, the only way to draw her is from memory, even if she is posing.
   I've finished the sketch and start battling with oils when a girl comes up to our small inconspicuous group. Unlike us, the girl's outfit screams `notice me'. I stare at her with ill-concealed curiosity, and I have two very legitimate reasons for it: first, she is obstructing my view of Lina; second, I have definitely seen her somewhere. While my memory is perfect and everything that I once put there is stored forever, it is also very huge, so the search sometimes can take a few minutes.
   So, the girl is actually rather cute, if totally not my type. She is tall with long black hair and wears a witch's cloak with spiky shoulder guards and virtually nothing underneath except for a suffocatingly tight necklace with a skull. If I have ever seen this girl before, she was definitely wearing something else, or rather something at all.
   Lina is obviously ignoring her, because I won't believe that one can fail to notice such a shadow looming over one's head. After standing still for a few moments, the girl flops on the grass between Lina and me and snatches a sandwich from Lina's picnic basket. Lina finally looks up from the book, and her look is dirty.
   "Long time no see," she says skeptically. "I was kinda hoping you vanished for good."
   "Vanished?" the girl mumbles through a stuffed mouth. "You think you can lock me up in a box of tangerines, leave me on someone's doorstep with a note, like a foundling, and then claim I `vanished'?"
   Lina closes the book and puts it aside.
   "I rather meant the whole living armour thing," she says. Oh, right, things are starting to make sense to me. Hello, Nama-chan. "Anyway, what are you up to this time? I really have no desire to fool around with you anymore."
   "Oi, oi," the Nama-chan prototype mocks. "You know the saying, the more arrogance you show, the less your breasts grow."
   Having uttered that, she indulges in a fit of excruciating laughter which makes me, Val and everyone else in the area jump. Lina is the only one who seems to have expected it. Val tip-toes up to my side.
   "Who's that?" he whispers.
   "An old acquaintance," I whisper back. "She is annoying, but not dangerous."
   He nods but stays behind my back, firmly grabbing onto my belt.
   Meanwhile, Lina and the ex-Nama thing go on talking.
   "That's a pathetically old joke, you know, Naga," Lina sighs. "I hoped after all these years you could have come up with something more exciting."
   Naga obediently looks around for something to make a joke of and spots Val's clothes on top of his tiny backpack, as well as my cloak hanging on the tree.
   "So what are you now?" she says, taking another bite of the sandwich. "Mrs. John Doe with three kids and the best bakery in the neighbourhood?"
   This time Lina is actually taken aback if only for a second.
   "I'm still the most powerful witch in the world, just hanging out with friends here. Although the concept is most likely alien to you."
   I'm not sure the Naga woman understood the last bit of Lina's reply. Now let me see, Naga stands for Naga the White Serpent, right? Well, I haven't actually met her in person, but I've heard plenty of rumours about her from fellow Mazoku. I also happen to know that she used to work with Lina on a few occasions, although from this interaction it's evident they don't quite get along. Then again, it was obviously her spirit that Lina's gang and I encountered as Nama the Living Armour. Both Lina and I had a feeling she was somewhat familiar. Still, there is something about her that I can't quite put my finger onto. It would really help if she turned her face to me.
   "You didn't answer my question, though," Lina presses. "What do you want with me?"
   "You aren't very hospitable today," the woman has the cheek to say after gulping down the rest of the sandwich, "but seeing that we are old rivals, I'll let you in on it," Naga winks. "I'm on a job, looking for a missing person."
   "Oh," Lina shows a polite amount of interest. "And who's that?"
   "Like I'd tell you," Naga snickers. "It's my job, it's well-paid, and I'm not in the mood to share."
   "Like you ever are," Lina rolls her eyes. "Anyway, I told you I'm on a summer break, not taking any jobs, no matter how well they are paid. But whatever, I couldn't care less about anyone who is so unlucky as to rely on you for their rescue."
   "Actually it can just be that you care all right," Naga edges closer to Lina who pulls up her feet before the other woman sits on them. "I am looking," she pauses, "for a little boy," she pauses again, darting a glance to Val's clothes, "just about this size."
   I can see that Lina is having a hard time deciding what to do. She can deny everything and send Naga on a different route, or she can admit she has Val, and then find out who is looking for him. But then, we already know who that is, don't we? It's funny that the Dragons saw it fit to hire a human magician to find Val. And Naga doesn't have a very good reputation either... What if it's not them, but somebody else? Then again, how trustworthy is that woman? Will anybody be very sorry if she is slain? On the other hand, is she stupid enough to believe that the boy traveling with Lina is not the boy she is looking for, considering that she probably watched us before making an appearance? That's about five too many questions for my taste.
   Meanwhile Lina raises an eyebrow.
   "Well, Naga, if these clothes really belong to the child you are looking for, then your employers have clearly misinformed you. My son isn't missing, he belongs with me, and you really don't want to kidnap him," she chuckles. Val pulls on my shirt, and when I look at him, I see surprise, gratitude and fear all mixed together in his gaze. I pat him on the head, then smile and press my finger to my lips. Lina knows this woman, so let's not interrupt her game.
   "Ah, but my job is not to bring the boy to the employers," Naga drawls. "It's just to locate him."
   Lina shrugs.
   "This location can be out of date any moment; it's been a while since I last traveled traditional way on foot. These days a prominent witch like myself can't afford to waste time on the road, so I switched to instant traveling."
   "Hu-uh?" Naga looks and feels immediately envious. "How d'you do that?"
   "Honestly, Naga," Lina stares at her exasperated. "You call yourself my rival, and you have no clue about instant traveling? Go to the nearest Guild of Mages, do some reading after all!"
   Naga purses her lips and turns away with a look of superiority. By doing so, she finally spots me behind the easel. Her expression changes magically into one of the sweetest smiles I've ever seen.
   "Hello Mr. Artist," she sings in a liquid voice. "Not much for you to target around here, hmm?"
   "I'm not the one to complain," I say carefully, adopting a pleasantly neutral expression.
   "Oh don't be so shy, I know you've already put your eyes on me. Well, this's your lucky day, because I'm actually a professional sitter. And, guess what, right now I have lots of free time to pose for you."
   "I am afraid you don't fit very well with my style," I reply. Honestly, that's some self-esteem!
   "Of course I do!" she exclaims flapping her long eyelashes. "I've been painted time and again by many different artists, including the most famous ones of our age. Your pictures will sell like candy if you do me, I promise you that! See for yourself."
   She turns on her spot and leans back to display a vast amount of healthy skin. Now I can finally make out that she does have some clothing on, although it seems several sizes to small for her forms.
   "Thank you," I say, "for moving out of the way. Lina, honey, if you would lift your chin a bit..."
   Naga springs onto her feet and is at my side in no time. I decide I'd better pick Val up and hold him, in case this woman has some means of teleporting after all.
   "You are painting HER!?" she screams with such exasperation, that I realize, grabbing Val is nowhere near her mind.
   "Of course I'm painting her, what's wrong with that?" I wonder.
   "But she's childish and flat and plain- and a bitch!"
   "Perhaps you should visit an optician," I say with fake concern. "Your eyes are obviously failing you. Lina is a gorgeous woman, and if you have any disagreements with her, they shouldn't cloud your vision."
   Naga actually goes green in the face -- and oh, what a timing! I finally remember where I know her from! Meanwhile, Lina walks up to my side and stops there, giving Naga a condescending look.
   "Mrs. John Doe after all," Naga spits. "Well, fine, back to business then. You pay me twice as much as the Ice Bastard, and I don't tell him you have the kid."
   "Who's the Ice Bastard?" I wonder, even though I have a very clear idea already.
   "The hell I know! My employer. All I can tell, it's bloody cold at his place. Anyway, d'we have a deal?"
   "Perhaps," I say. "And that would be as follows: you don't tell anyone about the child, and I don't inform the whole world that you are actually the errant princess of Sailune."
   Naga closes her mouth with a snap.
   "M- my family knows I'm a traveling magician," she manages after a pause.
   "Right," I grin. "And princess Amelia is going to find it terrific, the way your outfit advertises morality of her kingdom."
   "But no one know I have anything to do with the kingdom!" Naga exclaims.
   "Oh but they will, Princess Gracia, they will," I wink.
   She grinds her teeth.
   "Fine," she grunts. "I'll go looking somewhere else. But you know what, you better keep away from her," she points an accusing finger at Lina. "She has bad influence on people, I'm telling you."
   With that, she finally turns and walks away, making sure that the movements of her hips are visible even through the thick cloak.

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